The All-American Boy and the Birth of S.W.A.T.

Jul 26, 2011 - by Mark Pulham

Charles Whitman

Charles Whitman’s killing rampage from the Tower at the University of Texas on August 1, 1966 led to the creation of S.W.A.T. teams in every major city across the United States.  During the 90-minute siege, the former Marine sharpshooter gunned down almost 50 innocent people – 17 of whom, including an 8-month old fetus, would die from their wounds. 

by Mark Pulham

In the 1950’s, American television seemed to embrace the idea of the perfect family, in one form or another. There was “Father Knows Best” with a wise father and his common sense wife raising their three children, two girls and a boy “; there was “Leave It To Beaver” and “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet,” both similar, but with two boys; “The Donna Reed Show” with a girl and a boy as children; and even “My Three Sons,” where the father is widowed.

But no matter what the configuration, they all had one thing in common:  all portrayed the popular image of what a typical “all-American” family should be like, a template for everyone watching. The Whitman family would have fit right in.

The Whitman’s were a typical upper-middle-class American family.  C. A. Whitman was a self made man, a plumber who through hard work and a determination to succeed built his own successful sewage plumbing business. He was also an upstanding citizen in the community, a prominent civic leader, and at one time, he was chairman of the Chamber of Commerce.

He had a perfect family, with a loving wife, Margaret, whom he married in their home town of Savannah, Georgia, and they had three sons, Charles Jr., Patrick, and John. They all lived happily on South L Street in Lake Worth, Florida.

The eldest son was Charles Joseph Whitman. He was born on June 24, 1941, and was precisely what an all-American boy should be. He was blond, good looking, and highly intelligent, scoring 138 on his I.Q. test when he was just 6 years old. He was a good student at St. Ann’s High School in West Palm Beach, an altar boy, as were his brothers, at Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church, and a pitcher with his parochial school baseball team.

At the age of 7, he began learning how to play the piano, and just five years later, at the age of 12, he not only had mastered the piano, but also became one of the youngest to achieve the rank of Eagle Scout. Charles and his father would frequently go on hunting trips, and he had been taught how to handle guns from a young age, how to maintain and clean them, and how to respects them. Like his father, Charles had a fascination with firearms; his father had some 60 in the house. Charles was an expert marksman, able to “take the eye out of a squirrel at fifty yards.”

The family lived in comfort, in a house that was one of the nicest in the neighbourhood. It even had a swimming pool. Margaret’s cars were always the latest models, and the boys were given gifts such as guns, motorcycles, and others that C. A. thought appropriate. They were an ideal family, and Charles was a young man that any father would be happy to see his daughter married to.


Living a Lie

But behind the bright façade, there was darkness. C. A. Whitman ruled the house with an iron fist, an overbearing dictator and uncompromising authoritarian who saw nothing wrong or unusual with using emotional or physical abuse if any members of his family did not abide by the Draconian rules that he laid down. As the breadwinner of the family, the demanding father asked for perfection from all the family, including his wife, Margaret, and when his set of laws were not followed, his punishments would be harsh, with beatings with fists and belts. “I did on many occasions beat my wife,” C. A. would later say, “but I loved her.”

Charles succeeded in achievements because not to do so would result in a severe beating. As he practiced his piano, Charles was fully aware of the strap that C. A. had placed within sight on the piano just around eye level. No doubt the push to become one of the youngest Eagle Scouts was coerced in a similar fashion. C. A.’s “tough love” worked. “I don’t think I spanked enough, if you want to know the truth about it,” he once said.

Yes, they lived in relative luxury, but the price to pay was high, and the underlying trouble in the family was becoming too much for the oldest Whitman child. In early 1959, Charles had been out with friends, and he was drunk. When he staggered home, his father was waiting up for him. His enraged father beat him mercilessly, and then pushed him into the swimming pool. Charles, badly beaten and drunk, almost drowned. For Charles, it was the end. He needed to get out, he had to escape.


