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Sniper fire rings for 3 men after 25 years


This story originally was published on July 28, 1991.

In a dry creekbed 150 miles west of Austin, an aging cowboy named Houston McCoy mends a barbed-wire fence under the searing sun, trying to make enough money to fix his ancient pickup.

In New Braunfels, 50 miles south of Austin, a burned-out Texas Ranger named Ramiro Martinez leans back in his chair and dreams of retirement.

A thousand miles from both of them - deep in the Nevada desert - an old slot machine repairman named Cookie Crum bends down and strokes his one-eyed cat.

Distance separates the three men. They haven't spoken to each other in years.

But history has bound them together forever as heroes.

Tuesday marks the 25th anniversary of the day they took the longest elevator ride of their lives to the top of the University of Texas Tower and fired the gunshots that ended one of the worst mass killings in American history.

Shortly after midnight Aug. 1, 1966, UT architecture student Charles Whitman drove to the apartment of his mother, Margaret, at 13th and Guadalupe streets, stabbed her in the chest, and shot her in the back of the head. Then he returned to his house in South Austin and stabbed his wife Kathy four times in the chest with a bayonet.

"If my life insurance policy is valid ... please pay off my debts," he wrote in a letter left near his wife's body. "Donate the rest anonymously to a mental health foundation. Maybe research can prevent further tragedies of this type."

At 11:30 a.m., Whitman drove to the base of the UT Tower, hauling a footlocker full of high-powered rifles, a sawed-off shotgun, several pistols, and hundreds of bullets.

Whitman put the trunk on a dolly, wheeled it into a creaky elevator, and rode 27 floors to the top of the Tower.

There, he plucked a rifle from the trunk and slammed the butt of the weapon into the head of receptionist Edna Townsley, splitting her skull.

He barely had time to drag her behind a couch to die when 19-year-old Mike Gabour, his parents, and three other family members appeared at the top of the staircase.

They had come to see the view from the Tower like thousands of tourists since the Tower's completion in 1937.

Whitman blasted them several times with a shotgun, killing two of them and sending the rest tumbling backward down the staircase.

He rolled the footlocker out onto the observation deck, extracted a powerful deer rifle, and aimed over the chest-high wall at the unsuspecting students 230 feet below.

He had already killed five persons. During the next 94 minutes, he would kill 11 more and wound 31 others.\

The slaughter had begun.

Crum: 'Give me a gun and I'll back you up'

Allen "Cookie" Crum, 40, watched in amazement through the window of the University Co-op as 16-year-old Alex Hernandez was blown off his bicycle by one of Whitman's gunshots.

Crum felt an overwhelming urge to stop the sniper, he recalls, "because of the memory of Kitty Genovese."

Genovese was a young woman stabbed to death on the streets of New York several decades ago while her neighbors held their ears to block out her screams. The nationally-publicized incident became a shameful symbol of public apathy.

"That story stuck in my mind," says Crum. "I couldn't just stand there, so I grabbed two pop bottles (as weapons), ran across Guadalupe Street to the Tower.

"On the way, I met this DPS officer, and I said, 'Give me a gun and I'll back you up, ' " Crum remembers. The highway patrolman handed him a Remington rifle.

Climbing into an elevator in the Tower's main lobby, Crum rode to the 27th floor, where he met Austin Police Officer Ramiro Martinez.

The 29-year-old son of a West Texas sharecropper, Martinez had come to the university 10 years earlier as a student, working 44 hours a week at a mental hospital, paying his own tuition, and sending the rest of his check to his family.

Adversity had taught him how to get to the heart of a problem quickly.

"If you're a fireman, you go to where the fire is burning, " Martinez says. "I realized real fast that I had to get up there where the action was."

At the doorway of the observation deck, Crum turned to Martinez. "Are we playing for keeps?" Crum asked.

"Damned right we are, " said the officer.

"Then maybe you'd better deputize me, " said Crum.

"Okay, " said Ramirez. "Consider yourself deputized."

McCoy: 'We had no idea what we were going to find'

By the time fellow Officer Houston McCoy, 26, reached the bottom of the Tower, the campus was a war zone.

Ambulance drivers and citizen volunteers sprinted desperately through Whitman's rain of bullets to drag the dead and wounded onto stretchers.

As a kid, the tall, skinny McCoy had done enough squirrel hunting to know that the height of the Tower made the sniper an almost impossible target from the ground.

"I kept asking people, `Is there a plan for getting this thing done? What's the plan?' But nobody had a plan, " McCoy remembers. Carrying a 12-gauge shotgun, he, several officers and a campus security guard climbed into the elevator.

"I kept the shotgun pointed at the door as we rode up, " he says. "We had no idea what we were going to find, so I didn't take any chances."

On the 27th floor, McCoy found the Gabour family still lying in the hallway. Mike Gabour, mad with pain, reached feebly for McCoy's shotgun.

"He asked me to let him have it so he could shoot the son-of-a-bitch, " McCoy recalls. "I asked him how many (snipers) there were, and he said 'one.'

"I told him: 'We'll get the son-of-a-bitch for you."'

Shots and more shots bring 1 last death

Stepping over the bodies, McCoy found Martinez and Crum standing at the entrance to the observation deck.

