Legends die hard in Texas, and so the truth may never be known about who really killed Charles Whitman on top of the University of Texas tower here nearly three decades ago.
Was it Officer Ramiro Martinez, showered with national acclaim as a true Texas hero, who rode that fame in a 20-year career with the fabled Texas Rangers and was lionized in a made-for-TV movie?
Or was it Officer Houston McCoy, a lanky, slow-moving drifter who eventually left police work and took a twisted trail that has left him drunk, broke and divorced?
“I’m a west Texas cowboy and west Texas cowboys don’t normally open their mouths,” McCoy said the other day, after all these years coming forth to claim, with a good deal of proof, that he is the real hero.
“But if Ramiro Martinez was sitting right here and saying he shot Charles Whitman, I’d call him a liar right to his face.”
One hundred miles away but worlds apart, Martinez feels equally unkind toward McCoy. “All I can say is I feel sorry for him,” he said with a ring of disgust.
Whomever it is, the man who shot Charles Whitman was the bravest of them all.
Whitman, an altar boy, an Eagle Scout, a Marine--the All-American Kid--had climbed to the top of the 300-foot Texas landmark and opened fire. In cold-blooded murder on a hot August day, 16 were left dead and 31 injured, and a nation forever changed.
It was the first of its kind, the first time a madman would shoot down so many innocent people in a public arena. It was 1966, before police had SWAT teams and hostage negotiators, before police in Austin even had walkie-talkies or bulletproof vests or the firepower to cut down a crazy blond-haired sharpshooter who packed his footlocker full of guns and lugged it up the tower.
The Whitman shooting spree stunned the nation, and more would follow in the years ahead. The San Ysidro McDonald’s. The Stockton schoolyard. The post office slayings. Today the random killings--sometimes as many as two or three a month--often seem to go unnoticed, relegated to the back pages of the nation’s newspapers.
But in fact they are traumatic events in our lifetime, events so difficult to deal with that many of the survivors and their families and the police officers forced to risk their lives never fully recover.
That is certainly true in Texas.
In some ways, said James Alan Fox, an East Coast criminologist, Whitman never died at all. Rather, he lives on in the lore of the Wild West, more so than most of the other killers Fox has studied as the co-author of two books about mass murder in America.
“Charlie Whitman looked and acted so normal,” said Fox, dean of the College of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University in Boston.
“He targeted college students, purely innocent people in the wrong place at the wrong time. He had all the elements for affecting the American psyche.”
In the hoopla that surrounded the tower shooting, could the public have been duped? If the wrong man was named a hero, how do you correct such a mistake? How do you right history? Maybe you don’t. Maybe it’s like that John Ford movie classic, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” in which the wrong man is honored for killing a notorious outlaw. At the end of the Western, the editor of the Shinbone Star, upon learning the truth, tears up his notes and says: “This is the West, sir. When fact becomes legend, print the legend.”
Thus, the legend.
Guns at the Whitman home. Guns in the family pickup. Guns at the firing range and in long hunting trips in the Florida marsh. It was a love passed down from his father, Charles Whitman Sr., who at 76 is still working in the plumbing business around West Palm Beach.
The elder Whitman had three sons, and when each graduated high school, he handed them a new car and “all the love I could give them.” Today, all three boys are buried together in South Florida--one killed in a barroom shootout in Florida, another lost to AIDS in California, and Charlie dead on top of the tower in Texas.
“We went hunting all the time,” the elder Whitman recalled in a recent interview, speaking of his namesake and favorite son. “Both of us did. I taught him how to shoot before he even joined the Marines.”
He was rated a sharpshooter in the military, just one peg below expert, and it was said “he could hit a quail on the fly with a .22 rifle.”
Later he married, moved to Austin, and enrolled as an architectural engineering student at the university here. He soon was earning A’s and Bs. In the summer of 1966 he was a junior majoring in architectural engineering, drove a Navy blue Chevrolet Impala and, doctors discovered later, had a small tumor in his brain.