Be All You Can Be

Two weeks before his 18th birthday, he got away. On July 6, 1959, Charles, encouraged by his mother, joined the United States Marine Corps, against his fathers’ wishes. While Charles was aboard the train that would take him to the Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island in South Carolina, his father was making some phone calls to some “branch of the Federal Government” to try and get his son’s enlistment cancelled. He didn’t succeed.

Used to discipline at home, Charles made a good Marine, earning a Good Conduct medal, a Marine Corps Expeditionary Medal, and not surprisingly, a Sharpshooters Badge. His score record on his shooting test showed 215 out of 250 possible points. It also stated that he excelled at rapid fire from long distances, and that he was apparently even more accurate when the target was moving. “He was a good Marine,” recalled Captain Joseph Stanton, executive officer of the 2nd Marine Division. “I was impressed with him. I was certain he’d make a good citizen.”

The Naval Enlisted Science Education Program seemed ideal for Charles. His upbringing had made him determined to be the best Marine he could possibly be, and this scholarship program would help in that goal. It allowed Marines to attend university, and later become officers. Charles took the test and passed. He got a scholarship to study mechanical engineering.

He selected the University of Texas in Austin, with its 232-acre campus, green mall, and red tile roofs, overlooked by Austin’s tallest edifice, the 307 foot clock tower of the Beaux-Arts Building. Its panoramic view, taking in the campus and the downtown area of Austin, drew 20,000 visitors a year.

Kathy Frances Leissner
Kathy Frances Leissner

Charles was admitted to the University on September 15, 1961, and in a very short while, met a young woman named Kathy Frances Leissner, a bright and pretty undergraduate two years younger than him. She was outgoing, fun to be with, and Charles fell in love with her.

After spending most of his life following rules and regulations, his father’s or the Marines’, Charles now experienced relative freedom, and almost immediately began to get into trouble. In one incident, he and some friends went hunting, and poached a deer at night. The animal was dragged back to the dormitory, leaving a trail of blood, and Charles gutted and skinned it in the shower.

Charles and Kathy on their wedding day
Charles and Kathy on their wedding day

On August 17, 1962, Charles and Kathy married, and for a while, Charles’s behavior began to improve, but not for long. His grades were slipping, and a few other incidents, resulted in the Marines withdrawing his scholarship and returning him to active duty in early 1963.

He was stationed at Camp Lejeune, a Marine Base in North Carolina. Although he got promoted to lance corporal, he was no longer a good Marine. The year and a half of freedom that he’d enjoyed had left him unable to cope with the structure and discipline that the Marines demanded. He was also lonely, and missed Kathy, who was still in Texas finishing her degree. He began to resent the Marine Corp.

He was getting into fights, gambling more and more, and threatened a fellow Marine who owed him money. Caught with an illegal firearm, Charles was court-martialled, and his promotion to lance corporal was stripped, busting him back down to a private. In December, 1964, he was honorably discharged.

Charles returned to Austin, determined to redeem himself. He reapplied to the University of Texas, this time to study architectural engineering. Kathy was the major breadwinner in the family, with her teaching job at Lanier High School providing the health insurance and the salary. Charles also worked, as a bill collector for the Standard Finance Company, followed by a teller’s job at the Austin National Bank. He was also a volunteer scoutmaster for the Austin Scout Troop 5.


His Father’s Son

As much as he hated his father for the rigid discipline and the violence he perpetrated on his family, Charles found himself falling into the same pattern, and had become violent toward Kathy. Charles was horrified by what he did, and vowed not to be the same as his father. He had begun keeping a journal, and wrote in it a reminder of how a husband should act.

But he was becoming increasingly frustrated and experienced bouts of anger that damaged his self-respect, already eroded at his failure as a Marine and as a student. To all outward appearances, Charles was a hard-working, loving and devoted husband, all of which was true. But inside, he was hiding a personality that was churning with self-hatred.

