A killer's conscience


This story originally was published on Dec. 9, 2001.

Charles Whitman liked to keep lists, neat little reminders of ways to better himself.

In the Marine Corps it was: "Think -- don't be so ready with an excuse." "Organize yourself and your work." "... Exhaust all efforts to find answers." "Know your status and position and conduct yourself accordingly."

At the top of the list, the 20-year-old Marine implored himself to "Grow up."

For his wife, there was the card that read, GOOD POINTS TO REMEMBER WITH KATHY: "Don't nag. Don't try to make your partner over. Don't criticize. Give honest appreciation. Pay little attentions. Be courteous. BE GENTLE." Be gentle is underlined.

And there were THOUGHTS TO START THE DAY, a list of somewhat mangled beauty pageant homilies Whitman had neatly typed out to READ AND THINK ABOUT, EVERY DAY.

It was a list he read and thought about on the morning of Aug. 1, 1966. Whitman had killed his mother and his wife, Kathleen, earlier that morning.

Whitman wrote farewell letters to his brothers, Johnnie and Pat. He set out two rolls of film and a note asking whoever found them to develop them.

He was on his way out the door on a shopping binge that would complete the arsenal he took up to the 27th floor of the University of Texas Tower.

From the UT Tower later that morning and into the early afternoon, Whitman would shoot and kill 14 more people, wound 31 and be killed by two Austin police officers who converged, guns firing, on the observation deck.

One of those 31 wounded, David Gunby, became Whitman's 15th victim Nov. 12 in Fort Worth. Whitman had shot Gunby, a 23-year-old UT student in the back, damaging a kidney. Gunby spent the rest of his life in dialysis, suffered a failed kidney transplant, went blind and was, finally, bedridden.

The Tarrant County medical examiner blamed all of those problems on Whitman, ruling Gunby's death a homicide 35 years after the shootings.

Before leaving his tiny house at 906 W. Jewell St., Whitman took a last look at the list:

STOP procrastinating (Grasp the nettle)

CONTROL your anger (Don't let it prove you a fool)

SMILE -- Its contagious

DON'T be belligerent

STOP cursing, improve your vocabulary

APPROACH a pot of gold with exceptional caution (Look it over twice)

PAY that compliment

LISTEN more than you speak, THINK before you speak

CONTROL YOUR PASSION; DON'T LET IT lead YOU -- Don't let desire make you regret your present actions later (Remember the lad and the man)

If you want to be better than average, YOU HAVE TO WORK MUCH HARDER THAN THE AVERAGE.

NEVER FORGET; when the going gets rough, the ROUGH get going !!!!!

YESTERDAY IS NOT MINE TO RECOVER,

BUT TOMORROW IS MINE TO WIN OR TO

LOSE. I AM RESOLVED THAT I SHALL

WIN THE TOMORROWS BEFORE ME !!!

Whitman took out a pen, and at the top of the page, he wrote the date, 8/1/66, and above the initials CJW, he wrote, "I never could quite make it. These thoughts are too much for me."
History finds a home

Whitman's written surrender to the basic expectations of his daily life is tagged, sheathed in clear plastic and filed in one of 10 gray rectangular boxes stored in the unearthly still workroom of Rebecca Rich-Wulfmeyer at the Austin History Center.

It was once part of the police file of Charles J. Whitman, who, at the time, was the correct answer to the question posed by the headline above The Austin Statesman's masthead on Aug. 2, 1966, "Greatest Mass Slayer in History?"

Hundreds of pages of letters, diary entries, police reports and photographs had for years been kept in a single cardboard box in a locked room alongside open investigations in the homicide division at the Austin Police Department.

Sgt. Hector Reveles, who joined the homicide division in 1992, discovered the box and understood this was more than an ordinary homicide file. Reveles also knew the Police Department didn't have the personnel to monitor the people who occasionally asked to review the Whitman case.

"We thought the more inquiries we had the more likely it was that something would turn up missing, " Reveles says. "We were concerned about the condition of the file. You could see that some of the papers were deteriorating."

Reveles obtained a supervisor's permission to offer the Whitman box to the University of Texas, the Texas State Library and the Austin History Center. No one was sure they had the resources to catalog and keep track of this sort of archive, he says.

