Thursday, August 1, 2013

Charles Whitman and the 1966 Texas Tower shootings

1963 photo of Charles Whitman

By now, Americans are virtually unshockable.  When we hear the latest workplace shooting, the latest school shooting, the latest loner who snapped and took others with him to his final rest, we are saddened, certainly, but not shocked.  It has happened so often that we've long since lost count of the shooters and the victims, long since forgotten which towns bear the indelible marks of random violence.  So it is difficult for us to understand the horror which Americans were introduced by Charles Whitman on August 1, 1966 . . .  After August 1, 1966, things would never be the same.

- Marlee MacLeod
From "Charles Whitman: The Texas Bell Tower Sniper," The Crime Library website

47 years ago today, a deranged man murdered both wife and mother and then killed 17 people and wounded 32 others in the vicinity of the tower of the University of Texas at Austin.  The perpetrator of this heinous crime was 25-year-old Charles Joseph Whitman.  On the surface, Whitman appeared to be a model citizen,  He was a former altar boy, an Eagle Scout and an accomplished pianist.  How and why did such a person become a mass murderer?

Charles Whitman was born on June 24, 1941 in Lake Worth, Florida to a well-respected upper middle class family.  He was the eldest of the three sons of Margaret E. Whitman (nee Hodges) and Charles Adolphus "C.A." Whitman, a successful plumbing contractor.

Young Charles became familiar with guns at an early age.  His father, Charles Sr., was a gun enthusiast and firearms collector.  The elder Whitman was also an authoritarian figure who made extremely high demands on Charles and his younger brothers, Patrick and John.  He was known to be physically and psychologically abusive to his family.

In June of 1959, Charles' father beat him severely after the teenager had returned from a party drunk.  Soon after the beating, and just a month following his high school graduation, Whitman enlisted in the United States Marine Corps. without informing his father.  At the age of 18, he was sent on an 18-month tour of duty with at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba. While serving at  Guantanamo Bay, Charles Whitman won a Good Conduct Medal and the Marine Corps Expeditionary Medal.  He was also awarded a Sharpshooters Badge for his prowess on the shooting range.

During his tour of duty with the Marines, Charlie applied for a Naval Enlisted Science Education Program Scholarship to assist him in earning an engineering degree at a selected college. He was granted the scholarship and in September of 1961, he entered the mechanical engineering program at the University of Texas in Austin.  It was there that he met the woman who was to become his wife.

On August 17, 1962, Whitman married Kathleen Frances Leissner, another University of Texas student, in a wedding that was held in Kathy's hometown of Needville, Texas.  The Catholic ceremony was presided over by Father.Joseph Leduc, a friend of the family.

While a student at Austin, Charles Whitman got himself into some serious trouble.  He gambled, was arrested for poaching deer and received low grades.  Due to his poor academic performance, Whitman lost his scholarship.  As a result, in February of 1963, he was returned to active duty with the Marines.  This time, however, he was stationed at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.

In November of 1963, while at Camp Lejeune, Charles Whitman was court-marshalled for unlawful gambling, usury, possession of a personal firearm on base and threatening a fellow Marine with regard to a $30 loan, for which he had demanded an exorbitant interest payment.  For his transgressions, Whitman was sentenced to 30 days of incarceration and 90 days of hard labour.  He was also demoted in rank from Lance Corporal to Private.  In December of 1964, he was discharged from the Marines after his father had used his influence to get his service time reduced.

In 1965, Charlie returned to the University of Texas, switched his major to architectural engineering and attempted to make up for his failings as a Marine.  Although he found employment as a bill collector for Standard Finance Company, his ego was bruised by the fact that his wife Kathy, a biology teacher at Lanier High School in Austin, earned a higher salary than he did.  Moreover, he was depressed about being financially dependent on his father.  Kathy encouraged him to get help for his depression.

Kathy Whitman

In the spring of 1966, Whitman's mother, Margaret, decided to separate from her abusive husband.  She left their Lake Worth, Florida home and moved into her own apartment in Austin to be near her eldest son.  Charles, although disturbed by his parents' separation, helped his mother move to the Lone Star State.   Meanwhile, C.A. Whitman repeatedly phoned his wife and begged her to return, but to no avail.

In addition to his parents' breakup, Charles was trying to keep up with the demands of a heavy academic workload and holding down a job.  After leaving his employment as a bill collector, he took another position as a teller at Austin National Bank.  By the summer of 1966, a sleep-deprived Whitman was keeping himself awake during classes and his job as a research assistant at the university by consuming the amphetamine Dexedrine.

It was a stressful time and Charles began experiencing severe headaches.  Concerned about the state of his mental heath, he finally took his wife's advice and spoke with a therapist at the university, Dr. Maurice Dean Heatly.  He told the psychiatrist that he had fantasized "about going up on the Tower with a deer rifle and shooting people."  Heatly noted that the young man was "oozing with hostility"and recommended that he come back for another session the following week. Whitman, however, failed to return for more therapy and the ticking time bomb within him exploded.during the early hours of August 1, 1966.

On the evening of July 31st, Charlie picked up his wife Kathy at her summer job as a switchboard operator.  He then drove to his 43-year-old mother's apartment and brutally chocked her and stabbed her to death.  When he returned home, he murdered his 23-year-old wife with the same weapon as she lay sleeping.  Armed with an arsenal of firearms, he headed to the University of Texas.  His position as a research assistant allowed him access to the tower building.

Whitman wheeled a Marine footlocker with weapons and provisions (binoculars, compass, flashlight, radio, gasoline etc.) on a dolly and rode the elevator to the 27th floor.  He dragged his equipment up three flights of stairs to the observation deck where he killed the observation deck receptionist and hid her body behind a sofa.  After murdering and wounding some people who tried to open the barricaded door to the observation deck office, the madman went out on the observation deck and turned his 6 mm Remington at random on the people on the ground below. The murderous rampage ended when Whitman was shot and killed by Austin Police Officer Houston McCoy.

What caused the burning rage within Charles Whitman?  Obviously, his resentment toward his father fuelled Whitman's anger, as did his frustration and low self-esteem.  An autopsy, however. revealed that Whitman had a glioblastoma, a type of bran tumour pressing against the parts of the brain thought to control strong emotions.  Some neurologists have suggested that the tumour led Whitman to commit mass murder.  Whatever Whitman's motives, whatever made him lose control, one thing is certain.  Innocence was lost forever that August day in Texas  in 1966.

- Joanne