Sniper in the tower
For 96 minutes, Charles Whitman killed his victims from up high
Throughout his childhood, Charles Whitman was taught that only success was acceptable and failure was never an option.
The oldest of three sons born to Margaret and Charles Snr, Whitman’s home life was often tough.
Margaret was a devout Catholic who suffered at the hands of her domineering and abusive husband.
Whitman was witness to domestic violence against his mother and wasn’t immune from the iron fist of his father.
Domineering Charles Snr ruled the roost.
He collected firearms and taught his sons how to shoot. They often went hunting and Whitman became a skilled marksman. At 18, after graduating high school, Whitman joined the marines to get away from his dad.
While serving, Whitman was praised for his ability to shoot well from a distance at moving targets.
With a desire to be an officer, he was offered a marine corp scholarship to study.
Whitman moved to Austin and in 1961, he started studying mechanical engineering at the University of Texas.
With a high IQ, the work should have been simple for Whitman, but he was easily distracted and had a weakness for gambling.
When he was 20, he met education student Kathy Leissner, then 18. They married in 1962. Eventually, Whitman’s falling grades caught up with him and he was ordered to stop his scholarship and report to North Carolina for duty. While there, he continued to show the potential for being a courageous and talented marine, but after getting into a dispute over a gambling debt, Whitman was discharged in 1964.
Whitman went back to his wife and enrolled back at the University of Texas on an architecture course.
While he took on part time jobs to pay for his home, Kathy became the main breadwinner with a teaching role at a high school, and a summer job as a telephone operator.
Back in the 60s, this would have been a dent in his confidence. Whitman was failing. Then in May 1966, Whitman’s mum announced she couldn’t cope with her abusive marriage any longer and filed for divorce.
She moved from Florida to Austin, found a flat close to her son and got a job in a cafeteria. Margaret was finally free.
Around the same time, Whitman started to complain of ‘tremendous’ headaches. He grew increasingly concerned about his mental health and was having violent thoughts and impulses. Doctors prescribed him medication and one requested that he return for a follow up appointment, but he never did. On July 31, 1966,
Whitman bought a knife and binoculars from a hardware store.
That night, he started to type out a suicide note.
It attempted to give a reason for what he was planning.
I do not really understand myself these days, he wrote. I am supposed to be an average, reasonable and intelligent young man. However, lately, I have been a victim of many unusual and irrational thoughts.
Whitman admitted he thought there was a problem and requested an autopsy after his death to see if there was a reason for his worrying thoughts – and the headaches.
The letter went on to explain that he’d decided to kill his mum and wife to save them from the embarrassment of what he was going to do.
He referred to Kathy as the ‘very
best wife’ he could have wished for, and how he didn’t want to leave her on her own. Whitman seemed to justify his mum’s murder by saying she’d never truly been free to live the life she’d wanted because of his dad. Just after midnight on August 1, Whitman went to his mum’s apartment and stabbed her in the heart. Then he placed her body carefully in her bed. He left a handwritten note beside her body, admitting it was him: Let there be no doubt in your mind that I loved this woman with all my heart. Then Whitman went home and stabbed his sleeping wife three times in the heart. Kathy was just 23. He added more words to his suicide note, explaining that his wife and mum were now dead and he’d done a ‘quick thorough job.’ The next day, he called Kathy’s workplace and told them she was ill. He did the same for his mum.
It gave him more time to see through his master plan.
At around 11.30am, Whitman arrived on the University of Texas campus with the boot of his car filled with weapons.
At the centre of the campus is an iconic 300ft tower – it went over 30 floors and housed, among other things, the university library. Wearing overalls, Whitman climbed up to the 28th floor, shooting dead three people on the way.
He barricaded himself on the outside observation deck and looked down at the campus below.
Students walked around innocently unaware of the danger above them.
Whitman had a trunk of weapons with him, including several knives, 700 rounds of ammunition and seven guns. Mercilessly, he opened fire on the people below.
For 96 minutes, he picked off his victims at random.
Most were shot in the heart by the expert marksman, but one student who was eight months pregnant was shot in the stomach. She survived, but her baby didn’t, neither did the baby’s dad who was shot dead by the injured girl’s side.
Back then, a mass shooting was rare, and many didn’t know how to react to it.
Rather than run for cover, many walked around in stunned disbelief – to their downfall.
Sadly, so many more tragic mass shootings followed across the US, but at the time, it was a rarity.
Police had to get to Whitman through the tower, so it enabled him to fire for over an hour and a half, although most were struck in the first 20 minutes. Whitman killed 16 people, including the unborn baby, and wounded 31 before he was shot dead by police when the tower was finally stormed.
Another victim would die 35 years later due to a complication attributed to bullet fragments lodged in his kidney.
The community were shocked when it was revealed that the ‘Texas Tower Sniper’ had told a psychiatrist that he’d been thinking about going up the tower and shooting people, months before the attack. It wasn’t followed up. As requested, Whitman was given an autopsy and it was revealed that he had a pecan-sized brain tumour. But the coroner said that it wasn’t the reason the former marine had become a mass murderer. It remains a controversial debate. Other experts believe it could have been pressing against his amygdala – a part of the brain related to anxiety and the fightor-flight responses.
Whitman had a difficult past, but nothing that would explain the extreme action he took that fateful day.
The aftermath of the shootings was difficult for the community, and some believe it was downplayed to avoid the stigma.
Because of the shootings, mental health services were improved, and campus security was introduced.
But although bullet holes remained in the building, it took time for the relevant memorials to be put in place.
Although Charles Whitman’s actions that day shouldn’t ever be forgotten – above all else, it’s the innocent victims who should be forever remembered.