On this day, Sept. 29, in the year 1995, atheist leader Madalyn Murray O'Hair was murdered in Texas during a kidnapping and extortion scheme.
O'Hair, who was 76 at the time of her death, was best known for the Murray v. Curlett lawsuit, which led to a landmark Supreme Court ruling ending government-sponsored prayer in American public schools. O'Hair founded the group American Atheists and became so controversial that in 1964 Life magazine referred to her as "the most hated woman in America."
On August 27, 1995, O'Hair, her son Jon Garth Murray, and her granddaughter, Robin Murray O'Hair, suddenly disappeared. The door to the office of American Atheists was locked with a typewritten note attached, stating "The Murray O'Hair family has been called out of town on an emergency basis. We do not know how long we will be gone at the time of the writing of this memo." In phone calls a few days later, O’Hair and Murray claimed that they were engaged in "business" in San Antonio, Texas. A few days later, Jon Murray ordered gold coins from a San Antonio jeweler and took delivery of $500,000 worth of coins. Until September 28, American Atheist employees and friends received several phone calls from Robin and Jon, but neither would explain why they left or when they would return; while they said nothing was amiss, their voices sounded strained and disturbed. After September 28, 1995, no further communication came from any of the O'Hairs.
When O'Hair's residence was entered, breakfast dishes were sitting on the table, her medication was on the kitchen counter, and her dogs had been left behind without a care-giver. Speculation and rumor circulated widely about the cause and meaning of O'Hair's disappearance. Eventually, the O'Hairs were declared legally dead, and most of their assets were sold to clear their debts. It is believed that all three were murdered on September 29, 1995.
Ultimately, a homicide investigation focused on David Roland Waters, a former employee of American Atheists. Not only did Waters have previous convictions for violent crimes, he had also pled guilty earlier in 1995 to stealing $54,000 from American Atheists. Shortly after his theft of the $54,000 was discovered, O'Hair had written a scathing article in the 'Members Only' section of the American Atheists newsletter exposing Waters, the theft and Waters' previous crimes, including a 1977 incident in which Waters allegedly beat and urinated upon his mother. Waters' girlfriend later testified that he was enraged by O'Hair's article, and that he had spoke about torturing her in gruesome ways.
Law Enforcement’s investigation eventually determined that Waters and at least one accomplice had kidnaped all three individuals, forced them to withdraw funds, gone on several huge shopping sprees with the O'Hairs' money, and then murdered all three. Danny Fry, who was ultimately identified as an accomplice, was murdered a few days after the O'Hairs; his body was found on a riverbed with his head and hands severed and missing, though his remains remained unidentified for years as the investigation continued.
In January 2001, Waters admitted to law enforcement that the O'Hairs were buried on a Texas ranch, and he subsequently led them to the bodies. When the police excavated there, they discovered that the O'Hairs' bodies had been cut into dozens of pieces. The remains exhibited extensive mutilation and were so decomposed that identification had to be made through dental records, by DNA testing and, in Madalyn O'Hair's case, by the serial number of her prosthetic hip. The head and hands of Danny Fry were also found at the site.
Waters was found guilty of kidnapping, robbery, and murder in the O'Hair case, and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Waters died of lung cancer in federal prison at the Medical Center in Butner, North Carolina on January 27, 2003.