Houston McCoy grew up in West Texas. Men don’t brag much there. Or cry.
But there he was, his life winding down, with tears in his eyes.
It was 2008. McCoy, one of the Austin police officers who killed University of Texas Tower sniper Charles Whitman on Aug. 1 1966, was being interviewed on video by Mary Ellen O’Toole, an FBI agent who specialized in school shootings.
McCoy went through life not talking much about the day Whitman killed 17 people and wounded more than 30. Now he was telling the whole story.
What training did he have to take down a mass shooter?
“The training was, you’re a policeman,” McCoy says, in a raspy twang. “You’re required to enforce all federal and state laws and city ordinances and keep the peace and that was our sworn oath.”
“But no, we didn’t have any training for anything like that. Nobody had even thought about anything like that ever happening.” He was 26 — one year older than the gunman.
When he went out on the observation deck to confront Whitman, was he wearing a bulletproof vest?
“No,” he says. “I’d never heard of one.”
Was there a plan?
“There was no plan,” he says.
Whitman, a UT engineering student who’d served in the Marines, had been shooting for 90 minutes. McCoy trailed another officer, Ramiro Martinez. They were both dodging gunfire from civilians firing their own rifles at Whitman from below. Martinez had a pistol. McCoy had a shotgun.
They inched around the observation deck, finally approaching a corner where on the other side Whitman sat, his rifle ready for them.
They turned the corner. Martinez emptied his revolver at him. McCoy fired his shotgun twice.
Did Whitman look at him?
“He was looking straight at me,” McCoy says, “but you got to know that by the time I saw him, that trigger finger had done it’s job.”
McCoy searched Whitman. He tried to avoid getting blood on his boots. He was so disgusted by what Whitman had done he wanted to throw his body off the building. Instead, he smoked some cigarettes.
Did he ever think about why Whitman did what he did?
“I just don’t care what his motivations was,” McCoy says. “If he was an old pit bull dog raised to kill or if he was the most lovable border collie that all of the sudden contracted rabies — if either one of them went on a rampage…there’s only one way to take care of them, and that’s kill them.”
Who did he talk to about it after?
“Nobody,” McCoy says.
“How would I describe the colors of a rainbow to a person born blind? You can’t. There’s no words.”
McCoy went back to work the next day, but he was never the same. He retired from the police force two years later, never receiving or really asking for the credit he deserved for his bravery.
McCoy became a civilian flight instructor in the Air Force. Later, he worked as a camp ranger at a Boy Scout camp. He suffered from depression and drank too much. He wondered how many lives could have been saved if he and other officers had reached the tower sooner.
“That’s a tremendous burden to carry,” O’Toole says.
“Shoulda coulda,” McCoy says, “but didn’t.”
McCoy died two days after Christmas in 2012. He was 72. By then, his daughter, Monika McCoy, had become the fierce guardian of her father’s legacy, making sure what he did that day was acknowledged and never forgotten.
While Martinez had a building named after him, McCoy resisted calling attention directly to himself.
“It was hard for him to talk about,” Monika says.
McCoy’s ultimate honor came after he died. His daughter became an Austin police officer.
As a child, Monika had one of those diaries that asks about career goals. She always wrote “police officer.” (Also: “skydiver” and “horse trainer.”) After serving nearly 10 years in the Army, she became an accountant, raising two children but knowing that when they were grown, “I was going to the academy.”
“I was chomping at the bit all the time,” says Monika, who is now 45.
She patrols her father’s old beat.