Second of two parts

Among the famously vanished--Amelia Earhart, Jimmy Hoffa--that vilified and idolized secularist war-horse of years ago, Madalyn Murray O'Hair, falls in the has-been category.

Unlike the darling aviatrix and the mobbed-up Teamsters boss to whom she's often compared, The Famous Atheist, at age 76, was mired in obscurity when last she was heard from, in 1995.

Even still, after O'Hair and her two closest relatives disappeared from Austin, seemingly absconding with a fortune in American Atheists money, the news spread far beyond the Texas capital. Over the months, there were people who swore they saw her in Canada, in Mexico, in the South Pacific. Supposedly she had taken the dough and run, slipping into hiding with her two atheist deputies and ever-loyal kin, son Jon Garth Murray, 40, and adopted daughter Robin Murray-O'Hair, 30.

But three men knew otherwise, authorities now allege. David Roland Waters, a disgruntled ex-employee of American Atheists, and two pals of his from Florida, Gary Paul Karr and Danny Raymond Fry, are accused in a court affidavit of holding the family captive, coercing Jon Murray to help them steal hundreds of thousands of dollars, then murdering the three atheists and disposing of their bodies.

"Oh, I'm sure she's with Jimmy Hoffa," Waters's attorney, Patrick Ganne, says of the notoriously bellicose O'Hair. "And I'm sure they're getting along well." But Waters, 52, had nothing to do with her disappearance, the lawyer says. An attorney for Karr, 51, says his client also is innocent. And so far no charges have been filed in the case. The affidavit, signed by an IRS criminal investigator, Edmond J. Martin, was used to obtain a search warrant for Waters's apartment last spring.

As office manager at O'Hair's Austin headquarters in early 1994, Waters got a close-up look at how the family was handling American Atheists finances. It was during a period when O'Hair allegedly was concealing and liquidating assets, perhaps planning for a secret retirement with Jon and Robin.

According to Martin's affidavit, Waters "began obsessing about his ability to take Madalyn's money," telling his then-girlfriend "about the O'HAIRs being able to gain all of their money from scamming individuals, as did tel-evangelists. Because of his office manager position, WATERS learned that [the three atheists] had money located in accounts in New Zealand. . . . He believed the O'HAIRs had obtained the money by fraudulent means."

Before Waters and O'Hair had an angry falling-out in the spring of 1994, trading allegations over the theft of $54,415 from the organization, "WATERS made copies of records relating to the transfer of money to New Zealand," Martin wrote.

Then in the summer of '95, the affidavit says, Waters invited his two Florida buddies to Austin for an ambitious undertaking--"a big score," one of them allegedly told a relative.

Gary Karr rented a minivan in Austin on Aug. 26, 1995, according to Martin's affidavit. It was a new Ford Windstar with plenty of passenger space.

On Aug. 28--the day O'Hair and her family disappeared from their home--Karr and David Waters were 75 miles south of Austin, checking into a cut-rate residential motel called the Warren Inn, the affidavit says. The Warren sits hard by a six-lane commercial drag just north of downtown San Antonio. They told a clerk they planned to stay through the end of September, according to the affidavit. Fry was there, too. They paid in advance and carried their belongings to Room 11.

As for the three atheists, investigators later spoke with people who had been at or near the motel that September--and a former Warren maintenance man recalled seeing a woman using a walker who matched O'Hair's description. He said he had noticed her struggling to get around, aided by some men. Shown a photo of O'Hair, he said he was sure she was the woman. But he couldn't identify her companions.

From late August through the end of September, a series of financial transactions occurred in San Antonio that authorities find highly suspicious.

Aug. 28 to Aug. 31, for instance: "Jon Murray cashed checks on various Atheist accounts and received cash advances on various credit cards totalling $20,900," Martin wrote. The figure rose to nearly $71,000 by Sept. 29.

