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How a journalist solved the murder case of the ‘most hated woman in America’

John MacCormack
John MacCormack
This speech is a decade old but it never grows stale. It still offers a fresh, compelling look at what makes a good reporter tick.

John MacCormack is a veteran journalist at the San Antonio Express-News. Madalyn Murray O’Hair was a controversial atheist who had been reported missing in Austin.

Most people believed O’Hair was alive and well and had skipped town. The Austin Police Department didn’t think any foul play was involved. Vanity Fair even sent a writer to New Zealand to track down O’Hair — and the story suggested she was there.

MacCormack figured out O’Hair had been killed.

How did he do it?

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Check out this speech that MacCormack gave in 1999 at an atheism convention held in San Antonio. At the time of the speech, MacCormack had written story after story laying out how O’Hair and others were most likely the victim of David Waters, a former convict. MacCormack was invited to speak about how he untangled the mystery.

Here’s what I like about MacCormack’s speech:

  • It gave the audience an accurate sense of what it’s like to be a reporter. A lot of times, we get assigned what we initially think are lame stories. But as we dig into them, our curiosity gets the best of us. In this case, MacCormack was assigned to write a story about the one year anniversary of O’Hair’s disappearance. “I’m thinking: Right, a loser story,” MacCormack said. But that initial story put O’Hair on MacCormack’s radar. And he ended up staying with the story for years.
  • For complex stories, it takes time and grunt work to learn the truth:

    I’ve been a reporter about 25 years. I’m very much a generalist: I do whatever comes my way. But of course, every reporter dreams of a story where, when you get hold of it, it slips away, then you get a greater chunk of it, and then you keep pushing, working your way through the murkiness and the fog, and every time you push, you see a little more. That doesn’t happen very often in reporting. Usually the fog just stays put, and you end up writing what little you find out.

  • Reporters have to cultivate good human sources and dig up pertinent documents. A tipster told MacCormack to check out the most recent, publicly available tax forms of O’Hair’s nonprofit organization. The records disclosed, for the first time, that $612,000 had gone missing around the time O’Hair disappeared. That tidbit was an important piece of the puzzle.

    MacCormack later teamed up with a private investigator, and they worked together for 19 months tracking down leads generated from cell phone records.

  • MacCormack talks about the importance of “the serendipity breakthrough, probably where luck plays as big a role as hard work and all those other elements that go into a successful story.” One lazy day, he happened to be scanning the Associated Press wires:

    I was sitting there surfing the waves, as we call it, and you pretend to be working but you’re really sitting there reading all the wire stories. I hit this story. It was just an AP summary of the Dallas Morning News story. It was 6-8 graphs and it said police were still baffled by this horrendous crime, this white guy ended up without his head, his clothes or his hands on this riverbank.

    MacCormack wondered if it was the body of Danny Fry, one of Waters’ associates who, like O’Hair, was also missing. Through much effort and the cooperation of the sheriff’s department and Fry’s family, a DNA test proved the body was Fry:

    We published a story that said this headless guy is Danny Fry. That gets the attention of the FBI. In the next three or four months, there’s furious action. The FBI raids these guys’ apartments, they find guns, they put them in jail, they release an affidavit describing this whole plot where Waters and his buddies kidnapped them. They put the pieces in the puzzle that kind of confirmed our suspicions.

  • Like all good stories, there were unexpected twists:

    This is a rare case where the accused killer wrote a book about the alleged victim! That would be Mr. Waters. Mr. Waters wrote a 200-page book describing how the O’Hairs were in New Zealand. Of course, if he were right, he’s going to sell a lot of books, and he’s also going to live. But no one found her there. Here’s the beginning of Mr. Waters’ book. It’s called “Good God, Madalyn”:

    “To simply label Madalyn an atheist, racist, homophobe, anti-Semite, etc., would be a tremendous misnomer. To her dubious credit, Madalyn Mays Murray O’Hair is an equal opportunity bigot, whose loathing of humanity is evenly dispensed without partiality.”

  • Related: Meet the real reporter in the new Netflix movie about Madalyn Murray O’Hair

    The speech is long but it’s just as clear and compelling as MacCormack’s writing. If you’re interested in journalism and looking for a spark of inspiration, it’s worth a read.