August 1, 1966: The Texas Tower Sniping Massacre


WHAT HAPPENED?


On August 1, 1966, a former Marine named Charles Whitman took rifles, among other weapons, to an observation deck at the University of Texas at Austin, and opened fire with reckless abandon on the campus and surrounding streets. He shot for 96 minutes, killing 14 people and injuring another 31. The shooting remained the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history for another 18 years.


The night before the shooting, Whitman had stabbed his wife and mother to death.


The carnage ended when a police officer and a and civilian reached him and shot him dead. It is believed that his violent nature was because of a tumor found in his brain during his autopsy.

THE MASSACRE


Before Charles Whitman decided to shoot multiple people at random at the University of Texas at Austin, he was a student there. He had studied architectural engineering, and was admitted to the university in 1961 on a scholarship from the Naval Enlisted Science Education Program from his time as a Marine.


While studying at UT, he met and married his wife, Kathleen. However, due to bad grades and a gambling problem, he lost his scholarship in 1963.


In the months leading up to the attack, Whitman had sought professional care for "overwhelming, violent impulses", including specific fantasies about shooting people from the specific tower he would eventually shoot from. It does not appear that there were any records of his violent, dangerous behavior, so the physician may not have thought he was actually dangerous.


But he was.


Between midnight and 3:00 AM on August 1, Whitman killed his mother and his wife. He had stabbed both of them to death. He left a note, claiming he loved both of them. He said he had killed his wife to spare her future humiliation, and his mother to spare her future suffering.


The next morning, his wife and mother dead, he rented a truck and cashed a lot of money in bad checks at the bank. He drove to the hardware store where he bought like, a lot of gun stuff. (Guns, ammunition, ammunition magazines, etc.) He went to another store and bought another gun. When he returned home, he packed a footlocker with a hunting rifle, a pump rifle, a carbine, a pistol, another pistol, a revolver, and a sawed off shotgun, as well as 700 rounds of ammunition. Along with what I would have to say was a few too many guns, he brought food, coffee, vitamins, painkillers, earplugs, water, matches, lighter fluid, rope, binoculars, a machete, 3 knives, a radio, toilet paper, and deodorant. He was ready to stay there awhile.


At around 11:25 AM, he reached campus and showed a false ID card to get a parking permit. He wheeled his "equipment" toward the main building. He couldn't get the elevator to work, but an employee activated it for him, relieving him.


Once he arrived near at observation deck, he encountered the receptionist, Edna Townsley. He knocked her to the floor and split her skull in half with his rifle before dragging her, still alive, behind the couch. She was his first victim. 2 people did see him there with guns after killing Edna, but they assumed he was up on the deck to shoot pigeons. They engaged in a cordial conversation before they left.


The campus moved along as normal, not knowing a vicious killer was setting up his carnage right above them. M.J. Gabour, his wife, Mary Frances Gabour, and their 2 sons Mike Gabour and Mark Gabour were in town visiting M.J.'s sister Marguerite Lamport, and her husband, William. They were climbing up the 27 flights to the observation deck when Whitman saw them. He fired, hitting 19-year-old Mike in the shoulder and 16-year-old Mark in the head, and then fired down the stairs, hitting Marguerite and Mary Frances. M.J. and William were not hit, and ran down the stairs to get help.


After that, he shot Edna in the face, killing her. M.J. and William survived, unscathed. However, M.J. lost his 16-year-old son, Mark, in the attack. Mike survived, but with serious injuries, and his wife, Mary Frances, survived, but was left paralyzed from the neck down and legally blind. William's wife, Maguerite, was killed.


Minutes after destroying an entire family, Whitman began shooting at random from the observation deck, 231 feet up in the air. He first shot Claire Wilson, an 8-months-pregnant student while she was leaving the Student Union with Thomas Eckman. She was shot in the abdomen. While she survived, her son-to-be did not. Thomas went to her aid immediately, and was shot in the chest. A passerby laid next to Claire for an hour to comfort her and keep her conscious. Eventually, others left their safe locations to help move Claire to safety, and move Thomas' body.


Shooting with no rhyme or reason from the tower, next to be hit was Robert Hamilton Boyer, a 33-year-old mathematician. He was hit in the lower back and killed. Devereaux Huffman, a 31-year-old PhD student, was shot in the arm and fell to the ground, pretending to be dead. A secretary, Charlotte Darehshori, ran through the fire to help Boyer and Huffman. She was not injured.


While a group of 4 Peace Corps volunteers in their early 20s were walking to lunch, a bullet blew off a part of David Mattson's wrist, alerting the men to the situation. Roland Ehlke was hit by shrapnel, and then shot in the leg while he tried to help David. Tom Herman was shot, as well. Their other friend, Thomas Ashton, was shot in the chest and died. A shopkeeper, Homer Kelley, 64, was shot in the leg while trying to help the injured men into his shop for safety.


At this point, at around 11:45, people were beginning to see the massacre happening around them, but hadn't yet been able to react. Aleck Hernandez was shot in his leg while delivering newspapers on his bicycle, followed shortly after by Karen Griffith, 17, who was shot in the shoulder and chest. She died a week later. Thomas Karr, a student who came to Karen's aid, was shot and died within the hour.


As it approached noon, David Hubert Gunby headed to the library when a shot passed through his arm and into his abdomen. Next was Brenda and Adrian Littlefield, ages 18 and 19 respectively and married only 9 days. All 3 were rescued. However, David lived in great pain for the rest of his life due to his injuries, and died in 2001. His death was officially ruled a homicide, as they attributed his death to the shooting.


