Charles Whitman

From Academic Kids

This article is about the criminal Charles J. Whitman. For the politician, please see Charles S. Whitman.

On August 1, 1966, former-Marine Charles Joseph Whitman (June 24, 1941 - August 1, 1966) embarked on a shooting spree that left 16 residents of Austin, Texas dead and 31 others wounded. In addition to 14 sniper victims, Whitman had also killed his wife and mother the night before. David Gunby, one of the first people shot on campus, died over three decades later from his injury (see below). Whitman was an architecture major at The University of Texas at the time of the shootings.


Tower shootings

Missing image
The tower of the University of Texas Main Building. Guadalupe Street (The Drag) is just out of frame to the right. The tower's observation deck is located immediately below the clock faces near the top of the tower.

Dobie Center, the large building in the background, was not constructed until 1972, well after the shootings.

Dressed as a workman and pushing a steamer trunk packed with his weapons and supplies, Whitman entered the Main Building of the University of Texas (UT) slightly after 11:30 a.m. Claiming to be a maintenance worker, he had obtained a permit at a UT Police checkstand on West 24th Street northwest of the tower to enter the inner campus drive. Whitman parked at the foot of the university's Main Building, a 307-foot tower with an encircling observation deck. Wheeling his steamer trunk inside on a dolly, he told an attendant on the ground floor, "You don't know how happy you've made me," when she helped him enter the elevator.

Upon arriving at the highest floor the elevator reached, Whitman pulled his trunk up two short flights of stairs to the deck area itself. Encountering a middle-aged attendant named Edna Townsley at her desk in the small room guarding passage to the four-sided deck, he bashed her skull in with a rifle butt, shoved her behind a couch and left her for dead. Townsley was one of three women who staffed the upstairs deck and the elevator at the ground floor. By the luck of the draw, she was filling in for one of her co-workers who was on vacation that August day and at noon she would have been relieved by Vera Palmer, the third lady. Palmer had helped Whitman get on the elevator minutes before her co-worker was fatally attacked.

A young couple who had been out on the deck sightseeing came into the attendant's area moments later and encountered Whitman. The girl saw "a mess" on the floor, but did not realize it was the attendant's blood. Whitman was holding a rifle at that point. The boy, Don Walden, almost asked if he was there to shoot pigeons, but just said "Hi" instead, possibly blunting Whitman's aggressiveness. He remarked afterwards that the look in Whitman's eyes told them that they had better move along. Observers said that they were the "luckiest people in town" that day.

The prevailing theory about why they survived is that at the point the couple came inside, Whitman was not ready to use his weapons and he calculated that the two fit young people might have proven to be a decent match for him if it came to a fight. At the least, they would have been a distraction and he was ready to get on with his mass murdering plans. The couple, their window of opportunity seized, went down the short flights of stairs and boarded the down elevator.

Some tourists who were heading up the stairs moments later were not so fortunate. As the two teenaged boys in the group opened the deck area door from the stairway, Whitman met them with blasts from his illegally-fashioned sawed-off shotgun. The gunfire sent them, along with two women in the party, tumbling back down the stairs to a landing. Of the four, one boy and a woman died and the two others had permanent injuries. The two men in the group, who were at the foot of the stairs when the shots rang out, were not hit. One of them was crazed with desire for revenge, while the other was numbed with shock.

Whitman's trunk contained a sniper rifle and numerous other weapons including the sawed-off shotgun for close-in use, deodorant, a radio, shaving gear, snack food and other items. Over the next ninety-six minutes, he shot down from the tower into the surrounding area, choosing his targets at random. The first shots from the tower towards the ground came at 11:48 a.m.

A history professor who had an office in Garrison Hall, overlooking the Main Mall on the east side, saw the first victims drop to the ground just south of the tower and immediately phoned the Austin police department. His call was followed by a flurry of similar phone messages from other horrified campus-area employees clamoring for police help and medical assistance.

