October 29, 2004
"The Candy Man", 30 years later

Thirty years ago this Halloween, a man living in the Houston suburb of Deer Park murdered his 8-year-old son by spiking a package of Pixy Stix with cyanide. Halloween has never been the same since.


Timothy O'Bryan's name may have faded from popular memory, but 30 years ago this Sunday his death shocked the country and earned the culprit the nickname "The Man Who Killed Halloween."

The 8-year-old Deer Park boy died Oct. 31, 1974, after eating trick-or-treat candy laced with cyanide. Within days, his father, Ronald Clark O'Bryan, stood accused of staging the crime as part of a life insurance scheme.

With his wife testifying for the prosecution, O'Bryan was convicted and sentenced to death. Dubbed the "Candy Man" by fellow prisoners, he was executed by lethal injection in 1984.

[...]

The decades-old idea that depraved strangers are targeting children with tainted Halloween candy, however, is more fiction than fact, says a sociologist who has studied the phenomenon for 20 years. University of Delaware Professor Joel Best said he has yet to find a case in which a stranger deliberately poisoned trick-or-treaters.

"This is a contemporary legend that speaks to our anxiety about kids," Best said. "Most of us don't believe in ghosts and goblins anymore, but we believe in criminals."

Thirty years ago, after Timothy's death, the idea of a madman poisoning children with Halloween candy was all too real.

"We were all shocked that someone would kill their own son, their own flesh and blood, for a lousy ... $40,000 life insurance policy," said former Harris County Assistant District Attorney Mike Hinton, who prosecuted the case.

O'Bryan apparently was willing to go further, passing the poisoned Pixy Stix to at least four other children, including his 5-year-old daughter, Elizabeth. Miraculously, officers were able to retrieve the remaining tampered candy before any other children ingested it.

An 11-year-old boy who was given one of the tainted Pixy Stix was found asleep in bed later than night, cradling the tube of poisoned candy in his arms. He had been unable to pry out the staples O'Bryan had used to reseal the plastic container.

"He didn't have enough strength to get it open," Hinton said. "It just sends shivers down your spine."

[...]

The O'Bryan family had spent Halloween 1974 at a friend's home in Pasadena, where Ronald O'Bryan volunteered to escort the children on their candy-collecting rounds.

He later told police that someone at a darkened home, who only opened the door a crack, had handed him five Pixy Stix oversized plastic tubes filled with candy powder for the children in his group.

It was crucial to O'Bryan's plan, detectives said, that only his son eat the tainted treats. Back at the friend's house, investigators said, O'Bryan leaped over a coffee table to prevent his friend's 8-year-old son from eating one of the candies.

After returning to their home in Deer Park, O'Bryan told Timothy he could choose a single piece of candy before bedtime. Prosecutors said he urged his son to try the Pixy Stix.

The boy gulped down a mouthful of the powder, then went to bed after complaining that it tasted bitter. Minutes later, Timothy ran to the bathroom and began vomiting, police said. By the time he got to the hospital, he was dead.

[...]

A few days after Timothy was buried, an insurance agent had called police to report that, unknown to his wife, O'Bryan had taken out policies on his two children shortly before Halloween.

Detectives also learned that O'Bryan, deep in debt, had been boasting to co-workers at Texas State Optical that his financial health soon would undergo a remarkable recovery.

O'Bryan also quizzed one of his customers, a chemist, about poisons. He seemed particularly curious about potassium cyanide and asked where it could be purchased, the customer told police.

Investigators later scoured the family home, where they found O'Bryan's pocketknife with traces of plastic and powdered candy stuck to the blade.

The jury took about an hour to convict O'Bryan and only slightly longer to hand down the death sentence.

Despite his findings, even professor Best admits he was not immune to trick-or-treat fears, though he said he made it a point not to closely examine his own kids' candy hauls.

"I had too much pride in my research," he said. "But I think my wife checked them."


Tiffany has told me that she and her sister weren't allowed to go Trick or Treating for years after that. Thankfully, the tradition has bounced back in Houston, at least if the hordes that show up in my neighborhood are any indication. For what it's worth, we were never really affected by this in New York. Oh, we threw out anything that wasn't wrapped in original packaging, but that was as far as my family's paranoia ever went.

Snopes.com notes other incidents that have kept the Halloween hysteria alive. I say be careful, but have fun anyway.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on October 29, 2004 to Crime and Punishment | TrackBack
Comments
A few days after Timothy was buried, an insurance agent had called police to report that, unknown to his wife, O'Bryan had taken out policies on his two children shortly before Halloween.

Detectives also learned that O'Bryan, deep in debt, had been boasting to co-workers at Texas State Optical that his financial health soon would undergo a remarkable recovery.

O'Bryan also quizzed one of his customers, a chemist, about poisons. He seemed particularly curious about potassium cyanide and asked where it could be purchased, the customer told police.

"My plan cannot fail! Ha ha ha ha! Now simply let me affix my 'Official Child Murderer' badge and wax my moustache, and watch the pieces fall into place!"

Posted by: Ted Barlow on October 29, 2004 1:17 PM

Jeez, that was when I was about 18 months old and living not too far away in the Clear Lake area suburbs. Come to think of it, I don't remember too many pictures of me from those years in Halloween costumes.

Posted by: norbizness on October 29, 2004 1:46 PM

I was 9 at the that time, born in Deer Park. It was *very* vivid for us. LIke Tiffany, we weren't allowed to go trick-or-treating after that. I don't remember seeing pixy stix again for many years.

