Justice Story

JUSTICE STORY: Bloody legacy of U. of Texas massacre, the nation’s first school shooting

In November 2001, David Gunby died of lifelong kidney disease in a Fort Worth, Texas hospital.

Gunby, 58, became the 17th murder victim of Charles J. Whitman, the monster who put shooting massacres on the curriculum in America’s schools.


On Aug. 1, 1966, Gunby, a student at the University of Texas at Austin, had forgotten a book at the library. He turned around to get it when a bullet crashed into his back.

Doctors trying to save him discovered that Gunby had been living with only one functioning kidney. That kidney was now damaged by bullet fragments.


The electrical engineering student survived, but the “mad sniper’s” bullet would take his life 35 years later, a death that would be ruled a homicide.

“If his eyes were open, he was in pain,” Gunby’s son told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “The only reason my dad has died is because of Charles Whitman.”

Shootings at schools and campuses happened before, but the number of dead usually could be counted on one hand. Whitman’s rampage at the university killed 13 on the spot. Another 31 were wounded, and one died the next day.

As a prelude to the massacre, the one-time altar boy and Scoutmaster took two more lives — his wife, Kathleen, and his mother, Margaret.

On the morning on Aug. 1, Whitman, pretending to be a maintenance worker, hauled a dolly loaded with rifles, pistols, shotguns, and a Bowie knife to his sniper’s lair on the observation deck of the 307-foot-tall tower. He also brought along canned food, Excedrin, coffee, water, and a plastic bottle of gasoline.

Students were heading out for their lunch breaks a little before noon when Whitman, 25, a former Marine, took his first shots. A pregnant woman, a lifeguard, a visiting mathematics professor, a 22-year-old police officer, an electrician, and a Peace Corps volunteer were among the first to fall as the shooter sprayed bullets with great accuracy.

Three police officers and one civilian, a military veteran, entered the tower through an underground tunnel, took the elevator to five flights below the observation deck, then went up the rest on foot. They found a family of tourists — two dead, two injured — sprawled in the stairwell. The body of a receptionist had been dumped behind a couch near the entrance.

Patrolman Ramiro Martinez and officer Houston McCoy ended the rampage at 1:20 p.m., shooting Whitman dead.


At his mother’s apartment, police found her corpse and a note: “I have just taken my mother’s life.” At the couple’s apartment, there was another note next to his wife, who had five stab wounds in the chest. “Mon. 3 a.m. Both Dead.”

Whitman left a long note in which he wrote of suffering from mental anguish and tremendous headaches.

“After my death,” he said, “I wish that an autopsy would be performed on me to see if there is any visible physical disorder.”

An autopsy revealed a pecan-sized tumor on his brain, but doctors did not believe that it had triggered his violence.

Despite outward appearances, this tall, handsome, intelligent All-American boy was a time bomb — and he knew it.

In March, Whitman sought the help of Dr. Maurice Heatly, a psychiatrist at the university health center. They talked for two hours.


Whitman was “oozing with hostility,” Heatly recalled. The angry young man said he hated his cruel, domineering father and was upset about his parents’ recent separation.

Then, in a chilling statement, he told the psychiatrist that he was “thinking about going up on the tower with a deer rifle and start shooting people.”

Still, Heatly did not think these thoughts were signs of a psychopath.

There was no follow-up.

When the killer’s brain structure offered no explanation, blame was placed on guns and society. Then, as now, the country was in the grip of a crime nightmare that defied explanation.

Whitman’s rampage was preceded by another mass killing just weeks earlier. In July, Richard Speck, a violent young drifter, murdered eight student nurses in Chicago. He had been arrested 41 times and sported a tattoo announcing he was “born to raise hell.” Speck’s arraignment occupied space on the same front pages that covered the tower shooting.


Together, these cases are often seen as the opening volley in the age of mass murder in America.

Speck killed with his hands and knives. But Whitman, a crack shot who learned his skills while hunting with his father and later in the Marines, became a rallying cry for a growing anti-gun movement.

Breaking News

Breaking News

As it happens

Get updates on the coronavirus pandemic and other news as it happens with our free breaking news email alerts.

A book — ”The Right to Bear Arms” by Carl Bakal — hit bookstores shortly before the Texas campus bloodbath. “A strange and peculiarly American plague has long swept our land — a plague of guns,” Bakal wrote.

The FBI reported that 57% of homicides in 1965 — 5,614 — were committed with firearms. (According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of gun murders in 2020 was 19,384.)

Gun-control legislation that would crimp firearm sales — introduced by Sen. Thomas J. Dodd (D-Conn.) in 1963 — had stalled in the Senate. Within a day of the massacre, politicians called for passage of the bill, stricter laws, and societal changes.

President Johnson made a plea to “press urgently for legislation now pending in Congress to help prevent a criminal from obtaining firearms.” It passed in 1968.


But not everyone was convinced that gun laws were the answer.

“It appears there is nothing you can do short of outlawing guns for every person in the country,” Texas Governor John Connally said after the massacre. “And even that probably wouldn’t do it.”

JUSTICE STORY has been the Daily News’ exclusive take on true crime tales of murder, mystery and mayhem for more than 100 years. Click here to read more.