Without cell phones to provide instant communication with each other, students and UT area workers kept strolling to classes and appointments. In those first minutes after he started firing, Whitman had many targets and he took full advantage of the situation. Without return gunfire, he had all the time he needed to aim; as a result, most of the fatal wounds happened during that initial period.

The murderous rampage sparked panic among residents in Austin as news spread on the local media and by word of mouth. Ramiro Martinez, an Austin police officer, was cooking himself lunch and readying for his afternoon shift when he heard a bulletin on KTBC-TV from newsman Joe Roddy. He immediately called police headquarters to see if he could help and was told to go without delay to the campus area and assist with traffic control. As the drama played out, he was one of the two officers who would fire the final shots at Whitman. His on-duty colleague Houston McCoy had received the primary call to proceed to campus minutes before. When the magnitude of what was happening became apparent, every officer on duty was ordered to the campus area. Other off-duty officers like Martinez threw on their uniforms and hurried to help.

Had Whitman arrived on the deck slightly later, he would have been in time for summer session lunch hour foot traffic as classes let out, and the number of killed and wounded would have been increased. As it happened, his prey was limited to stragglers. The victims were young to old, male and female, and his accuracy was astounding; two hits found their mark more than 450 yards away from the tower. The worst killing zone, as far of numbers of people hit, was Guadalupe Street (known as "The Drag"), which is still the major shopping, food service, and business district across from the west side of the campus.

Local Secret Service agents from the Johnson administration as well as sheriff's department officers, Department of Public Safety officers, Austin police and campus police came to assist at the scene, but Whitman was well barricaded on the deck. In fact, as later observers said, the deck was tailor-made for a madman like Whitman. During the latter part of his rampage, he was using the drainspouts located on each side to fire through, making him virtually impossible to hit from the ground.

As word went out, many students and area residents with high-powered deer rifles loaded their weapons and ran to campus to return fire. Students, bystanders and campus area employees performed heroic acts to drag or carry wounded victims to safety where they could be picked up by ambulances. An armored car company which served Austin banks wheeled a vehicle to campus. It was of great assistance in helping pick up victims.

In 1966, Austin did not have a 911 system or city-operated ambulances. The ambulances were run by the funeral homes. Many funeral home employees risked their lives in the effort to save victims. One, Morris Hohmann, from Hyltin-Manor Funeral Home, was working on the Drag to load up victims at the corner of West 23rd Street at the height of the siege. He had ducked and was moving along behind his firm's ambulance, which was turning the corner slowly to the west and Whitman saw him as his cover disappeared. Whitman's shot hit his leg, ripping open a major artery. As his damaged limb ballooned in size, he had to use his belt as a tourniquet on it to keep from bleeding to death. He was soon loaded into his own ambulance and rushed to the Brackenridge ER along with many others who had been jammed into the vehicle. He survived and became a respected funeral director at Hyltin-Manor.

Austin only had one full-scale emergency room at that time, in Brackenridge Hospital, a city-run facility on I-35 about ten blocks south of the UT area. It quickly became overtaxed with victims. Doctors, nurses, and medical technicians raced there from all parts of the city to reinforce the on-duty staff. The lines at the city blood center on I-35 and at Brackenridge itself stretched for blocks as concerned citizens hurried over to donate.

One victim said that people were laid in a row on the emergency room hallway floor "like cordwood." Nurses and other personnel tried to prioritize and treat (triage) the most seriously wounded first. Later reports showed that the over-extended staff did a magnificent job and saved many lives. Legend has it that in the aftermath, one exhausted and distraught nurse who had maintained professional composure through the whole ordeal broke down crying and threw her blood-soaked shoes in the trash.

