Sniper in the tower

For 96 min­utes, Charles Whit­man killed his vic­tims from up high

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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.

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