The University of Texas Tower Shooting, one of the worst mass murders in American history, took place on August 1, 1966, on and around the University of Texas at Austin (UT) campus when Charles J. Whitman, an enrolled student, took control of the observation deck of the iconic Tower and fired various weapons onto the campus and its surrounding business district.
Whitman’s murderous spree began in the early morning hours of August 1, 1966, when he killed his mother, Margaret Elizabeth Whitman, at her apartment near downtown Austin. Approximately, three hours later, he returned to his small south Austin home and killed his wife Kathleen as she slept in their bedroom. From about 3:00 A.M. to his arrival on the UT campus at approximately 11:30 A.M., he wrote several notes and meticulously prepared for an extended siege of the campus by purchasing and packing an array of guns, about 700 rounds of ammunition, and survivalist supplies. Wearing overalls to disguise himself as a janitor, Whitman entered the Tower on the ground floor, boarded an elevator, and wheeled a footlocker on a two-wheeled dolly to the twenty-seventh floor. Afterwards, he hauled his gear up three flights of stairs to the twenty-eighth floor reception area and observation deck. His first victim on campus was a university employee who served as a receptionist on the twenty-eighth floor. Minutes later, using an illegally-modified shotgun, Whitman gunned down a family of tourists in a stairwell as they attempted to enter the reception area. Two of the family members died immediately; two others were severely wounded.
At 11:48 A.M., Whitman began shooting from the Tower’s outdoor observation deck, which completely encircles the entire twenty-eighth floor. The outer walls of each side of the deck included three openings that were intended to function as rainspouts. Whitman was able to use these openings as turrets, which effectively shielded him from return gunfire below. For the next ninety-six minutes, the “Sniper in the Tower” fired approximately 150 rounds of ammunition onto the public below. The incident ended at 1:24 P.M. when Whitman was ambushed on the northwest corner of the deck by two uniformed Austin Police Department patrol officers—Ramiro “Ray” Martinez and Houston McCoy. An armed civilian, University Co-op employee Allen Crum, had also accompanied Martinez to the observation deck and waited near the doorway on the south side of the deck, and, according to Crum’s statement to the police, Austin police officer Jerry Day was also present at the door.
The death toll, including Whitman’s wife and mother, was a total of seventeen: fifteen (including Austin police officer Billy Speed) died on August 1, another died on August 8, and a final victim died of a gunshot-related wound in 2001. Thirty-one individuals were treated for wounds, ranging from superficial to life-threatening, in Austin’s hospitals and the University Student Health Center.
As a result of the shooting, the observation deck was closed for several months to repair damage done to the outer walls near the clocks and the face of the building itself. During the first thirty years of the building’s history, a total of three people had committed suicide from the Tower’s deck. After the Tower shooting, in a six-year period from 1968 through 1974, four people chose to end their lives there. After the last of the suicides, the twenty-eighth floor was closed again in 1974. In February 1976 the UT regents voted to close the observation deck permanently. In 1999 UT’s president Larry Faulkner presented a plan to the regents to reopen the deck to the general public. The plan included a number of modifications to the twenty-eighth floor (to make it more accessible and American Disabilities Act compliant) and the outer deck (to make it safer by enclosing it with a mesh of stainless steel bars). The observation deck was reopened to the public shortly after the dedication of the Tower Memorial Garden on August 1, 1999. In the 2010s public access to the top of the Tower was by appointment in a guided tour only.
The first on-campus memorial to the victims of the Tower shooting was not dedicated until August 1, 1999. A small grassy area immediately north of the Tower, including what is popularly known as the “Turtle Pond,” was dedicated as the “Tower Garden” or “Garden of Reflection.” A small memorial plaque attached to a boulder was added to the garden in 2007, but it did not include names of any of the victims. On August 1, 2016, on the fiftieth anniversary of the Tower shooting, a much larger monument made of Texas pink granite and including the engraved names of the seventeen murdered victims was dedicated.
The University of Texas Tower shooting was a seminal event in law enforcement history because of how it influenced changes in police departments throughout the United States. During this incident it became tragically evident that officers of the Austin Police Department had no tactical training, clear lines of communication, adequate weapons, appropriate uniforms, or a unified command/coordination. Along with the 1965 Watts Riots, the UT Tower shooting is often cited as the precursor to the formation of Special Weapons and Tactics Teams (SWAT) that are now part of most police departments serving populations of 50,000 or more people. In Texas during the regular session of the 1967 legislature, Senate Bill 162 provided for the creation of police forces for institutions of higher education. The bill, signed into law by Governor John Connally on April 27, 1967, led to the formation of the University of Texas Police Department. The UTPD replaced UT Traffic and Security Services which had consisted of unarmed watchmen who supervised traffic and parking and never investigated felonies.
Immediately after the shooting Governor John Connally formed a thirty-two-member commission of experts in mental health and other medical fields to examine every aspect of the Tower tragedy. After a careful analysis of all available information on the life and death of Charles Whitman, the commission could not positively identify a cause for his rampage. One of their suggestions, however, that mental health and counseling services for college students be dramatically expanded, resulted in the replacement of a “mental hygiene clinic” in the Student Health Center, to what in the 2010s was the UT Counseling and Mental Health Center. The center provides students, families, faculty, and staff with counseling, psychiatric, consultation, and prevention services twenty-four hours a day.
The incident is also unique in the annals of American crime because of the unsolicited arrival of significant numbers of non-deputized armed civilians using privately-owned firearms to return fire upon the sniper. It is the only example in modern times of an uncoordinated group of armed civilians assisting law enforcement by firing upon a criminal during the commission of a crime. (The only other well-known example is the ambush of the James/Younger Gang in Northfield, Minnesota, during an attempted bank robbery in 1876.) In the aftermath, the civilian groundfire drew mixed reactions. Governor Connally commented that it impeded the progress of the police in stopping the sniper in that officers had to also be cognizant of taking cover from shots fired up at the Tower. Officer Ray Martinez later expressed gratitude regarding the civilians who, armed with personal hunting rifles, had returned fire and forced Whitman to take cover, thereby limiting his ability to target victims.
The causes of the sniper’s rampage will probably never be established with absolute certainty. Since 1966 searches for an explanation for such senseless and deadly violence have resulted in several cause-effect theories, which include: the organic causes of violence and the discovery of a small brain tumor during an autopsy of the sniper; chemical and drug abuse that some believe may have produced an amphetamine-induced psychosis; psychological causes such as the training he received as a United States Marine and child abuse at the hands of his dangerous and surly father, including witnessing significant domestic violence directed towards his mother; and growing up in a gun-loving household in Florida. However, in the forty-eight-hour period immediately preceding the Tower shooting, judging by his actions, serial decision-making, and choices, there is little or no direct evidence that Charles Whitman was impaired mentally or physically during his spree killing on August 1, 1966.