Nature vs nurture will always be an argument in the context of criminal behaviour. In this story, a neurological disease was considered to be partly to blame for the tragic actions of Charles Whitman. However it was also a fact that he suffered a horrific childhood at the hands of his abusive, authoritarian father. Perhaps it was a combination of the two that led to the gruesome killings on August 1, 1966.
Charles Joseph Whitman (June 24, 1941 – August 1, 1966) was an American engineering student at the University of Texas, and a former U.S. Marine. Whitman was good-looking, blonde, and to look at him he was the proverbial All-American boy next door. He was well-liked for much of his life and not considered to be at all unusual. Perhaps if people had paid more attention to his angry behaviour and his admission that he had violent thoughts, the day of the Texas Tower Sniper wouldn’t have existed.
Whitman was the eldest of three sons born to Margaret E. (Hodges) and Charles Adolphus “C. A.” Whitman, Jr. The marriage of Whitman’s parents was not a good one and neither was Whitman’s childhood, both of which were marred by domestic violence. Whitman’s father was an authoritarian who provided for his family but demanded perfection from all of them. He was known to physically and emotionally abuse his wife and children. Yet he believed he loved his family. The dominating presence of Whitman Jr. led to great anger in young Whitman.
As a boy, Whitman was described as a polite, well-mannered child who seldom lost his temper. He was extremely intelligent: an examination at the age of six revealed his IQ to be 139. Whitman’s academic achievements were encouraged by his parents, yet any indication of failure or a lethargic attitude would be met with discipline often in the way of beatings, from his father.
Margaret Whitman was a devout Roman Catholic who raised her sons in the same faith. The Whitman brothers regularly attended mass with their mother, and all three brothers served as altar boys at the Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church. At only 12, Whitman was reportedly the youngest person in the world ever to become an Eagle Scout. Whitman also became an accomplished pianist at the age of twelve. In spite of his considerable talents, he could never please his father. Nothing Whitman did was ever good enough.
As an adult he led a Scout troop but he wasn’t a good leader. Shades of his father’s sadism had begun to show in his treatment of the boys. He often taunted them. On one occasion he threw a dollar bill on the floor and told the boys if they could imitate his actions they could have the bill. Whitman then flipped upside down onto his hands and did push-ups against a wall. Naturally none of the children could accomplish the feat and Whitman would pocket the bill as he laughed at the children. “He was all about showing off, about Charles Whitman. Nothing was about us,” one former Scout in Whitman’s troop recalled.
Whitman Sr. was a firearms collector and enthusiast, who taught each of his sons from an early age how to shoot, clean, and maintain guns. He regularly took them on hunting trips, and Whitman became an avid hunter. His father proudly said of him: “Charlie could plug the eye out of a squirrel at fifty yards by the time he was sixteen.” Photographs of Whitman as a child showed him standing between two of his father’s rifles and holding onto them like bars on a jail cell.
On September 1, 1955, Whitman enrolled in St. Ann’s High School in West Palm Beach, where he was regarded as a moderately popular student whose intelligence was noted by teachers and his peers. One month after his June 1959 graduation from high school, Whitman enlisted in the United States Marine Corps. Whitman told a family friend that the catalyst was an incident a month before when his father had beaten him and thrown him into the family swimming pool, almost drowning him because Whitman had come home drunk after an evening socializing with friends. Whitman severed his relationship with his father with his mother’s encouragement. His father learned of his actions and telephoned a branch of the federal government, trying unsuccessfully to have his son’s enlistment canceled.
After completing his first assignment, Whitman applied to a U.S. Navy and Marine Corps scholarship program, intending to complete college and become a commissioned officer. Whitman entered the mechanical engineering program at the University of Texas at Austin on September 15, 1961. Whitman was a poor student whose grades were unimpressive. Shortly after his enrollment at the University, he and two friends were observed poaching a deer. The trio butchered the deer in the shower at Whitman’s dormitory when they were arrested. Whitman was fined $100 for the offense. In spite of such anti-social behaviour, Whitman acquired a reputation as a practical joker in his years as an engineering student, but he was also noted for making morbid and chilling statements.
In February 1962, Whitman met Kathleen Frances Leissner, a teaching student two years his junior. Leissner was Whitman’s first serious girlfriend. The couple courted for five months before announcing their engagement on July 19. On August 17, 1962, Whitman and Leissner married in a Catholic ceremony held in Leissner’s hometown of Needville, Texas. The couple chose the 22nd wedding anniversary of Whitman’s parents as the date for their wedding. Leissner’s family and friends approved of her choice of husband, describing Whitman as a “handsome young man.” However, two close friends of Whitman, John and Fran Morgan, later told the Texas Department of Public Safety that Whitman told them of striking Kathy on two occasions. They said that Whitman had despised himself for the behavior and confessed to being “mortally afraid of being like his father.” Whitman lamented his actions in his journal, and resolved to be a good husband. However, Leissner told a friend that early in their marriage “he used to hit her.”
