God Only Knows

Dismembered bodies. Gold booty and an ex-con's grudge. A trial rips into the mysteries of the disappearance of atheist icon Madalyn Murray O'Hair.

Carruth was happy to point out the inherent contradiction. "The defense can't have it both ways. They want to say the O'Hairs fled the country, but if they didn't, Mr. Karr had nothing to do with their demise," he told the jury.

It didn't help much that Karr had already conceded most of the government's case in loose talk to cops, prison buddies, his ex-wife and his former employer in Florida. Partway through the trial, Mills said, his firm received a letter from Waters, who was apparently following the course of events from his state prison cell. "He said my client is an idiot, that he talks too much," Mills said.

The trial's first witness was American Atheist President Ellen Johnson, a chipper blond dressed in a cotton-candy-pink dress, who had never before spoken publicly about the case. It was quickly apparent Johnson still revered the lost leader whom she referred to as Dr. O'Hair, despite the absence of any known doctoral degree. The usage prompted the lawyers to begin referring to each other as "doctor" during trial breaks. Prosecutors used Johnson to introduce the O'Hairs to the jury, showing portions of a videotaped speech from earlier in 1995. The O'Hairs did not disappoint.

Another inmate said Gary Karr (below) helped cut up the bodies and put them in barrels.
Another inmate said Gary Karr (below) helped cut up the bodies and put them in barrels.
Waters was accused of being the mastermind in the killings, although he is not charged in the case.
John Anderson
Waters was accused of being the mastermind in the killings, although he is not charged in the case.

"Because prayer is insane, children should not be taught to pray. It doesn't help them with anything," Madalyn declared on the tape.

"There is no God. There is no hell. There is no heaven. There is no he, she, it or any deity to answer prayer," added Jon in his slightly lisping tone.

Johnson described the crucial month of September 1995, when the O'Hairs had left Austin for San Antonio and were keeping in touch with atheist officials by cell phone. At one point, she said, Jon Murray asked her to send him two blank corporate checks in San Antonio. "I said, 'No, I will not. I have no idea if there is a gun to your head or not,' " recalled Johnson. She relented and mailed him the checks, both of which were cashed for large sums.

Johnson also related the last conversation she had with "an extremely distraught" Robin O'Hair sometime during that month. "I was saying, 'What's going on? What's wrong?' I was so upset because something was terribly wrong," Johnson recalled. "The very last words I remember Robin saying were, 'I know you'll do the right thing.' "

The O'Hairs' tax lawyer, Craig Etter, quickly countered defense claims that the family fled ahead of zealous revenuers. He testified that a tentative settlement for all contested matters had been reached with the IRS by summer 1995. Besides, he said, O'Hair had only contempt for the IRS and would never have fled. He cited a letter she had written to an IRS agent who was requesting financial information. "The letter said, 'Fuck you,' and it was signed 'Madalyn Murray O'Hair,' " he recalled.

Other atheist officials described how in 1993 and 1994, when the O'Hairs were engaged in civil litigation in California that could have ruined them had they lost, they began liquidating and moving assets. The precautions included hiding their main asset, the entire Charles E. Stevens Memorial Library, which held the world's largest collection of atheist historical and archival materials. The library, which was Madalyn's pride and joy, was packed up in Austin and stashed in a Houston storage facility until it was later moved to Kansas City. But, the witnesses said, by late 1995 the danger from the civil case had passed, the heat was off, and the O'Hairs were not going anywhere. And although a family retirement to New Zealand had been talked about for years, it was still somewhere over the horizon.

"My sense is that [New Zealand] existed as a back-pocket plan, almost a fantasy, but nothing they were seriously considering," testified Conrad Goeringer, another atheist official. And, he said, the O'Hairs would never have considered recruiting Waters to help them do anything, as Karr told police. "They had no use for this man, and they were very afraid of him. They told me this many times," he said.

The preliminaries over, matters quickly got serious on the trial's third day. Steffens took the stand to testify about her strange and sometimes conflicted life with David Waters, a hardened ex-con whom she had taken up with after first dating his brother Ron, a well-behaved if nervous Peoria baker.

More particularly, Steffens told the jury about the critical months of late 1995 when Karr and Fry came to stay with them in their apartment in Austin. It was here that Steffens joined Waters and O'Hair as the story's most complex characters. A woman who majored in history and English literature in college, Steffens used such words as "ebullient" and "paradigm" with facility. She could also articulate the nuances of her abusive seven-year relationship with Waters, which included occasional savage beatings. But Steffens's walk on the dark side also emerged during trial.

She posed for porno shots, took heroin and other drugs, helped Waters steal from the O'Hairs and destroy evidence, then abruptly left him in late 1998 to marry another man after the first Texas newspaper story about Fry. Steffens also admitted receiving $16,000 in cash from Waters during September 1995, while he was away in San Antonio, allegedly stripping the O'Hairs of their assets. She used the money to buy a pickup.

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