Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Charles Whitman: The Texas Bell Tower Sniper

Lost Innocence

View from Texas Tower (Austin Police Department)
View from Texas Tower
(Austin Police Department)

On the lower floors of the Tower the alarm spread. People began barricading themselves into classrooms and offices. On the observation deck, Charlie unpacked his array of supplies and his guns. He wedged the door to the deck shut with the dolly and quickly set about firing. Turning his attention to the area of campus known as the South Mall, he began with his most accurate weapon, the scoped 6mm rifle. His first target was Claire Wilson, a heavily pregnant eighteen-year-old. The bullet pierced her abdomen and fractured the skull of the baby she carried, killing it. When she cried out, an acquaintance, Thomas Eckman turned and asked her what was wrong. Just then he was hit in the chest. He fell dead across his wounded girl. Nearby, Dr. Robert Hamilton Boyer, a visiting physics professor, took a bullet to the lower back. He died quickly.

To the east of the Tower at the Computation Center, Thomas Ashton, a Peace Corps trainee, was shot in the chest. He died later at Brackenridge hospital. As others in areas around the Tower began falling, those in surrounding buildings began to take notice. Wounded victims lay helpless, pinned down in the 95+ degree heat and fearful of being shot again. At about noon, University Police arrived at the Tower and proceeded to the 27th floor, where they discovered the Gabour/Lamport party. An order was given to secure the exits and shut off the elevators. It was not yet clear how many shooters there were, but from the number of calls that were coming in to both the Austin Police and the University Police, it seemed there must be an army atop the Tower.

Charlie was still moving about the observation deck unhindered, and turned his attention westward, toward Guadalupe Street. Known as the Drag, the busy street was lined with businesses and formed the western boundary of the UT campus. Initially, people on Guadalupe Street thought the echoing gunshots were part of a college prank. Then Alex Hernandez, a newsboy on a bicycle, fell wounded. Seventeen-year-old Karen Griffin fell next, and would die a week later. Thomas Karr, who had probably turned to render aid to Griffin, was then shot in the back. He died an hour later. Those inside Guadalupe Street businesses huddled together away from windows.

Austin Police were arriving on campus and trying to make their way to the Tower. Officers Jerry Culp and Billy Speed were huddled, with others, under a statue south of the Tower, trying to figure their next move. Charlie shot Billy Speed through a six-inch space between two balusters, which were part of a rail that surrounded the statue. Though Speed's wound looked superficial to those around him, it was in fact grave. He was dying.

Back on the Drag, the carnage continued. Harry Walchuk, a thirty-eight-year-old doctoral student and father of six was exiting a newsstand when a bullet entered his chest. He died at the scene. Nearby, high-school students Paul Sonntag, Claudia Rutt and Carla Sue Wheeler dove for cover behind a construction barricade. As Paul peered out from behind the barricade to see what was happening, Charlie shot him through his open mouth. He was killed instantly. Another shot hit Claudia Rutt, who died later at Brackenridge Hospital.

By now word of what was happening had spread, and police began returning fire toward the Tower, trying to pick off Charlie as he rose up over the parapet to take aim. Citizens went home and got their own guns, and hundreds of shots chipped away at the Tower in the next hour. Charlie began shooting through the rainspouts on each side of the building, making himself virtually impossible to hit. He switched guns from time to time. The greater part of his killing had been done in his first twenty minutes on the observation deck, but he was not finished. Over 500 yards to the South, city electricians Solon McCown and Roy Dell Schmidt parked their truck and joined a group of reporters and spectators. They huddled behind cars for safety. Schmidt, probably thinking that they were out of range, stood up. He was hit in the abdomen, and was dead ten minutes later.

As more victims fell, police officers made their various ways to the Tower. Austin Police Officers Jerry Day, Houston McCoy, and Ramiro Martinez, Department of Public Safety Officer W.A. Cowan, civilian Allen Crum and others converged on the 27th floor. They cleared the floor and brought down Mary and Mike Gabour, who had lain critically wounded in a deep pool of blood for over an hour. Martinez and Crum moved carefully up the steps and into the reception area. McCoy and Day soon followed. There was no definite plan of action; each man had to improvise as the situation developed. From inside the reception area, they could cover windows on the south, southwest, and west sides of the Tower. Martinez tried the door to the observation deck, but found it had been wedged shut. He kicked the door until the dolly fell away, freeing the door. The men waited and watched the windows.

Charlie Whitman dead (Austin Police Department)
Charlie Whitman dead
(Austin Police Department)

Ramirez emerged onto the deck, and began crawling toward the northwest corner, where the shots seemed to be coming from. McCoy followed, while Crum and Day guarded the door. As Charlie tried to change position, Crum misfired his gun, sending him back to the northwest corner. There he sat with his back against the north wall, aiming his carbine toward the south, from whence Crum's shot had come. Martinez and McCoy continued their slow crawl, friendly fire from the ground zinging around them. When Martinez reached the northeast corner, he rounded it and began firing his .38. Charlie tried to return fire but could not bring his weapon around in time. McCoy fired his shotgun twice at Charlie's head, knocking him to the floor. Martinez then grabbed McCoy's gun and ran toward Charlie's twitching body, firing into it point blank. At 1:24 p.m. Charlie was dead.

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