With the support of police Cmdr. Shauna Jacobson, Reveles kept at it. Shortly after Rich-Wulfmeyer took the post of archives and manuscripts curator at the history center in July of 2000, Reveles called again with his offer.

Having grown up in Austin, with a curating background that included work with the Texas Confederate Museum and the Santa Fe International Museum of Folk Art, Rich-Wulfmeyer took personal responsibility for organizing and protecting the Whitman file.

"I took a deep sigh when she took over," Reveles says.

As she continues work on the file, she makes available the bulk of the material for public review for the first time at the Austin History Center beginning Dec. 18. Rules will be strict. The Whitman file will not be viewed out of Rich-Wulfmeyer's sight. Notes must be taken in pencil.

Each year in the days leading up to Aug. 1, Rich-Wulfmeyer says, the Austin History Center fields requests from people to pore over the considerable file of newspaper clips and books on the UT Tower shootings. With the inclusion of Whitman's personal letters, interest is likely to sharpen, she says.

Gary M. Lavergne, the author of the definitive book about Whitman, "A Sniper in the Tower, " told Rich-Wulfmeyer to expect the kind of people he hears from every Aug. 1.

"I clear my calendar that day, " says Lavergne, who now works as director of admissions research for the University of Texas. His office, coincidentally, is in the main building of the UT Tower. "Some people are just curious. Some are just nuts."

Rich-Wulfmeyer, too, was torn. She understood the historical importance of the collection, one that might be the most important she would ever archive. The 36-year-old with the quiet, even manner knew she'd be forever lashed to Whitman's infamy.

"I guess I had a lot of emotions going in, " Rich-Wulfmeyer says. "I was familiar with the Whitman story, but I didn't know how much of it was true. Before I began, I read Gary's book, and it disturbed me. I didn't know what I was supposed to think. And then everyone I met had stories that made the case personal to them. I realized I was working with the stories of real people whose lives were forever altered by this one day."

To give her archival work context, Rich-Wulfmeyer stayed in close contact with Lavergne, who continues to call or e-mail weekly. Since the mid-1980s the Police Department had allowed visitors under supervision to review the Whitman file. Lavergne spent nearly every workday for 10 months with it in 1994 to produce the first and only book-length account of Whitman and the shootings.

The devil's in the details

The whole of Lavergne's book, of Whitman's life and death, cannot be found here in the Whitman file. Review the complete file, and what you find are details, like Whitman's lists.

Look carefully at the wording, what is and isn't capitalized, in these notes Whitman made to himself. These aren't the exhortations of a fellow with a Norman Vincent Peale outlook. They don't sound like Whitman at all. They sound like orders, like the kind his father issued when Whitman was growing up in Florida.

The essay Whitman wrote in a beautifully controlled 15-year-old cursive in 1956 at St. Ann's High School in West Palm Beach would have his class believe he had an ideal childhood. In the file, there is a newspaper photo of Whitman shaking hands with a scoutmaster after becoming the youngest Eagle Scout in the country when he was 12.

A panel of experts called upon by then-Gov. John Connally to review the Whitman case after his death remarked that as a youngster, Whitman was "quite good at the piano."

This same report mentions, in passing, that Whitman's father, Charles A. Whitman, expected his son to excel at the piano and everything else. Whitman's Scout leaders objected to him pushing so hard for the Eagle Scout rank, but Whitman told them his dad was pushing even harder, according to the Rev. Joseph Leduc, the founder of the troop and Whitman's parish priest, in a statement he gave to an FBI agent two weeks after the UT Tower shootings.

The pressure affected Whitman and his relationship with his father, Leduc told the FBI agent.

"Subject Whitman was a very nervous type of individual and had the characteristic of doing things on the spur of the moment, " Leduc told the FBI agent who translated it into J. Edgar Hoover syntax. "Subject Whitman was constantly biting his fingernails and finally overcame this habit after much coaxing.

"Subject Whitman always appeared to have resentment toward his father and this resentment of subject Whitman's father appeared to be by too much regimentation. Subject Whitman's father was very strict in rearing his children and desired perfection from them."

