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October 29th, 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.

How long are those lines again?

Tiffany arrived at the West Grey Multipurpose Center around 9:30 to vote, but left after being told it was a 3 hour wait. Rob was already in line then; he comments here that he got there at 8:30 and it took him about an hour and 20 minutes. Tiffany wound up going to the Moody Park Rec Center on Fulton Street (map here), and reports that there was parking available and modest lines. Those of you in Montrose, Neartown, and the Heights who still haven’t voted but want to today should take note.

So how are those Congressional races going?

The Christian Science Monitor sees some surprises in the works for the Congressional elections, even in Texas.

On the House side, the conventional wisdom is that a turnover is out of reach for Democrats.

Still, the past couple of weeks have seen some surprises. One is the political resilience of Democrats in Texas, who had been expected to lose five seats due to redistricting by the Republican-controlled legislature. Instead, well-funded campaigns have brought Democratic Reps. Chet Edwards, Max Sandlin, and Nick Lampson within range.

Even Reps. Martin Frost and Charles Stenholm, senior Democrats viewed as hopelessly out of sync with the political landscape of their new districts, are running strong campaigns. “It will be very hard for Frost and Stenholm to win, but don’t count them out,” says James Thurber, a political scientist at American University in Washington.

The late-breaking ethical woes of House majority leader Tom DeLay, who engineered the Texas redistricting from Washington, is adding to the intensity of these races, and could help voter turnout for Democrats. The 10-term lawmaker was cautioned by the House ethics committee three times this month, and last week was subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury looking into illegal corporate contributions in Texas.

In addition, National Democrats are trying to use DeLay’s ethical troubles to bash moderate Republicans, such as Connecticut Reps. Robert Simmons and Christopher Shays, who is counting on strong ties to constituents to pull him through an unexpectedly tight race.

[…]

“Turnout is the wild card in this election. I expect it’s going to be up substantially, which could be helpful to Democrats like Chet Edwards and Martin Frost in Texas,” says Eric Uslaner, a political scientist at the University of Maryland in College Park.

“Still, if I were a Democrat in Texas, I’d run for cover,” he adds. “Aside from a few places, I can’t see increased registration enough to overturn Tom DeLay’s artful handiwork.”

I haven’t seen any polling on the Lampson-Poe race (just a lot of those awful attack ads the NRCC is running on Poe’s behalf), so that’s encouraging. Early turnout has been pretty good in Jefferson County, where Lampson will need to run strong. Via the Max Sandlin campaign blog.

The Washington Times (believe it or not) echoes a similar theme:

In District 1, four-term incumbent Mr. Sandlin is leading in several polls against Republican Louie Gohmert of Tyler.

Mr. Sandlin is running as an independent and not as a Kerry-Edwards Democrat.

Mr. Gohmert, a former district and state appeals judge, is expected to carry Smith County (Tyler) handily, but Mr. Sandlin’s support in the rural areas is formidable.

In the District 11 race, Waco Democrat Mr. Edwards, appears to be leading his Republican opponent, Arlene Wohlgemuth despite her attempts to portray him as an archliberal.

Mrs. Wohlgemuth, a state representative who worked with Mr. Bush when he was governor to pass the state’s largest tax cut, has aligned herself with the president on all issues.

In Beaumont, four-term Democrat Lampson, faces a high-profile opponent in former district judge Ted Poe from Houston in the reconstructed District 2.

Mr. Lampson’s strong point is Jefferson County, which includes the city of Beaumont, where voters know him from previous campaigns. But a large chunk of conservative voters in north Houston and suburban towns to the city’s north and northeast are strong Poe supporters.

Mr. Poe, a prosecutor before becoming a judge in Houston, chose to enter the congressional fray despite some influential Republicans urging that he seek a higher court post.

“I think a lot here depends on whether or not Mr. Poe is swept in by a huge Bush turnout. I don’t think he can win it on his own,” Mr. Jillson said.

Of course, they also suggest that Becky Klein is running a close race against Lloyd Doggett, so take it all with a grain of salt. This is a very silly quote:

Many political observers say Mr. Doggett can’t win because he is too liberal for the new district and because the constituency is 68 percent Hispanic.

They were saying that before the primary, when Doggett went up against Judge Leticia Hinojosa of Corpus Christi. Doggett won with over 64%, including a majority in Hinojosa’s Hidalgo County, and pulled over 40,000 votes to Klein’s 3679 in the Republican primary. This is a 70% Democrat district, and it’s not on anyone’s radar. Via Byron.

