February 10, 1997 Vol. 149 No. 6 


Where's Madalyn?
The Missing Atheist Left Behind
an Ailing Empire and a
Trail of Tantalizing Clues
by David Van Biema, Austin 

One day in March 1989, long after Madalyn Murray O'Hair dropped from fame but before she dropped from sight, she enjoyed one of the sweet contradictions of life as America's foremost atheist: she played the preacher at Scott Kerns' wedding. Kerns was something of a favorite of O'Hair's; for a while he led the Texas chapter of her American Atheists group. And so Madalyn invited the couple up to her handsome tan shingle house on Greystone Drive in Austin. The event took place in the library, and was attended by friends, a photographer and Madalyn's son Jon Murray and granddaughter Robin Murray-O'Hair, from whom Madalyn was inseparable. "She took the ceremony very seriously," says Kerns. In Texas justices of the peace are likely to slip a "God" or even a "Jesus" into an otherwise civil service; to avoid such sabotage, O'Hair had obtained certification to perform marriages. She now pronounced the couple man and wife. It was a lovely moment, Kerns recalls, though, inevitably, he was nipped by one of O'Hair's several ill-tempered little dogs. Afterward, he says, "there was music and champagne, and we went out to dinner. And Madalyn. Madalyn is funny. She's the funniest person on earth." He pauses. "If she's still on earth." 

"If Dean Koontz and Stephen King sat down with a bottle of Scotch and tried to figure out the most bizarre ending to this family they could," says William Murray, Madalyn O'Hair's estranged older son, the one who converted to Christianity, "whatever really happened was probably more bizarre than that." Hyperbole is a Murray-O'Hair family trait, but the assessment is not totally astray. One day in August 1995, Madalyn, then 76, along with Jon, 40, and Robin, 30, vanished from the house on Greystone Drive, reportedly with breakfast still cooking, and were never seen again. Tax returns filed by groups affiliated with American Atheists suggest that Jon took $629,500 of organization money with him. Although Austin police say they have thus far found no evidence of foul play in the family's disappearance, both O'Hair friends and foes have offered scenarios including kidnapping, murder and flight to New Zealand with the funds. After a decade of infamy and two more in a slide toward obscurity, Madalyn Murray O'Hair, by her absence, has managed to grab the spotlight again. 

The public saga of Madalyn Murray O'Hair began in June 1963, when the U.S. Supreme Court removed prayer from the public schools. The suit on which the decision was primarily based had been brought by a Philadelphia Unitarian named Ed Schempp. But it soon became apparent that a secondary litigant, whose case had merely been attached to Schempp's, was the one who most desperately wanted the mantle of the era's foremost separator of church and state. Madalyn O'Hair was a heavy woman with a strong voice and jaw who even in repose resembled, as author Lawrence Wright once observed, "a bowling ball looking for new pins to scatter." She was an Army veteran and a law-school graduate and a big talker. Most important, she was an atheist. 

When Americans were asked "Do you believe in God or a universal spirit?" in a 1994 poll by the Gallup Organization, 3% of those surveyed replied no. That response, whether one agrees with it or not, might be deemed something of an act of courage. During the cold war, the words communist and atheist became almost interchangeable; even today some feel comfortable writing the latter out of the civic contract. South Carolina, one of a handful of states whose constitutions require belief as a condition for holding public office (a dead letter in the others), is currently defending itself at the appeals-court level after losing a suit brought by an atheist claiming his views cost him a job as notary public. 

It was controversies like this, however, that Madalyn O'Hair lived for. "I love a good fight," she said. "I guess fighting God and God's spokesmen is sort of the ultimate, isn't it?" She fought them at colleges, was the star of the first episode of Phil Donahue's pioneering talk show, and continued to file lawsuits, all at a near pathological level of pugnacity, for 32 years. Not all atheists feel the need to criticize, let alone mock, religion. But O'Hair reputedly toppled bingo tables in churches. Watching a female orangutan on television, she snipped, "The Virgin just made another appearance." The public responded in kind. In 1964 LIFE magazine headlined her as "the most hated woman in America," a title she burnished as a badge of honor. Long after it passed on to Jane Fonda (and issues like atheism took a back seat to the Vietnam War debate), people of a certain age continued to follow O'Hair's story. They experienced a frisson when her son Bill, in whose name she originally brought suit, announced on Mother's Day 1980 that he had found God; they were vaguely aware that she was attached (as "chief speech-writer") to porn king Larry Flynt's 1984 presidential bid; they marveled at her longevity as a talk-show guest. 

