History forgot Whitman's other shooter

This story originally was published on August 1, 2006.

Former Austin police officer Houston McCoy says he doesn't want to be called a hero because he was just doing his job when he helped end a massacre by shooting Charles Whitman 40 years ago today on the University of Texas Tower.

But McCoy, 66, wants his great-grandchildren, and future generations of Austinites, to know that he fired the two gunshots that stopped a terrifying 96-minute episode on Aug. 1, 1966, now infamous in Texas history. Whitman, a former Marine, used a high-powered rifle and other firearms to kill 13 people on campus — not counting a victim who died from his wounds in 2001 — and injure dozens of others. He had earlier stabbed his wife and mother.

Exactly who killed Whitman — both McCoy and Austin officer Ramiro Martinez fired shots — remains a controversy. Separately, the two made it to the top of the UT Tower. Together, they confronted Whitman, firing their weapons several times. But which shot killed Whitman is still unclear. Ramirez over the years repeatedly has said, "only God knows."

McCoy, a gaunt, 6-foot-3-inch man, smoked more than he talked during an interview at his apartment in his rural hometown, about 120 miles west of Austin. He remains conflicted about his role in killing Whitman, alternately rejecting recognition — "Who wants to be known for killing a man, anyways?" — and longing for it. "It doesn't bother me to talk about it, " McCoy said. "But it's not all I want to talk about."

McCoy said he met Martinez, then 29, for the first time after climbing the tower. After a few seconds of eye contact, McCoy said, Martinez opened the door to the observation deck where Whitman was perched and headed out. McCoy followed.

Martinez emptied his .38-caliber revolver. Five shots went wide; one hit Whitman in the arm, according to autopsy reports. McCoy said he then jumped to the right of Martinez and fired two shotgun blasts at Whitman's white headband.

"I remember seeing it turn from white to red, " McCoy said. "I know between shots that the second wasn't necessary, but my reaction didn't let me stop. Martinez then grabs my shotgun and shoots (Whitman) one more time in the torso."

Newspapers reported that Martinez cried, "I got him! I got him!" as he came out of the tower. McCoy remained tight-lipped during news conferences afterward and has granted only a handful of interviews. McCoy and Martinez were awarded the Austin Police Department's Medal of Valor. It wasn't until 1974 that former Austin Police Chief Bob Miles said publicly that McCoy killed Whitman.

"I just didn't speak up, " McCoy said. "A policeman just does his job, and I wasn't looking for any rewards. I didn't know we'd still be talking about this 40 years later.

"I just pulled over on the way home and cried my eyes out for five minutes but wiped them before I got home, " he said.

McCoy said he and Martinez have rarely seen each other and last spoke in 2000.

"It's not important who shot, because (McCoy) and I did our job, " Martinez said at Austin's City Hall on Thursday after he alone was commended for confronting Whitman. "As far as who fired the fatal bullet, he can take the credit if he wants."

Councilman Mike Martinez, who is not related to the retired officer, said McCoy and others credited with helping at the scene weren't honored Thursday because a friend of Ramiro Martinez's recommended the city recognize him individually.

Martinez became a Texas Ranger and a justice of the peace after the shooting and has penned a book of memoirs.

McCoy, who came to Austin in 1962 after leaving the Army, left Austin two years after the sniper incident to become a civilian instructor for the Air Force in Laredo and Del Rio. In 1974, McCoy moved his family — a wife and four children — to Menard, where McCoy worked as a groundskeeper at a Boy Scout camp through the early 1990s. After some troubles with drinking, McCoy divorced and for years worked as a day laborer and lived among family members until he went sober.

McCoy said he's often left out of accounts of the shooting. A 1975 TV movie about the incident, "The Deadly Tower, " left him out completely. "People tell me, 'Hey, I saw your movie.' But I wasn't even in it, " McCoy said. "People think I did nothing."

McCoy, who now lives on his $837 monthly Social Security payment, said he just wants to be remembered "as a good ol' boy who's done his job."

Reader Comments ...

Next Up in Featured