IRS Dispute Adds to Mystery Over O’Hair Disappearance
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) _ The mystery over the disappearance of atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair three months ago deepened with word that the IRS is seeking almost $750,000 in back taxes from her son and daughter, who vanished with her.
Craig Etter, a Washington lawyer who represents Ms. O’Hair and her children, said Friday that the IRS case is being taken care of and that the family members are simply away on business.
Ms. O’Hair, 76, filed the lawsuit that led to the 1963 U.S. Supreme Court decision outlawing school prayer. She founded Austin-based American Atheists Inc. and eight or so other organizations, all supported by members.
Her son Jon Murray is president of American Atheists, and her daughter, Robin Murray-O’Hair, is executive secretary. The IRS alleges the children got income from some of the organizations and used it to buy a Mercedes, a Porsche, maid services, bonds and an Austin home.
Last August, Ms. O’Hair dropped out of sight amid speculation that she had died and that her followers were keeping it quiet because they feared Christians would claim she had repented her atheist beliefs on her deathbed.
Etter rejected any suggestion that Ms. O’Hair or her children had fled to escape back taxes. ``We are in the final stages of resolving the tax case″ for a ``fraction″ of the $750,000 initially sought, he said.
``I haven’t spoken to any of them since September, but the information I had was that they are on business and doing something that they deem very important right now. I don’t know what that is,″ the lawyer said.
John C. McDougal, the attorney representing the government in the tax case, refused to talk about it but didn’t dispute what Etter said.
``It’s not uncommon for a preliminary investigation to turn up an amount and then have the amount come down,″ McDougal said.
Board members of American Atheists insisted in late September that Ms. O’Hair and her children were away on business, not missing. But now they are worried.
For the first three weeks of the disappearance, board members were in contact with the three family members by cellular phone, said Frank Zindler of Columbus, Ohio, a longtime American Atheists member and friend of Ms. O’Hair.
``Madalyn herself said she was fine and they were involved in important business. Everything indicated that they were planning to come back,″ Zindler said.
But after about three weeks, he said, ``they just shut off the cellular phone and no one was able to reach them by any communication means. So we’ve been in the dark for over two months now.″
Arnold Via of Grottoes, Va., vice president of American Atheists and a longtime friend of Ms. O’Hair, said he may contact the FBI.
``I am beginning to worry about them _ whether they have been really kidnapped or whether they’re dead,″ Via said.
According to court records, Murray and Ms. Murray-O’Hair failed to report income from two other atheist groups founded by Ms. O’Hair.
A note was left at the American Atheists offices in August telling employees the offices would be shut down until further notice. The building is up for sale, and Ms. O’Hair hasn’t returned telephone calls for months.