The Man Who Ruined Halloween

From a purely statistical perspective, we should not be shocked when a parent kills a child. After all, the chance that a child is murdered by someone he or she knows is greater than the likelihood of death at the hands of a stranger — it’s that way for all of us.
 
Biologists, also, are probably nonplussed by infanticide because of its frequent appearance in the animal kingdom.
 
Even The Malefactor’s Register offers some anecdotal evidence that child-killers are likely to be parents of their victims: Paula Sims, Dale Cavaness, Audrey Hilley, to name a few.
 
Still, there is something disturbing about a parent who kills a child, particularly when the parent is calculating and rational about the act. Somewhat paradoxically, it is easier to understand why someone like Andrea Yates, suffering from a serious mental disease or defect, could kill her children than someone like Susan Smith, who did the same thing just because the kids were in the way.
 
Therefore, we should not be shocked by the actions of Ronald Clark O’Bryan, a doting Deer Park, Texas, father who poisoned his 8-year-old son with a cyanide-laced Pixy Stix (Stix is apparently singular in this usage), though his crime is notorious.
 
O’Bryan is no worse than Cavaness or Hilley, who killed their offspring for money, but “worse” is a relative concept when dealing with parents who murder their children. Perhaps what makes O’Bryan particularly evil is that he was willing to kill at least five children to cover his tracks, and that it didn’t matter to him which child of his died — they were all equally insured. In fact, the best outcome for him was that they both would succumb.
 
And on a much lesser scale, O’Bryan can be partly credited with ruining Trick-or-Treat for everyone by making parents paranoid that some maniac is going to put poison in the Halloween candy.
 
In his feeble defense, O’Bryan repeatedly denied that he killed his son or put the cyanide in the Halloween candy, and he had plenty of character witnesses who were shocked when he was arrested for his crime.
 
Active in his Baptist church, O’Bryan was described by his shocked pastor as “a good, Christian man — an above-average father.”
 
Neighbors concurred.
 
“Until I hear his own statement that he did it, I’ll never believe it,” W.C. Gill told an Associated Press reporter.
 
“There has to be a foul up somewhere,” another neighbor told the press. “I don’t feel that he could do that at all.”
 
But his final statement before he was put to death leaves unanswered the question of whether or not he admitted his guilt. If his final words were an admission of guilt, then he failed miserably:
 
“What is about to transpire in a few moments is wrong!,” he wrote in a statement. “However, we as human beings do make mistakes and errors. This execution is one of those wrongs; yet it doesn’t mean our whole system of justice is wrong.”
 
There is no doubt that O’Bryan was guilty of poisoning his son to death. His plan to kill his children and collect some insurance money was so pathetically planned that poor Timothy O’Bryan was hardly laid to rest before his father was jailed for the crime.
 
The best we can come up with for motive is money. There is some indication that the O’Bryan family was financially troubled, but there is also evidence that Ronald just wanted to live better off thanks to the insurance proceeds. Shortly before the crime the O’Bryan family had downgraded its living situation and the family budget had just an $11 reserve at the end of the month. Another story reported that Ronald planned to give some of the insurance money to a friend to go to the seminary.
 
It really doesn’t matter; there is no excuse for killing one’s own children.
 
The murder of Timothy O’Bryan by his father was planned weeks in advance of that Halloween night of 1974.
 
On October 2, 1974, O’Bryan phoned a friend in the insurance business and asked about insuring his two children, Timothy, 8, and Timothy’s sister, at the time 5 years old. The insurance agent didn’t know it, but O’Bryan had already insured the children through a savings plan at his bank. The plan provided a $10,000 accidental death policy for the head of a household who had a checking account with the bank. The premium was $3 per month. Additional family members authorized to use the account could also be insured for an extra $1 each.
 
“We didn’t have that much money,” Daynene O’Bryan testified at her husband’s trial. “I thought it was foolish to have two small children on a checking account and have that much insurance on them.”
 
When O’Bryan sought the additional $20,000 insurance for each of his children, the agent tried to steer him toward a college savings plan that would allow the children to cash in the policy to use the money for their education.
 
O’Bryan insisted on the traditional accidental death insurance policies despite the higher premiums. He also raised red flags when he insisted on paying for those particular policies with cash, rather than by check as he did for other policies.
 
The prosecutor in the case assumed that O’Bryan did so in order to hide the insurance from his wife. In fact, Daynene O’Bryan testified that she did not know of the other insurance policies until the day after Timothy died.
 
At the same time he was insuring the children, O’Bryan was also seeking the weapon for their deaths. He worked as an optician, making glasses for a large optical company in Houston. Through his work O’Bryan knew that cyanide had been used to polish gold frames, but the technique had been replaced by safer methods in the last decade or so.
 
He spoke to several people about purchasing cyanide, telling coworkers that he was interested in learning the old polishing method. The state was able to prove that O’Bryan spoke to at least 12 people about cyanide, including asking one chemist-friend about the amount of cyanide needed to kill a person.
 
What the state could never establish was where and how O’Bryan got the cyanide. Prosecutors could, however, provide a witness who saw O’Bryan carrying a stapler and a bag about the size one would need for the giant Pixy Stix candy. The state was also able to establish that the Pixy Stix manufacturer never used staples to seal the plastic tubes. Instead the candy maker used heat sealing to avoid contamination.
 
Halloween night 1974 was cool and rainy in Deer Park but though the drizzle may have required the witches and fairies and pirates prowling the suburban streets to wear raincoats, it did not diminish the excitement of the evening.
 
