The Texas Tower Sniper: Book Review

The Texas Tower Sniper by Ryan Green

Last week, I told you about Charles Whitman. This former marine shot and killed fourteen people from the clock tower of the University of Texas’s main building. While researching that post, I discovered a book by British true crime author Ryan Green. This week, I review Green’s book, which he also titles The Texas Tower Sniper.

The Shootings

To briefly recap, Charles Whitman rode an elevator to the top of the University of Texas’s clock tower on August 1, 1966. He then took a footlocker of guns, ammunition, and food to the observation deck and began randomly shooting people below. By the time police finally shot and killed him, Whitman’s rampage had left fourteen people dead and many others wounded. Moreover, he had killed his mother and his wife the night before.

America was shocked. Although random mass shootings have sadly become almost commonplace, this one was the first.

The Book

Ryan Green is a true crime author who lives in Herefordshire, England. The Texas Tower Sniper is his latest book. It is a quick read. The Kindle edition weighs in at about 90 pages, depending on your font size, so it is easily digested in an evening.

Green begins with Whitman’s youth, recounting his allegedly abusive childhood, which he escaped by joining the Marine Corps. In the Marines, his exemplary conduct earned him a spot in a program that sent him to college as part of an officer training program. Poor grades forced Whitman out of the program, however, and he had to return to regular duty at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. He was a reluctant Marine this time and his behavior was objectionable instead of exemplary.

The Texas Tower Sniper follows Whitman from disgruntled Marine to angry husband to struggling college student. By now, we know the story ends with Whitman on the tower with a rifle in his hands.

My Take on the Book

Green writes the book from Whitman’s perspective, as if he can see inside the young man’s mind. It makes for interesting reading and, I’m sure it’s based on solid research, but the technique jars the historian in me a bit.

Green is at his best in the final chapter. When an autopsy discovered a pecan-sized (some writers say walnut-sized) tumor in Whitman’s brain, some offered that as an explanation for his deadly behavior. Green lays out the case for an organic cause for the shootings and then proceeds methodically to demolish it. Whitman wasn’t out of control, he was, in fact, very tightly controlled. In the end, he concludes that Whitman had constructed an image of his perfect life. That image was really a lie that was coming apart at the seams. Unable to deal with image versus reality, he snapped.

Recommendation

As long as you bear in mind that what purports to be Whitman’s thoughts are mostly Green’s conclusions, I do recommend The Texas Tower Sniper. It is an easy to follow account of Whitman’s life and the tower killings. Enjoy!

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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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The Luby’s Massacre

Last week, I told you about the 1984 McDonald’s massacre in San Ysidro, California.  Today I talk about an eerily similar crime, the Luby’s massacre, which occurred in 1991 in Killeen, Texas.  Killeen would also be the site of two more mass shootings in 2009 and 2014, both at the nearby Fort Hood military base.

The Site

Luby’s is a popular cafeteria chain, located mostly throughout Texas, but there are also Luby’s restaurants in Arkansas and Mississippi.  About 140 lunchtime diners filled the Luby’s location at 1705 East Central Texas Expressway in Killeen.  It was National Boss’s Day, Wednesday, October 16, 1991.

The Luby's massacre began when George Hennard crashed his blue Ford pickup truck through the front window of the restaurant.
The Luby’s massacre began when George Hennard crashed his blue Ford pickup truck through the front window of the restaurant.

The Massacre

The Luby’s massacre began at 12:39 p.m. when one George Hennard drove his blue 1987 Ford pickup truck through the restaurant’s plate glass front window.  At first, diners naturally thought the crash was an accident.  But Hennard emerged from the truck, shouting “All women of Killeen and Belton are Vipers!  This is what you’ve done to me and my family! … This is payback day!”  With that, the shooting started. Armed with two semi-automatic pistols, a Glock 17 and a Ruger P89, he then began stalking and shooting both customers and employees.  His attack killed 23 people and wounded 17 others.

After police arrived, Hennard engaged in a brief shootout with officers.  Wounded twice in the abdomen by police bullets and running low on ammunition, he shot and killed himself.

The Luby's massacre shooter, George Hennard, mugshot for an unrelated pot bust.
George Hennard, the shooter in the Luby’s massacre. This mugshot was for an unrelated pot bust.

The Shooter

George Hennard was a native of Pennsylvania, the son of a Swiss surgeon.  His family later moved to New Mexico, where his father worked at the White Sands Missile Range near Las Cruces.  He served in the U.S. Navy for three years and earned an honorable discharge.  After that, he worked as a sailor in the Merchant Marine but was fired for possessing marijuana and racial incidents.  He was unemployed at the time of the Luby’s massacre.

People who knew him described Hennard as reclusive and belligerent.  He also had an explosive temper.  A former roommate said that he hated blacks, Hispanics, and gays. He also hated women, often calling them “snakes.”  Survivors of the attack at Luby’s reported him passing over men to shoot women, calling at least two of them “bitch” before pulling the trigger.

One customer survived by crashing through a back window. He injured himself in the process but he also creating an escape route for others. Otherwise, the number of victims likely would have been higher.

Aftermath

The Texas Rifle Association tried to use the Luby’s massacre as a lever to pass legislation allowing citizens to carry concealed weapons.  Governor Ann Richards vetoed two such bills.  But her successor, George W. Bush, signed a similar bill into law.

Memorial to the victims of the Luby's massacre in Killeen, Texas.
Memorial to the victims of the Luby’s massacre in Killeen, Texas.