But what became a sideshow for the public remained a vital issue for the small group of people whose isolation she had broken. "Into the '80s," says Edward Cohen, a Manhattan writer working on a book about modern atheists, "people would hear her speak live or on the air, their mouths would hang open. It reassured them that they weren't the only ones on earth to feel this way." Says Orin ("Spike") Tyson, a friend and employee of O'Hair's who is now living, albeit embattled, in the house on Greystone Drive: "She went out in public and made it acceptable to at least say the 'A'-word. She put it on the map." Many remember the rousing defense of materialism she frequently invoked in her pamphlets and speeches: "We have to live now. No one gets a second chance. There is no heaven and no hell ... You either make the best or the worst of what you have now, or there is nothing. Laugh at it. Hug it to you. Drain it. Build it. Have it." 

That is exactly what she did, even as she slipped from public view. Madalyn Murray O'Hair's organizational and financial heyday occurred in the mid-'80s. Having worn out her welcome with authorities in Maryland, where she filed her original suit, and then Hawaii, she arrived in Austin in 1965 and established the Society of Separationists, later adding Atheist Centre in America and several satellite groups. By the late '80s, there were eight. Each had a five-or-six-person board, and each board was dominated by Madalyn, Jon and Robin (she was Bill's daughter, but he had given her up to his mother years before his Christian conversion). 

Despite Madalyn's claims that American Atheists had 50,000 members, it was tiny (it currently numbers 2,400). Lawyers for other church-and-state separatists say its lawsuits fell primarily into the nuisance category and few prevailed. Yet her acerbic, sometimes erudite weekly radio show ran on 150 stations. The group was still the only national atheist organization in America, with more than 30 state chapters. It threw national conventions, which, although "outrageously expensive," according to Kerns, were "Madalyn's moment to shine." Madalyn, who had known poverty in her younger years, began to enjoy the pleasures that money can buy. American Atheists did a healthy business selling godless books, posters, bumper stickers (HONK IF YOU LOVE MADALYN; APES EVOLVED FROM CREATIONISTS) and "solstice cards" for the areligious at holiday times. Perhaps more important, Madalyn, like many of her clerical foes, became adept at persuading elderly members to leave American Atheists their last bequests. In 1986, when she moved the organization into its current red brick headquarters, she claimed to have paid in cash the full cost of $1 million-plus. Jon Murray, her second son and by then her titular successor, told Wright, who later profiled her in his book Saints and Sinners, "We're accustomed to good food ... All of us have nice clothes. My suits cost a minimum of five, six hundred dollars ... We have a nice house in Northwest Hills, nice automobiles ... We've been around the world three times." 

As Jon was boasting, however, Madalyn's darker traits -- and his own -- were taking an increasing toll. They did not restrict their belligerence to the political sphere. "The Murray-O'Hairs," says a movement observer, "were factories of rancor." Almost from its inception, American Atheists spawned splinter groups, usually led by people Madalyn had wooed, employed and finally alienated, often viciously and profanely. "She went through people like popcorn," says Anne Gaylor, who in 1978 became head of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wisconsin. "People realized, 'We can do this on our own,'" says Kerns. Madalyn, without irony, told offenders they had been "excommunicated." 

The combination of many enemies, a flamboyant life-style and a nonprofit tax exemption inevitably resulted in charges of impropriety similar to ones she launched against religious institutions. "Madalyn was sort of the Jimmy Swaggart of the movement," says Gaylor's daughter Annie Laurie Gaylor, who is editor of Freethought Today. "I'm not implying criminal activity, but they were always bragging about silk suits and Cadillacs. At the same time the roof was always leaking -- and 'Please send money.'" Madalyn, critics claim, like many charismatic movement leaders, had utterly lost the ability to distinguish between herself and her cause. San Diego attorney Roy Withers investigated and repeatedly deposed the Murray-O'Hairs as part of a lawsuit; he claims the cars and the house on Greystone were inappropriately paid for with corporation money. (Spike Tyson replies, "It's been disproven over and over again.") 

