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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.

 

1: TWO VERY DIFFERENT UPBRINGINGS

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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

 

2: THE SOLDIER AND THE TEACHER

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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.

 

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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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.

 

5: OOZING WITH HOSTILITY

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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.

 

6: AFTER MUCH THOUGHT

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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.

 

7: THE NEAT LITTLE HOUSE AND THE SWANK APARTMENT

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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

 

9: STRANGE NOISES

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Strange Noises

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Once outside on the observation deck Charles Whitman began to spread out his arsenal. He placed the footlocker on the west side, approximately halfway between the northwest and southwest corners. Each side of the deck measured about fifty feet in length, forming a 200-foot perimeter from which he could shoot. Large lamps, which on special occasions cast an orange glow on the crown of the building, were bolted into the walls of the parapet. The lamps never seemed to get in the way of visitors, and unfortunately they did not get in Whitman's way either. Center portions of the interior walls of the parapet, directly below the huge clocks, jutted out slightly, creating protrusions ideally suited for a dangerous game of hide-and-seek. Except for a few ornate carvings and the faces of the huge clocks, the walls were made of smooth, pale limestone. When Don Walden and Cheryl Botts left the deck, they surrendered it to Whitman's exclusive use; only a dying Edna Townsley occupied the interior of the twenty-eighth floor. Because Whitman had successfully secured the Tower's upper floor and deck, storming the fortress would require a serious and incredibly courageous effort. In order to delay further unwelcomed visitors, he wedged the Austin Rental Service dolly against the glass-paneled door on the south side.

 

10: HOUSTON

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Houston

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“I am just a West Texas Cowboy.” Indeed!

Houston McCoy embodied the Texas stereotype: a slow West Texas drawl, an elliptically-shaped face, piercing frontier eyes that look beyond bodies into souls, selective use of soft-spoken brutally honest words, often hiding a toughness no one should mess with. A more Texan name could hardly be conjured. McCoy stood well over six feet tall, with a thin, almost boyish frame West Texans described as a “long drink of water.” His elongated musculature suggested agrarian roots and hard work as a boy and young man.

Only seconds before confronting Charles Whitman, Houston McCoy had to dodge friendly fire from police and civilians, hut he still had flashing thoughts of his wife Ruth and sons Stefan and Kristofcr. Ruth would not find out about Houston's heroics until he got home late in the afternoon of 1 August 1966 Photos courtesy of Ruth McCoy.

McCoy hailed from Menard, Texas, a hamlet about 150 miles west of Austin near no large or even mid-size city. “If you find yourself in Menard, it's probably ‘cause you want to come here,” mused one resident. In 1958, Houston graduated from Menard High School, home of the Yellow Jackets, and was named “Best Ail-Around Boy.” He spent his young adulthood attempting to leave his hometown. He enrolled in Lamar Tech (now Lamar University) in Beaumont and attended classes there for a short time before serving a three-year hitch in the United States Army which included an assignment to Germany, where he met and then married a native German girl named Ruth. In the early 1960s Houston, like many young Texans, was attracted to Austin's cultural offerings. His introduction to law enforcement was routine and unromantic. He was in need of a job when he saw an ad for police recruits in the Austin American-Statesman.1

 

11: RAMIRO

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Ramiro

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Early on the morning of 1 August 1966, a handsome young Hispanic police officer named Ramiro Martinez began his day by bringing his two-year-old twin daughters, Janette and Janice, to day care. Mrs. Vernell Martinez, a native of Fredericksburg and of proud German heritage, was an employment counselor. She had already reported to work. Ramiro was scheduled to report for duty at the Austin Police Department at 3:00 P.M.

Originally from a small West Texas town called Rotan, Ramiro was the son of a share-cropper who worked on the “one third” system—one third of the harvest went to the landowner, It was a hard way to live. Cotton was king and the Martinez family was poor. While Spanish was spoken most often in the home, Ramiro and his two brothers and two sisters, like many Hispanics of the era, were encouraged to speak English. Ramiro's father and his children were bilingual. Mother Martinez, a native of Mexico, mostly spoke Spanish. At Rotan High School, Ramiro established himself as an athlete, earning all-district honorable mention as an end on the football team. Not surprisingly, the Martinez family was staunchly Catholic, and occasionally, the children had to tolerate silly jokes about their religion. The Hail Mary, the Our Father, the Rosary and other prayers like the Act of Contrition were taught at home and the children attended Catechism regularly on Sundays. The family moved from farm to farm and did not have much, but they were good, honest people.1

 

12: THE GENERAL

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The General

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The heat—they remembered the heat. Virtually all of the wounded knew that the best way to avoid another shot from Charles Whitman was to lie still and play dead, but for many the heat became unbearable. Onlookers pitied the wounded as much for the pain caused by hot pavement as for the wounds. Claire Wilson had no choice but to lie still for more than an hour as the sun beat down on her until she could be rescued. Instinctively she picked up one leg and moved it from side to side. Witnesses mentally pleaded for her to put that leg down and keep still. “We could see people moving a bit, but they never could get up and walk away.” It would have been easier if they had known that Whitman never shot anyone twice.1

From the top of the Tower, Charles Whitman not only held off an army but he also pinned it down and stayed on the attack. After the tragedy many police officers' written reports stated that they were unable to move from their positions. Whitman's rapid fire suggested a shift to a greater use of the 30-caliber carbine, an automatic rifle. Earlier he tended to use the scoped 6mm Remington, a far more accurate weapon over long distances, but one that required the manual use of a bolt action. Whitman pinned down Patrolman Jim Cooney as the officer made attempts to assist Roy Dell Schmidt, the electrician Whitman killed near University and 21st Streets. “I couldn't get to the man,” said Cooney.2