Then there was the sale of Jon Murray's Mercedes. Someone put an ad in the San Antonio Express-News: "88 Benz 300 SEL $15,000 cash. Firm." The ad, which included Murray's cell phone number, caught the eye of Mark Sparrow, a local real estate salesman. Sparrow knew a seven-year-old 300 SEL in good condition was worth $20,000, maybe more. On Sept. 15 he called and asked to see the car. The man he spoke with gave his name as Jon Murray and said the Mercedes was parked outside the Warren Inn. He told Sparrow to drive by and take a look. If he liked what he saw, he could ask for Jon across the street in Bonnie Jean's Tavern.

Sparrow gave the car a once-over that afternoon, then found "Jon" in Bonnie Jean's, sitting at the bar. "He was cocky, arrogant," Sparrow, 47, says now. "Just his way of talking, y'know? His whole attitude." After a test drive, Sparrow wanted the car, and arranged for a check to be waiting at his bank in Jon Murray's name.

"I imagine it was the real Jon Murray who picked up the money," says Sparrow. But it wasn't Murray who sold the Mercedes. Much later, when an investigator showed him photos, Sparrow identified the seller as Danny Fry.

Another car deal: Rothery McKeegan, 80, a retired Air Force pilot, and his wife, Jean, 79, advertised their '90 Cadillac Eldorado for sale. On Sept. 16, they say, Waters called their home in a San Antonio suburb and arranged to come by. He took the Caddy for a spin and agreed to the price: $13,000. He and the McKeegans drove to the couple's credit union, sat at a desk and signed the paperwork.

"Is cash all right?" Waters asked. The McKeegans smiled at his joke. But then Waters reached into a pocket, pulled out what Jean McKeegan says was "quite a wad of bills," and counted $13,000 on the desktop.

"I thought that was an odd thing," she says.

The IRS man saw a pattern. Noting the Sept. 16 purchase date in his affidavit, Martin wrote that "an analysis of the bank account and credit card withdrawals" by Jon Murray on the 14th and 15th "reveals the accumulation of $13,000 in cash."

Meanwhile, throughout the month, Jon and Robin occasionally checked in by phone with American Atheists colleagues, assuring them that all was well. They said they had been called out of town on emergency business and would be home eventually.

So went the first half of September 1995--a mere prelude, it turned out, to the events of the rest of the month, when the stakes got considerably higher.

In a strip mall four blocks from the Warren Inn, Cory Ticknor, 42, does business as Cory's Fine Jewelry and Rare Coins. He says Jon Murray called him in mid-September and asked to buy $600,000 in gold. After they talked it over, Murray decided on South African Krugerrands, American Gold Eagles and Canadian Maple Leafs--1,506 coins in all. Ticknor told him he wanted the $600,000 wired into his San Antonio bank account, and that he'd order the gold from his supplier as soon as the money showed up.

On Sept. 15, according to Martin's affidavit, after a flurry of long-distance calls were made on Murray's cell phone, New Zealand Guardian Trust wired $620,594 to atheists organization accounts at a New Jersey bank. On Sept. 21, Murray and a man who called himself Conrad Johnson ("a fictitious name," the affidavit says) flew to New Jersey from San Antonio. They asked for a single room with twin beds at a Sheraton. The next day, before they flew back to Texas, Murray visited the New Jersey bank and ordered a $600,000 wire transfer to Ticknor.

The gold dealer and the atheist met on Friday, Sept. 29, in a secure room at a San Antonio bank. Ticknor, accompanied by an off-duty cop moonlighting as a security guard, had $500,000 worth of coins with him--about 100 pounds of gold packed in boxes. The rest of Murray's purchase had yet to arrive from the supplier.

Murray came alone. "He kind of didn't smell very good, like he'd been out in the heat for a while and hadn't showered," Ticknor recalls. Murray chatted calmly with Ticknor but said nothing to the police officer. He showed Ticknor his driver's license and signed the dealer's paperwork. Then he stacked the boxes of coins on a dolly, wheeled them out of the bank and loaded them in the trunk of a big car.

For Ticknor, who does a fair amount of business with militia types and Y2K doomsayers, there was nothing strange about the transaction. He watched Murray drive away, expecting to see him again after the weekend, when the rest of the gold was due to arrive. He still owed Murray $100,000 worth of Maple Leafs.

The coins came in the following Monday, Oct. 2, and Ticknor tried to reach Murray on his cell phone. He says he tried every day for two weeks. But he got no answer.

