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A Sniper in the Tower: The Charles Whitman Murders

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On August 1, 1966, Charles Joseph Whitman ascended the University of Texas Tower and committed what was then the largest simultaneous mass murder in American history. He gunned down forty-five people inside and around the Tower before he was killed by two Austin police officers. During the previous evening he had killed his wife and mother, bringing the total to sixteen people dead and at least thirty-one wounded. The murders spawned debates over issues which still plague America today: domestic violence, child abuse, drug abuse, military indoctrination, the insanity defense, and the delicate balance between civil liberties and public safety. "An outstanding job of chronicling one of the most significant cases in the annals of American crime. . . . Lavergne skillfully researched, documented, and analyzed a case that in many ways defined the concept of 'mass murder' . . . will likely become a classic in anyone's library of true crime editions."--James Alan Fox, Dean of Criminal Justice, Northeastern University, Boston, Massachusetts, and an authority on mass murder

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PROLOGUE: WEATHERED METAL PLAQUES

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PROLOGUE
Weathered Metal Plaques

U.S. Highway 59 in Texas spans both rural and urban areas. Through Houston the traffic can be murderous, but just south of the metro area, near Rosenberg, drivers breathe a sigh of relief. They are safely into the countryside. Rosenberg inhabitants, like many small-town Texans, worry about “planned communities” of deed-restricted, monotonous, brick homes creeping closer. They cling to an agrarian tradition while welcoming vast riches from the oil and gas industry Crops of all types carpet tracts of rich, dark soil, while oil-searching and oil-producing rigs dot the landscape.

Near the exit to Farm-to-Market Road 2218 are the Davis-Greenlawn Funeral Chapel and a large, well-manicured cemetery. Golf carts transport visitors and maintenance personnel. The main entrance is near the access road, but many visitors are attracted to a smaller, less ostentatious entrance on the northeast side. The bumpy path leads to an even smaller drive, where blades of grass struggle to grow through compacted gravel. At the confluence is a large white marble carving of Da Vinci's The Last Supper. That portion of the cemetery is nearly full, and unoccupied sites have long ago been sold and await their inhabitants. The graves arc marked by weathered metal plaques on small marble slabs. Visitors are seldom distracted by the traffic noise from Highway 59; more noticeable are the chirping birds in a nearby wooded area. Here is peace.

 

TABLE OF CONTENTS

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Prologue: Weathered Metal Plaques

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Weathered Metal Plaques

N ear the exit to Farm-to-Market Road 221 8 are the DavisGreenlawn Funeral Ch apel and a large, well-manicured cemetery.

Golf carts transport visitors and maintenance personnel. The main entran ce is near the access road, but many visitors are attracted to a smaller, less ostentatious entrance on the northeast side. The bumpy path leads to an even small er drive, where blades of gras s struggle to grow through compacted gravel. At the confluence is a large white marble carving of Da Vinci 's The Last Supper . That portion of the cemetery is nearly full, and unoccupied sites have long ago been sold and await their inhabitants. The grave s are marked by weathered metal plaques on sm all marble slabs. Visitors are seldom distracted by the traffic noi se from Highway 59; more noticeable are the chirping birds in a nearby wooded area. Here is peace.

Kathleen Leissner Whitman is buried here . Gothic lettering on her plaque indicates that she was born in 1943 and died in 1966.

 

1: TWO VERY DIFFERENT UPBRINGINGS

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1
Two Very Different Upbringings

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During the post-World War II era, middle class workers populated the community of Lake Worth, Florida, a seaside community along the Atlantic Coast. Hard-working entrepreneurs penetrated markets, cultivated clients, and grew rich while economic Darwinism and American free enterprise eliminated the weak. Lake Worth's population doubled from 7,408 in 1940 to 15,315 in 1955.1 Charles Adolphus “C. A.” Whitman flourished in such an environment. He became a successful plumbing contractor as well as an accomplished, affluent and admired businessman. It had not always been that way.

C. A. Whitman knew his mother, but he spent much of his childhood in the Bethesda Orphanage in Savannah, Georgia. He overcame a lack of formal education by sheer determination and by out-working his competitors. His ruddy, round face and neatly cut slicked-to-the-side hair complimented a stocky, solid body. His appearance suggested he had “paid his dues.” Self-made and proud of it, he used his money to buy what he wanted, unapologetically. Some acquaintances, however, found his pride to be monumental egotism; he provided very well for his family—and never let them forget it.2

 

1: Two Very Different Upbringings

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~~~~~~~~~~~~~~- Two~ryD~ferentUpbrlnglngs

an accomplished, affluent and admired businessman. It had not always been that way

C. A. Whitman knew his mother, but he spent much of his childhood in the Bethesda Orphanage in Savannah, Georgia. He overcame a lack of formal education by sheer determination and by out-working his competitors. His ruddy, round face and neatly cut slicked-to-the-side hair complimented a stocky, solid body. His appearance suggested he had "paid his dues." Self-made and proud of it, he used his money to buy what he wanted, unapologetically Some acquaintances, however, found his pride to be monumental egotism; he provided very well for his family-and never let them forget it."

