Killer Dad Dubbed ‘Candyman’ Poisoned Son With Cyanide-Laced Halloween Treats
The true-crime case of Ronald Clark O’Bryan, known as “Candyman” and “The Man Who Killed Halloween,” forever changed the way many trick-or-treaters and their parents view the holiday — whether they realize it or not.
PASADENA, TX — Urban legends abound warning of Halloween sweets tainted with pins, glass, razor blades, and even Ecstasy, but there’s one tale of weaponized candy handed out during the ghoulish holiday that’s actually based on frightening fact. The true-crime case of Ronald Clark O’Bryan, known as the “Candyman” and “The Man Who Killed Halloween,” forever changed the way many trick-or-treaters and their parents view the holiday — whether they realize it or not.
On October 31, 1974, O’Bryan and his family — wife Daynene; son Timothy, 8; and daughter Elizabeth, 5 — had dinner with Jim Bates, his wife, and their children. When they finished up, O’Bryan and his two kids joined Bates and his little boy on a hunt for candy.
At one point during the evening, the fathers and their children stopped at a home, but nobody answered and they left. O’Bryan then drifted behind the group, but he came running back a short time later waving five 22-inch Pixie Stix, straws packed with a powdered candy. According to O’Bryan, he had stumbled upon “some rich neighbors” who gave him the “expensive treats.”
"It was kind of a cold, and kind of a misty, damp night,” said Harold Nassif, a former Pasadena detective sergeant. "Since it had been raining, Mr. O'Bryan had a raincoat on. Unbeknownst to [anyone], he had the Pixie Stix shoved up the sleeves of his raincoat."
O'Bryan distributed a giant straw to each of the three kids. He later gave one to Bates’ daughter, who had stayed behind, and another to a 10-year-old boy from the O’Bryans’ church they encountered while out trick-or-treating.
The fun evening ended with the O’Bryans returning home, where Timothy and Elizabeth’s dad told the two each could choose a last piece of candy to enjoy before they went to bed. Timothy couldn’t resist the oversized Pixie Stix, and he didn’t seem to find the staple holding the top shut out of the ordinary.
"That's what saved another boy's life that night," former Harris County District Attorney Mike Hinton told Vice. "They found him in bed with the sweet in his hand, but he wasn't strong enough to undo the staples.” Police managed to confiscate that boy’s cyanide-filled Pixie Stix and the three others before the kids could open them.
However, before bed on Halloween, Timothy poured the sugar from his Pixie Stix straw into his mouth, only stopping because the sweet-sour treat had a bitter taste. O’Bryan then told his son to sip on some Kool-Aid.
"It seems like it wasn't long before he was up and complaining his stomach hurt and he didn't feel good,” O’Bryan later said in an interview with the Associated Press. “He was bent over vomiting, and I was holding him when he just went limp.”
Hinton recalled, "I got a call from the Pasadena Police Department — they told me an eight-year-old boy had died. He was rushed to the hospital, but he'd already passed."
Bill LaNier, then a detective with the Pasadena police, noted O’Bryan, despite his son’s death, “wasn’t crying or bawling or anything, but there was no reason to believe he was involved.”
Still, as detectives tried to figure out from which house O’Bryan got the candy, the 30-year-old dad was initially of little help. “At first, he kept saying, ‘I don’t know what home,’ then, ‘I don’t know which street,’” LaNier recalled. “But they only trick-or-treated on two streets. Then he said he didn’t see the person — ‘All I could see was an arm.’”
"A few days went by, and it was incredibly frustrating," said Hinton, the former D.A., "so they took O'Bryan out again and were pretty firm with him."
Suddenly, it seemed that O’Bryan had an epiphany. He pointed out the home of Courtney Melvin. The only problem: Melvin, an air-traffic controller at William Hobby P. Airport in Houston, had an airtight alibi. "It turned out he was working that night," said Hinton. "His wife and daughter were home and had turned out the lights early as they'd run out of candy.” He added, “Something strange was going on.”
O’Bryan was on detectives’ radars. They began digging into the optician’s past and discovered he had been fired from an astounding 21 jobs over 10 years. He was also struggling with major financial issues, including $100,000 of debt. The possibility that money could be a motive for Timothy’s murder became crystal clear after investigators uncovered life insurance policies totaling $60,000 O’Bryan recently had taken out on his son and daughter.
"I found an adding machine tape," said Nassif, the former Pasadena detective sergeant. "It had all of his bills written out next to the numbers on an adding machine tape. It came to almost the exact amount of what he stood to collect.” Detectives later found out O’Bryan called insurers the morning after his son died to find out about claiming a payout.
Other evidence pointing to O’Bryan’s guilt continued to mount, Hinton said. "It turned out O'Bryan was going to community college, and in class would ask his professor questions like, 'What is more lethal: cyanide or another type of poison?’ Why would someone ask that?”
His obsession with the poison continued outside the classroom, too. O’Bryan wanted to know from an acquaintance familiar with cyanide how much it would take to kill someone, and a clerk at a Houston-area chemical company recalled that not long before Halloween a man had come in to see about purchasing cyanide, but left when he found out he had to buy it in bulk. "The man from the store said he couldn't identify O'Bryan, but he remembered that his customer was wearing a beige or blue smock, like a doctor," noted Hinton. "O'Bryan was an optician — that was exactly the uniform he wore to work.”
O’Bryan was placed under arrest, but he refused to crack under pressure. “O’Bryan never confessed,” said LaNier. “He came close. I got him right to the line.”
O’Bryan went on trial in May 1975. Daynene always adamantly insisted she was completely unaware of her husband’s plan, and she testified against him.
"The only inescapable conclusion is that this man killed his own flesh and blood for money," said then-Prosecutor Hinton. Jurors agreed, and on June 3, 1975, they found O’Bryan guilty on one count of capital murder and four counts of attempted murder after deliberating a mere 46 minutes. O’Bryan was sentenced to death.
Almost 10 years later, on March 31, 1984, O’Bryan dined on his last meal (steak, fries, peas, and Boston cream pie) before his execution by lethal injection. After authorities officially declared him dead at 12:48 A.M., the hundreds of people, some wearing costumes, who gathered outside the walls of the Texas State Penitentiary shouted: “Trick or Treat!”
As for Halloween in Texas — and, it could be argued, much of the United States — the holiday was forever tainted. “People were scared to death,” said LaNier. “We put out the word — if you have any suspicious candy or if anything looks strange, bring it to us. We wound up with a whole roomful of candy. People didn’t go trick-or-treating around here for years.”
“Even today it’s still talked about,” said Hinton of Timothy’s murder by cyanide-laced candy. “I think it changed Halloween.”
Read more: The New York Daily News, Vice, The Statesman, ABC13