2011-11-11 / Front Page

Finding healing

Officer who shot UT killer in 1966 writes of his experience; cherishes friendships with survivors
Staff Writer

Houston McCoy was in his third of five years as an Austin Police Department officer when he was called to respond to gunshots coming from the University of Texas Tower about noon Aug. 1, 1966. 
PHOTO COURTESY MCCOY FAMILY Houston McCoy was in his third of five years as an Austin Police Department officer when he was called to respond to gunshots coming from the University of Texas Tower about noon Aug. 1, 1966. PHOTO COURTESY MCCOY FAMILY Houston

McCoy never considered himself a hero for killing gunman Charles Whitman and ending the shooter’s reign of terror Aug. 1, 1966, in The University of Texas Tower. For years – even as report after report ignored McCoy and inaccurately described the final bloody moments in the tower – the former Austin Police Department officer said very little about his role in halting the attack that killed 17 people and left more than 30 wounded.

Now, as McCoy, who has endstage chronic obstructive pulmonary disease from years of smoking, faces his final days, the Menard native tells his story and relishes his newly strengthened friendships with fellow officers who survived the UT massacre.

As he faces terminal illness, former Austin Police Department officer Houston McCoy -- who killed Charles Whitman to end the shooter’s Aug. 1, 1966, massacre from the UT Tower -- enjoys support from ex-wife Ruth, daughter Monika, and other family and friends. 
PHOTO BY DAVID LOWE As he faces terminal illness, former Austin Police Department officer Houston McCoy -- who killed Charles Whitman to end the shooter’s Aug. 1, 1966, massacre from the UT Tower -- enjoys support from ex-wife Ruth, daughter Monika, and other family and friends. PHOTO BY DAVID LOWE Near the 40th anniversary of the Austin mass shooting, McCoy’s daughter, Monika – a Windsor Foods cost accountant who lives in Copperas Cove – began trying to earn public recognition for her father, the victims, and the team of officers and civilians who worked to stop Whitman. Houston McCoy, and fellow former APD officers Jerry Day, Milton Shoquist, Harold Moe and Phillip Conner – all of whom went up the tower to stop Whitman – met at Monika McCoy’s home. Eventually, they began to share details some of the men never had heard about their darkest day in uniform.

A few weeks later, the group, followed by a television crew from Austin station KEYE, retraced their steps through the UT campus and the tunnel that led them up the tower where – as an Aug. 2, 1966, autopsy performed by pathologist Dr. C. deChenar concluded – McCoy killed Whitman with two shotgun blasts.

Using recordings his daughter obtained from APD, McCoy is working from his room at the Menard Manor long-term care facility to compile a detailed narrative, interspersed with police radio chatter, of the action on Aug. 1, 1966.

“Meeting my old friends and everything has given me a motivation to write things down and make it accurate,” said McCoy, who has been typing his story intermittently for the last five years.

McCoy was driving APD’s Unit 219 the morning of the UT shooting. He received a police dispatcher’s call about gunfire on the campus at 11:53 a.m. – one minute after the department received its first emergency notification. Despite garbled radio transmission, McCoy soon learned where he was needed, and he, along with other officers on shift and off duty, responded to calls for help.

McCoy arrived at the north side of the tower about 12:00. Armed with a shotgun, McCoy determined more firepower was needed to subdue Whitman, so he asked a crowd in the nearby T.S. Painter Hall if anybody had a high-powered rifle. When a young man said he had one at his residence, McCoy drove to the San Jacinto/Park Place area to retrieve the .30-06 rifle, which had a scope and a sling.

In the days before SWAT teams – created, in large part, in response to the UT mass shooting, Monika McCoy said – officers typically did not carry high-powered rifles, and they did not have radio communication outside their patrol vehicles. Numerous civilians fired at the tower during Whitman’s approximately hour-and-a-half long spree, and Ms. McCoy said shots from the ground may have helped pin down the killer and limit the damage he was able to do.

After retrieving the gun from the young man’s residence, McCoy then purchased two boxes of ammunition at a hardware store, returned to the campus and proceeded carefully with the rifle owner along a tree line into the UT English building.