Claudia Rutt and her boyfriend Paul Sonntag, students, had just run into their friend Carla Wheeler when they heard shots. They hid behind a construction barricade, but as soon as Paul stood up, he was shot in the mouth, killed instantly. Claudia tried to reach her boyfriend as Carla tried to hold her back, and a shot went through Carla's hand directly into Claudia's chest. Paul's grandfather, a news director, heard of his grandson's death as the names were listed on the air.


Now people weren't just aware of the carnage, but actively avoiding it. But it was still no use for some. Roy Schmidt, a 29-year-old electrician, took cover behind his car for 30 minutes. After 30 minutes, he believed his 500 yards away was out of range, and stood up. He was immediately shot in the abdomen. Billy Speed, a police officer called to the scene, was shot and killed through a gap of the barricade he was hiding behind. Harry Walchuck, a PhD student, was killed leaving a store.


Harry was the last to die. Various others were shot, most believing the coast to be clear or their area to be out of range, but they were still hit. 31 people in total were injured, most from bullet wounds but others from shrapnel or other related injuries.


At the beginning, some had believed the noise was from a nearby construction site, and some also believed that the people falling to the ground were a part of a theater group or anti-war protest. But many knew what was going on, and still, many risked their lives to help take the wounded to safety. Some got out unscathed, some were injured, and some died.


The police were called within 4 minutes of the first shot. The first officer on the scene, Billy Speed, was shot and killed.


Allen Crum, a 40-year-old retired military man working at the University Book Store, went to go investigated when he saw a teen shot on his bike, and rerouted street traffic. He made his way to the tower and offered to help the police. As did another student, who was driven home by an officer to get his gun.


Officer Ramiro Martinez, accompanied by a Department of Safety Agent Dub Cowan and an Austin Police Officer Jerry Day, and Crum, slowly and safely moved toward the tower. Officers on the ground tried to mitigate the situation by providing suppressive fire, requiring Whitman to stay low and fire through storm drains.


The motley crew got to the 27th floor and found the surviving members of the Gabour family, who told them he was out on the observation deck. Martinez reached the deck, asking Crum to stay by the door. Crum, a former military man but notably not on any sort of duty, accidentally fired his rifle. It was about 1:24 when Whitman heard it, looking around for where it came from. Martinez and McCoy, another officer who had made it to the top, shot at him and hit. A final shot was fired by Martinez at point blank range. It was over.

AFTERMATH


The city of Austin awarded Martinez and McCoy Medals of Valor for their takedown of the shooter. The observation deck was closed. It was not reopened until 1968 when all of the bullet holes were repaired, but closed again in 1975 after 4 suicides took place there. Security features were installed and it reopened in 1999, but only for guided tours.


In 2006, 40 years after the massacre, a memorial garden was created for those who died, or were affected by it. A monument with a list of the 14 victims was added in 2016. In 2008, the names of those involved in taking down Whitman, including the police officers and civilians, were added to a plaque at an Austin police building.


Since the shooting, the shooting has been commemorated in various different ways. In movies, TV and music, the massacre from Charles Whitman lives on.


During his autopsy, it was concluded that Whitman had a hypothalamic tumor on his brain, which may have been responsible for his recent violent urges, and the shooting itself.


This one is a difficult one. It certainly reads like many other mass shootings: first, kill those close to you, then, go out and kill others at random. Many other mass shootings also have brain injuries... they're just mental. Can you give Charles Whitman a pass for having a physical ailment that lead to the shootings while not giving a pass to those with serious mental conditions? And I should say - by give a pass, I don't mean not entirely condemn or be disgusted by it, but understand that the mind they had while committing these crimes isn't their normal one - because of a tumor or a mental condition?


In Whitman's history, it only talks briefly about his gambling problem and bad grades, but nothing that would amount to such extreme violence. If it truly popped up months before, and he told a doctor what was going on in his brain, is anyone else liable for allowing a man who said he wanted to shoot random people from a clock tower to be free and ultimately shoot random people from a clock tower? I don't know. It is tough to say in what context he told his doctor.


Ultimately, though, this is still horrifying in every way. What is even crazier is that 14 people lost their lives (and one of those 14 wasn't until 2001), and it remained the worst mass shooting for nearly 2 decades. Now, it likely isn't even in the top 20 in terms of death toll.


I typically focus most heavily on those who lost their lives in mass attacks, because to focus on both the injured and the dead would make for a long article. But this one is one of the first that I really understood the toll of an injured person. Sometimes, in my head, I just think they had a small gash or even a non-lethal bullet injury. But one girl was shot through the hand while trying to protect her best friend who was trying to protect her boyfriend, and she watched them both die in front of her. A group of friends walking to lunch got shot and lived, but watched their other friend die. A husband lived, but after watching his wife die. A mother, father, and brother had to live on without their beloved son and brother. The injuries, both physical and emotional from something like this, aren't negligible, and I hope I do a better job of conveying that going forward.


It has been 54 years since the observation deck turned into a murder spot, and I would like to hope that, by now, everyone involved has been able to gather the courage and strength to move past, while still remembering the horrors of August 1, 1966.


I just wish that 54 years later, this wasn't still a common occurrence.

REFERENCES:

1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/University_of_Texas_tower_shooting



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