Tuesday, August 1, 2006


It was forty years ago today when the campus of the University of Texas was ripped asunder by a sniper in the University's tower. The carnage began at 11:48 a.m. and lasted for an hour and a half. Altogether 15 were left dead, including a police officer, and 31 were wounded that day. (Another death was attributed to him in 2001 when a Fort Worth man died from the injuries he suffered that day.) Some of the wounded had to lie for an hour on the scorching pavement until armored cars could be rounded up to recover them.

This was back in a more innocent time, even after the assassination of President Kennedy, when the police in Austin didn't have the equipment we would take for granted in any given crisis today: bulletproof vests, high-powered weapons, and even walkie-talkies. There was no command post, no communications, and no plan in taking out the sniper. They tried shooting at the sniper from a small airplane, "King Kong" style, but the gunman's return fire drove the plane away.

As the crisis developed, nobody had a clue as to who the sniper could have been, but theories were plenty: Black Panthers and war protesters among them. It was only after the ordeal that the country learned who Charles Joseph Whitman was.....

Whitman was the All-American Boy Scout, in fact he had once been the country's youngest Eagle Scout. An altar boy, a Marine, an engineering student with a great scholastic record, Whitman was drummed out of the service with a court martial and abused prescription drugs like amphetamines heavily.

On the night of July 31st, 1966, Whitman strangled his mother and then bashed in her head before he sought out his wife and stabbed her to death. According to the notes he left behind, he gave her death "much thought" and wanted to spare her embarrassment for what would come after he was found out for what he was about to do.

Only then did he go on a shopping spree to prepare himself for his siege: two long guns, three pistols, and 700 rounds of ammunition. Putting the guns and ammo in a foot-locker along with knives, ropes, water and food, he took the tower's elevator to the 27th floor.

He bashed in the head of the receptionist there but let a couple walk away who were just leaving the observatory deck; smilling at them as if nothing was wrong. But once out on the deck himself, he opened fire on a family who arrived after him, killing two of them

It took fifteen minutes after he began his onslaught before he started to get return fire, and it wasn't just from the police. Students and others hauled out their own personal stashes of weaponry, Texas-style, and also began shooting back at him.

Three police officers independently made their way up the tower and met in the reception room. Along with a deputized bookstore manager, they snuck onto the observation walkway, rounded the tower, and shot the sniper dead.

In 1975, a TV movie was presented on the subject and officially made the tragedy from nine years earlier a part of Toobworld. "The Deadly Tower" was directed by Jerry Jameson and written by William Douglas Lansford and starred Kurt Russell as Charles Whitman. This was one of the first attempts by the actor to change his previous image as a Disney star.

Richard Yniguez co-starred as Officer Ramiro Martinez, the officer who led the team that finally stopped Whitman's rampage. And Ned Beatty also co-starred as Allan Crum. (I think he was the deputized bookstore manager.)

Also in the cast as police officials were John Forsythe, Pernell Roberts, and Clifton James. Other acting stalwarts in the cast included Alan Vint, Paul Carr, and Pepe Serna, with narration provided by Gilbert Roland.

The TV movie was filmed in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, perhaps to protect the people who survived the terror of that day. But the pain is still there and on this fortieth anniversary, there are still calls for more to be done for those who suffered trauma from the attack.

If any good could be said to come from what happened, Whitman's rampage spurred the creation of SWAT teams, and better-equipped police forces all across the nation to contend with such modern catastrophes.


[A lot of this report came from an essay at American Heritage's web-site.]

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