The Tower on the University of Texas campus in Austin stands twenty eight stories high. On July 31st, 1966, it represented the larger than life view that the state had of itself, tall and majestic. By the end of the next day, Charles Whitman had made sure it would be regarded as a monument to death until the day it crumbles. When Charles Whitman rode the elevator up to the top on August 1st he had only one intention, to use the tower as a sniper’s perch. Unfortunately for the inhabitants below, about the only thing that Charles Whitman wasn’t a failure at was as a sharpshooter.
Born on June 24th, 1941, Charles was born into a wealthy and prominent Lakeville, Florida family. His father C. A. Whitman was a highly successful plumber who had ridden his work ethic and business sense into high society. Charles and his two brothers were never lacking for material things such as motorcycles, a swimming pool, and guns. But there was a dark secret hidden behind the doors of the Whitman home. C. A. Whitman used to beat his wife, Margaret, and his sons, when they did not do as he wished or meet his high expectations. His dreadful temper flared out of control constantly. In June of 1959, a drunken Charles returned from a party and encountered his father, who gave him a severe beating and almost drowned him in the family pool. Shortly after that, Charles Whitman enlisted in the Marine Corps.
At first Whitman did quite well in the Corps, earning a Good Conduct Medal and the Marine Corps Expeditionary Medal at Guantanomo Naval Base in Cuba. He also scored an eye opening 215 out of a possible 250 points on the shooting range, receiving a Sharpshooters Badge. Trying to prove his father wrong and be successful, Whitman applied for a Naval Enlisted Science Education Program scholarship, which would help him earn an engineering degree at a selected school. Whitman got the award, and was expected to enter Officer’s Candidate School upon the completion of his degree. In September of 1961 he enrolled at the University of Texas.
Almost from the get go Charles Whitman got in trouble in Austin. He was arrested for poaching deer, gambled and did poorly in school. He did get married while there at the college, to Kathy Leissner in August of 1962. But he lost his scholarship and was forced to return to active duty in February of 1963. Once back in the Marines, he could not readjust to military life and after being court-martialed in November of ’63 for weapons offenses he was stripped of a promotion and reduced to private. He was honorably discharged in December of 1964 after his father pulled some strings to get his service time reduced.
He reentered Texas University and tried to make up for his failures as a marine, but was unable to get out from under his father, who sent him money and gifts. His self esteem was further damaged by the fact that his wife, a teacher, made more money than he did at his job as a bill collector. As his depression mounted, his spouse urged him to seek help.
Meanwhile, his mother, finally fed up with the abuse at the hands of C. A. Whitman, left him and moved from Florida into an apartment in Austin. In the spring of 1966, Charles Whitman listened to his wife and went to see Texas University Health Center Staff Psychiatrist Dr. Maurice Heatly. He told the doctor that he had violent fantasies of climbing the University tower and shooting people. Heatly saw nothing in Whitman to indicate that he could possibly be serious, as many of his patients had made the same remark. He told Whitman to visit him the next week, but Whitman never returned. Whitman began to take the amphetamine Dexadrine to help him get through his course and job he had taken as a research assistant. He would go days without sleeping. His father kept calling him to try to convince his mother to come back to Florida. The killing fantasies continued, and he edged closer to fulfilling them.
On July 31st, 1966 Charles Whitman bought a pair of binoculars and a Bowie knife. He formulated a plan in his mind and began to carry it out. He wrote several letters and notes, explaining that he was going to kill his wife and mother. He asked that his body be autopsied to see if there were physical reasons for his irrational actions. That evening, he picked his wife up from her summer job as a switchboard operator. He left her at home and went to see his mother at apartment 505 of The Penthouse apartment building. There he killed her with his knife after choking her unconscious. He returned home where he cold bloodedly slaughtered his wife as she slept with the same weapon. He scrawled some more notes trying to explain his deeds and then began to prepare for his day of killing.
He packed his old marine footlocker with provisions; food, a radio, gasoline, a hammer and hatchet, knives, a compass and a flashlight. He also put inside it a 35mm Remington rifle, a 6mm Remington with a scope, a .357 Magnum revolver, a 9mm Luger and another pistol. In addition, he went to a gun shop and bought a 12 gauge shotgun and a carbine. He rented a dolly to transport the foot locker and headed to the university. His job as a research assistant allowed him security access and no one thought it strange when he pulled up to the Tower building and wheeled his equipment into the elevator.
