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.

On October 3, 1995, the day after Danny Fry was purportedly killed and beheaded, she enjoyed room service, a facial, a massage and other upscale amenities while she and Waters spent the night at Austin's priciest hotel, the Four Seasons. But, she reminded the court, she didn't kill or kidnap anyone. "I have accepted money and done some really stupid things. I didn't do anything to those people. I didn't participate in the planning of it," she said.

Then, early last year, when Fry's headless body was identified, a panicked Steffens ran straight to the FBI. Offered immunity in exchange for her testimony, she started talking. Steffens told jurors how Waters's antagonism toward O'Hair became deeply personal after the atheist leader used her July 1995 newsletter to reprise his lurid personal and criminal past. "He was furious with her and, not to be melodramatic, vowed revenge. He had a genius IQ, and he considered her to be the true intelligentsia, and he just had fantasies about separating her from her money," she said. "After that newsletter appeared, a calm came over him about Madalyn. I really think he wanted to prove a point to her, face to face."

Steffens also testified how Karr, Waters and Fry returned from their mysterious one-month mission at the end of September 1995 heavy with cash, fatigue and bad vibes, and then how the three left again a day or so later. She said when Waters and Karr reappeared without Fry, both were in a good humor and joking about how Waters could not read a map. And it seemed Waters had been in a fight. "David had on a short-sleeved black shirt, and his arms were covered with deep fingerprint bruises," she recalled. Asked about it, Waters had said, "Oh, it's just boys horseplaying," Steffens recalled.

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.

As this trial proved repeatedly, unhappy old girlfriends are not always an ex-con's best friend.

Charlene Karr, a lanky woman with dark hair piled atop her head and spilling over her forehead, traveled from Florida to tell the jury how she met her future husband more than 25 years ago in Illinois.

"I met him on a highway," she testified. "We were cruising. I just thought he was a very handsome man."

An inconvenient crime spree and a resultant sentence of 30 to 50 years for Gary Karr took the flame out of the romance, though somewhere an ember still burned. And after Karr was released from prison in early 1995, the couple picked up where they had left off after Karr came to see her in Florida.

"I was coming home from work, and he was sitting on my front step," she said.

Then, she testified, after working in Florida for a few months for a contractor, Karr went to Texas to visit David Waters and make some money.

"He told me he was going to play in a big card game, that David Waters had the money to put up and Gary would play the cards," she recalled.

When he returned, Karr was dressed in Armani suits and had three Rolex watches, lots of cash and some improbable stories about people never making it home alive. According to Karr, Waters said he had killed them.

"He told me it was Madalyn O'Hair, that she took the prayer out of schools and that David Waters hated her. He told me about the daughter and the son, and how David disposed of them," she testified.

Eventually, Charlene testified, the romance could not survive the weirdness going on in Texas, particularly when it started to get very personal. She said Karr even threatened to shoot her over what she knew about his peculiar activities there.

"He has threatened to kill me. He told me he hid behind a tree in front of my house and waited for me to get home. He was with someone. He wanted to kill me because I knew what I knew," she testified.

Karr also talked with Arthur Miller, his employer in Florida during parts of 1995, about his visits to Texas. Here, too, Miller testified, Karr's story about a high-dollar card game didn't hold up. It gave way to another tale of helping atheists flee the country. But after Karr's final visit to Texas, the talk was about hiding bodies. "He said it didn't go well. He felt that David had killed these people and buried their bodies in an arroyo, and he and David had spent a couple of days running around in West Texas cleaning up David's mess," Miller said. If the bodies turned up, he added, "there would be a problem."

For all the gruesome testimony about treachery, dismembered bodies and other wickedness, the trial was not without comic relief, and much was provided by three guys from San Antonio.

At the center of the case is a half-million dollars' worth of gold coins. Among the more intriguing questions of the whole convoluted tale was whatever happened to the loot. Several witnesses testified how on September 29, 1995, an unwashed, unkempt Jon Murray had picked up the shipment of Krugerrands, Maple Leafs and American Eagles at a conference room at the Frost Bank in San Antonio. "He was a little ripe," recalled jeweler Cory Ticknor, who sold the coins. But Murray didn't keep the gold for long. Other witnesses testified how a day or so later Waters put the coins, contained in a large black suitcase, in a storage locker on Burnet Road in Austin, and returned on October 3, 1995, to find the locker open and empty. Did Waters hide it? Did the bad guys spend it? Did the O'Hairs take it overseas? None of the above.

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