Cellular records show the phone was last used on Friday, Sept. 29, the day Murray picked up the $500,000 in gold. "From that point forward," Martin wrote, "no calls were made on the cellular phone, and the O'Hairs were not heard from thereafter."

On Saturday, Sept. 30, Waters, Karr and Fry were back in Waters's Austin apartment. "Waters had thousands of dollars . . . as well as a lot of new clothes" from Saks Fifth Avenue, wrote Martin, who interviewed Waters's then-girlfriend.

The woman told the IRS man that Waters also had a shopping bag with three pairs of bloody sneakers in it. "Fry looked sick," the affidavit says. "It was obvious that Waters and Karr were getting along, but Fry was not part of the group."

Unlike Karr and Waters, each of whom had a long record of criminal mayhem, Fry, who had just turned 42, was a low-rent "con man" with no documented history of violence, according to Martin. That weekend, Fry packed his belongings for the trip home to Florida. At some point all three men left the apartment, the affidavit says, and when Waters and Karr returned a day or two later, Fry was no longer with them.

Then Karr said goodbye, driving home to Florida on Tuesday, Oct. 3, after he and Waters spent a celebratory night with their girlfriends in a lakefront Four Seasons hotel outside Austin. The convicted stickup man, free for just seven months at that point after two decades behind bars, had upgraded his wardrobe, like Waters.

"Karr bought a leather jacket, three tailored Armani suits, $300 pairs of Johnson and Murphy shoes, $200 ties and $90 socks," Martin wrote.

It was a nude corpse that gave away the plot, authorities now say.

An old man scavenging for aluminum cans along the Trinity River near Dallas discovered the remains on Monday, Oct. 2, 1995.

The victim was male.

"The body was decapitated and the hands were severed," wrote Detective Robert Bjorklund of the Dallas County Sheriff's Department. To Bjorklund--who knew almost nothing about the missing atheists from Austin, 175 miles to the south--the killing had the look of a drug hit. "The head and hands were never recovered," he wrote. "Because of the lack of blood found at the scene, it is speculated the homicide and decapitation occurred somewhere else."

No face, no fingerprints, no clothing, no ID. The case was ready-made cold and stayed cold for three years.

Meanwhile, 250 miles to the south, reporter John MacCormack of the San Antonio Express-News became intrigued by another mystery gone cold--that of the missing atheists. He turned his attention to the case in the summer of '96 for a year-after update story. Like many people, MacCormack figured that the atheists, burdened by money and legal problems, had skipped out for parts unknown after their unexplained month-long stay in San Antonio. But the more he looked into Jon Murray's odd financial dealings in the city that September, the more skeptical he became.

He wound up gumshoeing the case for nearly two years, chasing leads with the help of a private detective. He learned that David Waters also had been in San Antonio in September '95, and that Waters and O'Hair detested each other. He found out about the gold and about the sale of the Mercedes by a mystery man posing as Jon Murray.

Then last June he got a phone tip. A caller said he had watched a TV report about the three atheists and had been struck by the timing of their disappearance. He said an acquaintance of his, Danny Fry, had been in San Antonio that same month--and also had vanished. Fry hadn't been seen or heard from since the last weekend of September 1995.

The name Fry meant nothing to MacCormack. He kept listening, politely uninterested until the caller mentioned another name, a familiar one.

The caller said Fry had traveled to Texas to visit a friend, David Waters. That made MacCormack sit up straight. Here suddenly was another missing person with a connection to Waters. MacCormack suspected it wasn't a coincidence.

Four months later, October 1998: Scanning the Associated Press wire on his newsroom computer one day, MacCormack noticed an article out of Dallas, a third-anniversary story about a local unsolved homicide. The victim, a John Doe, had been decapitated and left by the Trinity River. "A dead white guy found on the same weekend Fry disappeared," MacCormack, 49, says now. "It was a long shot, but the physical description was Fry's. The age was Fry's. He had the right size feet. No scars or tattoos."

MacCormack got in touch with detectives in Dallas County, gave them a short course on the O'Hair mystery and tipped them to a possible name for the corpse.