In the spring of 1966, Margaret Whitman had finally had enough of her husband’s physical abuse, and she phoned Charles to come down to Lake Worth and help her move to Austin. His brother John also moved as well, leaving C. A. with just Patrick, who was working for the family business. It seemed to Charles that the dysfunctional family that he had left to start fresh had followed him. It didn’t help when Charles’s father phoned several times a week asking him to persuade Margaret to move back to Lake Worth. Charles, already plagued with anxiety and depression, began to worsen.

Seeing how her husband’s bleak outlook was deepening, Kathy urged him to seek help. He saw Dr. Jan D. Cochrun, who prescribed Valium for Charles, and also referred him to a University Health Centre Staff psychiatrist, Dr. Maurice Heatly. On March 29, 1966, Heatly began seeing Charles, and his patient told of his hatred of his father, and how, like his father, he had beaten Kathy a few times. Heatly felt that Charles was “oozing with hostility.” Charles himself was worried that he would explode, and was making “intense efforts” to control his growing temper. Charles told Heatly that he was “thinking about going up on the tower with a deer rifle and start shooting people.” Heatly was not particularly concerned. Many patients expressed the same desire and it was a common fantasy. Heatly urged Charles to come back the following week and they would talk some more. Charles never returned.

For the next few months, Charles attended classes and his job, helped by the amphetamine, Dexedrine. He was trying his best to excel, but couldn’t accomplish his goal. He spent sleepless nights studying, but the drugs had made him inefficient, and it led to his own self-esteem suffering even more. Charles was under enormous stress, suffering headaches, and trying ever harder to better himself. He was also still getting phone calls from his hated father, trying to get him to convince his mother to go back to Lake Worth. To make matters worse, the amphetamines he was taking were making his mood swings increasingly more volatile.


A Boiling Rage

Outwardly, Charles was much the same, but inside, and unnoticed, he was silently boiling with a rage that was about to explode.

July 31, 1966 was the hottest day of the year, with temperatures reaching the upper 90s. That morning, Charles had gone out shopping while his wife was at her summer job as a telephone operator. He visited Davis’s Hardware store and bought a Bowie knife and a pair of binoculars, then went to a 7-Eleven store and got some canned meat. He picked Kathy up from work and they drove down to the Wyatt cafeteria where his mother, Margaret, worked. They had a late lunch with her, and then visited their friends, John and Fran Morgan, who lived in the neighborhood. Later, he dropped Kathy back at work at Southwestern Bell for her 6-10 p.m. shift. He went shopping again, buying weapons and ammunition.

At home, 906 Jewell Street, Charles sat down at his typewriter and began typing a letter to explain everything and to say goodbye. Dated Sunday, July 31, 1966, 6:45 p.m., it begins, “I do not quite understand what it is that compels me to type this letter. Perhaps it is to leave some vague reason for the actions I have recently performed. I don’t really understand myself these days. I am supposed to be an average reasonable and intelligent young man. However, lately (I cannot recall when it started) I have been a victim of many unusual and irrational thoughts.” He later goes on, “After my death I wish that an autopsy would be performed on me to see if there is any visible physical disorder.”

He talks about his headaches and the stress of his parent’s separation, then goes on to some of his immediate plans. “It was after much thought that I decided to kill my wife, Kathy, tonight after I pick her up from work at the telephone company. I love her dearly, and she has been as fine a wife to me as any man could ever hope to have.  The prominent reason in my mind is that I truly do not consider this world worth living in, and am prepared to die, and I do not want to leave her to suffer alone in it. I intend to kill her as painlessly as possible." Further down, he continued, "Similar reasons provoked me to take my mother's life also. I don’t think the poor woman has ever enjoyed life as she in entitled to. She was a simple young woman who married a very possessive and dominating man."

At one point, two friends of his and Kathy’s, Larry and Elaine Fuess, dropped by for a short while. They found him to be "particularly relieved about something—you know, as if he had solved a problem." The couple left around 8:30, and Charles left shortly after to pick up Kathy from work.

