"I asked him if he wanted to ride along with me to the store. He said no, and when I came back, no one was there. His stuff was like it was thrown away. His suitcase was empty and a garbage bag had his stuff. I just looked at his stuff and said, 'Oh, no,' " she testified. "I knew he wouldn't leave his daughter's birthday gift behind."
Steffens's haunting final recollection of Fry came last month in Austin during a federal trial that delved deeply into one of the century's most baffling celebrity disappearances, that of Madalyn Murray O'Hair. The three-week trial of Gary Karr, an ex-con with a résumé rich in violent crime, was the first detailed public airing of what authorities believe happened to the famous atheist, her two children, and later to Fry, a small-time hustler from Florida.
The jagged plot line began at American Atheist General Headquarters in Austin and, if authorities are correct, ended at a blood-soaked storage unit a dozen blocks to the west. Along the way the plot touched down in Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, Newark, Romania, New Zealand and South Florida.
If O'Hair and Waters had the leading roles, the supporting cast ranged from atheist eccentrics to ex-girlfriends looking for payback, and from Peoria tough guys to a trio of clueless but lucky thieves from San Antonio.
Among them, Steffens was a star prosecution witness. At this point in her testimony about her last visit with Fry, Steffens, a deep-voiced woman dressed like a minister's wife, began to fight tears, and everyone in the courtroom knew why: If the details of Fry's final hours are unknown, his ghastly fate is not. On October 2, 1995, two days after Fry vanished from Waters's apartment, an old man picking cans found a headless, handless and nude body on a riverbank near Seagoville. It was a white man, middle-aged, midsize and with no identifying marks, scars or tattoos. The head and hands were not found, nor were clothing or personal effects. And for more than three years, the motive for the mutilation slaying was as elusive as the name of the victim. But in late 1998 Dallas police received a critical tip. Three months later genetic testing confirmed the headless corpse was Fry.
The finding triggered an explosion of police activity in a disappearance case with a far higher profile, that of O'Hair, the atheist battle-ax credited or blamed with taking prayer out of public schools. Fry and O'Hair both vanished on the same weekend in late 1995. And beyond the coincidences of timing and geography was another, more ominous link: David Waters.
Waters, a secretive and violent ex-con, had worked with Fry in Florida before moving to Texas in 1991. And in 1993 and 1994 he had worked for O'Hair at her offices in Austin. Waters's employment ended about the same time $54,400 vanished from atheist accounts. He later pleaded guilty to the embezzlement and received probation.
But such wishful thinking died when the headless corpse got a name. Hazy scenarios of money laundering, false passports and overseas exile were instantly replaced by darker images of abduction, ransom, murder and dismemberment. Confirmation of Fry's murder ignited a stalled federal investigation into the O'Hair case. Long-frustrated Dallas detectives quickly rolled south to San Antonio and Austin looking for his killers. In March 1999 the feds raided four locations and charged Waters and Karr with weapons violations. And last month in Austin, after 15 months of grinding investigation, the government laid down its cards for the world to see.
The hand was stacked with bloody sneakers and bow saws, gold thieves and strip clubs, motel receipts and phone bills, wire transfers and storage units, Rolex watches and white cargo vans. And when the last card was played, the feds had used 68 witnesses and more than 320 exhibits to present a circumstantial case that Waters, Karr and Fry had done in the O'Hairs.