This resentment of regimentation did not deter Whitman from joining the Marine Corps, by reputation the most rigidly disciplined of the military branches, without telling his father. Leduc told the agent he thought Whitman had done well for himself in the Marines, a notion the documents in his file show he did not discourage outside of his family.

In the file is a laminated card issued by the Marine Corps indicating that the Corps honorably discharged Whitman on Dec. 4, 1964 after a hitch of more than five years. The police officers who shot and killed Whitman found the card in his wallet.

The Corps, in fact, court-martialed Whitman, busted him to private from corporal and sentenced him to 30 days hard labor for loan-sharking to the men in his own company, according to an investigation report filed Nov. 12, 1963, at Camp Lejune, N.C.

Had it not been for the intervention of his father, Whitman might have been drummed out altogether. Instead, he spent the rest of his hitch writing of a hatred for the Marines so intense "it seems to be overwhelmingly possessing me."

Whitman was too self-possessed to let any single hatred own him. He makes an entry in a diary on Nov. 15, 1963, and one on Nov. 26, both about court-martial matters. Between those dates President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, his assassin murdered and a vice president from Texas, Lyndon B. Johnson, sworn in. No mention is made in any diary.

Even his private pinings turn on himself. Whitman had begun The Daily Record of C.J. Whitman, a green, cloth-bound Federal Service Supply notebook.

The entries ostensibly concern his wife, Kathleen, but they begin, he writes, at a time when "I seemed to have reached the pit of my life's experiences." They abruptly end forever after two months when he is granted leave to see "the most precious possession I have in life."

Cpl. Whitman had met his wife, Kathleen, in 1962 while she was a student and he was squandering a Naval science scholarship at UT. The couple married Aug. 17, 1962. Kathleen stayed behind to finish school, while the Marines called Whitman back to Camp Lejune for bad grades.

While they were apart, Whitman was a lovesick puppy. Kathleen was a dream wife, he writes, perfect in every way except for her thighs. "However, I feel that when we live together again, that working together we will be able to trim her legs down to the right proportion."

Whitman goes on to write that Kathleen's family finds him big and strong. His boss wonders why his desirable charge isn't sleeping around. His work habits are exemplary.

And yet all of the love talk and the bravado are swamped by Whitman's admission that he has not yet learned how to negotiate life.

"I wonder if I will ever amount to anything in this world? I have great plans and dreams and I can think a beautiful plan for anything I need or desire, but my motivation comes in spells. I must find the secret of making this motivation permanent,” Whitman writes. "This lack of getting things done is definitely the only thing that will keep me from getting ahead in life. I must conquer it. I have the ambition, initiative and imagination to make the proper plans. Now I must train myself to execute them."

No evidence exists in the file to suggest Whitman was capable of this kind of execution. In April of 1963, Whitman reapplied for the Naval scholarship to UT and was rejected. After his discharge from the Marines, Whitman enrolled again in the engineering program at UT and pulled mostly C's.

Through 1965 and into 1966, Whitman worked as a collector for a finance company, a bank teller and a free-lance real estate broker and insurance agent while he went to school. In the summer of 1966 he worked as an engineering aide at NASA in Houston. The motor vehicle ID card found in Whitman's wallet was due to expire five days after the killings.

In truth, Whitman was being supported by Kathleen, who taught biology at Sidney Lanier High School and worked days and nights at Southwestern Bell in the summer, and Whitman's father, who sent them $140 a month, according to the report ruling his death a justifiable homicide.

The Eagle Scout signed on to be the scoutmaster of Troop 5 in January of 1965. According to reports in the file, Whitman was overbearing, disorganized and often frantic.

"He had to give up the Scout Master's job," fellow Scoutmaster Albert J. Vincik told police in the afternoon of Aug. 1, 1966. "In my opinion he was just spread out too thin and worked too hard at everything. He was nervous, meticulous and wanted to excel at everything. He also could not stand constructive criticism."

In spite of, or perhaps in part because of the financial aid, by 1966 Whitman no longer made a secret of his hatred for his father. When longstanding emotional and physical abuse became too much for his mother, Elizabeth Whitman, her son drove to Lake Worth to move her to Austin on March 2.