By the early 1990s, the center had ceased to hold. Part of the problem was Jon. David Travis, an editorial, financial and clerical worker for the organization for three years, ending in August 1995, reports that Madalyn's son, whom she had pressed on her fellow board members as her successor, didn't "even know when to be polite." Says Kerns: "He had no special training, nor a great number of social skills, as well as a speech impediment. He was at an extreme disadvantage, and he was aware that he'd been put in a position beyond his abilities to handle." In time, he alienated the chapters so badly that they began to secede. Those that did not were dissolved by 1991. 

Meanwhile, the Internal Revenue Service was seeking $1.5 million in back taxes and penalties from Jon and Robin. (The amount would eventually drop to $36,787, atheist lawyers have said.) And there was the payback for Madalyn's tendency to litigate. In September 1987, she sued for control of a California atheist organization called Truth Seeker. (The bid failed.) Truth Seeker's furious owner countersued American Atheists under a federal racketeering law. The dispute eventually ate up more than $500,000 in legal fees; at one point Madalyn was so sure of losing that she told an employee not to be surprised if he came to work one morning and found the building padlocked. Appeals in the American Atheists' newsletter for member contributions became ever more plaintive and insistent, to no apparent avail. By 1993, drained of its operating funds, the organization dropped Madalyn's radio show, discontinued its magazine and stopped holding conventions. Says Kerns, who had left the group by then: "The game was over." 

The team at its center, however, was growing tighter than ever. Despite Madalyn's retirement, she came in to work seven days a week. Jon was very much a presence, "this screaming madman running around the office, shouting obscenities about everyone and everything," recalls former employee Travis. Robin, who had run the magazine and maintained a valuable library of atheist books, was much quieter and reputedly much brighter, but capable of answering back in kind. During working hours, says American Atheists officer and longtime Murray-O'Hair friend Arnold Via, "they didn't bother one another unless they wanted to get into another's throats," in which case, screaming fights ensued. Inevitably, however, they ate lunch together, dined together after work and returned together to the big house on Greystone Drive. "They were three peas in a pod," says Via, an occasional houseguest. "Jon had no girlfriend, and Robin had no boyfriend, and Madalyn was too far gone to have anything." At home, they would watch the news together before retiring. Their month-long excursions every other year, usually visiting atheist communities in other countries, were taken ensemble. 

And then they vanished together. In mid-August 1995, just before they disappeared, the trio picnicked with Via at his home in Grottoes, Virginia. Despite chronic medical problems, Madalyn seemed healthy. Says Via: "They were in wonderful spirits; Madalyn is a wonderful humorist." The Murray-O'Hairs talked about searching the area for records of Madalyn's ancestors, and about possibly moving American Atheists to Richmond. Via snapped some Polaroids, and the trio returned to Austin. Then, on Aug. 28, says Travis, "I went to work and there was a letter taped to the door and it said, 'We've been called out on an emergency basis, and we'll call you when we get back.' And they haven't gotten back, and they haven't called." 

Actually, they did call, for a while. After the disappearance, one of the first visitors to the house on Greystone was Tyson, who had been running the American Atheists' One Healthy Project, a public-access TV show playing in 140 markets. According to current American Atheists president Ellen Johnson (Tyson refuses to talk about the disappearance because of pending litigation), Tyson discovered that the family "had left in the middle of preparing breakfast, very suddenly." Soon, however, they were heard from: in calls with Johnson, Tyson and other American Atheists officers on Jon Murray's cell phone, the family, which had been expected to leave soon to picket the Pope in New York City, claimed to be on "business" in San Antonio, Texas. There followed an exchange of some half a dozen phone calls that can only be called surreal. "We were doing business," says Johnson. "They were being very cagey. They were going to tell us when they got back what was going on. You couldn't get a straight answer. They were lying about a lot of things, that was obvious. I was screaming, 'What the hell is going on, are you O.K.?' And they're saying, 'Just calm down. Everything's O.K.' Everything was not O.K. Robin was totally disturbed, you could hear it in the way she talked." Johnson talked to Madalyn herself only once: "I've talked to her for years. If you were to talk to your mother, you would know when something was wrong. Something terrible had happened." The last communication with the O'Hairs occurred at 4:30 p.m. on Sept. 28. After that, says Johnson, "they just turned the phone off." 

