Mon 22 May 00 21:29
Steve Quarrella
"Atheist Popessa"

The latest, for those who keep up with this. As an aside, Robin used to post in CHURCH&STATE and the now-defunct A_THEIST:

O'Hair disappearance trial to start. Atheist leader vanished 5 years ago


By David McLemore / The Dallas Morning News

SAN ANTONIO - For nearly five years, the strange disappearance of America's atheist grande dame has remained a puzzle with more questions than answers.

Monday, in a federal courtroom in Austin, federal prosecutors hope to put the parts of the puzzle together to provide some answers to what happened to Madalyn Murray O'Hair and her two adult children after they vanished under mysterious circumstances in August 1995.

After a three-year FBI investigation, a federal grand jury in Austin late last year charged Gary Karr, 53, an ex-con from Detroit, with kidnapping, extortion and robbery. Prosecutors say his actions resulted in the death of Mrs. O'Hair, 77; her son, Jon Garth Murray, 41; and Robin Murray O'Hair, 31, her granddaughter whom she adopted.

For prosecutors, it's a common tale of greed, hatred and $500,000 in gold coins that wrote the final chapter for Mrs. O'Hair and her children. Mr. Karr's attorney believes otherwise.

The defense says that it's more likely no one was kidnapped and no one was murdered.

"Remember, this isn't a murder trial," said Dallas attorney Tom Mills, appointed to defend Mr. Karr. "We have no bodies, no direct proof that Madalyn and her children were the victims of foul play. No one can even say they're dead."

In court documents, Assistant U.S. Attorney Gerald Carruth made it clear that investigators believe Mr. Karr conspired with the prime suspect in the disappearances -- David R. Waters, an Austin ex-con and former employee of Mrs. O'Hair. Mr. Waters has not, however, been charged.

Specifically, Mr. Karr is charged with assisting Mr. Waters and others in a kidnapping scheme by renting vehicles to transport the O'Hairs, renting rooms in a San Antonio residential hotel where the O'Hairs were kept. Mr. Karr is also charged with accompanying Jon Garth Murray to New Jersey where they arranged a $600,000 wire transfer from an atheist organization to San Antonio, where the money was converted to gold coins.

At the time of the disappearance, Mr. Mills said, Austin police believed that the O'Hairs had left on their own accord. Many people in the atheist organizations that Mrs. O'Hair ran believed the atheist leader and her children had stolen money and taken off in self-exile. For months, there were numerous sightings of the O'Hairs in New Zealand and elsewhere.

As sketched out in search-warrant affidavits and court hearings, the government has built a largely circumstantial case that prosecutors hope will help jurors connect Mr. Karr to Mr. Waters and the O'Hairs.

Mr. Karr told investigators in March 1999, when he was arrested in Detroit on federal weapons charges, that he had been hired by Mr. Waters, an old buddy from the Illinois prison system, to work as a bodyguard for the O'Hairs. He denied that he murdered anyone.

The government's key witness is a confidential informant, Patti Jo Steffens, Mr. Waters' Austin girlfriend. She told the FBI of Mr. Waters' obsessive hatred of Mrs. O'Hair and her fears that he had killed the three. She also linked Mr. Karr to the case through a bow saw and shovel that she found in Mr. Waters' car trunk.

Prosecutors will also spend time on matching a microscopic blood sample found in an Austin storage unit that investigators say was consistent with the DNA that Mrs. O'Hair shared with her missing children.

The type of match is mytochondrial DNA, which does not identify characteristics of the individual, as nucleic DNA can, but shows a broader DNA pattern passed down through the maternal side.

The prosecution will also focus on Mr. Karr's lengthy criminal past, including rape, kidnapping and robbery, which began in 1966 as a teenager and continued into adulthood.

The defense is expected to call William Murray, the estranged son of Mrs. O'Hair, who now runs a Washington-based conservative Christian political action committee. In 1963, Mrs. O'Hair filed a lawsuit against school prayer in her son's name. The case led to the 1963 Supreme Court ruling that outlawed state- mandated prayer in public schools.

Mr. Murray is expected to testify on the more unsavory aspects of his mother's life, her controlling and manipulative manner and her love for attention.

No decision has been reached on whether Mr. Karr will testify, Mr. Mills said. "That's just something we'll have to decide once we've seen the nature of the evidence," he said.

Mrs. O'Hair enjoyed and perfected her image as a foul-mouthed, contentious opponent of God. Those who worked for her in the various atheist organizations she ran said she controlled the funds and could be sharply contemptuous and cruel to those who crossed her.

On Aug. 28, 1995, Mrs. O'Hair, along with Jon and Robin, disappeared from the Austin house they shared. They left behind breakfast dishes on the table, Mrs. O'Hair's diabetes medicine and three dogs.

After a month of spotty contact with American Atheist Inc. officials and some sightings in San Antonio, the trio vanished. A few days after Jon Garth Murray's last reported phone call, investigators in Dallas County found a man's body, the hands and head crudely severed, dumped along the Trinity River bank. Three years later, investigators identified the body as Danny Fry, a con man from Florida.

Mr. Fry had come to Texas in 1994 at Mr. Waters' behest to do some work. Apart from sharing an apartment, Mr. Waters denied any knowledge of Mr. Fry's activities or how he died.

David Travis, an employee of American Atheist in Austin, said he and others assumed that the O'Hairs had put into effect a plan to escape the financial and legal problems that had begun to pile up around them.

"They had been hiding assets for some time. Other employees told me of documents showing up to $17 million hidden in accounts all over the world," Mr. Travis said.

On March 28, 1999, the FBI and Internal Revenue Service investigators conducted near-simultaneous raids on Mr. Waters' Austin house and Mr. Karr's home in Detroit to search for evidence in the disappearance of the O'Hairs. Both men were arrested as felons in possession of firearms.

According to an FBI agent's testimony in Detroit, Mr. Karr told investigators that he knew of four homicides in Texas and that he had helped move the bodies and clean up the evidence.

Mr. Waters, who was on probation for stealing $54,000 from the American Atheist office where he worked, said he had asked Mr. Karr to come down for some work. But he denied any knowledge of kidnapping or murder.

At the time of the disappearances, the O'Hairs were under investigation by the IRS, accused of tax fraud. They were also embroiled in a lawsuit by a separate atheist organization in California over the O'Hairs' takeover of financial holdings and donor lists.

Monday, the trial begins with jury selection. U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks has impaneled a pool of 250 prospective jurors. The trial is expected to last three weeks.

* Origin: "Aw, piss on that. Piss on it!" * Jerry Jones (1:124/9005)


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