Chapter One: The Secret Place
If you think in terms of a side of beef, then the Hill Country is prime filet of Texas. It is God's country. There are places left where pure spring waters merge in the hills, becoming delicate valley creeks that flow over ancient limestone beds with real dinosaur tracks -- if you know where to look. There are many wild things: turtles, turkey, fox, javelina, bobcats, armadillos, cougar, tusked boar, herds of white-tailed deer and enough bird life to attract fanatic watchers all the way from Europe. Towns are named Utopia and ranches High Heaven. If there is a location in America that could still be comfortably called graced, it is the Texas Hill Country.
The peak of the hill closest to the secret burial site of the world's most famous atheist is adorned with a white cross. The sign that Madalyn Murray O'Hair feared and hated above all others was the only symbol of humanity that could be seen from the wildness of her grave. And it was here that a twenty- by twenty-foot excavation of this God-smitten landscape would disclose a fresh revelation of the extent of human cruelty and of hell on earth.
A year after the turn of the millennium, a classic Hill Country gentleman-rancher's vehicle would be a four-wheel-drive white Chevy Suburban with metal brush guards in front, a custom diamond-plate rear bumper, and oversized black fiberglass wheel-well moldings to keep the mud down. You'd also need dark-tint windows, and a corkscrew cell phone antenna dead center on the roof. When a passenger emerged from just such a vehicle late on a Saturday morning at the five-thousand-acre ranch, he easily could have been a rich Houston executive looking for a place to spot a deer feeder on his hunting retreat.
The man's sharp, handsome features were heartland America. Brushed back boldly, the salt-and-pepper hair was thick and well groomed -- the kind of mane you might see in an ad for men's shampoo. The large aviator-style glasses he had on gave him a look of coolness and intelligence. He wore his casual clothing well too, as might be expected from a broad-shouldered and trim man. His shirt was a muted brown madras plaid, covered by a dark, indigo-colored windbreaker. The jeans he wore were stonewashed blue -- maybe a little young looking for a fifty-three-year old man. Then again, he looked at least a decade younger than his age.
But the executive image was ruined by the clinking steel on his ankles and wrists. His manacled hands were locked to a metal waist-belt that prevented him from lifting them higher than chest level. His ankles were shackled too -- joined by a two-foot length of chain. And, in a final insult to his sartorial style, the prisoner was wearing cheap black sneakers -- the kind a poor Chinese peasant might have, or maybe a street clown. They were laceless and their tongues lolled drolly upward and outward.
There couldn't have been any worse footwear for hiking around a rugged Hill Country ranch, and that was exactly how the government agents wanted it. They intended for their prisoner to concentrate on the task at hand and put all fantasies of escape out of mind. The two-foot chain between his ankles was also a continual reminder -- a painful reminder -- of exactly what the situation was. Every time the prisoner forgot and took a normal step, the chain would go taut and the steel cuffs would dig into his ankle bones. He had to constantly catch himself and take abnormally small, mincing, shuffling steps as he walked from the Suburban that was the lead vehicle in a convoy of government cars.
Toward the dry creek bed the prisoner clanked. No, this wasn't it, he nodded negatively. He returned to the SUV, with the agents ducking his head, and the caravan started to roll once again. If he felt panic rising inside him, he didn't let it show. He conversed sotto voce with the tall, burly, Texas-sized attorney who sat next to him in full camouflage gear.
The procession went through a gate and the prisoner asked the agents to stop. Again he walked the ground -- and there it all was. There was the caliche gravel mound. There was the dried-up creek bed. There was the Y in the ranch road with the gate behind to the south. There was the flat, terraced area. This was it. But it had been more than five years since he'd buried them, riding on a mind-twisting methamphetamine high, and he wasn't sure of the exact spot.
There was another quiet conference with the big lawyer who had stayed by his side. Finally, not being able to gesture with his hands, which were shackled to his waist, the prisoner looked at the dry-wash terrace and, pointing with his head, said in a soft voice, "If I were you, that's where I'd start digging." An agent took a thin rod with a yellow plastic flag attached to it -- the kind used to mark body parts at an airline disaster -- and sunk it into the ground in the approximate center of the terraced area toward which the prisoner had motioned.
Two cadaver dogs were released by their handlers. Both showed interest in a tuft of cheat grass near the center of the dry-wash terrace toward which the prisoner had nodded. With rotors whup-whupping noisily overhead, news choppers got aerials of the grave site from the cold overcast January sky, as the professor of forensic anthropology hired by the FBI, assisted by his students, made a grid of the terrace using plastic tape and thin poles much as you might see in a National Geographic documentary. After two hours of delicate digging -- at about noon on Saturday, January 27, 2001 -- one of the excavators found something.
The professor got down on his side and started removing the soil around the object with the tools of his trade -- first a mini-trowel, then a dental pick, and finally a soft-bristled three-inch paintbrush. The article of interest was mocha-colored and oblong -- too smooth to be a root but lying horizontally much like one. As the professor patiently continued his work, a hush fell over the site.
Everyone watched as he pecked and tapped and brushed. It soon became clear that a bone had been found. But it was gigantic and more likely a part of the skeletal remains of some long-dead cow, the professor reflected to himself, hiding his initial disappointment from his rapt audience. Finally he was able to gingerly extract the bone from the ground.
As the onlookers silently gaped, the professor turned it over in his hand and stared at it. At last, one of the cadaver dog handlers blurted out: "Is it human?" The professor nodded a somber affirmation. It was human, a femur from a very large person, probably a male -- and it had been cleanly sawed in half.