In January, DNA confirmed it was Danny Fry.

Which made a lot of cops and federal agents sit up straight.

"Once you have Danny Fry as the dead guy with no head, you no longer have three people sitting on a beach with tropical drinks," MacCormack says, referring to the missing atheists. "You have a dead guy, and probably you have three more dead people somewhere, and it all points to Waters."

Which put Waters, and soon Karr, at the eye of a belatedly urgent homicide probe, and led to Martin's conclusions about what had become of the atheists.

Dust to dust.

"Your affiant also has reason to believe that after the fraudulent activities, laundering of money, theft of $500,000 of gold, and murder of the O'HAIRs, that WATERS and KARR turned on FRY and killed him," Martin wrote.

Which resulted in search warrants being issued on March 24 this year for Waters's Austin apartment and Karr's residence in a Detroit suburb. Based on what investigators found, both men were jailed on weapons charges.

It's illegal for a convicted felon to possess a gun or bullets. Among the scores of items seized from Waters's place were 119 rounds of pistol ammunition and evidence that he had recently transported firearms. He pleaded guilty and could get 20 years when he is sentenced later this week. Karr was arrested after federal agents allegedly found two loaded handguns in his apartment. He is awaiting a trial.

In the meantime, the investigation grinds on, including the search for more evidence in the Fry homicide. No charges have been filed in that case, either.

As for the gold--well, here's what can happen to the best-laid plans:

After the elaborate, month-long San Antonio caper, authorities allege, the suspects held on to about $80,000 worth of the coins, put the rest in a suitcase and stashed the bag in a rented walk-in storage locker. A few nights later, along came a trio of burglars, just three knuckleheads hoping for maybe a stereo. They happened to hit a locker with only a suitcase in it. "I'd love to have been a fly on the wall when they opened it," says Rene Solinas, an FBI agent in San Antonio. "The pot at the end of the rainbow!"

To a thief, the beauty of gold coins is that in some ways they're better than cash. Almost any pawnbroker or dealer will buy them. And because they have no serial numbers, they're untraceable, like nickels and dimes. The FBI caught up with the burglars recently, but the coins are long gone--an estimated $420,000 worth, sold, traded, spent. "They blew right through them," Solinas says. "No 401(k)s for these folks."

The storage unit was rented for Waters in 1995 by his then-girlfriend, who never saw what was in it, according to Martin. But the burglars can testify about what they found in the locker. Because the three have agreed to cooperate with investigators, Solinas says, no charges have been filed against them.

To date, of all the coins Jon Murray wheeled out of the bank four years ago, only one has been recovered: a gold piece that a friend of the burglars fashioned into a brooch.

Waters's attorney, Ganne, says his client is innocent in the O'Hair and Fry matters. "He can't tell you anything," the lawyer says. "He doesn't know a thing."

Which puts him at odds with Karr. At a March 26 court hearing in Detroit, an FBI agent testified that Karr admitted being involved in "four unsolved homicides in Texas," although he has yet to be charged in any killings. The agent said Karr acknowledged that he "flew from Texas to, I believe it was Newark, with one of the victims, and a bank transaction happened, and money was wired from the bank in Newark to Texas."

Karr's lawyer, Tom Mills, says the agent was "taking liberties with what [Karr] told them. From what I understand, he never admitted that he was actually involved in those crimes, but that he did have knowledge of them from the other guy, Waters."

As for when authorities might file charges in the atheists' disappearance, Ganne says, "I think they're holding out for the bodies." Absent such hard proof of murder, says Mills, "I don't see how they're going to make a case," given the evidence for a defense argument that the three planned to disappear on their own.

"I'd pursue a defense that God has zapped them," says Mills, deadpan.

Meaning long after America lost interest in its most hated woman, the Almighty decided He'd also had enough, and just up and smote her.

"You shoot the finger at God," Mills says, "and all kinds of weird things can happen. Especially with a Texas jury."

CAPTION: Man in the middle: Investigators say David Waters, above center with his attorneys

CAPTION: Investigators say David Waters, right, and Gary Karr, below, murdered O'Hair and three others, including Danny Fry, above.