The Texas Tower Sniper

In previous blogs, I discussed the San Ysidro McDonald’s massacre and the Killeen Luby’s massacre.  The murders by the Texas Tower Sniper predates both these. Like them, was the deadliest mass shooting at the time but it was also America’s first random mass shooting in a public place.

The Shootings

Charles Whitman was an engineering student and former Marine. On Monday, August 1, 1966, he took weapons, ammunition, and food to the main building of the University of Texas at Austin. He used a dolly to haul a footlocker and a duffel back filled with weapons, ammunition, and food to the observation level at the top of the building’s clock tower. After killing the receptionist and two tourists (and injuring two others), Whitman positioned himself on the observation deck. At 11:48 a.m., he opened fire on people walking around the campus and a section of nearby Guadalupe Street.

The University of Texas at Austin Tower, Austin, Texas.
The University of Texas at Austin Tower, Austin, Texas (© 1980 Larry D. Moore. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0)

For the next 93 minutes, rifle fire from the 231-foot high observation deck wreaked devastation on people below. Some people decided the gunshots were the sounds of a nail gun from a nearby construction site. Others thought the shots and falling people were part of bizarre anti-war protest (it was 1960s). Still others thought it was a theater group or psychology experiment. Soon, however, they realized what was happening and took cover as best they could.

The Police Respond

Four minutes after the first shot, a history professor placed the first call to police. Officer Billy Speed was one of the first to arrive. Despite taking cover behind a decorative concrete baluster, Whitman managed to shoot him; he died in the hospital.

Approaching the tower was difficult and dangerous. Officer Houston McCoy, along with a small group of police began to work their way toward the tower through underground maintenance tunnels. Meanwhile, both police and civilians began shooting back at the tower. Also, a police sniper approached in a small airplane, but Whitman’s rifle fire drove the plane back. It remained in the area, though, circling at a discrete distance. The airplane, coupled with the return fire from below, did not stop the shooting. But they did limit the Whitman’s ability to select targets freely.

As the shooting continued, officers Ramiro Martinez, McCoy, and Jerry Day, along with civilian Allen Crum, made their way to the 27th floor of the tower. The four then climbed the switchback stairs to the observation level. Martinez and McCoy rounded a corner and confronted the sniper. Martinez fired his service revolver at Whitman but missed. McCoy next hit Whitman with two shotgun blasts of .00 buckshot. Martinez then flung his empty pistol to the ground, grabbed McCoy’s shotgun, and shot Whitman once more at point-blank range. Fifteen people were dead, including the Texas Tower sniper himself.

The Sniper

Charles Joseph Whitman was an Eagle Scout and former Marine, married, and studying architectural engineering at the University of Texas.  He held several different jobs to support himself and his wife (she also worked).  Although outwardly appearing normal, he grappled with violent impulses and consulted several doctors, including a psychiatrist.  He documented his feelings and struggles in a journal he began keeping during his stint in the Marine Corps.  He even told friends that on two occasions he hit his wife, an act that left him disgusted with himself.

Charles Joseph Whitman, the Texas Tower Sniper.
Charles Joseph Whitman (Public Domain)

Investigators soon discovered that the night before he ascended the tower, Whitman had murdered his mother and his wife. He had stabbed them both through the heart as they slept.

An autopsy performed after Whitman’s death revealed he had a pecan-sized brain tumor. Neither the pathologist who performed the autopsy nor a commission formed by Texas governor John Connally were able to find concrete evidence that the tumor caused Whitman to commit the killings.

Charles Whitman
Charles Whitman

Aftermath

The University of Texas closed the tower observation deck after the shootings. It reopened two years later with the bullet damage repaired. But it closed again in 1975 after four suicides and remained closed for more than two decades. After installing several security measures, the University reopened the observation deck again in 1999 but only for guided tours by appointment.

South door to the observation deck of the University of Texas Tower
South door to the observation deck of the University of Texas Tower

In 2006, the City of Austin dedicated a memorial garden dedicated to the dead and otherwise affected victims. In 2016, on the fiftieth anniversary of the shootings, a memorial stone was added, and the tower clock was stopped for 24 hours.

Memorial to those killed by the Texas Tower sniper in Austin, Texas on August 1, 1966.
Memorial to those killed at the University of Texas Tower shooting in Austin, Texas on August 1, 1966. (© 2019 Larry D. Moore. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0)

Journalist William Helmer was a graduate student and an eyewitness and wrote about the Texas Tower sniper for Texas Monthly in 1986, twenty years after the event.

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