Ending Whitman's life changed theirs

This story originally was published on July 29, 1996.

The resting places of their Medals of Valor reveal the contrasting destinies of Ramiro Martinez and Houston McCoy better than the men themselves.

Martinez's decoration is tucked away inside an upscale home in New Braunfels, where he serves as justice of the peace, clad in a dignified black cloak, respected by the community.

McCoy displays his medal to visitors in a gutted building where he lives and does odd jobs in the rural town of Menard, about 120 miles west of Austin.

Beneath the faded jeans and cowboy shirt, his 6-foot-3 frame carries a mere 148 pounds. His diet is limited by booze, bad teeth, and a diminishing number of food stamps he gets each month from the State of Texas.
Disparate lives; one moving on a sunlit path, the other down a road of shadows.

It wasn't always this way.

The day they earned their medals, 30 years ago this week, there were more parallels in their lives than contrasts.

Both had grown up as farm boys in West Texas, shooting rabbits or squirrels with their .22-caliber rifles. As adults, they wanted marriage, childrenwho ended the slaughter.

For Martinez, the road to the Tower began in 1937, when he was born near Rotan, 80 miles northwest of Abilene. The son of a Hispanic sharecropper with strong family values and firm roots in the Roman Catholic Church, he spent much of his childhood hunched over, picking cotton.

His drive and ambition showed early. Despite being 5-11, 138 pounds, he was such an aggressive defensive end on the high school football team that he earned all-district honors.

After graduation, he moved to Austin to look for a career, and got his first taste of discrimination.

"There was definitely racism toward Mexican Americans in Austin," he remembers. "I'd go into a business for an application and they'd say,'We're not taking applications today,' when I knew they were."

"It didn't make me bitter," Martinez said. "It just made me push harder."

Pushing hard was not in McCoy's personality. Although he approached the jobs of his youth conscientiously, he enjoyed his leisure hours. A cold beer was never far away in Menard County, he recalls. He bought his first at age 14.

As a soldier in the U.S. Army in Germany, his most beloved moments were spent flying gliders, learning the intricacies of using the wind to soar above the Earth and its problems. By his own admission, career advancement and making lots of money were secondary to life's pleasures.

"The main reason I applied to the Austin Police Department when I got out of the Army is that I had a German girl I wanted to bring over here and marry, and that meant I needed a job," McCoy recalls.

When McCoy joined the department in 1963 Martinez was already an officer, having found a job where his ethnic background was no detriment.

Aside from one routine patrol together, they had little contact. They socialized with different colleagues and lived in separate parts of town.

"We were only vaguely aware of each other," Martinez recalls.

That changed on Aug. 1, 1966, when Whitman, a 25-year-old UT student, wheeled a footlocker packed with weapons into an elevator and rode to the top of the Tower, where he opened fire on unsuspecting victims below.

Martinez and McCoy -- racing to the campus from opposite directions -- each evaluated the situation differently.

The hard-charging Martinez focused quickly on the source. "I had to get to the top of that Tower fast," he recalls. "That's where the shooting was coming from. That's where I had to be."

McCoy also realized that getting to the top of the Tower was the key. But he had no intention of facing the sniper with only his police-issued .38-caliber handgun.

McCoy took the time to unlock the powerful 12-gauge shotgun from its clamp on the dashboard of his patrol car -- a bit of forethought that probably saved both his and Martinez's lives.

Working his way carefully across campus to the Tower elevator, McCoy rode to the top floor and scrambled over the dead and wounded bodies of two families of tourists Whitman had shot.

There he found Martinez already poised to go through the door to the observation deck outside.

Cautiously, the two made their way around the southeast wall of the Tower. They heard a shot.

Allen Crum, a civilian with a rifle who also had reached the topof the Tower, had heard Whitman running toward him on the other side of the walkway and had fired to drive the sniper back.

Martinez refused to wait any longer. Squatting to an almost-crawling position, Martinez -- as his nature demanded -- rounded the corner first.

At the end of the walkway, Whitman sat with his rifle, almost hidden behind a network of pipes supporting the Tower lights.

Without hesitating, Martinez opened fire, emptying his revolver. At virtually the same moment, McCoy stepped out behind him. Calmly, deliberately, McCoy sighted down the barrel and pulled the trigger.
"I could see his head snap to one side, and I knew he was dead," McCoy said.

