Defense says O'Hair case full of holes

Tuesday, May 16th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Prosecutors tell jurors greed, hatred at center of mystery

AUSTIN - Jurors learned Monday that the mystery behind the 1995 disappearance of American atheist grande dame Madalyn Murray O'Hair can be simply explained.

It was the only point of agreement between prosecutors and defense counsel as the kidnapping and extortion trial of Gary P. Karr began in a federal courtroom in Austin.

"It's a tale of greed and hatred. If you follow the money, you can pretty much understand it," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Gerald Carruth. "The facts will weave a chain of circumstantial evidence that tightens around Gary Karr."

In a 40-minute opening, defense attorney Tom Mills of Dallas countered that the government's many pieces of fact are simply random, isolated events that don't form a complete picture.

"It's like a connect-the-dots game. The government wants to see the whole picture but an awful lot is left out in the middle," Mr. Mills said. "They want you to see a lizard, but what they offer is simply the lizard's foot."

Mr. Karr, 52, a convicted robber from Michigan, is charged with conspiring with another ex-con, David Waters, a former employee of Mrs. O'Hair's atheist organizations, to kidnap Mrs. O'Hair, 76. He is also charged with abducting her son, Jon Garth Murray, 40, and granddaughter Robin Murray O'Hair, 30.

Authorities believe that Mr. Karr and Mr. Waters sought $500,000 in gold coins, as well as jewelry and expensive cars.

Mrs. O'Hair and her children were murdered, their bodies stuffed into barrels and buried on a Hill County ranch, according to court documents. No bodies have ever been found. And Mr. Karr is the only one charged in connection with the O'Hair disappearances.

The trial is expected to last three to four weeks.

The defense stressed to jurors that the government is trying to make it a murder case in which there are no dead bodies.

"Mrs. O'Hair had talked for years about leaving the United States because of troubles with the IRS," Mr. Mills said. "The simplest explanation may be that she did exactly what she'd said she'd do -- she took money from her own organizations to flee the IRS."

Mr. Mills told jurors the defense will show that Mr. Karr came to work for Mr. Waters as a bodyguard for the O'Hairs. "We'll show that at times, he helped Mr. Waters help the O'Hairs to liquidate their assets and leave," he said.

The defense hopes to call witnesses who told Interpol, the global police agency, that they saw Mrs. O'Hair in England in 1997, Mr. Mills said. "Austin police reports record that these weren't nut cases. But people who knew Madalyn, recognized her and saw her long after the government said she was dead."

Mr. Carruth acknowledged that there was much talk within the atheist circles that Mrs. O'Hair and her family had set up accounts in New Zealand and Europe. He acknowledged that although evidence in the case suggests that the O'Hairs were murdered, no bodies have ever been found.

Mr. Waters, currently serving a state prison sentence in connection with a 1994 robbery of $54,000 in cash from Mrs. O'Hair, has not been charged in connection with the disappearances.

The government will put on about 100 witnesses, including American Atheist Inc. officers and prison cellmates of Mr. Karr's. The government's key witness is Patti Jo Steffen, Mr. Waters' girlfriend, who will outline how Mr. Waters called in Mr. Karr and Danny Fry, a friend in Florida, to help him put the kidnap-murder scheme into effect.

After the O'Hairs' disappearance, Ms. Steffen told FBI agents that she had seen a bag of blood-stained tennis shoes that Mr. Waters told her to forget about. She also saw his 9mm pistol and later saw in his car a bow saw and a shovel, Mr. Carruth told the jury.

Don't let common sense be overwhelmed by the circumstantial detail of the government's case, Mr. Mills reminded jurors.

"She saw a gun, a saw and a shovel," he said. "I wish we had a case that that was relevant to. There may be no evidence a gun was used, or that a saw was used or that a shovel was used.

"This is another example of the government's fantasy image," Mr. Mills said. "They want you to see the whole lizard and just show you a lizard's foot."

Earlier in the day, the 12-member jury and three alternates were drawn quickly from a panel of 201, roughly half of whom came from counties outside Travis County.

Almost everyone on the panel indicated they had read news reports about Mrs. O'Hair's atheist movement and the federal investigation of her disappearance. None, however, said they had formed an opinion about the case.