Kathy was tired when they got home, and she went to bed after chatting on the phone for a while. For some reason, Charles decided not to kill her just then. Instead, he drove across to The Penthouse apartment block in Guadalupe Street, where his mother lived in apartment 505. Margaret Whitman met her son in the lobby and they both went up to the fifth floor. As soon as they were in the apartment, Charles attacked his mother. It’s unclear exactly what happened, but it is likely that he choked her into unconsciousness and then stabbed her through the heart with a hunting knife. There was also massive trauma to the back of her head, but no autopsy was performed, and so it is not known whether she was shot in the back of the head, or hit with a heavy object. However, no neighbors reported hearing a gunshot or anything like it.

Margaret Whitman dead
Margaret Whitman dead

He carried his mother’s body into the bedroom and laid it on the bed, then pulled up the bedclothes to make it appear as though she was sleeping. He then wrote a letter, which he left beside her body. It read:

Monday 8-1-66, 12:30AM.


I have just taken my mothers life. I am very upset over having done it. However, I feel that if there is a heaven she is definitely there now. And if there is no life after, I have relieved her of her suffering here on earth. The intense hatred I feel for my father is beyond description. My mother gave that man the 25 best years of her life and because she finally took enough of his beatings, humiliation and degradation and tribulations that I am sure no one but she and he will ever know – to leave him. He has chosen to treat her like a slut that you would bed down with, accept her favors and then throw a pittance in return.

I am truly sorry that this is the only way I could see to relieve her sufferings but I think it was best.

Let there be no doubt in your mind I loved that woman with all my heart. If there exists A God let him understand my actions and judge me accordingly.

Charles J. Whitman.

Charles left a note on the door of the apartment for the building houseman. Roy, I don't have to be to work today and I was up late last night. I would like to get some rest. Please do not disturb me. Thank you. Mrs. Whitman."

Charles returned home to 906 Jewell Street. Kathy was sleeping when Charles came into the bedroom. In his hand was a bayonet. He crossed to his wife’s sleeping form, and plunged the bayonet into her chest five times, then went back and finished the letter he had begun typing, this time by hand. In it, he wrote: “I imagine it appears that I brutally killed both of my loved ones. I was only trying to do a quick thorough job...If my life insurance policy is valid please pay off my debts...donate the rest anonymously to a mental health foundation. Maybe research can prevent further tragedies of this type.” In the margin on the left of the letter, Charles had written 8-1-66 Mon 3:00AM. BOTH dead.”

Charles then began preparations for his final act. He took his old Marine footlocker and began to load it. He packed enough food for a couple of weeks, canned meat, three gallons of water, gasoline, knives, a transistor radio, flashlight and batteries - and guns. There was a 9mm Luger pistol, a Galesi-Brescia pistol, and a Smith and Wesson .357 Magnum revolver. He also added a .30 calibre Remington rifle and a 6mm Remington 700 bolt-action hunting rifle with a four power Luepold telescopic scope, with which even a non-expert could hit, consistently, a six inch target from 300 yards. And Charles was an expert sharpshooter.

At 5:45a.m., Charles called the supervisor at Southwestern Bell and told her that Kathy was feeling unwell and that she would not be in to work that day. An hour and a half later, Charles went to Austin Rental Company and rented a two wheeled movers dolly to help him move the loaded footlocker around. Then he decided the firepower he had was not enough, and from Davis’s Hardware, he purchased a .30 calibre M-1 carbine, telling the salesman that he was going hunting for pigs. He then went to Sears, where he bought a 12 gauge shotgun, and visited Chuck’s Gun Shop, where he bought some 30 shot magazines for the new carbine. He now had around 700 rounds.

By the time he arrived back home, it was 10:30 a.m., and he called the Wyatt Cafeteria and told his mother’s employers that she would not be in for work as she was ill. Then, out in the garage, he took the new shotgun and began to saw off the barrel and the stock. While he was doing this, the postman, Chester Arrington, stopped and chatted with Whitman for about 25 minutes. Years later, Arrington would say, “I saw him sawing off the shotgun. I knew it was illegal. All I had to do was pick up the telephone and report him. It could have stopped him. I’ve always blamed myself.” Charles placed both new guns with the collection already in the footlocker.


