Hidden City Crime Files: Austin

Filed Under: Austin, crime

The city of Austin, TX, has the motto "Keep Austin Weird." Marcus discovers that this fits perfectly when he explores 3 crime stories from the city -- the conviction of Celeste Beard, the mass shootings by Charles Whitman and the kidnapping and murder of Madalyn Murray O'Hair.


Celeste Beard
Who: Celeste was born on Feb. 13, 1963, and was one of Edwin and Nancy Johnson's adopted kids. Celeste has claimed that she was abused as a child and that she attempted suicide during puberty. At 17, she got pregnant and went on to have twins, Jennifer and Kristina. Celeste was married 5 times. Her fourth husband was Steven Beard whom she met while working as a waitress at the Austin Country Club. Steven Beard had made his mark as the co-owner of a local television station. He was rich, powerful, and an important member of the community. He had a long marriage to his first wife who had passed away from cancer. He soon began dating Celeste and they were married on Feb. 18, 1995. Beard was 68, Celeste 30.


What: Steven Beard was shot in the stomach and died as a result of an infection (caused by the open wound) 4 months later. Police tied the incident to Celeste's friend, Tracey Tarlton. Celeste had met Tracy when she was in a mental health facility, St. David’s Pavilion, after threatening to commit suicide. Celeste's marriage to Steven had hit a rocky point and she had been spending a lot of money. Steven had threatened to cut off her credit cards and started talking about divorce.

Tracey was arrested and charged with assault. The police thought there might be more to the story when people who were interviewed said that Celeste had spoken negatively about Steven. Tracey remained silent. It wasn’t until Tracey discovered that Celeste had remarried after Steven’s death, that she told police that Celeste had persuaded her to shoot Steven. It was rumored that Tracey and Celeste had had a lesbian relationship and that getting rid of Steven was the only way they could be together.

Celeste was eventually arrested. After a lengthy trial, she was convicted of murder and received a mandatory life sentence. She will not be eligible for parole until 2043.


Where: Celeste and Steven lived in a wealthy neighborhood in Austin, TX.


When: Celeste and Tracey met in March 1999. The shooting took place on Oct. 2, 1999, and Tracey was arrested on Oct. 8. Steven died in a hospital on Jan. 21, 2000, as a result of the gunshots. Celeste was arrested on March 28, 2002, and sentenced in 2003.


The Latest: Tracy was recently released on parole after serving 10 years of her sentence. She currently resides in San Antonio. See how the town is helping Tracey Tarlton establish a life on the outside.


In the Media: There have been several books written on the case including The Fortune Hunter by Suzy Spencer and She Wanted It All: A True Story of Sex, Murder, and a Texas Millionaire by Kathryn Casey. Celeste’s mother has created a web site declaring her daughter’s innocence and is publishing a book of  Celeste's prison letters to her. You can even become pen pals with Celeste.


Charles Whitman
Who: Charles Joseph Whitman was born on June 24, 1941, in Lake Worth, FL. He was a good student and learned how to handle guns at an early age. He left home and joined the Marines to escape an abusive father. In the Marines Whitman trained as a sharpshooter. When he got out of the Marines, he enrolled at the University of Texas where he met his future wife Kathryn Leissner.


What: Whitman, wearing overalls and carrying an assortment of weapons and supplies, entered the University of Texas tower. He headed up to the observation deck, killing a receptionist and 2 others along the way. Once he reached the deck, he began shooting at people below. The rampage lasted less than 2 hours, with most of the deaths and injuries occurring in the first 15 to 20 minutes. A trained sniper, Whitman shot most of his victims near or in the heart. In total, he killed 15 people and wounded 30 more before being shot and killed by police officers.

Whitman’s mother had moved to Austin to be near her son after finally leaving her abusive husband. The day before he opened fire at the University of Texas Whitman stabbed and killed both his mother and wife. It was later discovered that Whitman had a brain tumor. No one is sure whether this played a role in his actions.


Where:
Whitman's shooting spree occurred on the campus of University of Texas in Austin, TX.


When: The incident took place on Aug. 1, 1966.


In the Media:  A TV movie was made about Whitman called The Deadly Tower. This was later renamed Sniper for a theatrical release with Kurt Russell playing Whitman.


Madalyn Murray O'Hair
Who: Madalyn May was born in Pittsburgh on April 13, 1919, to Lena Christina Scholle and John Irwin "Irv" Mays. Her family was Presbyterian. Madalyn graduated high school and went on to have 2 sons. One was with a married man. She took his name, Murray, even though they were never legally married. Her second son was from her marriage to Richard O'Hair. Madalyn resided in Baltimore for a while. She was an atheist and filed a law suit against the schools for insisting that her son pray in class. Her case made it to the Supreme Court and she won. O’Hair eventually moved to Austin, TX, after an altercation with Baltimore police. It was there that she started the organization American Atheists, and despite treats, started out on a crusade to separate religion from government.


What: In August 1995, O'Hair, her son Jon and granddaughter Robin suddenly disappeared. There was a note left on the American Atheists organization’s door saying they had to leave temporarily. The 3 were never heard from again. It was eventually discovered that they had been kidnapped and murdered by a former employee David Waters.

Waters had been working at American Atheists and had stolen $54,000. O’Hair discovered what he had done and wrote an article in the "Members Only" section of the American Atheists newsletter exposing Waters' theft and previous crimes. Waters eventually learned that O'Hair wasn't innocent either; she'd taken $600,000 from the organization. To get revenge, Waters kidnapped the 3 and had them turn the money into gold coins. Once he got the money, he and an accomplice killed the O’Hairs. Later, Waters also killed his accomplice.

Waters hid the coins in a storage locker rented by his girlfriend. The locker was broken into and the coins were taken. Waters pled guilty to the crimes and led police to where the O'Hairs were buried on a Texas ranch. Waters died of lung cancer at the Federal Medical Center in Butner, NC, on Jan. 27, 2003.


Where:  O'Hair moved to Austin, TX, where she established the American Atheists organization.


When: O'Hair founded the American Atheists in 1963. She and her family disappeared on Aug. 27, 1995. Waters pled guilty and led police to their bodies in January 2001. Waters died on Jan. 27, 2003.

In the Media:  Ann Rowe Seaman wrote a biography of O'Hair, America's Most Hated Woman: The Life and Gruesome Death of Madalyn Murray O'Hair. O'Hair's oldest son, whom she had disowned for embracing religion, put out a statement about his family.

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