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.

Last summer the FBI held a news conference in San Antonio describing how three San Antonio youths had found the pot at the end of the rainbow at a storage locker in Austin. According to the feds, the three had randomly broken into the locker Waters had rented by using a skeleton key and made off with the 100 pounds of gold. At Karr's trial, the cheerfully unrepentant coin thieves, who were given immunity in exchange for their testimony, told the world about their great adventure and good times compliments of those bad, bad guys from Peoria and the atheists.

The youths said that when they figured out what they had, they just did what came naturally, blowing the money on strippers, guns, cars, stereo equipment, town houses, fancy furniture, jewelry and a junket to Vegas. "Mostly we went to strip clubs. I spent $1,000 to $1,500 a day. I went every day," said Jaime Valdes, properly attired in a white shirt and tie. "I'd buy drinks for everybody, pay for table dances for people, buy drinks for all the waitresses. You could go ask them, they still remember," he said, prompting laughter from jurors and spectators.

Valdes said he rented two homes at the same time, one for himself and one for his girlfriend, who worked as a stripper at a club in San Antonio. Sometimes he would pay her $500 to stay home from work and spend the day with him.

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.

Joey Cardenas, now trying to get his private investigator's license, recalled how he and his two lucky buddies had divvied up the coins in Valdes's home, much as kids would a mound of Halloween candy. "The pile was in the middle of the floor. We were all around it and we would just grab a handful. Sometimes you did one handful. Sometimes you did two. It didn't matter," said Cardenas. Valdes and Cardenas estimated they got between $120,000 to $140,000 each.

The third thief, Joe Cortez Jr., who had the master key, said he never even knew how much he spent, and had nothing left from the spending binge. Cardenas likewise had nothing. Only Valdes had something to show for his mad bullion binge. "Only a three-year-old daughter," he said.

Karr spurned repeated government offers of leniency in exchange for his testifying against Waters and showing them where the bodies are buried. But all the government offers came with a caveat: They were good only if Karr had not killed anyone. Late in the trial, it was apparent why Karr may not have been able to make a deal. After Fry vanished, David Waters had reappeared with deep fingerprint bruises on his arms. Was it from jumping and then holding a struggling Danny Fry while his buddy delivered the coup de grâce? Convict testimony suggested just such a scene.

"Karr said he shot Danny Fry," said Cross, Karr's prison buddy in Michigan. He said Karr told him he used his .22-caliber pistol on Fry because it made less of a mess than a bigger gun. "He said the bullet doesn't exit the body. It just kind of bounces around inside," Cross recalled. While sharing contraband cigarettes in prison, Karr, the seasoned convict, had cautioned Cross about talking to other inmates about sensitive matters.

"He said other inmates would try to get a downward departure or go home early" by ratting on their buddies to authorities, Cross said.

"And Mr. Karr apparently did not follow his own advice," said Carruth.

"No, he did not," replied Cross.

After days of nagging and sparring with the government's army of witnesses, Karr's lawyers took two hours to present four of their own. The best was an entirely serious Southern Baptist minister who said he believed he saw O'Hair in a resort town in Romania in 1997, and had reported this to Austin police.

"She looked overweight, sickly and in her mid-seventies, and with whitish, grayish hair. She was fully engaged in eating," recalled William Gordon Jr. of Georgia. "I can simply say the woman looked like Madalyn Murray O'Hair. I can't say beyond a shadow of a doubt it was her," he said.

A lawyer watching the trial from the gallery reacted with shock when the defense rested its case so quickly. "Knock me over with a feather. They're pretty much left with claiming the government didn't prove it," he said outside the courthouse. "I would have put that old boy [Karr] on the stand; maybe he's got some personality to convince the jury. They've pretty much made Waters into Lucifer; maybe he could have testified that everything he did was because he was afraid of Waters," the lawyer said. "I told that to Carruth, and he said, 'We'd eat him up.' And I said, 'He's already been eaten up.' "

In closing arguments, Karr's lawyers searched for reasonable doubt, telling the jury that the government's massive six-day download of circumstantial evidence was ridden with inconsistencies. "Their theory is baloney. Their facts are weak, flawed and defective," said Mills. "Mr. Karr's defense is from the Boy Scout handbook. You can't make a strong structure with weak wood, and the prosecution did not have the facts."

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