The Texas Tower Massacre

Clock Tower at the University of Texas at Austin
Clock Tower at the University of Texas at Austin

Around 11 a.m., Charles started to get ready for his day. He put of a pair of khaki coveralls over his clothes, then loaded the footlocker on the dolly and wheeled it to the car. A half hour later, Charles arrived at the University of Texas campus. Charles showed security guard Jack Rodman his Carrier Identification card, which he had obtained as a research assistant. Telling Rodman that he had some equipment to unload, he got a loading zone permit. Charles entered the main building, where the power to the elevator had to be turned on by Vera Palmer before Charles could go up.

He exited at the 27th floor, one floor below the observation deck, and then dragged the dolly and the footlocker up the remaining three short flights of steps to the next floor.

It was Edna Townsley’s day off that Monday, August 1, but the 51-year-old woman was filling in on the Observation Deck reception desk. Her shift was to finish at noon, less than an hour away. When Charles appeared, dragging along the dolly with his footlocker, Edna asked if he had his University work identification.

Charles immediately attacked the woman, smashing her across the head, most likely with a rifle butt, with such force that part of her skull was ripped off. Charles dragged Edna behind the couch and hid her there. She would die a few hours later.

Moments later, a young couple, Cheryl Botts and Don Walden, appeared from the observation deck where they had been taking in the view. Whitman stood there, a rifle in each hand. For some reason, Charles did not kill them, but just let them go. They exchanged a greeting with each other, and the couple walked over to the elevator. Cheryl would later say that she thought he was up there to shoot the pigeons.

Once the couple had gone, Charles pulled the desk over to block the entrance to the deck, and then took his footlocker up the short stairway that led out onto the observation deck. There, he opened the footlocker and began unloading his arsenal, placing guns and ammunition in all directions along the deck so that he could run to almost any position and fire from there.

Marguerite Lamport
Marguerite Lamport

As Charles is doing this, M. J. Gabour, a service station owner from Texarkana, and his wife Mary, are heading up the stairs, along with their two sons, 16-year-old Mark, and 18-year-old Mike. Also with them is M. J.’s sister, Marguerite Lamport and her husband William.

The six came across the makeshift barricade, and began to push the desk out of the way. The two boys leaned through the door to see what was happening. Charles aimed the sawn off shotgun and fired.

Mark Gabour and his aunt, Marguerite Lamport were killed instantly.

Charles fired at least three more times. Mike Gabour was hit in the neck and shoulder, and toppled over the railing into other members of the family. He was partially disabled by the blast. His mother Mary had also been hit, leaving her permanently disabled. M. J. and William moved the wounded down the stairs, and then ran for help.

Charles wedged the door to the observation deck closed with the dolly, then, with a white sweatband around his head, turned his attention to the people milling below. On this blazingly hot day, there were plenty of people around. He picked up his most accurate weapon, the scoped rifle, and sighted down the South Mall. At around 11:48 a.m., his finger began to tighten on the trigger.

Claire Wilson
Claire Wilson

Claire Wilson was 18-years-old and very happy. As she walked along outside Benedict Hall with her boyfriend, Thomas Eckman, also 18, they talked about the proper nutrition that she should be getting for her unborn baby. She had just entered her eighth month of pregnancy.

Charles looked through the powerful scope at her as she walked along the path. He aimed carefully, not at Claire’s head, but at her stomach. He squeezed the trigger.

The high powered bullet jolted her as it passed through her abdomen and through the skull of her unborn child.

Claire cried out and fell. Thomas, horrified, turned to help and said, “Baby!”, then said nothing more as another bullet tore through his chest.

At first, no-one seemed to know what was happening. They could hear the rifle fire, but dismissed them, not knowing what it was. Many people stopped, and became stable targets for Charles up on the tower. Once they started to notice people crumbling to the ground, realization set in, and panic began to spread.

