Ronald Clark O'Bryan: The man who killed Halloween
Halloween, as we all know, is a time for celebration; an occasion where kids and grown-ups alike are given carte-blanche to explore the spooky side of life, with costumes, scary movies, candy and decorations. Personally, it's one of my favourite holidays of the year, since I have a preference for all things gory and gothic. Hall0ween is a holiday which sees the world is turned upside-down, and the day we can let our morbid side take the reigns. But underneath all the costumes, the kitsch decorations, corn syrup and red dye, Halloween is just harmless fun. Unlike our more superstitious ancestors, who truly believed in dark and supernatural forces, we know that it's all make-believe. There are no zombies prowling our graveyards, vampires lurking in crypts, or werewolves howling at the moon. But that's not wholly true either; because in 1974, a gaggle of ordinary American kids was exposed to real human evil on Halloween, and one of them paid the ultimate price. You don't need to wear a mask to be a monster, and nobody proves this axiom better than Ronald Clark O'Bryan, who the newspapers once called "The Man Who Killed Halloween."
If you were to ask any of O'Bryan's God-fearing baptist neighbours whether he was capable of premeditated murder, then they would surely have baulked at the idea. In the burgeoning town of Deer Park, near Pasadena in Texas, which boasted a population of 12,773 people according to a 1970 census, Ronald Clark O'Bryan was considered something of a model citizen, busily engaged in the same middle-class game of keeping-up-with-the-Jones' along with the rest of the community. He was an optician operating out of a practice in Sharpstown, Houston, was a deacon at his local church, and was even responsible for organising the parochial bus program in town.
But in 1974, on Halloween night, tragedy struck and irrevocably shattered this suburban idyl. O'Bryan and a neighbour took their four kids out trick or treating. The day had been rather uneventful and many residents were not at home when the children came knocking at the door. At one point the impatient kids, eager for sweets, ran ahead of O'Bryan, who eventually caught up with them and handed out five Pixy Stix. O'Bryan later handed out another two of the Stix to his neighbour's two kids and one each to his own, Timothy and Elizabeth.
This was when things went horribly, horribly awry. Timothy complained that the Pixy Stix he had been given had tasted bitter, and O'Bryan gave him some Kool-Aid to wash it down with. Timothy stated that his stomach ached and that he felt like his legs were cramping. His father ignored his plaintive cries. All of a sudden, Timothy began convulsing violently, and vomiting uncontrollably. O'Bryan held his son in his arms while an ambulance was called for. Timothy O'Bryan died en route to the hospital less than an hour later. He was eight years old.
Timothy O'Bryan had been poisoned, that was plain to see. He did not suffer from any allergies, and in any case, what child had such a fatal reaction to sugar? For years, urban legends had circulated in the US that malevolent child killers and malcontents had poisoned candy, or filled bags of sweets with razor blades or hypodermic needles. Until now, these cautionary tales had always been unfounded, but now the local community was gripped with fear and paranoia. A murder inquiry was launched immediately.
The role of lead investigator went to Bill Lanier, who had only been a homicide detective a few months. "People were scared to death," Lanier later recalled, "We put out the word — if you have any suspicious candy or if anything looks strange, bring it to us. We wound up with a whole roomful of candy. People didn't go trick-or-treating around here for years." He was shocked when an autopsy revealed that Timothy had indeed been fatally poisoned and had ingested enough potassium cyanide to kill an adult male four times over. Lanier suspected foul play; if poisoned candy was indeed responsible for young Timothy's death, then why had the other three children survived? Police recovered the other five Pixy Stix, none of which had been eaten by the kids. Lanier discovered that all five Pixy Stix had been opened up, filled with cyanide powder, and then resealed by means of a staple.
"It was an overkill. There was enough poison to kill a herd of elephants," Lanier later stated in an interview. "That's why the boy threw up so violently." Lanier was particularly suspicious of O'Bryan when the man was unable to effectively trace where the offending Stix had come from and, in their subsequent inquiries, none of the houses that O'Bryan had visited claimed to have given out that particular brand of sweet, if they had even opened their doors in the first place. O'Bryan eventually blamed an air traffic controller at Hobby Airport called Courtney Melvin for the poisoning. But Melvin had an alibi: he'd been working that night and hadn't come home from work until 11 pm on October 31. More than 200 people confirmed that Melvin was on shift at the time O'Bryan alleged he had handed out candy.
Lanier was suspicious of O'Bryan, but suspicion ripened towards outright loathing when the police investigated O'Bryan's financial situation. They discovered that he was $100,000 in debt, and had held more than 21 different jobs in the last decade - being fired from each after negligence or fraud was exposed. His car and house were about to be repossessed, and he had defaulted on several bank loans. When police discovered that he had taken out a number of hefty insurance policies on each of his children, all the pieces fell into place.
"All these little things hardly meant anything apart, but when you put them together, it's like a jigsaw puzzle," Lanier stated, "It was a tremendous amount of money back then - $20,000 on each child. He had a clause in it too so that he would have got $40,000 per child ... I didn't like the guy, even before he became a suspect. He was a wolf in sheep's clothing. He was hiding behind religion and giving this image that he was a pillar of the community. It was all a sham, all a lie."
O'Bryan was charged with first-degree homicide, but the police were unable to get him to confess. "O'Bryan never confessed," Lanier said. "He came close. I got him right to the line. An interrogation typically goes through stages. First, there's denial; then you can see the subject give up. With O'Bryan I'd seen that give-up. We'd been in the interview room for a while, and he slumped and started nodding his head, like he's agreeing with me. I said, 'Now's the time to tell me.' And he nodded some more, so I waited a couple of minutes. When he didn't say anything I said, 'Ronald, tell me.' And he said, 'Tell you what?' And the moment was gone. He never got there."
O'Bryan's trial began in Houston on May 5, 1975. By June 3, 1975, the jury had taken 46 minutes to find O'Bryan guilty of murder, and 71 minutes to sentence him to death. On March 31, 1984, shortly after midnight, O'Bryan was executed by lethal injection at the Huntsville Unit. He maintained his innocence till the end, stating: "I forgive all – and I do mean all – those who have been involved in my death. God bless you all, and may God's best blessings be always yours." A crowd of some 300 people gathered outside and yelled "Trick or treat!" as he was put to death.
O'Bryan's crime was callous almost to the point of inhumanity, revealing that true evil, real horror, doesn't live in haunted mansions. It can be something as ordinary as a man in a suit, a family man at the end of his rope, willing to take desperate measures to save himself.