Although Whitman’s grades improved somewhat during his second and third semesters at the University of Texas at Austin, the Marine Corps deemed his academic performance unacceptable in terms of the scholarship. In November 1963, he was court-martialed for gambling, usury, possession of a personal firearm on base, and threatening another Marine over a $30 loan, for which he demanded $15 interest. 50% interest? It was fortunate that Whitman never opened a bank. Sentenced to 30 days of confinement and 90 days of hard labor, he was demoted in rank from Lance Corporal to Private.
In May 1966, Margaret Whitman announced her intention to divorce Whitman’s father because of his physical abuse Whitman’s father admitted to having spent over a thousand dollars on long-distance phone calls to both his wife Margaret and Whitman, pleading with his wife to return and trying to enlist his son to convince her to change her mind. During this stressful time, Whitman began abusing amphetamines and partially as a result he experienced severe headaches. He later described these headaches as being “tremendous.”
Whitman began to show a rigid temperament, a la Whitman Jr. No one seemed to notice that he was a very angry young man. He was able to hide his violent temper from his fellow students and friends. Whitman didn’t have much resilience. Kathy may have been a victim of his temper at times but if so, she didn’t inform anyone as the years passed.
August 1, 1966 . On the eve of the shootings at the University Tower, Whitman wrote in his journal, including his final entries about Margaret and Kathy which written in the past tense, suggesting he may have already killed Kathy and his mother.
At 6:45 a.m., Whitman began typing his suicide note, a portion of which read:
- I do not quite understand what it is that compels me to type this letter. Perhaps it is to leave some vague reason for the actions I have recently performed. I do not really understand myself these days. I am supposed to be an average reasonable and intelligent young man. However, lately (I cannot recall when it started) I have been a victim of many unusual and irrational thoughts
Whitman was interrupted by a visit from friends who stated he seemed calm and normal. After they left he returned to his typewriter and wrote that he requested an autopsy be conducted upon his body, to determine if there was a biological reason for his actions and headaches. He wrote he had decided to kill both his mother and wife. Expressing uncertainty about his reasons, he stated he wanted to relieve his wife and mother from the suffering of this world and to save them the embarrassment of his actions. Whitman stabbed his wife and choked and stabbed his mother to death in their respective homes. He placed his mother’s body into her bed and covered it with sheets, indicating an intimate relationship with the victim. Ironically Leissner had moved to Austin to escape her husband’s cruelty. In the end it was her son who killed her. In spite of what he wrote about his deep love for his mother, he had harboured a deep anger against her for not saving him from his father when he was a child.
He left a handwritten note beside her body, which read in part:
- To Whom It May Concern: I have just taken my mother’s life. I am very upset over having done it. However, I feel that if there is a heaven she is definitely there now […] I am truly sorry […] Let there be no doubt in your mind that I loved this woman with all my heart.
Whitman had met with Maurice Dean Heatly, the staff psychiatrist at the University of Texas Health Center, on March 29, 1966. Whitman referred to his visit with Heatly in his final suicide note: “I talked with a Doctor once for about two hours and tried to convey to him my fears that I felt come [sic] overwhelming violent impulses. After one visit, I never saw the Doctor again, and since then have been fighting my mental turmoil alone, and seemingly to no avail.”
After murdering his mother Whitman returned to his home at 906 Jewell Street, where he killed his wife by stabbing her three times in the heart as she slept. He covered her body with sheets, as he had his mother. At approximately 11:35 a.m., Whitman arrived on the University of Texas at Austin campus. Showing a security guard, Jack Rodman, false identification as a research assistant, he obtained a 40-minute parking permit, saying he was delivering equipment. In the reception area, Whitman encountered 51-year-old receptionist Edna Townsley. Whitman knocked her to the floor and hit her in the head with his rifle butt, splitting the back of her skull.
The first shots fired by Whitman from the tower’s outer deck came at approximately 11:48 a.m. He first hit Claire Wilson, an 18-year-old anthropology student who was eight months pregnant. Whitman shot Wilson in the abdomen, killing her unborn child. The shot was deliberate. Whitman was an astonishing marksman and he deliberately attempted to kill the unborn fetus. The shot dropped Wilson to the concrete on the mall and as her fiancé, 18-year-old Thomas Eckman, asked her, “What’s wrong?” Whitman shot and killed Eckman as he tried to help Wilson.
He next shot Robert Boyer, a 33-year-old mathematician, who was killed instantly by a single shot to the lower back. After shooting Boyer, Whitman shot a 31-year-old student named Devereau Huffman in the right arm; Huffman fell wounded beside a hedge.When Charlotte Darehshori, a young secretary, ran to help Boyer and Huffman, she came under fire. She crouched beneath the concrete base of a flagpole for an hour and a half, shielding herself from Whitman’s view.
