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I never could quite make it. These thoughts are too much for me.
~ Whitman's last written words in his suicide note.

Charles Joseph Whitman (June 24th, 1941 – August 1st, 1966), commonly known as the Texas Tower Sniper, was a former Marine and spree killer. On August 1st, 1966; he climbed a tower at the University of Texas in Austin with 7 guns and killed 17 people before being shot dead by a police officer. The incident was one of the earliest school shootings to gain widespread attention.

Earlier that day, he stabbed and shot his wife, Kathy Whitman, and mother, Margaret Whitman, to death, then killed two people and wounded others as he ascended the tower of the University with a shotgun. The rest of his victims were killed or wounded with a sniper rifle. Altogether, Whitman killed fourteen people and wounded thirty-one in the 96 minutes before he was shot and killed by Austin police officer Houston McCoy.

Upon autopsy (which Whitman requested be performed on him in his final letter), medical examiners discovered that Whitman had unknowingly been suffering from an aggressive brain tumor, likely explaining his sudden, violent shift in personality.

The Shooting

Prelude

The day before the shootings, Whitman bought a pair of binoculars and a knife from a hardware store, and some Spam from a 7-Eleven convenience store. He picked up his wife from her summer job as a telephone operator before he met his mother for lunch at the Wyatt Cafeteria, which was close to the university.

At about 4:00 p.m. on July 31, 1966, Charles and Kathy Whitman visited their close friends John and Fran Morgan. They left the Morgans' apartment at 5:50 p.m. so Kathy could get to her 6:00–10:00 p.m. shift.

Shortly afterwards, Whitman wrote a suicide note. In his note, he went on to request an autopsy be performed on his remains after he was dead to determine if there had been a discernible biological contributory cause for his actions and for his continuing and increasingly intense headaches. He also wrote that he had decided to kill both his mother and wife. Expressing uncertainty about his reasons, he nonetheless stated he did not believe his mother had "ever enjoyed life as she is entitled to", and that his wife had "been as fine a wife to me as any man could ever hope to have". Whitman further explained that he wanted to relieve both his wife and mother of the suffering of this world, and to save them the embarrassment of his actions. He did not mention planning the attack at the university.

Killing his mother and wife

Just after midnight on August 1, Whitman drove to his mother's apartment at 1212 Guadalupe Street. After killing his mother, he placed her body on her bed and covered it with sheets. Just how he murdered his mother is disputed, but officials believed he rendered her unconscious before stabbing her in the heart.

Whitman then returned to his home at 906 Jewell Street, where he killed his wife by stabbing her three times in the heart as she slept, then covered her body with sheets.

He also left instructions in the rented house requesting that two rolls of camera film be developed and wrote personal notes to each of his brothers.

Committing the shooting

At approximately 11:25 a.m., Whitman reached the University of Texas at Austin, where he showed false research assistant identification to obtain a parking permit. Whitman wheeled his equipment toward the Main Building of the University. Entering the Main Building, Whitman found the elevator did not work. An employee named Vera Palmer activated it for him; Whitman thanked Palmer, stating, "Thank you ma'am", before repeatedly saying: "You don't know how happy that makes me."

Exiting the elevator on the 27th floor, he hauled the dolly and equipment up a flight of stairs to a hallway, from which another flight led to the rooms skirted by the observation deck. There he encountered receptionist Edna Townsley. Whitman knocked Townsley to the floor and split the back of her skull with his rifle butt, then struck her above the left eye before dragging her behind a couch. As Cheryl Botts and Don Walden entered the reception area from the observation deck, Walden noticed Whitman's guns and assumed that he was going to the observation deck to shoot pigeons. Whitman smiled, "Hi, how are you?" as they went down to the elevator. He then pushed a desk across the entrance from the stairway.

M.J. Gabour, his wife Mary Frances Gabour, and their sons Mike and Mark were in Austin visiting M.J.'s sister Marguerite Lamport and her husband William Lamport . Around 11:45 am they were climbing the stairs from the 27th floor when they encountered the desk Whitman had placed in the entrance to the reception area. As Mike and Mark squeezed past, Whitman came forward and fired his shotgun, hitting Mike in the shoulder and Mark in the head, then fired down the stairs, striking Marguerite and Mary Frances. M.J. and William, farther down the stairs, were not hit and went for help at Mike's urging. Whitman then shot Townsley in the head before exiting to the observation deck.

At 11:48 a.m. Whitman began shooting from the observation deck 231 feet (70 m) above the ground, targeting people on the campus and on a section of Guadalupe Street known as the Drag, which was home to coffee shops, bookstores, and other student hangouts.

Some mistook the sound of shots for the noise from a nearby construction site, or thought that persons falling to the ground were part of a theater group or an anti-war protest. One victim recalled that as she lay bleeding a passerby reprimanded her and told her to "Get up." Among those who grasped the situation, many risked their lives to take the wounded to safety. An armored car and ambulances from local funeral homes were used to reach the wounded.

Four minutes after Whitman began shooting from the tower, a history professor was the first to telephone the Austin Police Department, at 11:52 am. Patrolman Billy Speed, one of the first officers to arrive, took refuge with a colleague behind a columned stone wall. Whitman shot through the six-inch space between the columns of the wall and killed Speed.

Officers attempting to reach the tower were forced to move slowly and take cover often, but a small group of officers including Houston McCoy began making their way to the tower via underground maintenance tunnels. Officers and several civilians provided suppressive fire from the ground with small weapons and hunting rifles, forcing Whitman to stay low and fire through storm drains at the foot of the observation deck's wall. A police sharpshooter in a small plane was driven back by Whitman's return fire but continued to circle at a distance, seeking to distract Whitman and further limit his freedom to choose targets.

Around 1:24 pm, while Whitman was looking south for the source of the rifle shot, Officers Ray Martinez and Houston McCoy rounded the northeastern corner of the observation deck. Martinez fired on Whitman with his revolver, missing, and McCoy hit Whitman twice with his shotgun. Martinez then took McCoy's shotgun from him, having emptied his own weapon, and fired a final shot into Whitman at point-blank range. In the immediate aftermath, Martinez was nearly shot himself by those on the ground, who did not yet realize that Whitman was dead.

Trivia

  • It is currently the ninth deadliest mass shooting in modern American history.
  • Whitman partially inspired two other later school shooters, Brenda Spencer and Nikolas Cruz.
  • Whitman expressed remorse for his actions in the suicide note found by police, and requested that his life insurance be donated to a mental health foundation.
  • In the 1987 film Full Metal Jacket, the character of Gunnery Sergeant Hartman praises Whitman's marksmanship, along with that of Lee Harvey Oswald, emphasizing that they were both former Marines.
  • A television movie was made about the incident in 1975, called The Deadly Tower, featuring Kurt Russell as Whitman.
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