Martinez says said that after he opened fire, his mind went blank and his adrenalin took over. "I just remember pulling the trigger again and again," he says.

Days later, an autopsy showed that McCoy's shotgun blasts were what killed Whitman. But media attention focused on Martinez.

Part of the reason, McCoy says, is due to his own reticence.

"When the reporters started asking questions, I let Martinez do the talking," McCoy recalls. "It's not in my character to toot my own horn. We were just cops doing a job."

While he did not toot his own horn, Martinez did give his account of the incident.

"I never minded talking about it," Martinez said. "It was therapy for me to talk."

Ironically, what caused both men the most pain was not the event itself, but a film about it called "The Deadly Tower."

Aired in 1975, the picture stars actor Richard Yniquez as Ramiro Martinez. There is no character in the movie named Houston McCoy. But an actor named Paul Carr plays the role of Austin police officer "C.T. Foss," who follows Martinez out onto the observation deck with a shotgun.

The film has the look and feel of a hastily made docudrama, despite the presence of some well-known actors -- Kurt Russell, who plays Whitman, and John Forsythe as a police lieutenant who wants to talk Whitman down from the Tower.

Martinez condemned the picture as "bull," but not because of its depiction of how Whitman died. His eyes narrow as he recalls the film.

"They portrayed my wife as a Hispanic woman who is pregnant and barefoot, the usual stereotype," he says.
"They had her arguing with me about going to the Tower, which didn't happen. And they portrayed the Austin Police Department as being racist against me. Just the opposite from the truth."

In 1976, Martinez sued MGM and got an undisclosed cash settlement.

The movie enraged McCoy.

The final scenes of the picture show Martinez's bullets striking Whitman repeatedly, while Foss watches passively -- holding the shotgun but never firing.

"They show that movie damn near every week," he said. "I know it's just a movie. But it's there. It could have told the truth, but it didn't.

"Several years ago, I attended my high school reunion over at the country club," he said. "Two of my classmates were talking, and one of them said:'Yeah. I saw that movie. He really didn't do much.'
"I knew they were talking about me," said McCoy, "and it hurt."

McCoy also filed suit against the owners of the film. Attorneys for the company responded that no one in the movie was portrayed as cowardly and that since McCoy's name was not used, he suffered no damage. McCoy got no settlement.

Martinez left the Police Department in 1968 and after a brief stint running a restaurant he joined the Texas Department of Public Safety as a narcotics officer. In 1973, he was appointed a Texas Ranger, a post he held for 24 years until resigning two years ago to run successfully as a Republican for justice of the peace in New Braunfels.

McCoy, too, left the department in 1968, to become a flight instructor. Later he moved back to Menard, where he worked for 12 years as grounds supervisor for a Boy Scout camp.

Since then, he has held few steady jobs. He and his wife divorced three years ago.

In 1993, he was arrested for driving while intoxicated in Llano County, resulting in his resignation from a job he held briefly as a jailer in Williamson County.

Last June, McCoy said, he was arrested again on of drunken driving in Menard County. McCoy says he pleaded guilty to a separate charge of driving with a suspended license.

Next month, he reports to a rehabilitation facility in Marlin for alcohol abuse counseling and a job program.
McCoy refuses to blame the Tower -- or his lack of credit for the work he did there -- for his hard luck.

"I believe a man makes his own troubles," he said recently, sitting in his workshop near two disassembled gliders he hopes one day to rebuild when he gets enough money. "I might have ended up an old drunk, no matter what had happened."

Martinez is satisfied with his performance atop the Tower. "I don't care whose projectile struck Whitman," he says. "I know I did my best."

In recent years, magazine articles, newspaper interviews and several television documentaries have given McCoy his due credit for stopping Whitman.

Most of the newer accounts depict both men as heroes -- Martinez the leader, the first to confront Whitman; McCoy as the man who fired the shots that stopped the massacre for good.

But the conclusion provides only a light salve to McCoy's emotional wounds. To him, public perception counts more than the truth of that day -- that he was brave, that he went up there in the midst of the madness.

"I just don't want my grandkids to think I died an old drunk," said McCoy. "I want them to know that I did some things that benefited others.

"Whatever else I've done, I think I made a pretty good policeman."

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