In late August, 1995, after returning from their annual vacation, Madalyn O'Hair, her daughter Robin and son Jon Garth Murray abruptly left the offices of American Atheists in Austin, Texas and went to San Antonio.
This was unusual for a number of reasons. As they had done in the past, the O'Hairs stayed in touch with a number of American Atheists officials, sending post cards or phoning. Their 1995 vacation took them to Virginia, where they personally met a number of members as they toured the area. They then returned to Austin and resumed work, then suddenly disappeared.
Employees at the American Atheists headquarters were surprised by this. A note with what appeared to be the signature of Jon Garth Murray was posted on the front door of the building, but provided few details about where the O'Hairs were, or what specifically they were doing. Officials of the organization who had been in regular contact with them found that no one was answering the phones at the national office. E-mails and faxes were not returned, and no one responded to phone calls at the Murray O'Hair private residence. There was speculation that \something had come up,\ perhaps an illness, or that the O'Hairs were away on business.
Two officers -- Ellen Johnson and Conrad Goeringer -- did finally establish contact with the family for a brief of time, though. In the initial phone conversations, Jon Murray assured them, \Everything's all right, it's just too complicated to talk about right now, and we'll tell the whole Board (of Directors) about this when we get back...\ Murray added that the family was in San Antonio, but he deflected questions about their specific location and what they might be up to.
Federal authorities believe that at some time around August 27, 1995 the Murray O'Hairs were forcibly abducted -- possibly while traveling from the office to their home. Then were then taken to a motel in Austin, and the following day possibly transported to another motel in San Antonio.
According to investigators, in the days that followed this forcible abduction, Jon Murray and Robin Murray O'Hair took thousands of dollars in cash advances on their credit cards. On September 5, a man posing as Jon Garth Murray sold his Mercedes automobile for cash after placing an ad in the local paper. Nearly three weeks their initial disappearance, Jon Garth Murray traveled in the company of another man (identified by authorities as Gary Karr) to New Jersey where he arranged for the wire transfer of approximately $600,000 from a bank account belonging to United Secularists of America. This money was transferred to the account of a jeweler in San Antonio, and the funds were later converted into gold coins.
Officials of American Atheists did not know of any of these events at the time. We had been emphatically assured by Mr. Murray that \everything's OK,\ and that there would be a forthcoming explanation. The O'Hairs were due in New York in October for a protest event where American Atheists was to protest the politics of Pope John Paul II during his papal tour to the United States.
The best reconstruction of the events concerning the family's disappearance shows that on September 29, 1995 Jon Murray took delivery of approximately $500,000 in gold coins from the San Antonio jewelry store. The owner apparently stated that he would require additional time to obtain the rest of the coins. At that point, the O'Hairs vanished and all contact was lost. They did not answer their cell phone. Federal authorities believe that shortly thereafter, one man linked to the disappearance was murdered. His body was found, decapitated in a river near Dallas; his hands had been removed, possibly to avoid identification. Authorities have also pieced together through signed statements, testimony and other evidence a time line of events. They believe that the after extorting the money from the Murray O'Hairs, the family was brutally murdered and their bodies dismembered and buried.
During this approximate period, Jon Murray contacted an employee of the organization who had been given a key to the building, and authorized him to enter the facility. He was told to carry out a number of routine tasks, to keep the office operating; and he was informed that the O'Hairs would be returning shortly. We subsequently found no evidence there, or at the Murray O'Hair residence, of what might be considered foul play.
Equally puzzling was the tone and content of the August, 1995 American Atheists newsletter which had been mailed to the membership prior to the O'Hairs taking their vacation. There were the usual book reviews, news stories and commentary -- nothing out of place. The blue \members only\ wrap around was upbeat, and even discussed future publishing efforts. Robin Murray O'Hair announced that she had signed \half a dozen contracts for totally new Atheist books that will delight you...\ and that she was resuming a regular publication schedule for the American Atheist Magazine which had been disrupted due to the Truthseeker imbroglio.
Toward that end, there was a brief discussion of a new, upper-end typesetting system which had made possible thanks to the estate of a former officer, the late Don Sanders. Indeed, this equipment -- we estimate that it cost approximately $80,000 -- was contracted for prior to the disappearance of the Murray O'Hairs. This was one of many pieces of circumstantial evidence which indicated that the family was not trying to \take the money and run,\ absconding with organization funds or equipment.
QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS ABOUT THE CASE...
WHAT DID YOU FIND?
Everything appeared to be intact. It looked like \business as usual\ had been going on when suddenly the office was shut down. For instance, an issue of the American Atheist Magazine had been partially printed. Offices did not appear to have been disturbed. Ms. Johnson and another officer subsequently traveled to Austin for a more thorough examination of the premises, and found no substantive clues pointing to where the Murray O'Hairs had gone, or why. While it was considered POSSIBLE that they were still away on business, there was the more disturbing fact that Mr. Murray had not been in touch, and that the cell phone longer worked.
WHAT ABOUT NEW ZEALAND?
