In the eerie calm immediately after the attack from the top of The University of Texas Tower on Aug. 1, 1966, police identified the man responsible for the bloodshed as Charles Joseph Whitman, a 25-year-old UT student and former Marine.
Police would soon learn he killed his mother and wife before sniping.
In his mother’s downtown Austin apartment and at his South Austin home on Jewell Street, Whitman left notes behind explaining why he killed both his mother and his wife. The notes began to put together the plot of a killer.
“There is no question that what we have is a case of a young man who has a goal in mind and for about 48 hours is making a series of thoughtful, calculated, serial decisions in a correct order to do exactly what he did,” author Gary Lavergne said.
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Lavergne wrote the book A Sniper in the Tower The Charles Whitman Murders.
Days after Whitman killed and injured so many people, a UT psychiatrist he’d visited once described him as “the all-American boy,” a blond, blue-eyed young man who was an Eagle Scout and served his country as a Marine.
Myth of the 'all-American boy'
Lavergne dispels the myth in his book.
“Charles Whitman was a very complicated person in that he was always who he was expected to be. In many ways [the psychiatrist’s] flippant remark was somewhat of a terrible disservice, because in the end [Whitman] shot 50 people, and all-American boys don't do that,” he said.
Lavergne’s research includes personal interviews with Whitman’s friends, relatives and colleagues. He also examined medical and personal records, including Whitman’s daily log.
It was clear the young man from Lake Worth, Fla., was familiar with the layout of the Tower’s observation deck; he visited it many times since arriving in Austin in 1961.
That was the year Whitman received a science scholarship for enlisted men. During the process he met a friend from Texas and ultimately chose to come to Austin and UT.
Once enrolled, Whitman, known for his occasional off-the-wall comments, made one chilling omen.
“He lived in a private dorm called the Goodall-Wooten Dorm, which is still there today on the corner of 21st and Guadalupe. While standing on a seventh floor balcony, he looked at the Tower, five years before he did it, he looked at the Tower and then he looked at a friend of his and he said, 'You know that would be a great place to go up with a deer rifle and kill people,’ ” Laverne said.
The Tower’s guestbook showed Whitman made two visits in 1966 – including one only about a week before his deadly and final trip to the top. Days later, he started to buy a lot of things by writing hot checks. On Sunday, July 31, 1966, Whitman bought food items, including canned meat, a Bowie knife and binoculars. He then had lunch with his mother, Margaret, at the cafeteria where she worked, and with his wife Kathy, who was on a late lunch break from her part-time job at a telephone company.
Whitman’s mother moved to Austin from Florida to escape her husband’s physical abuse; something Kathy also faced from Charles.
Neither woman knew that after lunch he would plot to kill them. Behind the all-American façade lurked deep problems.
“Those problems included marital problems with his own wife, marital problems between his father and his mother, financial problems, scholastic problems, being able to get jobs that were only meaningless and menial. And he didn't want to put in the time or invest the effort it would take, to rise above all of these things,” Lavergne said.
Beginning of the end
After lunch, Whitman made proof of his plan to kill by typing a lengthy note on a typewriter in his living room. In it, he said “I decided to kill my wife, Kathy, tonight after I pick her up from work at the telephone company.”
The letter also mentioned a trip to the University Health Center months earlier when he said he tried to convey his violent impulses to a psychiatrist. As he continued typing, he asked for an autopsy to be performed on him to check for a possible physical disorder. He described “this world” as unacceptable.
While Whitman was plotting his mission Sunday night, two friends unexpectedly stopped by for a visit and interrupted his typing. They bought frozen treats from the ice-cream man and talked casually for about an hour.
Later that evening, with Kathy back at home asleep in their bedroom on Jewell Street, Whitman made a late night visit to his mother at the Penthouse Apartments at 13th and Guadalupe streets. She was expecting him. Once inside her apartment, he struck her. The autopsy is unclear as to whether the fatal wound was a blow to the back of the head or a bullet; neighbors did not hear gunshots.
Whitman left a note on his mother’s apartment door for the bellman -- “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.”
Whitman also left a note on his mother’s body, which read in part, “I am truly sorry that this is the only way I could see to relieve her sufferings but I think it was best.”
He also described his resentment against his father, C.A. Whitman, a strict disciplinarian who expected near-perfection from his children. In one note, he wrote "the intense hatred I feel for my father is beyond description." Whitman claimed his father beat and humiliated his mother.