Once he and the civilian moved into position on the building’s third floor, McCoy looked out the window to alert the people below that he would be shooting.

It was then, at 12:09 p.m., that McCoy learned Whitman had shot APD officer Billy Speed. McCoy’s friend was pronounced dead on arrival at Brackenridge Hospital.

McCoy and his colleague Day both recalled later that Speed had told them in separate conversations the morning of the shooting that he planned to resign from APD. Speed told Day he planned to announce his resignation at the day’s end. Speed worried that something bad would happen to him in the course of his work, Day said. The officer also wanted to open a camera shop and spend more time with his young daughter, Day said.

McCoy said he often has wondered if he had looked in the civilian’s rifle scope just 20 seconds earlier and fired at Whitman whether he could have saved Speed.

“Mainly I think about the ‘if onlys’ and the ‘coulda, shoulda’ -- things like that,” McCoy said.

After hearing about Speed, McCoy returned the .30-06 rifle to its owner and instructed the man to “shoot to kill,” according to the former officer’s unfinished written account. McCoy later purchased ammunition for another civilian rifleman and soon afterward entered a security building at 24th and San Jacinto streets.

At 12:58 p.m., McCoy, Conner, Moe, Shoquist and APD officer George Shepard walked toward the tower building, where UT maintenance man William Wilcox led the group to the fifth floor via underground tunnels. Otis Elevator technician Frank Holder took the officers to the 27th floor.

Day, McCoy, armed civilian Allen Crum and APD officer Ramiro Martinez climbed to the tower’s observation deck, arriving about 1:20 p.m. A few minutes later, McCoy recalled, Crum accidentally fired a shot from near the southwest corner of the deck.

Almost immediately, Martinez – at the north deck with McCoy right behind him – fired six times at Whitman, who was about 50 feet away, with his .38-caliber revolver. When the bullets missed, McCoy jumped to the right of Martinez and fired two rounds of 00 buckshot at Whitman’s head.

The autopsy of Whitman’s body noted “fatal injuries to the head and heart,” and shotgun pellet wounds in Whitman’s head, neck and chest. The report also documented severe left arm damage from a point-blank shot Martinez fired from McCoy’s shotgun right after McCoy fired the first two shells.

In the confusion surrounding the shooting of Whitman, however, Martinez was credited with killing the tower gunman. Misinformation persisted for years, McCoy and his daughter said.

Not inclined to speak much about himself, McCoy in the days after the UT shooting said little about his role in stopping Whitman. The script of a 1975 MGM production, which McCoy called “a propaganda race discrimination and gun control movie,” contained so many errors, McCoy said, that he declined to have his character portrayed.

In 1976, a Dallas newspaper reporter, McCoy said, misquoted the former police officer, which McCoy said created “a furor.”

Repeated misinformation, Monika McCoy added, made memories of the tower shooting difficult to handle for her father – who struggled with alcoholism over the years.

Reared in what he and his daughter consider a stoic generation, McCoy and his APD friends did not talk much about the events of Aug. 1, 1966, or the tower massacre’s emotional effects on them. After finishing their duties for the day, McCoy, Conner and Day went out to a vacant lot and drank beer together. They did not discuss what had happened at The University of Texas, however.

“We never really talked about it from that day until 40 years later,” Shoquist said. “That’s just the way it was back then.”

More than 45 years later, McCoy still appears uneasy when asked to explain his feelings about the tower shooting. Emotional talk, he said, seems unnatural to him.

“How can a person explain to a person born blind what a rainbow looks like?” McCoy asked. “I just don’t know how to talk about my feelings much.”

McCoy and his daughter, however, do know how to express their pride in others – such as Speed, the surviving officers, the victims and those who aided the wounded – who suffered and served on Austin’s day of terror.

Monika McCoy led the effort to earn recognition for her father and others who provided emergency aid during the mass shooting. She has amassed an extensive file of information about her father and coordinated the 2007 dedication of a marker on the UT campus to honor the tower shooting victims and first responders.