People fell. Dr. Robert Hamilton Boyer was a visiting mathematics professor. The 33-year-old had just finished a month-long teaching job in Mexico, and was going to be moving to England to work at Liverpool University. His pregnant wife Lyndsay and their two children, Matthew and Laura, were already there and waiting for his arrival. He had just stepped out onto the mall to head off for lunch when a bullet hit his lower back. He died quickly.

Charlotte Darehshori
Charlotte Darehshori

Some people ran out to help the injured, and became targets themselves. Charlotte Darehshori, secretary in the Graduate Studies Department, was one of these, but she was lucky. She realized that she was being fired upon, and took refuge behind the concrete base of a flagpole, where she stayed for the whole hour and a half of the shooting. She was uninjured.

Charles turned his attention toward the east of the tower.

Thomas Ashton was 22-years-old, a Peace Corps trainee from Redlands, California. On September 14, he was due to be shipped out to Iran, and was attending the University of Texas for his Peace Corps orientation. The recent graduate from the University of Southern California walked along the top of the Computation Center when a bullet tore through his chest. He died at Brackenridge Hospital later.

Within four minutes of the first shot, the Austin police began to receive reports of someone shooting from the top of the clock tower at the University. An alarm went out on the radio. All units in the vicinity sped toward the campus. Around 100 Austin City hundred policemen converged on the university, along with over 30 highway patrolmen, Texas Rangers, and even some U. S. Secret Service agents from Lyndon Johnson’s Austin office.

Charles shoots from the Clock Tower
Charles shoots from the Clock Tower

At this time, there was some confusion as to just how many shooters there actually were on the tower. With Charles running from point to point, picking up a weapon, and shooting from there, the impression the police were getting was that there were more than one person up there, maybe even as many as four.


Police Outgunned

The police were also at a disadvantage when it came to firepower. They had their .38’s and their shotguns, but neither had the range to bother the sniper. In addition, Charles was behind the 18-inch thick walls of the parapet. He was virtually impregnable.

Charles turned his attention west, and aimed down Guadalupe Street, a busy thoroughfare known as “The Drag.”  Lined with businesses and shops, restaurants and cafes, it was a perfect killing ground. Seventeen- year-old Aleck Hernandez, a newsboy, was hit while cycling along, injured, but not killed. Seventeen-year old Karen Griffith was not so lucky. The student from Lanier High School, the same school where Kathy Whitman was a teacher, dropped to the ground, badly wounded with a bullet through her lung. Thomas Karr had just left Batts Hall where he had taken a Spanish test and was walking along by Karen Griffith. Probably as he tried to help Karen, he also fell to the ground after a bullet tore through his spine. The 24-year-old former Army Security Agency Specialist died an hour later. Karen Griffith survived a week before she too died from her wounds.

Billy Speed
Billy Speed

Among the first officers on the scene were Jerry Day and Billy Speed. Speed was 23-years-old, and was considering giving up his police career and going back to school. Houston McCoy, another Austin police officer, arrived at around the same time. Billy Speed took cover behind the Jefferson Davis statue on Inner Campus Drive. A six-inch gap between the balustrade of the rail around the statue allowed Speed to see the tower. It was enough for Charles Whitman. He placed a bullet through the gap that hit Speed in the shoulder. Although it looked like a superficial wound, the bullet had actually travelled down into Speed’s chest. Billy Speed was fatally injured.

The bloodshed continued, with Charles listening to everything that was going on through news reports on his radio.

Harry Walchuk had gone to Guadalupe Street to buy a magazine. The 39-year-old teacher at Michigan’s Alpena Community College, and father of six, had just left the newsstand when a bullet slammed through his chest, killing him.

High School students Paul Bolton Sonntag, Claudia Rutt, and Carla Sue Wheeler had taken cover behind a construction barricade in front of Snyder-Chenards, a dress shop. Paul and Claudia were engaged, and they were downtown so Claudia could get a polio vaccination that she needed before entering Texas Christian University. Paul, a recent graduate of Stephen F. Austin High school, had been accepted at the University of Colorado, and was working as a lifeguard at a local swimming pool.

