The five-year hunt for atheist leader Madalyn Murray O'Hair is over, a forensics expert said Thursday, confirming that bones dug up at a remote ranch were those of O'Hair and two of her family members.
O'Hair, 76, who played a key role in one of two 1960s U.S. Supreme Court decisions banning mandatory prayer in public schools, disappeared in 1995 along with her son Jon Garth Murray, 40, and her granddaughter, Robin Murray O'Hair, 30.
Officials believe the three were murdered and dismembered in an Austin storage locker and their bodies dumped at a remote ranch in Real County, 90 miles west of San Antonio. One of the men suspected in the case, David R. Waters, 53, accompanied authorities to the grave site this year as part of a plea bargain.
At a news conference Thursday at the U.S. attorney's office in Austin, David M. Glassman, chairman of the department of anthropology at Southwest Texas State University, described a grisly scene at the ranch, with bodies burned and stacked haphazardly across each other after the legs had been removed. Based on anthropological, medical and dental studies of those remains, he said, O'Hair and her family members had been positively identified.
"Three of the skeletons have been analyzed and a recommendation has been made to the judge of Real County that death certificates be issued for these three individuals," Glassman said.
A severed head and a pair of hands from a fourth body found at the ranch have not yet been identified, Glassman said.
No one has yet been charged directly in the murders, but in June, Gary Paul Karr, 52, a handyman from Novi, Mich., was found guilty of extortion and other charges related to the case. He was found innocent of kidnapping.
Evidence presented at his trial indicated that authorities believed Karr, Waters and a third man, Danny Fry, kidnapped O'Hair and her family in September 1995 and extorted $610,000 from them over a monthlong period before they were killed.
Officials believe that Fry was later murdered by Karr and Waters, his head and hands severed to prevent identification, and his body left beside the Trinity River near Dallas in October 1995.
Waters, who has a long criminal record including murder, worked as an office manager for O'Hair's American Atheists organization in 1993 and was fired for stealing $54,000 from the group.
He pleaded guilty in January to conspiracy charges and agreed to lead investigators to the bodies, officials said. As part of his plea bargain, Waters reportedly will get immunity for his role in the murders but receive a 20-year sentence for the conspiracy charges.
"This certainly brings some closure," Roderick L. Beverly, an FBI agent, said Thursday.
After O'Hair enrolled her son William in a Baltimore public school in 1959, she sued to end the mandatory classroom prayer and Bible reading held there. The case reached the Supreme Court, where the justices joined it to a similar one, rendering their landmark decision under the latter's name, Abington vs. Schempp, in 1963.
O'Hair, as an outspoken and provocative proponent of atheism, achieved a lightning rod status in church-state debates of that era.
Being a focus of controversy suited her temperament. "I love a good fight," she said. "I guess fighting God and God's spokesmen is sort of the ultimate, isn't it?" Still, she also said that she became a target of harassment and death threats.
Her combative style alienated even many who agreed with her, while providing critics with a useful foil against which to express their outrage. She was past the peak of her influence by the time she disappeared.
William, her surviving child, became a Christian evangelist.