The night before he climbed the tower, he shot his mother in her Austin apartment, then stabbed her with his old military bayonet. He lifted her body into bed and covered her with a floral bedspread.
Then he returned to his little brick house, stabbed his wife five times, killing her, and before heading out for the campus, left a series of notes. He talked about “the pressures bearing down,” how he had “decided to fight it out alone,” how “I am prepared to die.”
“If there exists a God,” he wrote, “let Him understand my actions and judge me accordingly.”
He dressed in nylon coveralls and a white bandanna. He was hatless in the hot Texas sun. And he was armed.
In the footlocker he had packed a sawed-off shotgun, a .35-caliber Remington pump rifle, a 6-millimeter Remington bolt-action rifle with four-power scope, a .30-caliber M-1 carbine, a .25-caliber pistol, a 9-millimeter Luger, and a .357 Smith & Wesson magnum pistol. He also carried three hunting knives, one pocket knife and about 1,200 rounds of ammunition.
The typical Austin police officer carried only a service revolver.
For 99 minutes on Aug. 1, Whitman ruled the campus. With deadly, pinpoint accuracy, he killed or wounded fellow students, a police officer, shopkeepers and shoppers on busy Guadalupe Street, even a newspaper boy making his rounds on a bicycle.
He was firing so fast and so often, with so many puffs of smoke coming from different angles on the observation deck, that many on the ground believed there were two or three snipers. Some thought it was the Black Panthers; others thought it was student activists who’d had enough of the Vietnam War.
“Oh it hurt,” said Lana Kay Mitchell, then a 20-year-old part-time student wounded on Guadalupe Street, now a mother and music teacher. “It deafened me it was so loud. It went in my shoulder and hit a brick wall and bounced off.
“It was like a madhouse. I thought the whole world had gone crazy.”
Robert Heard, an Associated Press reporter, scrambled from the nearby Capitol building to the campus a few blocks away. He saw several police officers trying to make it to the base of the tower. His instincts kicked in and he followed them, trying to zigzag as he ran across the campus lawn. Then he was hit in the arm.
“For three nights after that, I had nightmares,” he said. “It was always the same nightmare. I could see myself in the scope of a rifle and the cross-hairs were at my chest and I was running.”
But what he never saw was what happened on top of the tower because he never made it there. If he had, he would have been the one professional objective observer, the one man who could have told the world who indeed shot Charles Whitman.
Whitman’s bullet-riddled body was finally brought down, his face and head nearly blown off, his heart and chest a burned mess of gunpowder and shotgun pellets. A mad throng of people crowded, pushed, mauled even, to try to reach the stretcher and tear at his body. Anger was high, eyes were ablaze, and at that moment was born the hysteria.
From the first day, Martinez was hailed as a hero. His photograph, larger even than Whitman’s school mug shot, covered a quarter of the front page of the next morning’s Austin American.
The caption read: “SHOOTS SLAYER. Patrolman Ramiro Martinez put the first bullet into the sniper atop the University of Texas tower, and then emptied his police revolver as the sniper whirled and fired at him.”
Even Whitman’s father, after flying to Austin to confer with Chief Bob Miles and Martinez, came away from the meeting convinced that Martinez had killed his boy. “I believed he did it and I still believe it today,” the father said. “And if I had been in his boots, I’d have done the same thing.”
The plaudits came tumbling in, even the cherished National Police Officers Assn. Medal of Valor, citing Martinez for bravery. He catapulted his stardom into a two-decade career with the Texas Rangers, bought a new home in New Braunfels, Tex., and is still so well-known that he recently was elected a county justice of the peace.
Even after the sniper incident was turned into a movie, which clearly portrayed him as the hero, he received an out-of-court settlement with the producers because he did not like everything they said. After that, who would want to take on the man who shot Charles Whitman?