Ms. McCoy also has spoken to the Austin City Council and Travis County Commissioners Court about McCoy’s and other officers’ actions during the 1966 emergency.

As a result, the Austin City Council in 2007 presented Distinguished Service Awards to McCoy, Day, Martinez, Shoquist and 10 others in honor of their efforts to stop the UT killer.

A year afterward, Travis County officials named a Precinct 3 building in Oak Hill the “Tower Heroes Building.”

As part of the Austin Police Association’s 60th anniversary celebration in 2009, McCoy, Conner, Day, Martinez and Shoquist reunited. Each of the former officers received a plaque, a pin and an honorary APA membership. The association also lauded Shepard, who died in 2006, and presented Speed’s widow, Jeannie Speed Shone, with a plaque, pin and honorary APA membership.

The APA on Aug. 1 dedicated Speed, Martinez, McCoy Hall – a new union building in East Austin.

Despite the public acclaim he has received, McCoy – who prefers to avoid the label “hero” – said he never intended to seek honor by telling what he and other officers did in the UT Tower.

“I never asked for all that,” McCoy said. “I just asked that if we tell a story, let’s try to have some truth.”

Day also said seeing accurate accounts of officers’ actions at the UT Tower is more important thanearning accolades.

“There’s not one of us who wanted to be a hero – not Houston or anybody else,” Day said. “We just wanted the truth out there.”

Shoquist, who attended the dedication of the union hall that bears McCoy’s name, said his friend seems renewed by the telling of his story over the past five years. Shoquist appreciates his bond with former APD officers and is glad they meet and talk about their role in ending the UT Tower massacre.

“It’s probably been cathartic for us, or for me anyway,” he said.

Day also remains close with McCoy and others who survived the attack. Support from his friends and the Austin Police Department – and his Christian faith – have helped Day heal from the shock he and other officers faced after responding to the campus killings.

“It was strenuous, carrying that load,” Day said.

Friendships among those who survived the mass shooting, Ms. McCoy said, have buoyed spirits and helped with the gathering of facts about the events of Aug. 1, 1966.

“Reuniting all these officers, it’s been like putting together the pieces of a puzzle,” she said.

Although McCoy said it is difficult to imagine how his life would be different had he not been called to the UT Tower shooting, the tragedy is not the only thing that has shaped him.

“I don’t see that it defined my life,” he said, adding that he considers his four children and six grandchildren his chief legacy.

“My family has defined my life,” McCoy said. “I’m just so proud of them.”

He also relishes his relationships with surviving victims of the attack, their family members and others who were affected by Whitman’s killing spree. McCoy has met Toby Hamilton, whose Boy Scout leader when he was 12 was Whitman, and he has formed a friendship with Claire Wilson James, whose boyfriend and unborn child died in the tower shooting.

Ms. James, who was unable to have children after the injuries she sustained in the tower attack, later adopted a child from abroad. Her son, Ms. McCoy said, is an accomplished pianist working toward his master’s degree.

In addition, McCoy has corresponded with Becky Davis, who was 16 months old when her father, Billy Speed, was fatally shot. Ms. Davis graduated from The University of Texas and recalled that each time she passed the campus tower her father’s memory inspired her to continue her studies, Ms. McCoy said.

In a letter to Ms. Davis, Houston McCoy told Speed’s daughter how much her father loved her and how often he spoke of his young child.

“I could tell she was really grateful,” McCoy said.

The former officer’s daughter said she is glad McCoy has reunited with APD friends and has taken time to record his memories of the emergency response to the tower shooting.

“I’ve seen peace come across him,” she said. “Peace and healing, and they go hand in hand.”

McCoy knows his final day may come soon, and he and his family have made plans. McCoy, who worked as a U.S. Air Force flight instructor after leaving APD, has asked that some of his ashes be placed in a helium-filled balloon to be released on his childhood home just outside of Menard. The rest will be sprinkled in the San Saba River.

McCoy talks serenely about developments in his life over the past five years.

“Since the whole world’s fixing to shut the doors on me real quick,” he said, “it’s a good way to go.”

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