Like father, like son

As he loathed his father for the way he was treating his mother, Whitman was treating Kathleen in precisely the same way. Kathleen told friends John and Fran Morgan that Whitman had hit her three different times, according to a Department of Public Safety intelligence report dated Aug. 2, 1966. Whitman's perfectionism was driving Kathleen to divorce. The Morgans told authorities they presumed the couple later worked out their problems.

Whitman decided he needed help working out his own problems. A doctor at the University Health Center referred Whitman to the center's staff psychiatrist, Maurice D. Heatley.

In his report, filed March 29, 1966, Heatley said Whitman called his father "brutal, domineering and extremely demanding. He admitted to two assaults on Kathleen. He said his reason for coming was the upset of his parents' separation.

"His real concern," Heatley writes, "is with himself at the present time. He readily admits having overwhelming periods of hostility with a very minimum of provocation. Repeated inquiries attempting to analyze his exact experiences were not too successful with the exception of his vivid reference to thinking about going up on the tower with a deer rifle and start shooting people."

Other friends would later come forward to report that Whitman had made a point of telling them what a great vantage point the observation deck of the UT Tower would make for a marksman to shoot people. Whitman may have failed at basic aspects of Marine protocol, but the score book of his M-1 rifle practice, which is now part of the file, proves he was a marksman.

Whitman had twice gone up in the tower before Aug. 1, once with a friend on April 5, the day he failed to keep an appointment with psychiatrist Heatley, and on July 22 with relatives, according to the reports.

Whether either or both of those visits constituted premeditated planning is conjecture informed by history. Some at the time suggested Whitman was insane, precluding premeditation. Americans were still relatively unsophisticated about random mass murder. Only 19 days before Whitman's shootings, Richard Speck had strangled and stabbed eight student nurses in a dormitory in Chicago.

The shootings that followed, like Luby's in Texas and Columbine in later years, would change and harden public opinion on the sanity issue. In his book, Lavergne makes a convincing case against the argument that insanity drove Whitman to kill.

Others posited that the tumor found at the base of Whitman's brain stem during his autopsy might have set him off, in spite of the dearth these past 35 years of similar cancer-fueled mass killings.

The Whitman file conclusively supports the notion that for the first and only time in his adult life, Whitman successfully carried out a plan he made.

Whitman bought the Bowie knife he used to kill his mother and the binoculars found around his bloody neck on July 31 at what was then known as Academy Surplus. He shopped that day for some of the food he expected to last him through a long siege: Del Monte fruit cocktail, Chef Boyardee ravioli, Spam, a 49-cent coffee cake.

Whitman packed a footlocker that would prepare him for any eventuality. Gallons of water and gallons of gas, ropes of different types and lengths. Batteries and extension cords. Knives, a hatchet and a machete. A Channel Master transistor radio and a Genie alarm clock.

He brought his own guns, hundreds of rounds of ammunition for them and a pair of ear plugs; a Remington 6 mm bolt-action rifle with a scope; a Remington .35-caliber rifle; three of his pistols; and his U.S. Carbine, .30-caliber M-1.

He also brought along a 12-gauge shotgun he bought for $137.65 that morning when Sears opened. He had sawed off the barrel and the stock, knowing how narrow was the walkway leading up to the observation deck.
To carry all of it up to the reception room of the tower, he rented for $2.04 from Austin Rental Equipment Service a dolly he later used to barricade the door to the observation deck.

A final act of terror

The file fails to do justice to the chaos and grief Whitman caused that Aug. 1. The police reports from survivors and witnesses, many of them taken just after Whitman was killed, attest to the confusion and the inability to judge the scope of Whitman's massacre.

The report of Allen Crum, a 40-year-old supervisor at the University of Texas Co-Op, tells just a fragment of an old-fashioned Texas volunteerism that might today be seen as vigilantism.

An untold number of citizens came armed to the UT Tower mall that day, defying Whitman's barrage and helping Austin police pin Whitman down with return fire. Crum asked to be deputized, asked for a rifle and covered the officers, Ramiro Martinez and Houston McCoy, who shot and killed Whitman at 1:24 p.m. that day.