Those same years passed hard for Houston McCoy.
He left police work, and tried and failed at a series of odd jobs. He befriended the bottle, and he lost his wife. When he sued the same movie company for making him out a coward, the judge not only tossed out the lawsuit, but also ordered him to pay the opposing attorney’s fees.
He lives today in a boarded-up laundry once owned by his family in tiny Menard, Tex. His memories are stuffed into a little cardboard box, full of yellowed newspaper clippings and police reports and scribbles he can hardly read himself. He is too broke to pay for copying fees. You want to read his files, bring a notebook.
For inside that box lies his secret.
There are the findings from Whitman’s autopsy, which says that because of the numerous shotgun rounds fired by McCoy, it is impossible to tell whether any of Martinez’s .38-caliber slugs ever hit the sniper.
And there is a statement from Austin’s ex-Police Chief Miles, made shortly before his death, attesting to the fact that the media hoopla that rose so quickly around Martinez never gave authorities a chance to honor the right man, McCoy, a man too modest to assert his own heroism.
“When it came right down to it,” the chief said, “it was Houston McCoy who killed him. Houston got the short end of the stick on publicity, if anyone wants to take credit for killing somebody.”
The chief’s words were carried in a few of the state’s papers shortly after his death. But it never resurrected McCoy’s reputation, nor dampened Martinez’s. So now McCoy wants to say what he remembers what happened 30 stories above the University of Texas.
But first let Martinez tell it.
It was his day off when he heard the news on the radio at home. He said he dressed quickly, drove to the school, and immediately headed for the tower. “Nobody had to tell me what to do,” he said.
He was met at the top by other Austin police officers. While some of them helped several seriously wounded members of a Texarkana family who had been sightseeing when Whitman shot them, he and McCoy cautiously stepped out on the lookout deck.
Martinez was carrying his six-shot revolver and he crept forward along the outdoor tier. He said McCoy, armed with a shotgun, followed closely behind. Martinez turned a corner of the observation deck and spotted Whitman, crouched down at the end of the other tier.
Martinez: “I fired. All six times. Boom. Boom. You have to keep firing and you don’t hesitate. And I hit him. He jerked up and he stood up and kept firing and he was firing as he was being hit. But if I hadn’t hit him first, he damn sure would have shot and killed me.”
He was on duty, but was bored and he said he was looking for a place to hide and take a nap when the first police calls of the sniper shook him awake. He too sped straight to the scene, and made it to the top of the tower, and did indeed follow slowly behind Martinez out onto the deck.
But he said that when he turned the corner, it was clear that his partner had missed all six times because Whitman was calmly rising up. Rising up not in pain, but in anger. And he was clearly still alive.
McCoy: “I shot him once and his whole head went right back and I knew he was dead. Then I jacked another shell into my shotgun and I hit him again in the head and then I was through with him. I knew he was dead then.”
But suddenly, McCoy said, Martinez was yelling for him to shoot Whitman again, and Martinez threw down his revolver and grabbed McCoy’s shotgun and then, breaking into a loud war whoop, he ran up to within inches of Whitman and blew away almost the entire top of his body.
Then Martinez continued running around the top of the tower, McCoy said, shouting to those below, “ ‘I got him! I got him!’
“But he was wrong,” McCoy insisted. “I killed Whitman. All Martinez did was kill a dead man.”
Martinez admitted he did let out a cry and ran up and shot Whitman with McCoy’s shotgun. But he does not remember bragging from the tower. And he said he only grabbed McCoy’s weapon because McCoy “is a slow person, and he was slow in reacting.”
And about the police chief recanting the official version of his heroism, Martinez said simply: “That bothers me. But I can’t talk about the chief now that he’s dead.”
So there it is. Two men climbed up into the sky that afternoon and met danger and risked their own lives to save others. Two men were brave that day. Their names are Ramiro Martinez and Houston McCoy. And one of them killed Charles Whitman.