Paul moved to get a better look, and said, “I can see him. This is for real!” A moment later, a bullet hit him in the mouth and he died instantly. Claudia made a move to help her fiancé, exposing herself. A bullet caught her in the chest and she, too, lay alongside Paul. She would die later at Brackenridge Hospital. Both were just 18 years old.

According to reports, Paul’s grandfather, Paul Bolton, and anchor at KTBC, learned of his grandson’s death only when he read the list of victims over the air.

By now, police officers and civilians, realizing that the police issue firearms were ineffective, had rushed home and returned with their personal weapons, rifles which were more powerful. They aimed up at the clock tower and as the bullets hit the parapet, Charles found himself pinned down. Finding targets was now more difficult, and he began to use the waterspouts as gun ports. This protected him from the shooters below, but limited his choice of targets. Austin police officer Ramiro Martinez, who had been off duty, but put on his uniform and rushed to the scene, credited the civilians and their high powered weapons saying that if it was not for their fire making it hard for the shooter, there would have been more deaths and injuries.

Over 500 yards away south of the tower, two city electricians, Roy Dell Schmidt and Solon McCown, had parked their truck and had joined some reporters and spectators. Clustered behind their vehicles, they felt they were safe from being hit, they were far enough away. Roy, 29, stood, probably to see a little better. But Charles was an expert marksman, and despite the enormous distance, he put a bullet through Roy’s stomach. Roy died 10 minutes later.

A police airplane had been sent up with a marksman, Police Lt. Marion Lee. But turbulence made it hard for Lee to get a steady shot. Charles, on the other hand, was able to brace himself, and was able to hit the plane. The pilot, Jim Boutwell, took the plane out of range and from that safe distance, continued to circle the tower. Lee reported that he could only see one gunman.

Charles marksmanship was almost unbelievable. Robert Heard, a 36-year-old reporter for the Associated Press, was running as fast as he could when a bullet tore into his shoulder. Although in great pain, Robert remarked, “What a shot!”


Taking Whitman Out

Houston McCoy
Houston McCoy

As this was before the widespread use of walkie-talkies; communications between officers on the ground was virtually non-existent. Once they left their cars, they were on their own. It was clear that something drastic had to be done. Houston McCoy, Jerry Day, and Ramiro Martinez had each, independently, come to the same conclusion and plan of action. This was not going to end until someone goes up there and ends it. They all decided to storm the tower.

Each man made his way to the tower, either by taking a chance and zigzagging to avoid getting shot, or by the use of maintenance tunnels. Eventually, all three, along with a civilian named Allen Crum, a 40-year- old retired Air Force tail gunner, arrived on the 27th floor. None of the police officers had ever been in a gunfight, and Crum had never fired a shot in combat.

Ramiro Martinez
Ramiro Martinez

All four men carefully removed the furniture barricade, and then made their way up to the reception area. They managed to kick the door to the observation deck until the dolly that wedged it shut fell away. The four men stepped out onto the observation deck. It was around 1:20 p.m.

They split into two teams. The shots seemed to be coming from the northwest corner of the observation deck, so Martinez and McCoy headed north along the east deck, while Day and Crum headed west along the south deck. Day and Crum were several feet away from the southwest corner when Crum accidentally fired his rifle.

Charles, who was about to move position, heard the shot and went back to the northwest corner. There, he sat with his back against the north wall and aimed his carbine down the length of the west walkway to the southwest corner where the shot had come from. With his focus concentrated on the southwest, he didn’t see Martinez jump around the corner.

Seeing Whitman 50 feet away, Martinez immediately opened fire with his .38, emptying all six shots into Whitman. At the same time, McCoy jumped to the right of Martinez and fired two shots from his 12 gauge shotgun, hitting Whitman in the neck, head, and left side. Whitman began to slump down. Martinez saw that the sniper’s gun was still moving, grabbed McCoy’s shotgun and ran up to Whitman. Martinez fired point blank into Whitman.

