Journalists would have you believe they’re all Woodward and Bernstein–championing what’s right, inveighing against corruption and injustice, always seeking to break that earth-shattering news story–when in fact most are lazy and unimaginative, and prefer just repeating the same old thing all their colleagues are doing. They like nothing better than digging some old story out of their archives, dusting it off, and slapping on a new title, confident that the public’s collective attention span barely stretches back into the last news cycle.
Why else do we see music magazines throwing together collections of all their covers throughout the last thirty years, or movie magazines listing “The 100 Greatest Movies Ever Made”? Face it, folks–creativity is just a lot of hard work.
And for this reason journalists love anniversaries. If you’ve watched TV or opened a newspaper in Austin lately you’ve noticed that everyone has been carrying on about the 40th anniversary of Charles Whitman’s infamous shooting spree on the UT campus, usually festooning their stories with lame, melodramatic titles like “Death from Above,” “Austin’s Darkest Hour,” “The Tower of Doom,” or “The Clock Struck Murder.” But this unbelievably hot weather has taken a toll even on me and my usually dependable creative juices–so against all my better judgment I will acquiesce to the roar of the mob and weigh in with my own take on the Whitman case.
I am probably like many people in that I cannot walk past the UT Tower, especially along the South Mall, without half-expecting someone to start shooting from atop it. Charles Whitman’s memory is still very potent. Gubernatorial candidate Kinky Friedman wrote a song about him, movies regularly name-check him, and such animated programs as “The Simpsons” and “King of the Hill” use Whitman as a punch line.
Everyone pretty much knows the basics of the case by now anyway: a former altar boy/Eagle Scout/Marine with a fondness for guns flipped out, killed his mother and wife, then went to the top of the UT Tower and killed and wounded as many people as he could, using some astounding marksmanship techniques he’d learned in the service, before finally getting killed himself. An autopsy revealed a brain tumor that may or may not have contributed to his mental state. I don’t propose to come up with any shattering new details or fascinating interviews in my brief look at Whitman. I want to look at an aspect of the case that I’ve always wondered about–the “where” of it all.
Whitman’s wife Kathy taught at Lanier High School, but like many teachers, she had a summer job–in her case as a telephone operator working the 6-to-10pm shift. On the evening of July 31, 1966, while Kathy was at work, Whitman typed up his suicide note, where he explained his plan to kill his wife and mother, and asked that an autopsy be performed on him after his death, in order to determine if a brain tumor was causing the irrational behavior he’d been having lately. Whitman had been taking depression medications to little effect for some time, and had even admitted to a psychiatrist at UT’s University Health Center that he wanted to “start shooting people with a deer rifle,” but nothing came of this confession.
Later that night, Whitman picked his wife up at work and drove her back to their little house at 906 Jewell Street (between South First and South Lamar). After Kathy went to bed he went to his mother’s place, The Penthouse building at 1212 Guadalupe, Apartment 505, and sometime after midnight on Monday, August 1st, somehow rendered her unconscious, before stabbing her to death in the heart and shooting her in the head. He left a note on her door asking that she not be disturbed, as she’d worked late and needed to sleep, and forged her signature. He then went home and stabbed his sleeping wife to death five times with a Bowie knife. Supposedly Whitman killed his wife and mother to spare them the shame of his future crimes.
At 7am he left his house and rented a dolly at the Austin Rental Company at 900 West Tenth, then went to Austin National Bank at Fifth and Congress to cash some checks. Apparently Whitman decided his home arsenal wasn’t enough for the job, so he went to Charles Davis Hardware at 4900 Burnet, and bought a 30-calibre Carbine and some ammunition. He bought more ammo at Chuck’s Gun Shop at 3707 East Avenue (East Avenue later became IH-35), then went to the Sears at 1000 East Forty-first (at Hancock Center), and bought a shotgun and a gun case.
Whitman now had three rifles, a shotgun, and three handguns, as well as three knives, a hatchet, a machete, tools, water, gasoline, a radio, binoculars, toilet paper, deodorant (deodorant?), sandwiches, canned goods, and sweet rolls. He packed these things into a footlocker, donned the coveralls of a maintenance man, and drove to UT.