Weeks passed, and then months. After a year, Robin's 1985 Porsche 944 was found in a parking lot at Austin's Robert Mueller Municipal Airport, apparently abandoned at the time of the disappearance. In May 1996, when Phil Donahue wanted Madalyn to attend his final broadcast, his executive producer hired a private detective to find her, to no avail. But what really fired the imagination of both the local and national press were the observations and surmises of David Travis. Travis, a Vietnam "foxhole atheist" who had lost his God while under enemy attack, had initially regarded the American Atheists' pre-disappearance monetary woes as an occasion for solidarity: "It was like being outnumbered and under fire again, but by golly we were there," he says. This outlook was shaken in March 1995, when, in the course of his work, he encountered what seemed to him to be a New Zealand account bearing nearly $900,000. Travis was "extremely insulted" to discover the extra cash at a time when the organization was crying poor. After the O'Hairs' vanishing act, he took his story (and the New Zealand account number) to the IRS and the newspapers, at least one of which suggested it might be connected to the disappearance. 

For months, American Atheists' officers belittled the idea. The money, they said, was simply the group's "trust fund," from whose interest American Atheists might one day be expected to pay operating expenses. Tyson told TIME the notion that the Murray-O'Hairs had taken it with them into hiding was "absurd. We know where every bank account is. Every penny is accounted for." By last December, however, the tune had changed: 1995 tax forms for the United Secularists of America, one of American Atheists' affiliated groups, stated, "The $612,000 shown as a decease [sic] in net assets ... represents the value of the United Secularists of America's assets believed to be in the possession of Jon Murray, former Secretary. The whereabouts of Jon Murray and these assets have not been known since September 1995 and is not known to the organization at this time." Losses totaling $17,500 by two other O'Hair organizations were described the same way. Tyson and Johnson indicate that the missing funds were indeed from the New Zealand "trust fund," which Johnson says was accessible only to Jon, Robin and herself. 

"Did America's most famous atheist take the money and run?" asked one newspaper. "Is Madalyn Murray O'Hair ... now enjoying a South Pacific exile?" Former colleagues confirmed that the O'Hairs had long considered New Zealand a safe haven in case America got too inhospitable. In fact, Jon visited in 1994 to inquire about the family's moving. However, his host and ideological comrade, John S. Jones, claims that Jon never applied for residency, and representatives of New Zealand's major areligious organizations all deny an O'Hair presence. Moreover, says American Atheists' Johnson, "I have their passports right here on my desk." In fact, nobody familiar with Madalyn's devotion to the cause -- or her dedication to the spotlight -- could remotely imagine her successfully going "underground" anywhere. 

Except perhaps literally. Madalyn suffered from chronic heart disease and diabetes and, like many activist atheists, feared that at her demise, religious relatives might commandeer her body and give it a Christian burial (or, as Kerns remembers her putting it, "stick a crucifix up my ass"). Faced with a sudden health crisis, the matriarch could have arranged to die unmolested and given Jon and Robin permission to jump ship. Such a blessing might have been welcome. "Jon told me numerous times that he was pretty fed up with the whole goddam thing," says Via. "If he had the opportunity to steal a million and a half dollars or 2 million and thought he could get by with it, I think he would have got out of the organization." 

In fact, the pot may have been richer. Rumors have long circulated that Madalyn had stowed away millions of dollars in foreign bank accounts. Elder son Bill Murray guesses "tens of millions." He says that as long ago as 1978, Madalyn kept multiple secret accounts around the world, at least one of which contained hundreds of thousands of dollars (declared funds from estates in 1995 came to a relatively paltry $340,000). Withers, the Murray-O'Hairs' legal inquisitor, supports the hidden-money theory, volunteering that a Murray-O'Hair phone log that he had access to featured numbers of Swiss banks. 

