Reporter's hunch may be clue to fate of famed missing atheist p.24

By: Mark Fitzgerald A San Antonio (Texas) Express-News reporter's hunch ? and his persistence in bringing it to police attention ? may prove to be a key development in solving a four-year-old mystery: The disappearance of famed atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair and two of her adult children.
With his hunch that a headless, handless corpse that had gone unidentified for three years might be the remains of a small-time con man whose name turned up while investigating the O'Hair disappearance, reporter John MacCormack revived stalled murder investigation and may have uncovered evidence that the Murray O'Hairs met with foul play, too.
Now the Dallas County sheriff's office say they have an active investigation into the murder of con man Danny Fry, and Austin, Texas, police on March 24 arrested former O'Hair office manager David Roland Waters on weapons charges. Although Waters, 52, is not charged with murder, his attorney told reporters that prosecutors are investigating his possible link to O'Hair's death.
Because of McCormick's reporting, The Austin Police Department had come under increasing pressure to expand the investigation beyond a routine missing person's case.
"The Austin Police Department should forget about trying to save face," the Express-News wrote in a recent editorial, "and immediately launch an investigation into the disappearance."
O'Hair styled herself "the most-hated woman in America" because of her vehement campaign against organized religion. Although she did not, as many believe, file the first lawsuit that led the U.S. Supreme Court to ban public school prayer in 1963, she seized the spotlight soon after. She was a cantankerous figure always ready to spread the gospel of atheism on any talk show or to sue with demands such as the removal of the words "In God We Trust" from U.S. currency.
By 1995, O'Hair, then 76, had fallen from prominence and ran a shrinking atheist organization in Austin, Texas, with her son Jon Garth Murray and daughter Robin Murray O'Hair. (Another son, Bill, was a profound disappointment to his mother. The boy who was the named plaintiff in O'Hair's suit to ban mandatory Bible reading in Baltimore schools had become a fundamentalist Christian.)
Though the three had discussed retirement overseas, there was no hint of what would happen at the end of that August. Madalyn, Jon, and Robin suddenly left their Austin home, leaving uneaten breakfast on the table, three unattended dogs, Madalyn's diabetes medicine, and a note that the atheist offices were closed. A month later, they briefly surfaced in San Antonio, Texas, where Jon Murray bought $500,000 in gold coins with money wired from the atheist organization's offices in New Zealand.
After that, nothing.
Were they murdered? Were they living a new life financed by embezzled funds? Had O'Hair, as she often said would, really withdrawn to die in anonymity ? safe from the prayers of the people she disparaged as "Christers"?
Austin police, concluding there was no foul play, considered the disappearance simply an open missing persons case. Various investigations by journalists turned up little.
Two years ago, in response to persistent media inquiries, Austin Police issued a statement saying, "We've already given (the disappearance) more attention than a case of its type because of her notoriety."
Certainly when Express-News reporter John MacCormack first came to the O'Hair story, he was not expecting to break it wide open. In 1996, he was assigned to write the one-year anniversary story of the disappearance. "It was your basic story. Do a professional story, but don't kill yourself," MacCormack recalls. "I didn't know or care what had happened to them at that point."
Learning more about the Murray O'Hairs, however, he was quickly drawn into the mystery. "I got hooked a little, and about every six months something would develop in the story to keep me going," MacCormack says.
MacCormack learned that the Murray O'Hairs were not the only people from the atheist office who disappeared in the fall of 1995. Danny Fry ? whose own daughter described him to MacCormack as "kind of a con artist" ? hastened from Florida to Texas at the behest of Waters. Fry hinted to his family that he would soon come into some big money.
But Danny Fry never came back. His family made frantic efforts to find him ? filing missing persons reports in Texas and Florida and consulting psychics ? but "little effort was made by police or outsiders to learn his fate," MacCormack says.
Then MacCormack happened across a story on The Associated Press wire, an anniversary story from The Dallas Morning News of another mystery, as it happens. The small story concerned a corpse with its head and hands severed that had been found outside Dallas on Oct. 2, 1995.
"It was literally serendipity," MacCormack says. "I saw the date, Oct. 2, 1995, and I knew Danny Fry had disappeared Sept. 30."
MacCormack went to the Dallas Sheriff's Office and got a description of the torso. Then he called Fry's ex-wife and two other women who had lived with Fry. Their descriptions of Fry's hairy chest, scars and tattoos seemed to match the Dallas corpse.
He went back to Dallas and suggested to detectives and the medical examiner's office that they try matching the DNA of the corpse and Danny Fry.
"They had tried two or three DNA matches [with other possibilities] before, so they were, to their credit, very open-minded about it," MacCormack says.
Media attention, in fact, was just what the Dallas County Sheriff's Office was hoping for, says spokesman Ed Spencer.
"The thinking was that this might trigger some information from the public," Spencer says. "This worked out as a kind of two-step process: The Morning News really started the ball rolling and MacCormack was able to furnish us with the information about Fry."
But nothing in the O'Hair disappearance is simple. For one thing, the medical examiners office needed more than just a DNA sample from Fry's daughter, for instance. And getting three of his relatives in different parts of the country to make arrangements for a DNA test locally, coordinate between their local authorities and Dallas' overburdened county medical examiner was a complex and ? for MacCormack ? frustrating process.
MacCormack says he became "a polite pest," pushing the Fry family members to get the DNA test and pushing the medical examiners to push for the tests as well.
"The guy at the coroner's office was a good guy, but he had 100 cases. I had just one," MacCormack says.
By January, the results were in and revealed the headless corpse was indeed Danny Fry.
The fact that Fry had been murdered around the time of the O'Hair disappearance and that he had a connection with the atheist's former office manager ? a man with a murder conviction ? suggests the atheists met a violent fate themselves. One scenario is that the three atheists were kidnapped, held for the ransom in gold coins, and murdered.
MacCormack's tip on Fry helped revitalize a three-year murder investigation of the corpse that was pretty much stuck, sheriff's spokesman Spencer says. "This is obviously an extremely significant development for detectives," he says.
Express-News editor Robert Rivard says the Fry investigation is classic MacCormack. "He retains an enthusiasm and initiative that is rare to find in a veteran reporter who has been around so long," Rivard says.
"It was just one of those stories," MacCormack himself says, "where a long shot pays off."
?(John MacCormack (right) believes a con man's corpse may be the key to atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair's (above) fate. ) [Photo & Caption]
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?(copyright: Editor & Publisher March 27, 1999) [Caption]


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