Early in his journey to financial security, he met and married

Margaret Hodges. Though she lacked the determination and drive of her husband, she contributed to C. A.'s business success by funning the office and k.eeping the books, For twenty-five years after its founding in 1941 , the Whitman plumbing business grew consistently.

 

2: THE SOLDIER AND THE TEACHER

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2
The Soldier and the Teacher

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After basic training, Charlie was stationed at what was then one of the most troubled spots in the world—Guantanamo Naval Base, Cuba—beginning on 9 December 1959. At least one of his marine buddies believed that, above and beyond being in the marines, being at Guantanamo Bay placed a strain on Charlie.1 Most likely, Charlie's desperation to free himself from his father's support and control made everything else secondary—even Cuba's drift toward Communism. Yet he had entered another life of regimentation; he would still have to take orders. He may have been drawn to another form of strict authority after becoming conditioned to taking orders. More likely, a hitch in the marines resulted from an attempt at a dramatic, irrefutable rite of passage into adulthood. No one, not even C. A. Whitman, could seriously argue that a United States Marine was anything less than a man. For Charlie Whitman, taking orders probably seemed like a small price to pay.

 

2: The Soldier and the Teacher

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TheSoldierandthe~acher~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

would still have to take orders. He may have been drawn to another form of strict authority after becoming conditioned to taking orders. More likely, a hitch in the marines resulted from an attempt at a dramatic, irrefutable rite of passage into adulthood. No one, not even C. A. Whitman, could seriously argue that a United States

Marine was anything less than a man. For Charlie Whitman, taking orders probably seemed like a small price to pay.

At eighteen, he looked more like a toy soldier than a real one. He stood nearly six feet tall and was not overly muscular, but rather thin and boyish. His long, narrow face and his large smile caused his eyes to squint, and his blond crew-cut accentuated his youthful features. At first, his uniform and his gear looked oversized, but marine life would fill him out considerably. Charlie shortly reached his adult height of six feet, and his weight hovered around 198 pounds. He had been branded with an unsolicited niclmame-"Whit." As a young marine he was easy-going and prone to horseplay. During this first twenty-six-month period of active duty, Charlie underwent numerous routine physical examinations and each found him to be fit."

 

3: AUSTIN IS DIFFERENT

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Austin is Different

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Metropolitan Austin has always had a large representation of families who are relatively new to the area, with roots spread throughout the United States. “Native Texans” call them “naturalized Texans.” Many people relocate believing in the Texas stereotype: a state filled with cowboys, good-ole-boys, and rich oilmen; where music is country-and-western and western swing; politics are conservative and crooked; the land is dry and flat; food means meat; law enforcement is strict and effective, and if it is not, the Rangers are called to straighten everything out. Naturalized Texans soon discover that Austin, at least, is different from all that.

Charles Whitman might have fallen for the Texas stereotype, but he lived in Austin, where—as John T. Davis and J. B. Colson have written—equally stubborn influences of southern nostalgia and western idealism meet and battle.1 Added to the mixture are rich Latino and African-American influences with literate and articulate leaders. Throughout Austin's history, incredulous observers have been entertained by some of the nation's most memorable city council and school board meetings. Like it has in the rest of Texas, legend has infiltrated much of Austin's history. Austin has always been different.

 

4: THE NICE FACADE

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4
The Nice Facade

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Charlie's involvement with Boy Scout Troop 5 of the Methodist Church and his reported membership in the Lion's Club suggest some openness to camaraderie, but he struggled to establish relationships. Members of study groups in the College of Engineering found him difficult to deal with. His life was complicated. He convinced himself that he had too much to do, and he seemed incapable of establishing priorities. A lifelong friend described him as a thinker and a planner, but he had serious problems deciding what to do with his life. In early 1964, Charlie wrote in his diary, “I would definitely like to develop an interest in electronics.…” He used the word “definitely” frequently in his notebooks and diary, yet he seldom displayed definitiveness. Perhaps Kathy's academic success and her timely graduation inspired his renewed drive towards finishing his degree program as early as possible. Or he may have interpreted her success in teaching as a blow to his ego. She provided most of the income and all of the health care coverage in their household. 1 Regardless, he took moderate to heavy course loads for the remaining semesters of his academic career.

 

3: Austin Is Different

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everything out. Naturalized Texans soon discover that Austin, at least, is different from all that.