The professor set up an assembly line for careful soil removal from the dig site. Soon a ghostly image began to evolve in the pit -- that of two human female skeletons. The bodies had obviously been dumped there haphazardly, but somehow the bones had become intertwined in a kind of ghastly lovers' embrace. There were fragments of blue cotton flower-print material scattered amongst the remains, and one of the females had the rubber remnants of her panty waistband still around her pelvic area. Both had their femurs -- thigh bones -- sawed off just below the hips.
As the professor continued to cautiously excavate, he found that beneath the females, as though cradling them protectively with his massive bones, were the skeletal remains of a male human. The first bone found had been his. The stubs of the man's huge, sawed-off leg bones stood straight up from his hips, giving his skeleton somewhat the look of a picked-over Thanksgiving turkey carcass.
At the front gate of the ranch at 4 P.M., the regional FBI agent-in-charge faced the massed representatives of the media with a phalanx of law enforcement operatives involved in the investigation behind him. He was the ranking officer and, as such, he would conduct the news conference that would get global coverage. A few hours earlier, a stainless steel apparatus found in the excavation had been identified. It was a hip replacement joint.
The primary investigator in the case, an IRS agent, had been prescient enough to have the medical records of one of the victims subpoenaed and he had obtained a model number for a prosthetic hip joint that she'd had implanted. The device recovered from the grave had matched the model number of the victim's. This allowed the FBI chief to announce that the remains of Madalyn Murray O'Hair, her son Jon Garth Murray, and her granddaughter, Robin Murray O'Hair, had been positively identified -- and the international mystery finally solved.
David Glassman was a man blessed. He loved his work. Sure, some might think that forensic anthropology was more than a bit ghoulish, but that was their problem. Besides, it really couldn't be that bad if he averaged at least a call a day from somewhere in the United States from a student wanting to get into his program at Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos.
It was fun. Working with smart and eager young men and women hungry for knowledge was a continual satisfaction. The direct intellectual rewards were even greater. You never do the same dig twice. Every excavation, every set of bones, was really a huge database, a complete history of the rise and fall of a human being, if you knew how to decode the bits and pieces. After almost three decades of work, including studying with the world-renowned William Bass at the "Body Farm" in Knoxville, Tennessee, Dr. Glassman could tease the most tenuous information out of a pile of old bones.
Per usual, there were interesting findings from the excavation. As he had suspected they would be, the remains were all skeletal, the complete bone sets of three adults: two Caucasian women and an extremely large-boned Caucasian male. As well, there was an additional finding -- an extra adult male Caucasoid skull with a bullet hole, and a set of hands.
Glassman arranged all three complete skeletons on his large laboratory tables like some giant, devilish jigsaw puzzle. By far the most eye-catching aspect of the six hundred plus bones that Glassman lined up for the skeletons was that each femur had been sawed into two pieces.
The victims had been literally butchered, perhaps to make their corpses fit into containers such as a fifty-gallon drum, he speculated. All the remains showed signs of "light charring" too, indicating that each body had been partially subjected to a short and hot fire, possibly gasoline, or lighter fluid.
The eeriest part of the entire analysis for Dr. Glassman surrounded the remains of the younger Caucasian female: Robin O'Hair, the granddaughter of Madalyn. Her skull still had the hair attached. It was a beautiful blond-reddish color -- perfectly brushed and braided and carefully tied with white bows, as though she'd been about to go to a party.
Madalyn Murray O'Hair's remains, like her granddaughter's, showed no signs of trauma intentionally inflicted while she was alive. Glassman couldn't determine a cause of death for either of the women. It was nothing more than a guess, but Glassman believed they had been manually strangled. If garrotes had been used to kill them, a telltale small bone in their necks would have been broken, but there were no fractures of this type that the professor could find.
The skeleton of Madalyn's son, Jon Garth Murray, held the most ominous information for the forensic anthropologist. The details told of what probably had been a frightful ending for the president of the American Atheists. His skull had been recovered from the grave wrapped in a plastic garbage bag. It was hard to see at first, but almost the entire circumference of his cranium had small hairline fractures. With a surprisingly unprofessorial concision, Dr. Glassman summed up his observations on Jon Garth by simply saying, "They beat the shit out of him before he died."
There could only be speculation on how Madalyn Murray O'Hair died -- but not about how she had lived. For decades her life must have been a marathon of pain endurance. Four of her neck vertebrae were fused or partially fused. Her backbones were fusing and were festooned with bone spurs that could have produced excruciating pain. Her joints were disintegrating -- being consumed by her immune system attacking its own connective tissue in a massive, arthritic self-assault.
Even breathing must have been torture at times for the elderly woman. Glassman observed that the cartilage in her rib cage had become calcified -- it was turning to bone -- and thus there may have been times when every breath that she drew, except perhaps for the most shallow, would produce a sharp stabbing pain.
As living life must have been physical hell for Madalyn, her death and the deaths of her children -- they were held captive for a month while their bank accounts were systematically looted, they were restrained for long intervals with handcuffs and duct tape, multiple sexual predations were inflicted on Robin O'Hair, and the final murders were conducted so that some family members were alive and conscious when their loved ones were being killed -- were perhaps the ultimate in human horrors. Yet the evil revelations held by her grave were not without a dreadful, divine irony, for Madalyn had spent her entire adult life trying to convince the world that only fools believed that there was a Hell.
Copyright © by Theodore Michael Dracos