Madalyn Murray O’Hair’s Legacy in American Atheists
By Kevin Seiler
The San Diego Atheist Coalition recently voted to become affiliated with American Atheists, Inc. This is, in my opinion, a very good move. Whenever there is an issue of importance to atheists, AA is there to defend our rights. They have a strong media presence and connections with our political system. The presiding president of American Atheists, Ellen Johnson, has twice in the past two years, spoken before our Congress on our behalf. I think it is apt to discuss a little about the founder of the organization, Madalyn Murray O’ Hair.
The Cold War times of the 1950’s were quite hostile times to fellow atheists. The Federal government had recently added the phrase “One nation under God” to our pledge of allegiance, and our money all now bore the legend “In God we trust”, the phrase “godless communism” was seemingly everywhere. Upon this stage came the person that was Madalyn Murray O’ Hair.
We atheists owe a great deal to this courageous woman. Her Supreme Court victory in the case “Murray vs. Curtlett” ended coerced prayer in our classrooms. She is responsible for the first national convention of atheists, the first TV, radio, and cable programs dedicated to portraying the “Atheist Viewpoint”, and the first atheist library dedicated to the preservation of atheist documents. Most importantly, she founded the leading group for the preservation of atheist civil rights in America: American Atheists.
However, Madalyn Murray O’Hair was not loved by all atheists. Her style was brash and ‘in your face’. Her atheist critics found her organizational style to be quite controlling and brash, not willing to let anyone else’s opinion sway her. Several atheist groups split off from American Atheists. These groups were split many times on several issues: should we have a confrontational style in protest? Should our organizational name even contain the word ‘Atheist’ instead of other more palatable words like ‘Freethought’ or ‘humanist’?
The September 1995 disappearance of Madalyn Murray O’Hair, her son, Jon and her granddaughter, Robyn Murray O’ Hair; was immediately cast in a suspicious light by the media- ever eager to cast the atheist the villain. This hypothesis was facilitated by the disappearance of over half a million dollars of American Atheists company funds. Indeed the many atheist groups the sprang up in opposition to American Atheists were quick to cry out “see, told you this would happen! I knew they were crooks!”.
On September 2nd, an Austin Grand Jury indicted David Waters in the disappearances of the Murray- O’ Hair family. Here is a press release from American Atheist News:
Waters, a former office manager for the organization, was charged with
abduction, kidnapping, robbery and extortion resulting in the death of
another person. He is the second person indicted in connection with
the disappearance of Mrs. O'Hair, along with son Jon Garth Murray and
her granddaughter Robin Murray O'Hair. Waters, 53, is currently
serving a 60 year prison term in connection with a weapons charge, and
theft of funds from American Atheists.
In July, Gary Paul Karr was convicted in connection with extortion of
money and personal property from the O'Hairs and other crimes. He
received a life sentence last month.
During Karr's trial, prosecutors called dozens of witnesses and
presented jurors with a complex time line beginning with the forcible
abduction of the O'Hairs. Though not charged at the time, federal
investigators placed Waters as the person behind an elaborate
kidnapping and extortion plot which, they say, ended in torture and
The O'Hairs disappeared from San Antonio in September, 1995. When
initially contacted by officers of the organizations, Jon Murray said
that they were engaged in some sort business and would return soon.
Later it was learned that $500,000 in gold coins had vanished,
purchased with money taken from the bank account of an Atheist
The case began to break when the decapitated corpse of a man was
discovered outside Dallas along a river bank. The body was that of
Danny Fry, an associated of Mr. Waters. From there, other principals
in the case were identified, including Gary Paul Karr.
* According to the Austin American-Statesman, prosecutors have had
time to carefully build their case against Waters since he is already
in state prison, after pleading guilty to the theft of $54,000 from
O'Hair's organization and violating his probation. The influx of new
prison inmates, though, has overtaxed the capacity of the system, and
parole officials are reportedly mulling policy changes that could
result in Waters' early release.
* Prosecutors had an October deadline for any indictment, since that
would mark the five-year statute of limitations for charges which do
not carry a death penalty. "After that," noted the Statesman,
"federal prosecutors have only one basic option: murder charges."
* So far, no bodies have been located although sources close to the
investigation say that the O'Hairs were tortured, killed, dismembered
and the remains placed in blue plastic barrels which were buried.
Acting on information, authorities have searched for the bodies with
no success. Murder charges may be difficult to prove under these
circumstances, but prosecutors are confident that kidnapping and other
charges against Waters could be made to stick. When polled, jurors in
the Karr trial reportedly agreed that had Waters been the accused,
they would have convicted him on all counts.
The indictment and possible conviction of Waters may help to close a
case which has captivated news media, fueled speculation, and resulted
in an abundance of wild theories. When the O'Hairs disappeared, there
was no evidence of foul play. Their offices had been untouched, and
the family left several important projects uncompleted including
production of an issue of the American Atheist Magazine. Gossip and
even an Elvis-style magazine article placed family members in foreign
countries such as New Zealand, and when news of the missing funds
broke, the Internal Revenue Service began a probe in connection with
possible money laundering. It soon turned into a murder
Sources tell AANEWS that a trial for David Waters could be held as
early as January, 2001.