Whitman told a security guard he had to make a delivery, so he was allowed to park near the Tower. At 11:30 he loaded his locker onto his dolly, grabbed an elevator to the twenty-seventh floor, then climbed a staircase to the twenty-eighth floor–the observation deck level, 231 feet above the ground. Next Whitman bashed open the skull of receptionist Edna Townsley with a rifle butt, shot her in the head, and hid her body. (She later died from her injuries.) After a couple of tourists left the deck, he blocked the stairway to the twenty-seventh floor with some furniture. Soon afterwards, the Gabour and Lamport families made their way up the stairs, surprising Whitman as he was setting up his gear. He shot at them, killing teenager Mark Gabour, his aunt Marguerite Lamport, and critically injuring Mark’s brother Michael and his mother Mary. The force of the blasts sent their bodies rolling back down the stairs, to the horror of the other family members who were bringing up the rear.
Whitman dragged his gear outside, tied on a headband to keep the sweat out of his eyes, and began shooting over the parapet. Down below on the southern side of the building, student Thomas Eckman heard shots and threw himself in front of the pregnant Claire Wilson. A bullet went through him and into Wilson’s belly. Eckman died at the hospital and Wilson’s baby was later stillborn with a crushed skull. Professor Robert Boyer was also killed in the southern plaza in front of the Tower.
By now police had been alerted to what was going on. One of the first to arrive, Billy Speed, was hiding behind the thick stone balustrade beside the statue of Jefferson Davis, south of the southern plaza and north of the South Mall along Inner Campus Drive, but he was shot nonetheless, though it’s unclear as to whether that was due to a really well-placed shot or a ricochet. The next victim, repairman Roy Dell Schmidt, was shot by his truck, south of Littlefield Fountain on Twenty-first.
Whitman now moved around to the east side of the Tower, killing Peace Corps trainee Thomas Ashton, who was on the terrace-like roof of the underground Computation Center. He then ran around to the west side, killing teenagers Paul Sonntag and Claudia Rutt somewhere between the University Co-op at 2246 Guadalupe, the Snyder-Chenards dress shop, and the Sheftall Jewelry Store at 2268 Guadalupe. Graduate student Harry Walchuk was felled in front of a newsstand in the middle of the 2300 block of Guadalupe. Thomas Karr was shot a little further north up that same block–he’d just finished an exam after pulling an all-night study session. Karen Griffith was walking with Karr when she also was shot. Walchuk, Karr, and Griffith all died later in the hospital.
Student David Gunby was also hit while he was walking to the UT Library (which was located in the Main Building in those days); his injuries were such that he had to remain on dialysis the rest of his life. He finally decided to forgo treatment in 2001, and when he died soon afterwards the cause of death was officially listed as homicide.
Contrary to rumors, no one was shot on Martin Luther King, Jr, Boulevard (then called Nineteenth Street). Whitman did, however, wound someone at Twentieth and University, just southwest of the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority house, and hit another at Twenty-fifth and Guadalupe. Both of these victims were about 1,000 yards away from the Tower.
Whitman wounded thirty-one people. They were injured just to the north and south of the Tower, by the northeast corner of the Business Building at Speedway and Inner Campus Drive, in front of the Home Economics Building on Twenty-fourth, southeast of the Littlefield House on Twenty-fourth, at the former Undergraduate Library, in the east courtyard of the Texas Union, all along the 2200 and 2300 blocks of Guadalupe, and at the northwest corner of Twenty-fourth and Guadalupe, next to the Varsity Theater (later Tower Records), where the movie “The Agony and the Ecstasy” was starting its second week.
One aspect of this story that’s not talked about much is that at some point a good number of students, professors, and other Austinites got their own deer rifles and began firing on Whitman from buildings and other vantage points on and off campus. Witness Forrest Preece recalled seeing guys with rifles on the lawn of the Pi Beta Phi sorority house at 2300 San Antonio, while another witness, Buck Wroten, after being dismissed from class, found one English professor firing his deer rifle out of his office window, as a colleague fed him ammo. Austin Police Department Patrolman Houston McCoy obtained some high-powered rifles at the Everett Hardware Company at 2820 Guadalupe (now Ken’s Donuts), but returned them after finding that his long-distance shooting was too shaky to do any good.