Posted by: Tx Bubba on October 29, 2004 2:27 PM

Wow. I'm having a Camelot moment.

Remember, I grew up in lower Manhattan.

I think it's really cool that there was a time when you folks trick or treated people your parents didn't visit with.

Posted by: julia on October 30, 2004 1:02 AM

Dude that was a buzz killer, thanks!!

Man the 70's sucked, i'm glad i wasn't around back then.

Posted by: Tek_XX on October 30, 2004 8:36 PM

I don't know what prompted me to look up Timothy today, but I did and found this... he and I were childhood friends, and I remember this night as if it happened yesterday. I'm 37 now, and I still think of him often.

We used to play together every day, along with a couple more neighborhood kids. We were all close and average kids. We never got in any trouble... we liked riding bikes, drawing pictures, and listening to records at our other friend's house (Joe).

I just can't imagine a parent doing this... my son is 7 years old now, and it just simply doesn't register to me.

Well, thanks for the reading. And yes, I do let my kids Trick-or-Treat.

Posted by: Kristi on June 24, 2005 1:53 PM

I lived in the neighborhood with Tim. Me and my two brothers and little sister. A few years before Tim was murdered by his father, my older brother ingested some candy that was laced with malathion. Enough to kill him, which it did. To this day I think Mr O'Brian killed my brother also. I am 42 years old and living in another state but not a day goes by that I dont think of my brother. So YES, it has happened before and it could happen again.

Posted by: Rhonda on August 16, 2005 3:24 PM

wow i came to this site to do a school report on obryan and it just disgusts me that someone would do that like come on 40k get a grip on life he is your son he loved you more then the world it self

Posted by: henry on October 20, 2005 2:42 PM

I started thinking about O'Bryan a few weeks ago as I do every Halloween and remembered just how freaked out all the parents were about checking out every piece of candy before the kids opened it. I was 10 when it happened, but now I can't even recall the last time that I heard of a hospital offering free x-rays of candy to look for metal. One reason I remember him every year is that when I was in college at Sam Houston State in Huntsville, TX 10 years later, I worked at a pizza place and an order came in from the 'Walls Unit' (where they do the executions) for two large with everything. The driver told me later that I had made his last meal according to the guards inside. I've read on other sites that he ate something different but had I known, I would have spit on it. If ever there was a good reason for the death penalty, this was it. The 'misinformed' of the ACLU and other 'human rights' organizations were outnumbered 500 to 1 that night.

To those who are too young to have experienced Halloween as it was back then, I feel sorry for you. I'm lucky that my kids get a better Halloween than I ever did though. Our neighborhood near NASA has one entire street where every house has created a 'haunted house' in their garage and decorates to the extreme just so our kids can grow up knowing how fun the night can really be. This street has a constant flow of several thousand people between about 6PM and 10PM every year.

Posted by: DB on November 28, 2005 4:05 PM

I too grew up with Tim. There are soooo many things that the public doesn't know about. Funny how the mother who was a nurse, was never considered guilty.

Posted by: Lyn on May 7, 2006 1:24 AM

he killed his son just for a lot of money? I guess Money is the root of all evil

Posted by: dayle on May 20, 2006 5:56 AM

I remember this tragic story growing up in Long Island, New York. I remember reading it and discussing it with my Mom and Dad and my brothers and sisters at that time. I was about eleven at the time. My mother never let us trick or treat anyway. We were allowed to have a big Halloween party at our home every year, and that was fun enough, and I did the same thing each year for my own kids.

I am happy that his father was executed, coincidentally, the same year my second child was born! He was descipable and I am sure he went straight to hell where he belongs!! He was in debt..... so are most of us!! YOU DON'T KILL YOUR KID! YOU GET ANOTHER JOB! You do what you have to do!! Even if he did something like sell drugs or commit crime....I would have had more respect for a man who did that, than kill his own kid!

He was a worthless piece of garbage who got his due punishment. God bless the soul of that little boy. I know he is an angel in heaven now.

Posted by: Deborah on June 12, 2006 9:07 PM

I was 17 years old & living outside of Dallas when the murder took place but I remember hearing about it, and being shocked and horrified. That may be one of the things that started my lifelong interest in true murder stories. Hmmm, I hadn't thought of that before.

Posted by: Susan on July 23, 2006 8:32 PM

Try to remember that $40K was a LOT moe money in 1974 than it is today -- probably equivalent to around $120K!
;)

Posted by: jerry b on July 25, 2006 1:44 PM

I covered the entire trial.
The thing I remember most was
how the father, as he testified, had convinced himself he didn't
do it. Even to this day, I
remind people in our newsroom
how this happened and why it
affected me.

Posted by: Tom Campbell on October 31, 2006 3:23 PM

I suggest that a deeper investigation should be pursued before casting judgement on a person. Remember, stories can always be altered to take the heat off of the true criminal.

Posted by: lyn on December 19, 2006 12:35 AM

is it true?

Posted by: pala on December 19, 2006 5:35 PM

I was a bit older than Tim and rode on the church bus with both him and his father. I agree with lyn's posting on 12/19/06 if she is the same Lyn that posted on 5/7/06. But the posting by jerry b on 7/25/06 is just WRONG! My interpretation of his posting says that he is attempting to justify the Father's actions.

Posted by: Doug Tatum on December 22, 2006 11:33 AM