Jim Bates, a close friend of O’Bryan’s arranged the night’s festivities. The Bateses and O’Bryans started off with a dinner of pork roast and lima beans and then the two fathers gathered flashlights and raincoats to take the children — Timothy and his younger sister, and Bates’s 9- and 11-year-old kids — trick or treating.
 
“The children were very excited,” Bates recalled later. “They were running from door to door. They would shout ‘trick or treat!’ There wasn’t really any tricking…They were enjoying it so much.”
 
Toward the end of the adventure the children went up to a dark house but received no response. Bates said he watched them run from the porch to the next house. After a brief pause, O’Bryan stepped down from the porch, holding purple and white plastic tubes.
 
“You must have rich neighbors,” he said to Bates. “Look what they gave out.”
 
O’Bryan showed the giant Pixy Stix to the children, but kept them in his hand until the troop reached the Bates home. He put the candy on a coffee table — there were five of them, Bates recalled.
 
“He handed one to me, one to my brother, and one to each of his children and there was one left,” Bates’s daughter testified at O’Bryan’s trial. “The doorbell rang and there were some trick or treaters.”
 
O’Bryan handed out the extra Pixy Stix to one of them.
 
“I came within just a whisker of losing both of my children,” Bates testified.
 
After the evening’s adventure was over, Bates’s son took a bath and then told his mother that he was going to enjoy the Pixy Stix.
 
“No you’re not,” his mother replied. “I don’t want it all over the house. That’s an outside candy.”
 
The random child who was given the fifth Pixy Stix also dodged death by twist of fate.
 
The boy’s father related how his son had come downstairs at ten minutes before nine and went into the kitchen in search of a knife to open the Pixy Stix.
 
“His bedtime was 9 o’clock that night because of school the following day,” his father said. “I told him that he couldn’t have it because it was too late. He went back upstairs and set it with the rest of his candy.”
 
Over at the duplex where the O’Bryans lived, the children were allowed to choose one candy to eat before going to bed. Timothy chose the Pixy Stix.
 
O’Bryan helped Timothy open the Pixy Stix and watched as the boy poured some of the cyanide-laced candy into his mouth.
 
Timothy then complained that the candy had “hardened” and that no more would come out. O’Bryan took the plastic tube and rolled it between his hands, loosening the candy. Then, according to his first statement to police, he “poured it down the child.”
 
Timothy quickly complained about the bitter taste of the candy and was given some Kool Aid. Shortly after, he vomited and then went into convulsions. An ambulance was called and Timothy was taken to the hospital where he died.
 
O’Bryan sort-of acted out the part of the shocked and distraught parent, according to his wife.
 
“He didn’t seem upset,” she testified about O’Bryan’s appearance before their son died. “I did not see any tears.”
 
When the couple was informed that Timothy was dead, O’Bryan hit the wall and questioned out loud, “why did an 8-year-old have to die?”
 
Returning home from the hospital, O’Bryan dropped off his wife and daughter and told them he wanted to be alone.
 
“He said he just had to be alone and rolled the windows up and screamed,” she testified.
 
Once the police were informed of the death, an all-out effort was made to alert parents that someone had handed out poisoned Halloween candy. The story went viral in a 1970s fashion, and within days the O’Bryan family was known around the country.
 
Once again, O’Bryan played the part of a grieving father. He told one newspaper reporter how Timothy had once “witnessed Christ” before his first-grade class.
 
“He stood up in front of all the children and the teacher said that it was so wonderful that she didn’t have the heart to stop him,” he said.
 
“He was all boy,” O’Bryan told the press. “He loved football, basketball, anything, He never met a stranger, but I have my peace in knowing Tim is in heaven now.”
 
At a Sunday service after Timothy’s funeral, O’Bryan stood amid the congregation and sang a version of the hymn Blessed Assurance, paraphrasing the refrain: “This was Tim’s story, this was Tim’s Song/Praising his Savior all the day long”
 
“There wasn’t a dry eye in the church when he was through,” a member of the congregation said. “He had the entire church in a very emotional state, that this man was so strong in his faith and his convictions that he could do this.”
 
O’Bryan wasn’t that strong.
 
Obviously police wanted to know where the children got the poisoned Pixy Stix from and O’Bryan was the link. At first he told investigators that he could not identify which house had distributed the candy, or who handed it out.
 
By November 2, at which time the story had spread nationally, the police were leaning on O’Bryan pretty hard. He needed to give them a suspect, and that’s where he finally tripped up.
 
He managed to locate the house and gave authorities a detailed description of the man who handed out the candy. Police escorted him through the neighborhood and he pointed out Courtney Melvin as the man who gave him the poisoned Pixy Stix for the children.
 
Unfortunately for O’Bryan, Melvin easily proved that he was at work at Hobby Airport near Houston until 10:30 p.m. on Halloween night and the women who were at the Melvin home that night forgot to buy candy and were not answering the door.
 
That misfire led to a polygraph test for O’Bryan, which he failed.
 
All that was left was to tie up a few loose ends and then the state had a pretty open-and-shut case against Ronald Clark O’Bryan.
 
At the end the few people who cared about O’Bryan were mostly anti-death penalty advocates who weren’t really interested in the particulars of his case, a few surviving family members, and a Texas A&M student who had been his pen-pal for the last six months of his life. A few pro-death penalty advocates wore Halloween masks outside the Huntsville prison where O’Bryan was the second Texan to die by lethal injection on March 31, 1984.