Early reports in the news media suggested that the O'Hairs may have embezzled funds from the various atheist corporations, and absconded to New Zealand. These reports were based, in part, on the fact that one corporation -- the United Secularists of America -- maintained an account with a New Zealand bank. In addition, the O'Hairs had visited New Zealand, knew people there, and had even talked about someday possibly relocating there.
The New Zealand account was a Trust Fund which the O'Hairs had spend years building. It was designed to ensure a steady source of income in the future for American Atheists. Money had been solicited for the Fund for many years through the membership newsletter, and details about the New Zealand account were openly discussed during the members' Business Meetings at the annual National Convention. Mr. Murray often discussed the account with members. The account was chosen for the fact that at the time, it provided an unusually high rate of return. The financial instruments were mostly government bonds from New Zealand.
The O'Hairs had talked about someday possibly moving to New Zealand. The idea came up in the early 1980s after the election of Ronald Reagan as President. Around 1993, there was discussion again when the O'Hairs became embroiled in a lawsuit over the estate of a wealthy atheist which had fallen under the control of religious persons. This was the so-called \Truthseeker\ trial.
It was the opinion of several witnesses who had known the O'Hairs for many years that this \plan\ existed as more of a contingency or even fantasy, and that none of the problems which the O'Hairs had encountered up to that point would have persuaded them to take such a drastic step. One witness testified that Robin Murray O'Hair dismissed the plan whenever it came up in casual conversation, and thought it was impractical and \absurd.\
It is also important to note that when they disappeared, the O'Hairs left behind their passports, numerous personal items, family pets, and even medication for Madalyn O'Hair. Also, while they were still in litigation with the Truthseeker, the O'Hairs had successfully defended in two previous trials. They were optimistic about the final appeal in the case and indeed, that case was successfully decided in favor of the O'Hairs thus ending the whole matter.
WEREN'T THE O'HAIRS IN TROUBLE WITH THE IRS?
For years, the Internal Revenue Service hounded the Murray O'Hairs and the various Atheist corporations. This required them to enlist the services of firms such as KPMG, a nationally noted accounting company, and lawyers.
At the May, 2000 trial of Gary Karr -- a man charged with conspiracy to kidnap and extort money from the O'Hairs -- several important facts emerged during testimony and interviewing of witnesses, including the former tax attorney for the organization. At the time of the disappearance, an acceptable and successful settlement had been negotiated with the Internal Revenue Service over \accounting irregularities\ and errors. This, combined with the upbeat expectations about a victory in the Truthseeker trial, suggests that it was \business as usual\ for the O'Hairs until late August, 1995 when they disappeared.
WHAT DID AMERICAN ATHEISTS DO AFTER THE DISAPPEARANCE?
By October-November of 1995, it was becoming obvious that \something\ was amiss. There was no evidence of foul play, though, or that any sort of \plan\ had been put into effect by the O'Hairs to disappear. There was even evidence to the contrary when that possibility was discussed. The O'Hairs had not liquidated their largest personal assert -- their home. They had reached a settlement with the IRS, prevailed in two court decisions in the Truthseeker matter, and they had ordered a substantial amount of new equipment for publication. Upon gaining access to the offices in Austin, and not seeing any evidence of foul play -- and seeing a number of projects such as the new magazine still in production -- that scenario seemed unlikely and remote.
We still at this point believed that it was possible that the family was involved in some kind of confidential and prolonged business. Theories abounded, of course, but there was little or no concrete evidence to suggest what happened. In private discussion, a number of members, Board members and officers discussed possible 'scenarios,' but at that time none of them fitting with all of the limited, available evidence.
At the New York pope picket, members of the Board huddled to discuss the disappearance. It was agreed that Ellen Johnson would act as President Pro Tem for the organization, and within her abilities attempt to ascertain what was happening.
Several weeks later, the Board of Directors of the various Atheist corporations, with the assistance of Craig Etter, Legal Counsel, met. Positions which had been left vacated by the absence of the members of the Murray O'Hair family were filled by election in keeping with the various Articles of Incorporation. Ellen Johnson was named President of American Atheists.
The various bank accounts and other assets that we knew of were secured. We began, as best we could under the circumstances, to resurrect the organization.
Toward that end, some former staff members were called in, and new staffers hired. The August, 1995 issue of American Atheist Magazine -- which had been partially printed by the O'Hairs and still lacked completion -- was finished and sent out to subscribers, with a brief explanation from the new Editor, Frank Zindler. Publication of the American Atheist Newsletter resumed. The National Convention was brought back as a regular organizational activity, and a program of Regional Atheist Meets (RAMs) was put in place. The new leadership under President Ellen Johnson was determined to carry on the organizational legacy established by the Madalyn Murray O'Hair and her family, while making new and progressive innovations. These included the establishment of a network of American Atheist State Directors, an aggressive information outreach using internet and traditional media, and the establishment of a permanent \voice\ on Capitol Hill to represent the organization's views on behalf of Atheist civil rights and the separation of church and state.
In January, 1999, American Atheists ended a long chapter in its history by relocating the national offices from Austin, Texas to Cranford, New Jersey. The new facility was christened The American Atheist Center, and today serves as the administrative headquarters for the group, and the home of the Charles E. Stevens American Atheist Library and Archives.