Nearby, Whitman shot David Gunby, a 23-year-old electrical engineering student walking in the courtyard. Whitman fatally shot Thomas Ashton, a 22-year-old, in the chest. Next he shot Adrian and Brenda Littlefield as they walked onto the South Mall. Two young women, Nancy Harvey and Ellen Evganides, were wounded as they walked down the West Mall. Whitman shot Harvey, who was five months pregnant, in the hip, and Evganides in the leg and thigh. Both Harvey and her unborn child survived.
Whitman began to fire upon people walking on Guadalupe Street. He shot and wounded 17-year-old newspaper delivery boy Alex Hernandez, before fatally wounding 17-year-old Karen Griffith with a shot to the shoulder and lung. The next victim was a 24-year-old senior named Thomas Karr, whom Whitman fatally shot in the back as he walked to his residence after completing an exam. On the third block, Whitman shot and wounded 35-year-old basketball coach Billy Snowden from a distance of over 1,500 feet (460 m). Nearby, he shot 21-year-old Sandra Wilson in the chest.
On the corner of 24th and Guadalupe, Whitman shot and wounded two students, Abdul Khashab and his fiancee Janet Paulos, outside a dress shop. Khashab, a 26-year-old chemistry student from Iraq, was shot in the elbow and Paulos in the chest. The next to be shot was a 21-year-old named Lana Phillips, whom Whitman wounded in the shoulder. Phillips’ sister ran from cover to drag Lana to safety.
To the rear of the intersection of 24th and Guadalupe Street, Whitman targeted two 21-year-olds, Oscar Royuela and Irma Garcia, as the pair walked toward the university’s biology laboratory. Shot first, Garcia later said the bullet spun her “completely around” and she fell to the ground. Royuela tried to help Garcia when he was shot through the shoulder blade; the bullet exited through his left arm. Students Jack Stephens and Jack Pennington ran from cover and dragged the pair to safety. Whitman targeted a 26-year-old carpenter named Avelino Esparza and seriously wounded him in the left shoulder.
Directly in front of the entrance to the West Mall on Guadalupe Street, two 18-year-old students named Paul Sonntag and Claudia Rutt had taken refuge behind a construction barricade alongside teenager Carla Sue Wheeler. Whitman started shooting in that direction and hit Sonntag in the mouth, killing him instantly. Sonntag’s body fell against a parking meter and knocked the barricade slightly open. Rutt tried to reach Sonntag while Wheeler restrained her. Whitman shot a bullet that passed through Wheeler’s left hand, and hit Rutt in the chest. Rutt died later in the hospital. Wheeler survived.
A block north of where Sonntag and Rutt were killed, Whitman shot and killed Harry Walchuk, a 38-year-old doctoral student and father of six. He next shot the 36-year-old press reporter Robert Heard in the arm as Heard ran toward two highway patrolmen coming on the scene. Slightly north, 18-year-old freshman John Allen was wounded in the forearm as he and acquaintances looked toward the tower from the University of Texas Union. Austin patrolman Billy Speed was one of the first police officers to arrive at the University. Speed and a colleague hid behind a columned stone wall. Whitman shot through the six-inch spacing between the columns of the wall and killed Speed. At a distance of approximately 1,500 feet, Whitman shot and killed 29-year-old electrical repairman Roy Schmidt as he tried to hide behind a parked car.
At the time of the shootings, the Austin Police Department had no specialized tactical unit to deploy in response to reports of a sniper. Officers were equipped with revolvers and shotguns, which were ineffective against a sniper; some went home to get their own rifles. In addition, officers had few radios, and the city’s phone system was overwhelmed. Officer Martinez gained access to the tower. Beneath the stairwell leading to the reception area, Martinez saw the body of a teenage boy, Mark Gabour. Next to him lay a middle-aged woman, Marguerite Lamport. Nearby, Mike Gabour lay slumped against the wall, with his mother lying face down in a pool of blood.
Whitman sat crouched with his back positioned on the north wall, and looking in the north-west corner area of the observation deck where Crum’s shot was heard. Martinez jumped around the corner into the north-east area and rapidly fired all six rounds from his .38 police revolver from a distance of approximately 50 feet (15 m) at Whitman, all of which missed. As Martinez fired, McCoy jumped to the right of Martinez and fired two fatal shots of 00-buckshot with his 12-gauge shotgun, hitting Whitman in the head, neck and left side. The body of Charles Whitman lay upon the observation deck.
Martinez threw down his now-empty revolver and grabbed McCoy’s shotgun, running to Whitman’s supine body and firing point blank into his upper left arm. Martinez threw the shotgun onto the deck and hurriedly left the scene, repeatedly shouting the words, “I got him.” After tending to the wounded in the stairwell, Austin Police Department (A.P.D.) Officers Milton Shoquist, Harold Moe and George Shepard ascended the stairs to join A.P.D. Officer Phillip Conner and Texas Department of Public Safety Agent W.A. Cowan, arriving on the 28th floor.