They shoved through the door and stepped outside.

Bullets from the police and civilian groundfire splattered above them, showering them with a limestone powder that coated the floor of the deck like snow.

McCoy told Crum to stay at the door and shoot anything that came around the southwest corner.

"Then Martinez began working his way around the southeast corner, keeping low to the floor, with his gun in one hand, " McCoy remembers. "I followed him with the shotgun. I kept looking up, afraid somebody might be above us."

Suddenly, Crum heard the sniper running along the western edge. Before Whitman could round the corner, Crum fired one shot that struck the wall at the southwest corner and forced Whitman back into the northwest corner of the deck.

Whitman sat down, his back to the wall, his rifle ready.

Moments later, the two officers reached the northeast corner, 60 feet from where Whitman waited.

"Martinez didn't hardly hesitate at all, " McCoy remembers. "He stepped around the corner, and there was the sniper sitting there looking at us."

All Martinez can remember is that he emptied his gun at Whitman, while Whitman tried frantically to aim.

At that moment, McCoy stepped in behind Martinez and fired the shotgun. The blast hit Whitman's face, rocking his head to one side.

"I knew my first shot killed him, " says McCoy, "but I had already automatically jacked in another shell and stood up a little higher and fired again."

The second shot struck the sniper in the left temple.

McCoy watched as Whitman's legs stiffened in front of him and he slid from the sitting position until he was flat on his back.

McCoy believed the man was dead. But Martinez - high on adrenalin - felt the sniper was moving too much to call it quits.

"I reached up and grabbed the shotgun from McCoy and I charged just as (Whitman) was going down, " Martinez recalls. "I fired one more round before he hit the deck."

The slaughter was over.

Portrayals and bitterness

But it's effect on the lives of Martinez and McCoy had just begun.

In 1975, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer made a movie called The Deadly Tower, starring Richard Yniquez as Martinez, Kurt Russell as Whitman, and Ned Beatty as Crum.

In the picture, Martinez is portrayed as the main hero. Still, Martinez, now a 54-year-old Texas Ranger, was angered.

He sued MGM, saying that the movie incorrectly depicted him as having been passed over for promotion because he is Hispanic. He said the movie also depicted an argument between him and his wife, which "was not based on fact."

In 1978, he received an undisclosed cash settlement from the studio.

Today, Martinez says he is "burned out" on law enforcement work. He will retire at the end of the year to become a private investigator.

"The only thing that bothers me is that I've heard the comment that the reason I got to be a Texas Ranger is because of the Tower, " Martinez said last week. "I think I've earned everything I've gotten."

He emphasizes that he is a happy man, satisfied that he did his job well when he confronted Whitman 25 years ago.

Martinez has always contended that the controversy over whether he or McCoy fired the fatal bullets is unimportant. unnecessary.

"The only thing on my mind when I turned that corner was that I had a job to do, " he recalls. "I was like a robot. After it was over, I dropped the shotgun, and my knees turned to rubber. Up to that point I was a superman. But after it was over, I was putty."

McCoy, who now lives in Menard and admits to having a drinking problem, is not so happy. The Deadly Tower bothers him every time it is shown.

"I'm getting older, and I've got a new grandchild, " he says. "I want my children to know the truth about what happened. It was a team effort."

Last year, McCoy filed suit against Turner Broadcasting Systems for airing the movie on TV.

His lawyer, Bob Kuhn, says the film shows Martinez grabbing a shotgun from a passive policeman standing behind him and firing at Whitman.

McCoy thinks the picture might cause others to doubt the autopsy report that shows it was his shotgun blasts that killed Whitman.

The report, written in 1966 by the late Dr. Coleman deChenar, says that the numerous wounds in Whitman's body were made by a shotgun.

However, current Travis County Medical Examiner Dr. Roberto Bayardo reviewed the autopsy in 1986 and said that the possibility that Martinez's .38 also hit Whitman cannot be ruled out. Bayardo said a .38 slug and a round from the 12-gauge carried by McCoy leave almost identical wounds.

"From Houston's point of view, he is depicted as a coward in the film, " says Kuhn. "He should be compensated for the emotional distress."

R. James George, attorney for Turner Broadcasting, says no character in the film has the name Houston McCoy. He says the policeman who appears with Martinez in the final Tower scenes cannot be construed as being a coward.

"The character holding the shotgun is clearly a hero along with everyone else on that Tower, " says George."

Martinez has definite feelings about McCoy's actions.

"I think we were equally important out there together, " he says. "I have nothing but admiration for Houston McCoy."

Today, at age 51, McCoy is still as tanned and lean as he was 25 years ago. He does odd jobs in his hometown of Menard, hoping to raise enough money to fix the brakes on his pickup truck and move to Austin to start a new career in construction and plumbing.

Allen Crum, now 65, later moved to Las Vegas and worked as a slot machine repairman. Today, he lives outside the gambling capital in a mobile home with his wife Bernice and a one-eyed cat named Judge Newley Jones.

He defends the civilians who rushed to the campus with their own rifles in an effort to blow Whitman off the observation deck.

Otherwise, he doesn't talk much about the incident.

"Martinez and I went up on the Tower the day after it all happened, " Crum recalls. "We couldn't see any way it could have been done other than the way we did it."


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