Charles dead
Charles dead

The time was 1:24 p.m. The worst shooting in the history of Texas was over.

Kathy Whitman’s father was listening to the radio reports that were coming in, and he heard the name of his son in law. Concerned, he contacted the police in Austin. They sent a car around to Jewell Street to make sure Kathy was okay. Officers Donald Kidd and Bolton Gregory looked through the window. There they saw Kathy’s body lying in bed. Once inside, they found that she had been dead for several hours. Seeing Charles’s notes and reading that he had killed his mother, another car was sent to the Penthouse, and around 3 p.m., they found the body of Margaret Whitman.

Dr. Maurice Heatly came under close scrutiny when it was found he treated Charles, and had been told of his fantasy about shooting people from the tower. But he was never found to be responsible, he’d done the best he could with what little information he’d got from Charles.

C. A. Whitman was later interviewed by the press and said, “I am a fanatic about guns. My boy’s knew all about them. I believe in that.” He would also say that Charles “always was a crack shot.” He seemed quite proud.

The Austin shootings demonstrated what one single-minded individual could do, and how helpless the police were when it came to a situation that was outside of normal procedures. It was clear that the police were unprepared for events of this type, and so there was a decision to train a new squad to handle this type of situation.

Shortly after the events at the University of Texas, the Los Angeles Police Department formed the first of these teams, which were originally to be called the Special Weapons Assault Team. However, it was pointed out that this name sounded too military. Keeping the same initials, it was renamed Special Weapons and Tactics, and the acronym S.W.A.T. entered our language.


The Autopsy

Whitman at Cook Funeral Home
Whitman at Cook Funeral Home

Whitman had requested an autopsy, and it was carried out the following day. They found a brain tumor, a glioblastoma, in the hypothalamus region that was possibly pressing against the amygdala. It has been speculated that this may have been a contributing factor to his actions, along with his personal life, and that it is not uncommon for people suffering from this tumor to have rage issues.

No one knows exactly what caused Charles Whitman to do what he did. Was it the tumor? Was it the drug abuse? Some have pointed to his psychological disintegration and the emotional strain put upon him by his abusive father, and the need to become a better person, only to fail. Others have blamed, at least in part, his Marine training, where recruits are instructed on how to take life without consequence or regard. More than likely, it is a combination of all the above.

To say he was insane would be untrue. He was certainly troubled, but on August 1, 1966, Charles Whitman knew exactly what he was doing. This was no spur of the moment killing, a sudden explosion of violence. This was a meticulously planned assault. In between killing his mother and wife, he interacted with several people, and didn’t kill them. His plan was to kill from the clock tower, and it’s difficult to believe that someone insane would ignore the others he met up with during the day.

In the 90 or so minutes that Charles Whitman was on the observation deck, he had managed to shoot almost 50 people. Some had died instantly; some had clung on to life for hours, or in Karen Griffith’s case, a week. A memorial garden was dedicated in 2006 to the victims of that day, but for many, when they remember the event, it is the tower that they look to.

Those who survived were changed forever. Claire Wilson, Charles’ first victim, survived, but she would never be able to have another child.

David Gumby was a 23-year-old student, studying electrical engineering. As he had walked toward the library, a bullet caught him in the lower back. Gumby had been born with only one functioning kidney, and in the hospital, as doctors tried to reconnect his small intestine which had been severed by the bullet, they noticed that Gumby’s sole kidney had also been destroyed by that shot. Gumby needed a kidney transplant, and spent the rest of his life on dialysis.

After more than 35 years of suffering, and being informed that the treatment may now also cost him his eyesight, Gumby had enough, and refused any more medical treatment. On November 12, 2001, David Gumby died peacefully. Under cause of death, the Tarrant County Coroner wrote “Homicide.” Three and a half decades later, Whitman killed his final victim, the 17th to die from his shooting rampage.

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