A fast-thinking policeman tried to distract or even shoot Whitman by flying around the tower in a small airplane commandeered from a local air park; but his plan to fire at him from the plane was abandoned when it became obvious that a stray bullet could hit innocent people in upper offices/classrooms in the tower. Whitman actually took shots at the airplane and the lawman on board suddenly realized the predicament he would be in if the pilot was hit, because he had no flying experience. Nonetheless, the officer was able to provide useful communications to ground personnel about Whitman's movements throughout the incident; and he confirmed that there was only one shooter. Austin police contacted nearby Bergstrom Air Force Base about bringing in an armed helicopter to aid in the assault effort against Whitman, but the problem of hitting the wrong people was the same. Many well-meaning citizens phoned the police department to suggest just that idea, but they only succeeded in clogging the valuable lines.

One of the most poignant events in the madness happened when Paul Bolton, then the dean of Austin broadcast news, who was anchoring the KTBC-am (now KLBJ-AM) coverage, heard a list of the dead being read on-air by Joe Roddy, one of his reporters. Roddy, who had broken the story on KTBC-TV, was in a remote unit at the Brackenridge Hospital ER. Bolton interrupted and requested that Roddy reread a name on the list. Upon hearing the name again, Bolton said, "That's my grandson." Indeed, the named victim was Paul Sonntag, Bolton's grandson, who was shot along with his girlfriend Claudia Rutt on the Drag. Sonntag had died instantly from a head wound, and Rutt, who took a bullet while trying to reach for her fallen boyfriend and pull him to safety, died from a lung injury after admittance to the ER.

Back at the Austin police station, the two men who ran the switchboard were deluged with calls from the campus area begging for help as victims were pulled into stores and classroom buildings. In addition, as word spread nationwide, news organizations ranging from radio stations in Texas to the national networks in New York City were phoning and demanding information. These calls were put off, since the two operators had no way of dealing with them and the backlog of crucial pleas for assistance was growing by the minute.

The attacks continued until the observation deck was stormed by volunteers who took it upon themselves to stop Whitman. Two armed APD officers, Houston McCoy and Ramiro Martinez, along with a temporarily deputized private citizen, Allan Crum, crept out onto the observation deck to confront Whitman with their weapons, while a group of additional law enforcement officials stayed inside the top floor to communicate to police headquarters, provide backup fire, and help wounded civilians. Crum, a retired military officer, was the security director of the University Co-op, the main campus bookstore, on Guadalupe Street. His usual activities during the day were limited to catching shoplifters and maintaining order in the store. Later accounts confirmed that he was instrumental in organizing the effort to subdue Whitman.

Crum, Martinez and McCoy slowly ventured out of the southeast side door onto the observation deck around 1:15. The deputized Crum headed west on the south side with a rifle he had been given by one of the law enforcement officers. Between his shaking hands and his unfamiliarity with the rifle he had been given, he accidently let off a round which struck the southwest corner of the deck. This unintentional shot was the best thing that could have happened, because it brought Whitman's attention to bear on that corner.

Dodging "friendly fire" from the ground, officers Martinez and McCoy turned the corner to their left and stooping, went north to the northeast corner of the observation deck. There they saw Whitman in the northwest corner, directly across from them. He was in a sniper's crouch, pointing his rifle to the south, toward where he thought he would be threatened, because of the stray round from Crum's rifle. Immediately, Martinez emptied his .38 revolver at him, distracting Whitman and making it difficult for him to lower and aim his rifle back toward the police officers. Then the 6'4" McCoy raised up behind Martinez and fired two rounds from his shotgun, hitting Whitman in the head. With that, Martinez grabbed McCoy's shotgun and unleashing a frenzied scream, ran all the way down to Whitman, who had collapsed. He drilled another round into the sniper's head, point blank. Martinez then saw a towel that Whitman had laid nearby and, leaping up, waved it in a rapid circle to let ground level shooters know that the nightmare was over.

Soon everyone on campus knew that fact as well. Hundreds of people who had been holed up in classrooms and stores scrambled towards the Main Mall. When the word spread to the Brackenridge ER that the sniper had been killed, a macabre cry of elation went up from the injured waiting for treatment.