With his mother dead, Whitman went back to his home on Jewell Street and stabbed Kathy to death while she slept. He scribbled in the margin of his unfinished typed note from earlier: “Friends interrupted. 8-1-66. Mon. 3:00 a.m. Both dead.”
His message also explained how he wanted to spare his 23-year-old wife, who taught science at Lanier High School, the embarrassment of what he was going to do.
“I believe him when he says he killed his mother and his wife because he doesn't want them to suffer the embarrassment of what he is going to do. I believe him. For one thing it tells me he knows what he's doing,” Lavergne said.
In the Tower
Whitman remained awake, perhaps aided by the drug Dexedrine, which he regularly used. The morning of Aug. 1, he completed his shopping – adding guns and ammunition. His arsenal included three rifles and a sawed-off shotgun.
At approximately 11:30 a.m., dressed in overalls and looking like a janitor, he made it past campus security hiding the weapons and 700 rounds of ammunition in an Army issue footlocker. He parked along the north side of the Tower, went relatively unnoticed up an elevator with the footlocker on a dolly, and arrived at the 27th floor.
By 11:50 a.m. he beat the observation deck’s receptionist, Edna Townsley, and hid the dying woman behind a couch. The only two visitors left, Don Walden and Cheryl Botts (now Dickerson) were outside on the deck. Whitman allowed the young couple, oblivious to the violence, to leave.
“I don't think he even knew we were out there. I think we caught him off guard. And we didn't stop. And I think that's a big part of it,” Cheryl Dickerson said.
Moments later, other visitors arrived. Whitman was no longer off guard. He shot four of them – two fatally. Whitman then headed out onto the observation deck and picked his first random victim below – the unborn baby of a young woman named Claire Wilson.
At 11:52 a.m., the Austin Police Department received its first call about a situation at the university. An agonizing 96 minutes later, officers Ramiro Martinez and Houston McCoy rounded the northeast corner of the observation deck and fired their weapons at a man wearing a white bandana on his head.
Whitman died moments later.
“I could feel the heat. I could feel the fatigue. I could feel everything. It was just like a sledgehammer had hit me. And I said ‘I better get out of here,’ which I did,” Martinez said.
Whitman got the autopsy he asked for in his note, although it was performed a day after he was embalmed. The doctor who performed the autopsy noted a tumor in the middle part of Whitman’s brain. Could this have been the cause of Whitman’s anguish?
Dr. Robert Pape, on the Brackenridge Hospital staff at the time, did not conduct the autopsy but saw the removed tumor. He was told it was removed from a region of the brain where the nerve cables connect.
“It was difficult for me to perceive that a tumor there would not have had some very profound neurological symptoms long before he committed this atrocity, that he would not have been physically able to ascend the stairs, or shoot a rifle or anything like that," Pape said.
Then-Gov. John Connally commissioned a panel to look into the Tower shooting. The tumor was not ruled out.
Perhaps the biggest bombshell concerning Whitman became public only a week after the shooting. The psychiatrist who referred to the sniper as an “all-American boy” revealed that during their one and only session at the University Health Center, Whitman said he often “thought about going up on the tower with a deer rifle and shooting people.”
Dr. Maurice Heatly heard sick jokes about the Tower before from students; he figured this was one of them. At the time, he didn’t consider Whitman dangerous and he found no psychosis.
“Charles Whitman could have lined up a bunch of teachers and a bunch of friends who would tell him that he was perfectly sane. When Whitman went there the doctor asked him to come back and Whitman was the one who chose not to come back. And in my opinion, the doctor got a raw deal because the doctor could not have done more than what he did in a legal or a medical sense,” Lavergne said.
Days after the shooting, C.A. Whitman came from Florida to meet the man who shot his son.
"He embraced me and he said, 'That wasn't my son that you killed up there, it was somebody else,' you know. I just didn't like his attitude. But, anyway, you know, I was congenial to him," Martinez said.
Why did he do it?
Over the years, the speculation into why Whitman did it included everything from his inability to outdo his overbearing father, to violence on television, to his use of Dexedrine. Many people who crossed Whitman's path will never be certain about why he shattered so many lives.
No, I never did think, try to justify, why he did it, or try to analyze it. Because there are a lot of things, a lot of questions that are unanswered,” Martinez said.
“Charles Whitman had problems that were real, and the kinds of problems that no one with decency would wish upon someone else. In the end, he didn't want to deal with his problems, and he wanted to go down in a big way. And that was shooting,” Lavergne said.