Martinez and McCoy, who became heroes and legends in Austin, summarized their roles that day in reports of no more than a page and a half. The final gun battle -- Martinez unloading his service revolver, McCoy firing two shotgun blasts, Martinez grabbing McCoy's shotgun and firing down point blank on Whitman's twitching body -- are flattened out in a few paragraphs of precise police jargon.

After calling for officers to stop firing, Martinez, betraying his only emotion in his report, wrote, "This officer then became (ex)hausted and weak and left the scene as I felt like was going into shock. Met Lt. Morgan and he helped this office out of the building and Sgt. Pope then brought this officer to the police station."

Whitman had the final word after he was dead. Investigators sent to check on the well-being of Whitman's mother and wife, found Elizabeth Whitman, 43, with wounds to the head and left chest under her covers in the bedroom of her West 13th Street apartment. Pulling back the sheets they found a yellow legal pad upon which her son had left a letter "To Whom It May Concern."

"I have just taken my mother's life. I am very upset over having done it, " the letter begins. Whitman repeats the hatred he feels for his father who beat and humiliated his mother. "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."

Officers who converged on the Whitman home at 906 W. Jewell St. found a naked Kathleen stabbed to death in her bed and a letter Whitman had started typing at 6:45 p.m. July 31 while his wife was at work. "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 cannot rationally pinpoint any specific reason for doing this. I don't know whether it is selfishness, or if I don't want her to have to face the embarrassment my actions would surely cause her.

"I truly do not consider the world worth living in, and am prepared to die, and I do not want to leave her to suffer alone in it."

Whitman left one last list, like all of the others, one he would never complete. He asked "whomever" to give their dog, Schocie, to Kathleen's parents and, for himself, that he be cremated after his autopsy.

He asked that his insurance cover the worthless checks he used to finance his slaughter. And if there was anything left over, Whitman asked that it be donated anonymously to a mental health foundation.

"Maybe, " he wrote, if not for his own betterment, for some betterment, "research can prevent further tragedies of this type."


Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Featured

In celebration of deer season, here’s that time in 2016 that 26 snakes ended up in a deer blind
In celebration of deer season, here’s that time in 2016 that 26 snakes ended up in a deer blind

Good morning! We are about ten days or so into deer hunting season for Travis County (you can check up on dates here), so it seems like a the perfect time to remind hunters near and far of that time last year 26 rattlesnakes showed up in a deer blind. Last March, a Panhandle-based hunter named Rusty Hopper found a whole mess of snakes when he... well...
Attention Austin hoarders: ‘American Pickers’ is coming to Texas
Attention Austin hoarders: ‘American Pickers’ is coming to Texas

     You know it, I know it, your neighbors know it: Austin is lousy with folks who just will not throw away their stuff. Austin’s garages, its sheds and its crawl spaces are filled with plenty of objects from the good old days, be those the 90s rock/tech boom, the 80s oil boom and bust, the cosmic cowboy 1970s, the ‘60s...
A handful of hep Hammer horror movies for Halloween
A handful of hep Hammer horror movies for Halloween

From the 1950s to the 1970s, the British film studio Hammer Films made some of the best horror pictures in the Western world. With over the top scripts, lush gothic colors and beautiful women, Hammer horror influenced everygenre from sci-fi (George Lucas would not have cast Peter Cushing as the Grand Moff Tarkin without the latter’s run in dozens...
On the Texas coast, a hurricane recovery haunted by the past
On the Texas coast, a hurricane recovery haunted by the past

Between the beaches of Port Aransas and the vacation rentals of Port O’Connor, the Texas coast is filled with small towns that suffered massive damage in Hurricane Harvey. For some, the hurricane will forever alter the course of their future: Already in Bayside (pop. 333, and falling), at least eight families, close to 10 percent of the population...
It’s the first day of fall in Austin! This means nothing!
It’s the first day of fall in Austin! This means nothing!

Today is Sept. 22 in the year of our Lord 2017. According to the calendar, it is the first day of autumn. Which means, according to popular imagination, golden-brown leaves falling from trees; crisp, cool air; everyone in sweaters or jackets; and the anticipation of Halloween and Thanksgiving. Except in Austin.  Austin does not have autumn. At...
More Stories