The reason behind Whitman's suicidal rampage was to put his strong-willed and abusive father to shame. It has been suggested that he had a mental disorder; in fact, a brain tumor was discovered during his autopsy which may have irritated his amygdala, causing bouts of rage.

But as confidently believed by Gary Lavergne, author of "A Sniper In The Tower," and the foremost researcher on the incident, Whitman was fully aware of what he wanted to do and why he wanted to do it (put his father to shame), and that he did not expect to survive. He had been known to take amphetamines and was homicidal-suicidal. In fact, he left a note at his home which indicated he knew that he would not survive, instructing whoever found his effects to develop film in two cameras that he had left next to his wife's wedding band on a dresser.

Whitman's final notes reflected his resentment towards his father, especially in the way his mother had been treated by his father. As for the amount of time he had spent planning the rampage, investigative journalists later found one of Whitman's acquaintances who had been standing by him one day months before as he gestured towards the tower and remarked that someone with a deer rifle could do a lot of damage from up there.


In the aftermath, as law enforcement administrators throughout the country studied this incident, they thought about their own ability to handle similar incidents. (As the chief of the Austin Police admitted in a press conference the next day, any success in a situation like that would have had to be a result of "individual action.") Most agreed that their departments were ill-equipped to resolve these types of problems. Thus arose the first Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) Team in the Los Angeles Police Department.

After the tragedy, the university bell tower's observation deck was closed to the public for two years. It was re-opened in 1968, but a number of suicides during the 1970s caused it to be closed again in 1975. The tower remained closed for twenty-three years, finally being re-opened in 1998. All visitors to the tower must now go through a metal detector on the ground floor. Tour guides do not mention the shootings, but will answer questions about it if asked. Even today, plastered-over bullet holes, and the section of facade where the bullet that killed Whitman was cut out, are still visible. The seats that once lined all four railings for students to sit on are gone.

On November 12, 2001, David Gunby died from long-term kidney complications stemming from the sniper shot he was hit by on August 1, 1966. He was one of the first people hit by the sniper, falling to the noontime-baked concrete of the Main Mall when the shot penetrated his midsection. Gunby was born with one functioning kidney, which was punctured by the round Whitman fired into him. Besides his deteriorating kidney situation, he was facing the loss of his eyesight and he was in constant misery and pain. He refused further treatment; on the coroner's report, the cause of death was listed as "homicide."

References in popular culture

In 1997, respected author and researcher Gary M. Lavergne published "A Sniper In The Tower," which was well-received and is the definitive book on the subject. It offers a thorough accounting of Whitman's life, the fateful day, and the aftermath. New and used copies are available on Amazon and other on-line sites.

In 1972, Harry Chapin recorded a song about the shooting, entitled "Sniper." Current-day Texas singer Kinky Friedman has also recorded "The Ballad of Charles Whitman."

In 1975 the incident was depicted in the movie "The Deadly Tower" with Kurt Russell as Whitman. The movie packed remarkable star power for a made-for-TV 70s effort. Besides having Russell in the lead role, Ned Beatty played Allan Crum. After the movie came out, Ramiro Martinez sued the film company for its portrayal of him and his wife. Houston McCoy, the officer who fired the shotgun rounds that actually killed Whitman, but whose role is often discounted or even ignored in some stories about the event, also sued. Martinez won an undisclosed settlement, but McCoy got nothing.

The movie Full Metal Jacket contains a scene in which a Marine Corps drill instructor played by R. Lee Ermey tells his recruits thant Whitman's phenomenal accuracy was a result of his training as a rifleman in the Marines.

The movie [Natural Born Killers] Detective Scagnetti (Tom Sizemore) tells Warden McClusky (Tommy Lee Jones) that he hunts serial killers, because as a boy in Texas he was holding his mothers hand when some wacko climbed up a clock tower and started shooting. One of the bullets took his mothers head off.

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