He rode it to the 27th floor where he proceeded to drag it up three flights of stairs. The observation deck receptionist was a woman named Edna Townsley. Finding her alone, Whitman bashed her head in with one of his rifle butts and hid her body behind a couch.
A couple out on the observation deck came in and saw him by the couch, but he inexplicably left them alone as they went down the stairs and into the elevator. Other visitors were not so lucky. A party of six came up the stairs and found the door to the office barricaded by a desk. When they attempted to push the door in, Charles Whitman fired his shotgun at them, murdering young Mark Gabour. As they fled down the stairs he fired three more times, slaying Marguerite Lambort and wounding Mike Gabour and his mother Mary. Gabour’s husband and William Lamport ran to get help.
Now out on the observation deck, Whitman unloaded his supplies and jammed the door shut to the office with his rented dolly. He took the weapon he was most accurate with, the scoped 6mm Remington rifle and started to shoot, at random, people on the ground below. His first shot killed a young woman and her unborn baby. With deadly efficiency, Whitman picked off anyone in his line of sight that moved. Confused citizens on the ground, not possibly realizing what was going on, ran about in total panic. When police arrived, they went up to the observation deck and found the dead and wounded Gabours and Lomberts. They shut off the elevators and secured the exits. Meanwhile, Whitman continued firing. He mowed down students, professors, policeman and anyone else that had the horrible misfortune of not getting behind cover. Police and citizens with rifles began to return fire, but the Texas Tower couldn’t have been a more secure fortress for Charles Whitman to shoot from. He aimed from the rainspouts and one of his shots killed an electrician who thought he was out of range five hundred yards away.
Finally, police made their way up to the 27th floor, where they removed the wounded members of the Gabour family and then crept up the stairs carefully. Austin police officers Jerry Day, Houston McCoy and Ramiro Martinez, along with civilian Allen Crum and Public Safety officer W. A. Cowan all converged into the office. They had no idea of how to proceed as they didn’t know what they would find out on the observation deck. They kicked the door open that had the dolly wedged under it. Martinez went first, crawling towards the corner of the deck where he felt the shots were coming from. Day and Crum guarded the door, while McCoy followed Ramirez to back him up. As Whitman tried to move about, Crum saw him and shot, but his gun misfired. Charles headed back to the corner that the other two officers were crawling towards, even as the bullets from the people firing at Whitman on the ground ricocheted around them. As Martinez rounded the corner, he began firing his .38. When Whitman tried to return fire, McCoy saw the white headband Charles had tied around his head and shot him twice with his shotgun, knocking Charles to the floor. Martinez grabbed the shotgun and ran up to Whitman, firing point blank into him. Ninety minutes after he had begun shooting, Charles Whitman was dead.
In his wake he had left carnage of awful proportions. Fifteen people, including his wife and mother, were slain, thirty three more wounded. One of his victims, a student where Whitman’s own wife taught high school, lingered for a week before succumbing to her wounds. The autopsy Whitman had hoped for did show a small tumor in his brain, but experts felt it would not have caused him to do what he did. Charles Whitman was buried in Florida next to his mother in West Palm Beach, a flag draped over his coffin during the service. The Texas tower was closed until 1999, when the Board of Regents decided to reopen it.
On November 12th, 2001, David Gunby of Austin died of long term kidney complications. He had been born with only one working kidney. On that terrible 1st of August in 1966, Charles Whitman had shot him in his other kidney. He lived for all those years, suffering from his injuries and when his condition finally worsened and he faced the prospect of losing his eyesight, he refused treatment and died in his sleep soon thereafter. On his death certificate the coroner listed the cause of death as homicide, Whitman’s sixteenth victim.
Officer Houston McCoy, who suffered for years from what was diagnosed in 1998 as post traumatic stress disorder from the events of that day, was awarded over two million dollars from the Texas Workers Compensation Commission in 200. The city of Austin sued, claiming there was no way to know what caused the condition. McCoy could not pursue the claim for lack of money and representation. He was once quoted as saying, “If I get to heaven and see Charles Whitman, I’m going to have to kill him all over again.”