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.

Defense co-counsel Christie Williams echoed the theme, telling jurors: "You have the right to expect more than a theory. You have a right to know absolutely, conclusively what happened, and they haven't done that."

Prosecutors, however, argued that the greater fantasy was the defense's explanation that O'Hair and her two children had bolted for Eastern Europe, leaving the $500,000 in gold with their nemesis, Waters. "Would you flee to Romania if you were old and sick?" asked Dan Mills.

"That's just a rabbit trail they are trying to lead you down, to get you away from the real evidence, the killing of the O'Hairs by this man and others," he said.

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.

The jury retired to deliberate late on a Tuesday morning. It did not reappear, or even send out a note, until Friday afternoon. In the absence of the judge and jury, the courtroom quickly lost its formal ambience. Government lawyers relaxed, joking and sharing war stories of past trials with gray-headed reporters who had covered them. Attorneys chatted easily with each other, and Tom Mills circulated a poster, one of his trial exhibits, getting signatures from reporters and others in the courtroom. He also made periodic visits to Karr, waiting it out in a holding cell one floor up.

"Gary said the inmates at the Travis County Jail and Bastrop County Jail have been following the story in the papers and on television, and are overwhelmingly optimistic about his chances. That's two representative samples," he said with a straight face.

During the wait, humor ran heavily to jokes about wild hogs, which the government argued during trial had consumed all traces of the O'Hairs, and to Romanian humor. One prosecutor impressed the crowd with his knowledge of Transylvanian trivia, beginning with the character Vlad the Impaler, who, as the name suggests, stuck his victims on pikes. Vlad was the inspiration for the fictional Count Dracula, according to the local expert.

Then the atmosphere went instantly tense on Friday afternoon. After more than 30 hours of deliberation, the jury sent out two notes for Judge Sam Sparks. The notes suggested the panel was at an impasse on one or more charges. Sparks instructed the jury to keep deliberating but hinted he would accept a partial verdict. That possibility became moot three hours later when the jury announced it had reached verdicts on all five counts. Jurors appeared exhausted and drawn as they filed back into the courtroom. One woman appeared to have been crying. None looked in Karr's direction. When the clerk read the verdict, the jury had acquitted him of the first charge, conspiracy to kidnap the O'Hairs. They convicted him on the others: conspiring to rob and extort the O'Hairs, traveling interstate to commit a crime of violence, money laundering and interstate transport of stolen property.

"It seems interesting at least that he was found not guilty of kidnapping, and that was the basis for the state's whole theory," said a subdued Mills.

In conversations with jurors, it was apparent that one defense bullet had landed. "We didn't necessarily say there was no kidnapping. It's something we didn't decide," said juror Jeff Sloan. "We had gotten to the point where there was a lot of frustration and brain fade. I am fried," he said as he left the courtroom.

In an interview days after the verdict, the jury foreman said that the majority of the panel did not even believe the O'Hairs are dead. "I would say that three jurors think they are dead and the other nine think they are alive somewhere in the world," said Hector R. Rodriguez, who also said no one on the panel bought the government's horror-story ending. "No one believed there was a dismemberment. It was too implausible based on what we heard, and assessing the credibility of the witnesses."

Nevertheless, after the verdict, Edmond Martin, the IRS investigator who began working the case in late 1996, said, "Initially, I was looking for Jon Murray for money laundering, and I ended up with Waters, Karr and Fry, and four dead people.

"No one deserved to die like Danny Fry died, and I believe the O'Hairs died the same way. You can't let a crime like that go unpunished."

Karr did not react visibly to the verdict. He will return to court August 4 to be sentenced by Sparks. And unless he changes his mind about cooperating with the feds, he faces a mandatory life sentence.

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