Luby’s reopened on the site five months after the shootings but it closed permanently on September 9, 2000.  Today, the location is home to a Chinese-American buffet.

A red granite memorial to the massacre victims sits behind the Killeen Community Center.

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The McDonald’s Massacre

I took a break for vacation last week but I’m back with a new post about a truly horrifying crime.  On July 18, 1984, a man named James Huberty launched what we know simply as the McDonald’s massacre in San Ysidro, California.  His attack on unsuspecting diners and employees lasted over an hour.

James Oliver Huberty killed 21 people and wounded 19 at a McDonald's restaurant in San Ysidro, California
James Oliver Huberty, the San Ysidro McDonald’s slayer

The Shooter

James Oliver Huberty was a native of Canton, Ohio.  Outwardly normal in many respects, he struggled with inner demons. He was introverted and often sullen and a dedicated collector of grudges.  He believed in government conspiracy theories. Huberty also expected that US-Soviet relations would deteriorate into a doomsday scenario.  To prepare for the anticipated apocalypse, he collected non-perishable food—and guns and ammo.  There is also evidence that he was occasionally violent to his wife and daughters.

Huberty initially worked toward a sociology degree at Malone College in Canton (where he met his future wife). Later studied at the Pittsburgh Institute of Mortuary Science in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  After graduating, he worked as an embalmer for two years.  He then decided to become a welder, a craft he practiced in Louisville, Kentucky for two years before securing a more lucrative welding job with Babcock & Wilcox in Akron.

Successful as a welder, Huberty and his wife bought a house in Massillon, Ohio.  When a fire destroyed that house, they bought a second house on the same street and built a six-unit apartment building on the site of their first home.  All was well until Babcock & Wilcox closed the unit where he worked and laid him off.

The Hubertys Move

After selling the apartment building and the house in Massillon, Huberty moved his family to Tijuana, Mexico, assuming that his money would go further there than in the United States.  Although his wife and girls embraced their new life in Mexico, Huberty did not.  After only three months, the family moved to San Ysidro, a largely poor district of San Diego just north of the US-Mexico border.

Life on the American side of the border was not significantly better for Huberty.  He signed up for and attended a federally funded program to train as a security guard. After finishing the training, he landed a job with a security firm in Chula Vista in April 1984.  But this job lasted only three months.  On July 10, 1984, his employer dismissed him, citing poor work performance and general physical instability.

For the next few days, Huberty drifted until, on July 17, he placed a call to San Diego mental health clinic requesting an appointment.  Since he was calm and gave no indication of urgency, and because the receptionist who took the call misspelled his name, he did not receive the immediate callback he expected.

The next day, July 18, Huberty took his family to the San Diego zoo.  They lunched—ironically—at McDonald’s and later returned home.

The McDonald’s Massacre

Shortly after the Hubertys returned from the Zoo, Huberty donned a maroon T-shirt and green camo pants.  He kissed his wife goodbye and left, remarking that he was “going hunting…hunting for humans.”  This odd statement did not alarm Mrs. Huberty as he was apparently in the habit of making similar remarks.

Huberty drove his black Mercury Marquis to the parking lot of the McDonald’s at 460 West San Ysidro Boulevard.  There were 45 customers in the restaurant when Huberty walked in at approximately 3:56 p.m.  He carried with him a Browning Hi-Power 9 mm handgun, an Uzi 9mm carbine, and a Winchester 1200 12-gauge pump-action shotgun, along with a box and a cloth bag with hundreds of rounds of ammunition for each weapon.

For the next 77 minutes, terror reigned.  Huberty shot employees and customers indiscriminately regardless of age or gender.  Emergency services received the first of many calls at 4:00 p.m. but dispatched police to the wrong McDonald’s, which was two miles away.  It was another ten minutes before the first officer arrived on the scene.  Huberty fired at his patrol car.  Police quickly established a command post and locked down a six-block area around the scene.

Bullet holes in the windows after the McDonald's massacre in San Ysidro, California
Bullet holes in the windows are a grim reminder of James Huberty’s deadly attack at McDonald’s in San Ysidro, California (ABC News)

Taking Down a Killer

Because Huberty was firing rapidly and switching between his three guns, police were unsure how many shooters were in the restaurant.  It was also difficult to see through the windows, now spider-webbed by bullet holes.  One person who escaped the melee told police that there was only one shooter and no hostages.

Finally, at 5:17 p.m., Huberty stepped toward a door near the drive-through window.  A SWAT officer posted on the roof of the nearby post office fired a single shot that ruptured his aorta, killing him instantly.  The horror was finally over.  The McDonald’s massacre left 21 people dead and 19 others wounded.

After the Attack

Astonishingly, within two days, McDonald’s had repaired and refurbished the restaurant and was ready to reopen it. But after discussions with community leaders, the company decided not to do so.  The renovated restaurant was quietly demolished on September 26.

At the time, the San Ysidro massacre at McDonald’s was the deadliest mass shooting by a lone gunman.  A shooting at a Luby’s Cafeteria in Killeen, Texas would shatter this unenviable record only seven years later.

Memorial to the victims of the  McDonald's massacre at the former site of the restaurant in San Ysidro, California
Memorial to the San Ysidro McDonald’s victims at the former site of the restaurant

McDonald’s constructed a new restaurant nearby and eventually sold the land where the attack occurred to Southwestern College. The college set aside a 300-square-foot area for a memorial to the victims.  Southwestern unveiled the memorial designed by one of its former students on December 13, 1990.

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