Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Mysterious Disappearance of Madalyn Murray O'Hair

A Sendoff

A battle ensued over Madalyn's remains between Bill and the surviving leadership of American Atheists. Bill wanted his mother to have a quiet, dignified burial. The atheists thought that their fallen leader should be memorialized by the organization she created and to which she had left all her assets.

Ellen Johnson
Ellen Johnson

Atheist president Ellen Johnson told reporters that Bill had no right to the remains and threatened to sue. But Texas law was on the side of Bill, and he took control of the remains and ordered them cremated, which was his mother's wish. Madalyn had also said she wanted her ashes scattered, but that wouldn't happen. Instead, Bill buried the trio together in an unmarked vault somewhere in Austin on March 23, 2001.

"They lived together, they were kidnapped together, murdered together and thrown in a common grave together," Bill told MacCormack for a story in the San Antonio Express-News. "I just thought they should be buried together."

No members of the American Atheists were told about the burial out of fear that they or sympathizers might attempt to steal the remains. Instead, the ceremony was attended by several FBI agents and a pastor who was a witness. And in keeping with her wishes, no one prayed over her.

Johnson vowed to continue Madalyn's fight, but the loss of the fiery leader was a blow from which the organization took long to recover. Bill continued his work as an evangelical Christian, preaching about his faith in God and writing books. Waters died of cancer in prison in 2003.

As for Madalyn, it's unlikely that in her final moments she prayed for divine intervention, deliverance or salvation. "I think it's important to understand that once you're dead, you're dead," she told a reporter from The Tampa Tribune in 1990. "Just as soon as the brain starts to rot, that's the end of the story."


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