Charles Whitman might have fallen for the Texas stereotype, but he lived in Austin, where-as John T. Davis and J. B. Colson have written-equally stubborn influences of southern nostalgia and western idealism meet and battle. 1 Added to the mixture are rich

Latino and African-American influences with literate and articulate leaders. Throughout Austin's history, incredulous observers have been entertained by some of the nation's most memorable city council and school board meetings. Like it has in the rest of Texas, legend has infiltrated much of Austin's history. Austin has always been different.

Mirabeau Lamar, one of Texas's founding fathers, first visited the area that would become the City of Austin while on a buffalohunting trip. The beauty of the area stunned him. A four-family settlement called Waterloo had been situated there near the Balcones

Escarpment, better known as the Balcones Fault, a dramatic topographical boundary separating dark, fertile alluvial bottoms on the

 

5: OOZING WITH HOSTILITY

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5
Oozing with Hostility

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Some of the finest behavioral scientists in the world would one day conclude that Charlie Whitman was “intelligent, intense, and driven,” qualities that should result in success and satisfaction. But Charlie found frustration instead. The nice facade became harder for him to maintain; eventually he concluded that he could not master the forces working against real achievement. He took no initiative to seek meaningful help for his academic or psychological problems. He behaved inconsistently towards Kathy, although his serious loss of control was more infrequent. His bouts of depression were probably more troubling to Kathy; it would have been in her nature to try to keep Charlie happy. During the spring of 1966, she began to gently guide him towards professional counseling.

Charlie believed he suffered from some physical malady. Specifically he thought something was wrong with his head; and he also feared that he was sterile.1 Those suspicions seemed to torture his mind, but there exists no evidence of his wanting professional help. Instead, he chose to wallow in self-doubt and personal dissatisfaction. For all his talk about the need for others to achieve and get ahead and in spite of his harsh words for his brother Patrick's refusal to get help for his problems, Charlie Whitman stalled himself by his own inability to deal with self-inflicted problems. Other sources of stress would result in a complete surrender to his frustrations and anger—and in tragedy.

 

4: The Nice Facade

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The Nice Facade

------------------...l1D

In early 1964, Charlie wrote in his diary, "I would definitely like to develop an interest in electronics.... " He used the word" definitely" frequently in his notebooks and diary, yet he seldom displayed definitiveness. Perhaps Kathy's academic success and her timely graduation inspired his renewed drive towards finishing his degree program as early as possible. Or he may have interpreted her success in teaching as a blow to his ego. She provided most of the income and all of the health care coverage in their household.' Regardless, he took. moderate to heavy course loads for the remaining semesters of his academic career.

Charlie indicated to Frank Greenshaw, a friend and fellow student, that he planned to graduate in May of 1967 and then enroll in law school. Another close friend, a very bright engineering student named Lawrence "Larry" Fuess, believed that Charlie was interested in becoming an attorney with an engineering degree. Charlie, according to Fuess, struggled in engineering mostly because he was not a very good math student. "That will kill you in engineering,"

 

6: AFTER MUCH THOUGHT

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6
After Much Thought

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During the summer of 1966 mass murder frequented the news. Truman Capote's In Cold Blood ushered in a “new journalism,” where real events were reported with fictional techniques. Capote engaged in a prolonged investigation to detail the mass murder of the Clutter family of Holcomb, Kansas, by two wanderers on 15 November 1959. Although first serialized in The New Yorker magazine in 1965, In Cold Blood was still the year's most talked about bestseller in 1966.

Mr. Herbert Clutter, an affluent wheat farmer, employed several farm hands. Floyd Wells, a former employee, later served time in the Kansas State Penitentiary where he became friends with a fellow prisoner named Richard E. Hickock, who made repeated efforts to learn as much about the Clutter family as possible. Specifically, Hickock was interested in finding out if the Clutters had a safe in their home. Wells either suggested or Hickock conjured up a nonexistent safe located in a wall behind Herb Clutter's office desk. Eventually, Hickock was paroled. Shortly afterwards he and a friend named Perry E. Smith headed for the Clutter home, where they expected to steal at least ten thousand dollars. They did not know that Herbert Clutter had a well-known reputation for not carrying cash; anyone in Holcomb could have told the pitiful fools that Herb Clutter paid for everything by check.

 

5: Oozing with Hostility

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more infrequent. His bouts of depression were probably more troubling to Kathy; it would have been in her nature to try to keep Charlie happy. During the spring of 1966,- she began to gently guide him towards professional counseling.

Charlie believed he suffered from some physical malady Specifically, he thought something was wrong with his head; and he also feared that he was sterile. 1 Those suspicions seemed to torture his mind, but there exists no evidence of his wanting professional help.