Withers tends toward the darkest possible explanation of what happened: that "somebody did bad things to these people." Theories based on mere familial conspiracy do not explain the Murray-O'Hairs' sudden abandonment of the house, Robin's car and their canines. "They loved their home, and I want to tell you, man, they loved those dogs," says Kerns. 

More ominous yet is a transaction reported last December in the Houston Chronicle. Days after the Murray-O'Hairs disappeared, a real estate agent named Mark Sparrow, responding to a newspaper ad, paid a man he met at a bar $15,000 for a 1988 Mercedes-Benz 300 SEL. The car turned out to be Jon Murray's, but the man, who identified himself as Murray, turned out to be an impostor. Sparrow told TIME that after the transaction, the bogus Jon got into a car driven by a couple that fits the general description of the real Jon and Robin. Nonetheless, some think that Jon's phone silence is permanent. "My brother had a tendency to fall for con games and con artists," says Bill Murray. With newfound wealth, "he may have been baited into something that he was unable to control. I believe one or more of these folks is dead." Spike Tyson, while holding all possibilities open, notes laconically that "many people have been killed for a lot less than $600,000." 

Eventually, Tyson and his fellow American Atheists officers may have to do better than that. As Via points out, "somebody's not telling the truth about things somewhere along the line," and the people who should be most upset about that seem oddly calm. Last June, American Atheists opened for business again, but in 17 months it has not filed a report with police about the disappearing family. Says Travis about Johnson: "I can't imagine anybody inheriting the presidency of an organization because the previous president absconded with $630,000 and not filling out a police report." Replies Tyson: "Maybe we should have, but we didn't." And then, "Hey, if they want to be lost, it's their business." 

Perhaps, but Bill Murray, who now runs a conservative, Christian-oriented PAC in Washington, is trying to make it his business. He filed a missing-persons report, and when he became dissatisfied with the Austin police's response, made a short-lived attempt to gain guardianship of his family's estates. Two weeks ago he appealed to Texas Governor George W. Bush to have the Texas Rangers take over the investigation. Murray's letter of request made some remarkable assertions -- that someone is still cashing his mother's Social Security and Veterans Administration checks, and that someone is placing charges of about $1,000 a month on Robin's American Express Gold Card. Most damaging to the American Atheists, he claims that interest from the infamous New Zealand "trust fund," from which they contend Jon removed the $629,500, is not listed on their tax returns. "It is my belief," Murray adds darkly, "that funds were moved from accounts by an unknown person after the date they actually vanished." Murray, who once described his mother's actions as directed "from [the] fiery pit," now speaks of seeking "closure" regarding the fate of his family. And in this he is not alone. 

Madalyn Murray O'Hair is no longer an essential national figure -- either to the public at large or to America's closeted or activist atheists, most of whom long ago shifted their allegiance to her successor organizations. But her absence leaves what the theologically inclined might call a Madalyn-shaped hole at a building in Austin. There is an air of melancholy these days about the American Atheists general headquarters on a stretch of Cameron Road. Instead of a business name (the building is unmarked), the large sign above the fenced-in parking lot reads for sale. American Atheists' officers would like to leave Austin behind them. Inside, Spike Tyson, who, like former employee Travis, spent hard years in Vietnam, has moved his bayonet, miniature tanks and many medals into the office once occupied by Jon Murray. Tyson, who spends much of his time fending off Bill Murray's various claims, seems game, yet fatigued. He tries to make the case for the future. "We're more of a family now," he says. "We don't have a single charismatic person, a Madalyn O'Hair, but we've got a group that is just as goddam good if not actually better ... We don't have a big name, but the truth is, she didn't have a big name either when she got going." 

There is a certain hollowness to the words. Not far off lies Gallagher, a terrier who is the only remaining member of Madalyn's cadre of nippy dogs. He too seems to have lost his bite. It is all he can do these days to wander mutely over and drape his head mournfully on a visitor's knee. 

-- with reporting by Simon Robinson, Auckland 

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