San Antonio Express-News, Feb. 3, 2003
By John MacCormack, San Antonio Express-News
David R. Waters, the tough guy from Peoria, Ill., who masterminded the kidnapping and murder of atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair and her family in 1995, has died in a federal prison hospital.
Waters, 55, reportedly succumbed to lung cancer last week at the Federal Medical Center in Butner, N.C. In late December, he was sent there from Leavenworth, Kan., where he was serving 20 years for the O’Hair crimes.
“It really does close the books on the whole sordid affair,” said Bill Murray, O’Hair’s lone surviving child. Murray, a born-again Christian, broke with his atheist mother years ago.
“Everyone’s soul is salvageable,” Murray said. “But there are people who give themselves up to evil and never really make an attempt to right themselves, and Waters was one of those individuals.”
Murray’s half brother, Jon Garth Murray, and daughter, Robin Murray O’Hair, disappeared with the famous atheist in late 1995, and their fates remained a mystery for more than five years. Ultimately, Waters helped authorities resolve the case.
Gerald Carruth, the assistant U.S. attorney in Austin who prosecuted Waters and once described him in court as “a depraved recidivist,” learned of his death today.
“We always have believed and still believe that Mr. Waters was the mastermind of this plot,” Carruth said. “After he agreed to plead and show us where the bodies were, it allowed us to finally put the case to rest.”
One of the last people to have extended personal contact with Waters was Ann Rowe Seaman of Los Angeles, who is writing a biography of America’s most famous atheist.
O’Hair achieved instant notoriety four decades ago when she successfully sued to remove mandatory religious ceremonies from public schools, and she remained an outspoken enemy of organized religion.
Seaman said she met with Waters four or five times in prison over the past two years and exchanged numerous letters with him.
“He was quite a philosophical guy,” she said. “He wouldn’t say he was an atheist, but he really didn’t believe in God. As to whether hell exists, he said it does, and that it’s on Earth.”
Seaman said Waters declined to speak much about the O’Hair case but was unrepentant when he did.
“He didn’t feel sorry. He kind of admired O’Hair, in a dark way. When he told stories about her that he found amusing, it was always about some shady thing she had done,” Seaman said. “He was angry at the criminal justice system and felt he was a victim,” she said. “But by the same token, he never whined or complained about some of the terrible things that happened when he was growing up.”
Born in Peoria, Waters was the oldest of five boys in a broken home and was in and out of juvenile detention and foster care. According to Seaman, his father abandoned the family when Waters was very young.
His first serious clash with the law came in 1964, when he and three other youths were charged with killing another youth in a drunken argument over the use of a car.
Convicted of murder, he served 12 years and later went back to prison for beating up his mother, forgery and other crimes.
His fateful encounter with O’Hair came in 1993, when she hired him as a $7-an-hour typesetter for her atheist organization, then based in Austin. Waters rose to office manager, but he was later convicted of stealing $54,000 from the O’Hairs.
When O’Hair, her son and her granddaughter vanished in late 1995, many believed they had fled overseas to avoid legal problems. In a 200-page book he wrote about his dealings with the O’Hairs, Waters promoted this theory.
Eventually, however, news articles linked him to the O’Hair disappearance and that of a Florida man named Danny Fry, and he became the focus of an aggressive federal probe.
In early 1999, Waters was arrested on a weapons charge after agents searched his Austin apartment. He was never free again.
Two years later, facing lengthy terms in state prison on other charges, he confessed his role in the kidnapping and slaying of the O’Hairs. The O’Hairs turned over $500,000 in gold coins to Waters at a San Antonio motel in an apparent attempt to buy their freedom, but authorities believe they were killed shortly afterward.
After pleading guilty to conspiracy, Waters led authorities to a Hill Country pasture outside Camp Wood where the dismembered remains of the three O’Hair family members and Fry’s severed head were unearthed.
As a condition of his plea, he was transferred from state to federal custody, but Seaman said Waters eventually found his existence there unbearable.
“He said his quality of life was so poor, he didn’t care if he lived or died,” she said. “At Leavenworth, all the windows are painted over, and you can’t even see outside.”