Ramiro Martinez was and incorrectly credited by the media as being the officer who killed Whitman. On August 2, an autopsy was conducted upon the body of Charles Whitman by Dr. Chenar at the Cook Funeral Home in Austin, Texas. Urine and blood were removed to test for traces of amphetamines or other substances. During the autopsy, Dr. Chenar discovered a brain tumor which he labeled an astrocytoma, and noted it was approximately the size of a pecan. He also observed a small amount of necrosis in the tumor, and concluded that the tumor had no effect on Whitman’s actions the previous day. Forensic investigators have theorized that the tumor may have been pressed against the nearby amygdala region of his brain. The amygdalae are known to affect fight-or-flight responses. Some neurologists have since speculated that Whitman’s medical condition was in some way responsible for the attacks, in addition to his personal and social frames of reference.
Following a three-hour hearing on August 5, a Commission said that the findings of Dr. Chenar’s initial autopsy conducted on August 2 had been in error; that a tumor was found that conceivably could have had an influence on Whitman’s actions. The psychiatric reviewers contributing to the Connally report concluded that “the relationship between the brain tumor and … Whitman’s actions … cannot be established with clarity. However, the … tumor conceivably could have contributed to his inability to control his emotions. The tumour may well have contributed to Whitman’s severe headaches.
A joint funeral service for Charles Whitman and his mother, Margaret, was held at their family’s home parish of Sacred Heart in Lake Worth on August 5, 1966. The Catholic service was officiated by Fr. Tom Anglin. As a veteran, Whitman was entitled to burial with full military honors; his casket was draped with the American flag. He was buried in Florida’s Hillcrest Memorial Park next to his mother. His brother John M., who was murdered outside a Lake Worth nightclub in 1973, was later buried next to his mother and brother.
Whitman Family Murder-Suicide
Sociologists and criminologists have speculated that murder-suicides often reflect a sense of ownership towards their loved ones. That is, they feel entitled to take their relatives to the grave with them since their families are an extension of themselves and not individuals in their own right. It was this mentality that enabled Whitman to commit the brutal murders before he ventured out to buy rifles and ammunition later that day.
Oddly suicide after murder as a form of self-punishment due to guilt, a phenomenon I find difficult to comprehend. The murders are clearly premeditated so why the ensuing sense of guilt and remorse? There are also murder-suicides where murder before suicide is the result preventing future pain and suffering of others, including family members and oneself, such as a parent killing their children before ending their own life. Clearly this wasn’t Whitman’s raison d’etre. In fact, he had no reluctance in deliberately killing an infant in utero later in the day.
And although Whitman claimed he loved both his wife and mother, forensic psychiatrists have stated that his claim that he wanted to “spare them humiliation” was a lie. Many murder-suicides have made the same statement when in reality the murders tend to be based on extreme anger. The nature of the killings was up close and very personal. They were very violent and painful. This didn’t have to be the case.
Snipers can see their targets with great clarity and sometimes must observe them for hours or even days. Anthropologist Neta Bar has stated, “It’s killing that is very distant but also very personal. I would even say intimate.” In her research snipers generally referred to their victims as human beings. Snipers almost never referred to the men they killed as targets, or used animal or machine metaphors. Some interviewees even said that their victims were legitimate warriors. She also noted that the snipers she studied were rational and intelligent young men. This is markedly different from Whitman who even wrote in his suicide note that he entertained “irrational thoughts.”
The US marine sniper course is one of the hardest training courses in the military, with a failure rate of more than 60% and a long list of prerequisites for recruits, including “a high degree of maturity, equanimity and common sense“. Clearly Whitman was highly intelligent and at the time he was in the Corp he may have possessed a degree of common sense. However it is worth noting that he was not trained as a sniper.
A former sniper in Bar’s interview admitted “It’s not something you can tell your wife, it’s not something you can tell your pastor” and this is in keeping with Whitman’s murder of his wife beforehand. Currently the US’s deadliest sniper has admitted that remorse does not seem to be an issue. “It is a weird feeling. Seeing an actual dead body… knowing that you’re the one that caused it now to no longer move.” But in terms of emotional reaction, he suffered no trauma.
Another sniper stated, “We were trained how to do it — but we were never trained what to do afterwards.” He believed the Marine’s attitude towards mental trauma “as very backwards.”
Whitman wasn’t officially trained to be a sniper and his suicide suggests he wasn’t prepared to live with the aftermath of his actions. Whether out of remorse, guilt or simply self-pity, Whitman didn’t fit the profile of a military sniper. He was a criminal with a twisted mind.