The combination of civilian and law enforcement return fire caused Whitman to change position, so that instead of aiming over the ledge, he was shooting through the observation deck downspouts, which afforded him both excellent views and protection. Meanwhile, nearby Brackenridge Hospital, the site of the only emergency room in town at the time, had declared a state of emergency.
Determined to stop the sniper if possible, Allen Crum, Head of Security at the University Co-op bookstore, zig-zagged across campus and into the Tower. There he met Austin PD Patrolmen McCoy, Jerry Day, Milton Shoquist, George Shepard, and Ramiro Martinez, who had just been led into the Tower through the UT tunnel system by campus police officers. Crum offered his help, was given a shotgun, and Martinez deputized him.
The men rode an elevator to the twenty-seventh floor, where Mike Gabour told them there was only one sniper, and that he was outside on the observation deck. They crawled up the steps, cleared the furniture barricade out of the way, and Martinez forced open the door to the southeast side of the deck, which Whitman had jimmied shut with his dolly. Crum and Day turned right, to the southwest, while Martinez, followed at some distance by McCoy, turned left, and inched along the east side of the deck to the northeast corner.
At the northwest corner Martinez spotted Whitman, who was sitting with his back to the parapet. Whitman had the drop on Crum, and was looking south. Martinez fired, Whitman turned, shot at Martinez and missed, and Martinez emptied his .38 into Whitman. McCoy stepped up and fired two rounds from his 12- gauge into Whitman’s head. Whitman slid down onto his back on the deck. Martinez grabbed McCoy’s shotgun and pumped one more round into Whitman’s limp body for good measure.
The shooting stopped. Newsman Neal Spelce, who was broadcasting live from the scene, announced over the radio that it was all over. Whitman’s mad spree had taken ninety minutes. Forrest Preece said he saw a large, smiling African-American guy “striding across the Drag, taking huge long gliding steps.” And then, the doors of the businesses along Guadalupe opened as if on cue and a crowd of about five hundred silent people swarmed onto campus. They approached the Tower, then stopped and parted to let three men pass–Allen Crum and Houston McCoy, who between them were holding up the shocked, shaken, and sweat-soaked Ramiro Martinez, assuring him that he’d done well, that everything would be all right.
When Charles Whitman’s house was searched, in addition to his dead wife, his suicide note, and some letters, the police found a poem. On the paper he’d scrawled, ” 8-1-66. Written sometime in early 1964 when I was in a similar feeling as I have been lately.”
The poem reads in part:
“To maintain sensibility is the greatest effort required–
To slip would be so easy, it would be accomplished with little effort….
To burden others with your problems–are they problems?–
Is not right–However
To carry them is akin to carrying a fused bomb–
I wonder if the fuse can be doused–
If it is doused what will be gained
Will the gain be worth the effort put forth
But should one who considers himself strong, surrender to an enemy he considers so trivial and despicable….”
Bibliography, Sources, and Acknowledgements
When I returned to the Austin History Center in 2009 to double-check the works that I had studied for and cited in the articles I had written three and four years before, I found that in some cases I had made incorrect or incomplete citations. While some of the materials I looked at were old newspaper clippings, sometimes with no date, author, or name of newspaper available, I take responsibility for any errors. Just as alarming to me was the fact I was unable to find a some of the materials I had previously used. Apparently they had been refiled, re-categorized, misfiled, stolen, or I was looking for them in the wrong places. As a result my list of sources is a hybrid of what I was able to find in 2005 to 2006 and what I rediscovered in 2009.
None of this book would have been possible without the kind and efficient help of the staff of the Austin History Center.
I would also like to thank Will Atkins and Corinne Carson of the “Oak Hill Gazette” and formerly of the “Downtown Planet,” and Matt Curtis, formerly Assistant to Austin Mayor Will Wynn.
Other acknowledgements will be found with the sources to specific articles.
[NOTE: I am not posting my end notes on this blog, because I’m not finished with them, and they don’t make very interesting reading.]