 

13: INDEPENDENT ACTIONS

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Independent Actions

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In a short time, nearly all of Austin's police force had reported for duty. Some of the officers went directly to the campus. Others, including Officers George Shepard, Phillip Conner, Harold Moe, and Milton Shoquist, went to police headquarters first. There, the team was given tear gas and a walkie talkie and told to report to the campus area. Since the officers were in possession of communications equipment and tear gas, when they reached 21st and Speedway, Sergeant Marvin Ferrell, who had been directing officers to their assignments, sent them to the UT Security Office a few blocks north of the Tower at 24th and San Jacinto. There Houston McCoy asked them if they had any additional shotguns. They did not. He also asked if they had any directions or a plan. They did not. At the office, UT's Security Chief Allen R. Hamilton directed one of his men, Sgt. A. Y. Barr, to lead the APD team to the Tower.

From the university police station, the band of officers walked through the campus to an area directly east of the Tower. From that position there appeared to be only one way to get to the Tower—a dash over an open area. McCoy wondered aloud if there was a safer way for six men to get to the Main Building. William Wilcox, a university employee, knew of a maze of tunnels connecting the buildings to allow for relative ease when maintaining the campus infrastructure—telephone, power lines and water lines. Through the tunnel connecting the Computation Center to the Main Building, Wilcox guided McCoy's team.1

 

14: THE WHITE HEADBAND

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The White Headband

Telling the story takes longer than it took to do it. I'm not talking about minutes; I'm talking about seconds.

—Houston McCoy

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After Ramiro Martinez knocked down the dolly Whitman had wedged outside the door, the men on the twenty-eighth floor stared at the windows and listened carefully. They could hear shots coming from the northwest corner, but each of them knew that at any moment someone could appear at the window. Each of Martinez's raps on the door produced noises that the others thought would surely get the attention of the sniper. Every “bang” caused McCoy, Crum and Day to grasp their rifles a little tighter and to look a little closer. “God damn! He's making a lot of noise,” McCoy thought. 1 Each of them had seen what the sniper was capable of doing. Outside the Tower they had seen bodies shot from incredibly long distances; inside they had seen what Whitman had done at close range: Edna, Mark, Marguerite, Mary, and Mike.

 

15: TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN

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To Whom It May Concern

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Charles Whitman began shooting from the deck at 11:48 A.M. Ninety-six minutes transpired before his shooting spree ended, enough time for major news organizations to cover some of the tragedy live. Bulletins interrupted regular programming all over the world. In Lake Worth, Florida, Charles's grandmother Whitman heard a bulletin and summoned Charles's brother Patrick to the television. Twenty years later, Patrick remembered it this way:

I went in to listen to the TV, but the news bulletin didn't come right back, so I called the station, and I asked them to repeat the news bulletin. At first they wouldn't repeat it, so I said, “My name is Patrick Whitman. Would you please repeat it.” Then I broke up and went and got my father. From then on it was turmoil. They had to sedate me.1

It probably went exactly as Charles would have hoped. Much of the world's media began to ask questions, many of them directed at C. A, Whitman of Lake Worth, Florida. The glare of publicity for the Whitman family was only beginning. Still to be discovered were the notes Charles had left at 906 Jewell Street and Penthouse Apartment #505.

 

16: APD

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APD

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Somehow, it seemed pathetically appropriate. Flags on the University of Texas campus had already been lowered in tribute to fifty-six-year-old retired Army Reserve Lieutenant Colonel Richard Bryant Pelton, who had died of a heart attack on the previous Friday. If Don Walden and Cheryl Botts still wondered why the flags were lowered, they could have read about Pelton in the Austin American-Statesman in a small article, hidden in the midst of an entire issue on the Tower sniping.1

The city of Austin and the University of Texas became the focus of world news. TASS, the official Communist Party news organ of the Soviet Union, used the occasion to highlight the problem of crime in the United States: “Murders, armed attacks, robbery, and rapes have become common in present-day America.” Richard Speck and Charles Whitman dwarfed coverage of the White House wedding of Luci Baines Johnson and Patrick Nugent. When reminded that the Speck murders in Chicago had been called the “Crime of the Century,” APD Chief Bob Miles replied, “It isn't anymore.” Reporters from all over the world interviewed witnesses, victims, and victims' families.2 Charlotte Darenshori, the secretary pinned down behind the base of a flagpole on the South Mall, remembered: “I had a call from Dan Rather wanting me to be on the afternoon news, from the networks and from newspapers everywhere. I just didn't understand the interest.”3

 

17: WHY DID HE DO IT?

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Why Did He Do It?

Often the test of courage is not to die but to live.—Conte Vittorio Alfieri (1794–1803), Italian playwright and poet

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Once he returned to Austin, Governor John Connally assembled a blue-ribbon commission to look into every medical aspect of the Tower incident. The commission members were giants in their respective fields. Fact-finders consisted mostly of medical school professors. Dr. R. Lee Clark, Surgeon-in-Chief of the University's M. D. Anderson Hospital in Houston, served as the chairman. The work of the eleven fact-finding members was reviewed by twenty-one other blue-ribbon physicians from throughout the United States.1 The Connally Commission (for want of a better name) established four investigative objectives:

1. To determine the events and circumstances which surrounded the actions of Charles J. Whitman on August 1, 1966.

2. To explore the findings and to make such additional examinations as might be indicated by the factual information which is available.

 

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