Instead, he chose to wallow in self-doubt and personal dissatisfaction. For all his talk. about the need for others to achieve and get ahead and in spite of his harsh words for his brother Patrick.'s refusal to get help for his problems, Charlie Whitman stalled himself by his own inability to deal with self-inflicted problems. Other sources of stress would result in a complete surrender to his frustrations and anger-and in tragedy

The grades Charlie earned in his courses during the spring and fall of 1965 were significantly improved from his earlier matriculation at the University of Texas. In the spring he made three Cs, one

 

6: After Much Thought

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I Z I - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - After Much Thought

several farm hands. Floyd Wells, a former employee, later served time in the Kansas State Penitentiary where he became friends with a fellow prisoner named Richard E. Hickock, who made repeated efforts to learn as much about the Clutter family as possible. Specifically; Hickock was interested in finding out if the Clutters had a safe in their home. Wells either suggested or Hickock conjured up a nonexistent safe located in a wall behind Herb Clutter's office desk,

Eventually; Hickock was paroled. Shortly afterwards he and a friend named Perry E. Smith headed for the Clutter home, where they expected to steal at least ten thousand dollars. They did not know that Herbert Clutter had a well-known reputation for not carrying cash; anyone in Holcomb could have told the pitiful fools that Herb

Clutter paid for everything by check,

Hickock and Smith sneaked into the home through an unlocked door (most people from Holcomb saw no need to lock doors) and terrorized the family before lulling Mr. Clutter, his wife Bonnie, and their two children Kenyon and Nancy. Each of the victims had been tied at the wrists. Mrs. Clutter and her children were murdered by shotgun blasts to the head from short range. Mr. Clutter's body was found in the basement of his home; he had been shot in the head and his throat had been slashed. 1

 

7: THE NEAT LITTLE HOUSE AND THE SWANK APARTMENT

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7
The Neat Little House and the Swank Apartment

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On the front lawn of 906 Jewell Street, a single sapling struggled to reach the heights of the older trees in the neighboring yards. The front yard faced south, and from the street a narrow concrete sidewalk connected the curb to two steps leading to a small porch. From the edges, thick grass struggled to grow over the sidewalk. A screen door kept flying pests outside during suffocating summers when the front door was left open. Various shades of tan brick covered all exterior walls of the house. Inside were five small rooms; the front door led to a living room, which ted to a small dining room and finally to a kitchen facing the back yard. On the east side of the house were two small bedrooms and a bath. The back bedroom served as Charlie's study, and on its wall Charlie hung a sign; “Strength Has No Quarter.” Charlie and Kathy used the front bedroom.1

In April of 1966 Charlie and Kathy Whitman moved to 906 Jewell Street in south Austin. At the time, the tree in the front yard was a struggling sapling. Directly behind the tree is the front bedroom used by the Whitmans, where Charles murdered Kathy on 1 August 1966. The garage to the right and behind the house is where Charlie stored “a whole lot of military stuff.” Gary Lavergne.

 

8: THE GLASS-PANELED DOOR

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The Glass-Paneled Door

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On 1 August 1966 beneath a cloudless sky, Charles Whitman drove from the neat little house on Jewell Street to the University of Texas at Austin. Weather forecasters predicted warm, humid nights and hot sunny days. Experienced Austinites knew the pattern: cumulus clouds greeted early morning commuters with spectacular golden formations, but soon intolerant and relentless sunshine melted them away. It would be hot, and if any humidity dared linger, an afternoon thermal thundershower would pelt the area until the sun returned with a vengeance to turn the fallen rain into steam rising from the streets and sidewalks. A light southerly wind, not strong enough to bring relief, accompanied the heat and humidity. When Whitman left his home for the last time, at or slightly after 11:00 A.M., the temperature had climbed to the upper nineties. Vacationers and students on semester break flocked to Barton Creek, where cold spring-fed water supplied bathers with a momentary refuge from the heat. But most Austinites could afford no such luxury and instead wearily prepared for another one of “those” days. It was hot—damn hot.1

 

7: The Neat Little House and the Swank Apartment

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The Neat Little House and the Swank Apartment ------~m

In April of 1966 Charlie and Kathy Whitman mov ed to 906 Jewell St reet in sout h

Austin. At the time, the tree in the front ya rd was a st ruggling sapling. Dir ectly behind the tree is the front bedroom used by the Whitmans, where Charles murdered Kathy on I August 1966. Th e garage to the right and behind th e hous e is where Charlie stored "a whol e lot of military stuff. " Gmy Lavergne.

which led to a small dining room and finally to a kitchen facing the back yard. On the east side of the house were two small bedrooms and a bath. The back bedroom served as Charlie' s study, and on its wall Charlie hung a sign: "Strength Has No Quarter." Charlie and

Kathy used the front bedroom. I

The neat little house did not hold many possessions. As

Whitman's father-in-law later recalled, "there wasn't much; they were just kids .'? Resources went to pay for their college educations.

Much like everything else about Kathy Whitman, her home was orderly. The Whitmans universally impressed their neighbors, who considered them a model couple: smart, beautiful , and hardworking.

 

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