Born into poverty and obscurity, Madalyn Murray O'Hair became rich and famous. As America's leading Atheist, she also became one of the nation's most despised people. The fiery, combative O'Hair, a regular guest on TV talk shows, loved nothing more than railing against Christianity and "Christers." Though she and members of her non-profit organization, American Atheists, regularly received death threats, they also received cash -- lots of it -- from like-minded supporters.
In late September 1995, when Madalyn Murray O'Hair, 76, went missing from her home in San Antonio, Texas along with two of her adult children -- her youngest son, Jon and her daughter, Robin -- people were not surprised. Even fellow atheists were quietly glad that they were gone. Most believed that the secretive and tight-knit O'Hair clan had finally decided to flee the pressure. After all, her colleagues and IRS had long-suspected O'Hair of funneling organization funds into overseas bank accounts.
On October 4, Spike Tyson, an American Atheists board member, hadn't heard from Madalyn in days. Concerned, he drives to her home. Inside, he finds signs that the O'Hairs had left in a hurry. Breakfast dishes, as well as Madalyn's diabetes medication, are still on the table. Their two beloved dogs have also been left behind.
Despite this odd scene, the Austin Police believes that the O'Hairs disappeared by choice and make no effort to investigate. At American Athiests headquarters, staffers take control claiming that the O'Hairs are "away indefinitely," and acting like everything is "business as usual." When an American Atheist board member blithely moves into the empty O'Hair home, Bill Murray, Madalyn's oldest and long-estranged son, flies to Austin to officially file a missing persons report. Still, authorities apparently show little interest and the case goes cold.
A year later, an enterprising private investigator, Tim Young, joins forces with reporter John MacCormack from the San Antonio Express News to investigate a story titled: "Whatever happened to the O'Hairs?" Tim Young is a smart, ambitious PI and wants to crack a high profile case to build is his resume. At the same time, Ed Martin, a Special Investigator for the IRS, is also looking hard at financial irregularities at American Atheists. Both men have little idea that the series of crimes they are about to uncover will play out like a mystery novel.
It doesn't take long for Tim Young and John MacCormack to zero in on the 48-year old office manager at American Atheists, David Waters. Waters is a smooth-talking ex-convict that O'Hair had hired to run operations in Austin. But when O'Hair caught Waters embezzling funds, she had him arrested. When Waters gets off the hook with just probation, O'Hair became irate and vindictive, blasting him in her Atheist newsletter, exposing his sordid, criminal past. O'Hair's public humiliation of Waters hit a nerve. Tim Young and John MacCormack were about to find out how hard.
When Madalyn O'Hair disappeared with her son Jon and her daughter Robin, it was David Waters who ran to the press loudly claiming that they had fled the country with millions of Atheist dollars. His evidence was compelling and colorful enough for Vanity Fair to feature him in an article.
But, Tim Young and John MacCormack had a hunch that Waters was lying and that he had the motive and criminal background for something truly sinister.
Investigating Water's phone records, Young and MacCormack discover that in the spring and summer of 1995, Waters made numerous calls to two men named Danny Fry and Gary Karr. Both men are ex-cons who Waters befriended in prison. The men then learns something else very curious by talking to Danny Fry's girlfriend. She tells him that Danny had traveled to Texas to help David Waters with a "scheme" and that she had not heard from Danny for over a year. MacCormack and Young are surprised to learn that Danny Fry disappeared the same week as Madalyn O'Hair.
IRS Investigator Ed Mitchell is also on the case. He pressures American Atheist staffers, who start to fess up about some strange happenings the week before the O'Hairs disappeared. Mitchell discovers that the week before the O'Hairs went missing, Madalyn's son Jon quickly sold his Mercedes and also got large cash advances on his credit cards. They tell Mitchell that Jon O'Hair had been calling them, sounding stressed and anxious, pleading for more money, but never explained why.
The puzzle becomes clearer still when Tim Young finds a rare coin dealer in town who reveals that Jon O'Hair had come into his shop and nervously purchased $600,000 worth of gold coins. By this time, Tim Young is hardly surprised to discover that a week after the O'Hairs disappear, David Waters and Gary Karr go on a spending spree paying cash for Cadillacs and fancy clothes.
But it was a small item in the Dallas, Texas Police blotter that would give MacCormack and Young the evidence they needed to close the case. A corpse, minus crudely amputated head and hands, had been found on a trash-strewn bank of the Trinity River near Dallas in October of 1995. MacCormack alerts the Dallas PD that he has a hunch of who this could be. DNA tests confirms it. The headless corpse is Danny Fry.
When Danny Fry's brother learns that his brother has been murdered, he calls Tim Young and confesses what he knows. Danny had traveled to Texas to help kidnap and guard the O'Hairs at a motel while Danny Waters extorted money from them.
Tim Young and John MacCormack go to the authorities. David Waters and Gary Karr are arrested. Although Police can't pin murders on either man, both ex-cons are found with guns, a serious violation of their parole. In exchange for a lesser sentence, Gary Karr confesses to the kidnapping scheme, but claims to only have been a guard. David Waters, facing hard time in Texas State prison, confesses to murdering Danny Fry and the O'Hairs.
He tells them how all three were strangled, rolled up in bedsheets and loaded into a cargo van. They were dismembered with a large knife and then stuffed into 55-gallon drums. Waters would then show Police where the bodies were buried. Police video shows a multi-agency task force digging up field on a ranch near Camp Wood, Texas and discovering human bones, including the metal hip joint that belonged to Madalyn Murray O'Hair.
Many questions still remain. Why hadn't Jon O'Hair, who was buying gold coins and taking out cash advances while his mother and sister were being held hostage, ask for help? Many of the answers may be known only to David Waters who died of cancer in Federal Prison.