Monday, August 1, 2016

The University of Texas Tower Sniper

University of Texas Main Tower. Photo by Lone Star Mike. Licensed by Creative Commons Attributions-Share Alike 3.0 Unported
Fifty years ago today on the University of Texas Austin campus, a Marine-trained sharpshooter rode the elevator to the top of the Main Building's tower, climbed the last few flights of stairs to the observation deck, and began shooting at people on the ground below. He had killed his wife and mother the night before. Between the tower elevator and the observation deck he killed three more people. At 11:48 a.m. he reached his perch on the observation deck and began shooting from his sniper's aerie. Over the next hour and a half, he killed 12 people and wounded 32 others before he was finally fatally wounded.

The tower looms over the campus and stands 307 feet high. The observation deck is on the 28th floor, which places it at 231 feet over the ground. With the advantage of height and shooting skills, Whitman was able to pick off victims blocks away with freakish accuracy. The victim farthest from Whitman was Roy Schmidt, a 29-year-old electrician who tried to hide behind a parked car 1500 feet away.

At noon, my brother went to pick up his wife, who worked on campus, and they were told to stay inside the building because there was a sniper. UT Police went office to office in the main building and locked everyone in. A cousin of mine was one of the many people who worked in the tower. Several people in the lobby for the bursar's office, which looks like a bank since this was where people paid tuition, knocked on the tellers' windows and asked to be let in, but the people in the bursar's office told them, "We can't let you in because we have money back here."

Out of sheer synchronicity, a new TV station had opened a few blocks from the tower and afforded a live view of the shooting. For many years Austin had only one television station, KTBC, that belonged to Lyndon and Lady Byrd Johnson. Even though Austin had grown large enough to support a second station, it still had only one because of the Johnson family's power in Washington. The FCC feared Johnson's wrath if they were to license a second station. San Antonio, not far away and only slightly larger than Austin, had three stations, one for each of the networks. Finally though, a second station, KHFI, was allowed in 1966, and they had been on the air for only a couple of weeks when Whitman started shooting from the tower. A cameraman took a camera onto KHFI's roof, quickly aimed and zoomed in on the tower, then went back into the safety of the building, and it was through this camera that much of the world saw the shooting. I could see the puffs of smoke both as Whitman fired and as the bullets coming back at Whitman hit the stonework of the tower.

The NBC peacock, a friend to all my neighbors'
houses but a stranger in mine.
KTBC was a UHF channel (between 2 and 13), while KHFI was a VHF channel, which required either a TV capable of receiving the higher frequency channels (14-83) or a converter box. UHF television broadcasting was relatively new, and my dad was the kind of guy who wouldn't spend money on an upgrade until something of profound importance, like a major American football game, was at stake, so we plugged along in black-and-white on Lyndon Johnson's channel even as all our neighbors watched channels like a dozen peacocks strutting in living color in their living rooms. My childhood was deprived of a lot of the TV tales that composed children's literature in the 1960s because of the bizarre combination of Lyndon Johnson and my thrifty father.

As it became clear what was happening at UT, the police were called, but the first policeman to arrive on the scene was shot and killed. After about twenty minutes, Whitman began to encounter significant return fire. Shooting at him were not only Austin policemen, Travis County Sheriff's deputies, and Texas Department of Public Safety troopers, but also local residents who went home to collect their weapons and return to school heavily armed.

I was ten years old, and my father worked as a detective for the Austin Police Department. School was out for the summer, so I was home. My father was home too because he was working the night shift from 4 p.m. to 1 a.m. He decided that both of us would go over to Signe's house to watch the action on her TV. I didn't question this shift in houses, but I assumed, rather childishly, that it was because she had a better TV and that she was already equipped to receive KHFI's UHF signal (whereas we wouldn't be ready for that for another year or two).

Signe was a crotchety old lady who didn't much like kids, especially in her house. As a kid, I had the strange habit of visiting kids and grown-ups alike in their houses, but Signe made clear from the start she wouldn't go for that. She chain-smoked Benson & Hedges cigarettes, had great air conditioning, and two trembly Chihuahuas that would just as soon bite me as look at me. The smoke of her cigarettes permanently scented the window units to create a peculiar blend of air. Yet I had always been surrounded by smokers and was accustomed to the smell, so it didn't offend me. With the better, UHF-equipped television and the cool air, being in Signe's house was a treat, and my dad taking me over there had enabled me to be there.

It did not occur to me until several years later that my father, by going to Signe's house and taking me with him, had distanced us from the phone. All active police officers in Austin were ordered to the campus, and I presume that included off-duty detectives like my father. If the question ever came up, it would not be hard to invent an alibi for an hour and a half, but I suspect that might be a big part of why we went next door.

My father worked that night, and the next day he told us how the police station was abuzz with newsmen, and the phones were ringing without ceasing as reporters from all over called to get the story. My father gave an interview to a newsman in Australia. In those pre-internet days, long distance was hideously expensive, and Australia was impressively on the other side of the world. He had been to Australia during the war, and half-jokingly mentioned I might have Australian siblings.

Whitman met his end when three Austin police officers and a deputized civilian crept up on him on the observation deck and shot him with a pistol and a shotgun. No clear motive was established for Whitman's assault on the world, but an autopsy revealed a possible brain tumor. Whitman had in the past year sought counseling for increasingly hostile feelings toward the world.

* * *

Today, on the fiftieth anniversary of the massacre, we remember Charles Whitman's victims. I have lifted this list from Wikipedia:

Fatalities and wounded

Familicide murders
  • Margaret Whitman, 43, mother of Charles Whitman, was killed by bludgeoning and stab wounds.
  • Kathy Whitman, 23, wife of Charles Whitman, was killed by stab wounds to the chest.

Killed inside tower
  • Edna Townsley, 51, was bludgeoned and shot to death by Whitman in the tower reception area.
  • Marguerite Lamport, 56, was killed by a shotgun wound to the chest.
  • Mark Gabour, 16, was killed by a shotgun wound to the head.

Shot from observation deck
  • Claire Wilson, 18, lost the baby she was carrying after being shot through the abdomen.
  • Thomas Eckman, 18, was shot in the shoulder while kneeling over Claire Wilson.
  • Dr. Robert Boyer, 33, a physics professor, was killed by a single shot to the lower back.
  • Thomas Ashton, 22, a Peace Corps trainee, was killed by a gunshot to the upper left chest
  • Thomas Karr, 24, a university senior, was killed by a single shot through the spine.
  • Billy Speed, 23, a police officer, was killed by a shot to his shoulder which traveled into his chest.
  • Harry Walchuk, 38, a doctoral student, was killed by a single shot to the chest.
  • Paul Sonntag, 18, was shot through the mouth while hiding behind construction barriers.
  • Claudia Rutt, 18, fiancée of Sonntag, was killed by a gunshot to the chest.
  • Roy Schmidt, 29, an electrician, was killed by a single shot to the abdomen.
Died later of injuries
  • Karen Griffith, 17, was wounded by a gunshot through the lung.[85] She died seven days after the shooting.
  • David Gunby, 58, was shot in the lower back. He died of his wounds in 2001; the coroner ruled his death a homicide.

Wounded