An absent atheist's money goes missing

If every great religion has its mysteries, so too now does anti- religion, at least in the United States.

Fifteen months ago, Madalyn Murray O'Hair, head of American Atheists Inc and the country's most famous non- believer, vanished from her home in Austin Texas, along with her younger son and an adopted grand-daughter who lived with her. What happened is a riddle which baffles her followers, the media and the police to this day.

This week the tale grew curiouser still: According to a Texas newspaper, $625,000 disappeared from the accounts of American Atheists and its sister organisation United Secularists of America at almost the precise moment the three went missing. The paper further claimed that the money was "believed to be in the possession" of Jon Murray, the son who vanished with her.

Back in September 1995, everything still seemed relatively straightforward. Aged 77 and chronically ill with diabetes, Ms O'Hair suspected she was not much longer for this earth. She had vanished, it was generally assumed, in order to keep those hated Christians - "Christers" as she called them - and their prayers away from any funeral she might organise.

But as the months passed and no trace was found, other theories began to circulate. Maybe, some murmured, she had suffered the ultimate, never to be admitted humiliation of a deathbed conversion. No more implausibly, perhaps she had been abducted by her Godfearing foes, especially numerous in the Bible Belt where she lived.

After all had not Ms O'Hair, who led the challenge which resulted in the historic Supreme Court ruling of 1962 banning prayer in public in public schools, more recently taken aim at religious broadcasting ? Nowhere is that institution more entrenched than in the American South. Not for nothing did she refer to herself as "the most hated woman in America".

But if her possible demise could be explained, the continuing disappearance of her son and granddaughter could not. Hence increasingly rumours of foul play, motivated by the millions of dollars reputedly controlled by Ms O'Hair and her associates through American Atheists, which claims 40,000 followers, and its affiliates. Now comes news of the missing $625,000, fuelling speculation - denied by most of those who knew them - that the three simply absconded. Mexico is one favoured destination. Tahiti and New Zealand are others.

Belatedly, William Murray, O'Hair's estranged elder son and a Christian activist, has asked for a police investigation. In Texas, if there is no arrest warrant against a missing person, these things can take time: "It's not against the law for an adult to disappear," a police officer says, noting there is no evidence of criminal wrongdoing.

Mr Murray though begs to differ. The trio was not the kind which merges into the background, he argues: "They are unusual-looking, unusual-sounding people, they were all obese, they were all foul-mouthed. If they came into your place of business you wouldn't forget them." Something bad, he insists, must have happened.

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