Via Lasso comes this rundown from CD17.

On paper, the largely rural district looks like a Republican paradise. In the 2002 elections, GOP candidates statewide trounced Democrats in the district by an average of nearly 2-1. And some observers predict that President Bush, whose ranch near Crawford and his father’s presidential library at Texas A&M are in the district, could carry up to 70 percent of the district in his own re-election bid on Tuesday.

But Edwards, who spent nine years in the Texas Senate before going to Congress after the 1990 elections, is considered the Democrat most likely to survive last year’s congressional redistricting effort designed to bring as many as seven new Texas Republicans to Washington.

Even though almost two-thirds of the district contains areas that were not part of Edwards’ old domain, the Democrat did manage to hold on to his power base in McLennan County.

Wohlgemuth, meanwhile, is hoping to undermine that strength in the new district’s northern reaches. She hopes to capitalize on her close ties to the Republican president, sporting yard signs carrying the message “Bush-Cheney-Wohlgemuth.” She’s an outspoken opponent of abortion and an unapologetic critic of government spending who carried last year’s legislation that pared back the social service rolls by hundreds of thousands of Texans.

[…]

Thomas Myers, a political science professor at Baylor University, said most voters in the Waco area, which is the largest population center in the district, have grown accustomed to siding with Edwards even though they’ll pick the Republican in races for governor, U.S. senator and president.

“Maybe it’s civic pride, but they want their congressman to have Waco after his name, Republican or Democrat,” Myers said.

Edwards drew about 56 percent of the McLennan County vote in 2002 against Temple businessman Ramsey Farley, but many observers say he’ll need a larger margin to prevail in the new district. But Wohlgemuth may have helped him last year when she sided with area dairy farmers over a drinking-water quality issue involving Lake Waco.

Wolhgemuth and the farmers opposed tougher pollution standards, angering many McLennan County residents.

“On that issue, I guess you could say that water is thicker than blood,” Myers said.

With Wohlgemuth running strong on her home turf and Edwards secure in his base, the race may come down to the Aggie vote, said Harvey Tucker, a Texas A&M political science professor.

“Chet Edwards has to get the message through that ‘I am an Aggie, I am an Aggie,”‘ Tucker said. “Arlene just has to see how many times she can say George Bush’s name in the same sentence.”

As noted before, the campaigns of the GOP challengers to the endangered Democrats can basically be summed up as “Vote for me, and I’ll do whatever George Bush (well, Tom DeLay, anyway) tells me to do”. I guess it’s never occurred to the candidates or the voters they’re pitching to that Bush might, you know, lose. Byron has a race prediction thread going if you’re interested.

Via The Stakeholder, the AusChron looks at the huge early turnout in Travis County and sees good news for Democrats, bad news for Tom DeLay. They’re even a bit optimistic about the CD10, CD21, and CD31 races, which I’m sad to say is some irrational exuberance. I’d read these numbers as a much better omen for the HD48 and HD50 races, but we’ll see. They also handicap the major Congressional battles, including the one in CD22.

In case you’ve been wondering, this is what Chris Bell will be doing in the near future. I’m more than a little giddy to see that “Powered by Movable Type” disclaimer near the bottom. Here’s an AP story on his new PAC.

Mike Fjetland gets himself a little press.

Fjetland said that 40 percent of the Republicans who voted in the District 22 primary voted for Bush but not DeLay, who was unchallenged. The Daily News could not confirm that figure Monday night.

“They filled in the circle for Bush, but they didn’t fill in the circle for DeLay,” said Fjetland who challenged DeLay in the 2002 Republican primary.

“Could not confirm that figure”?? Um, do the yokels at the Galveston Daily News not know that all election returns since 1992 are available on the Secretary of State’s webpage? Here’s what Fjetland is referring to:

President/Vice-President George W. Bush REP 12,311 92.30% U. S. Representative District 22 Tom DeLay REP 8,352 100.00%

That’s from the 2004 GOP Primary returns in Fort Bend County. That took me all of 30 seconds, and I don’t have a research department. Geez Louise.

“A lot of people feel embarrassed by DeLay,” Fjetland said, pointing to last year’s turmoil over redistricting and the majority leader’s ongoing ethics imbroglio as reasons why. “They were just unhappy about the extremism by DeLay.”

Fjetland argues, however, that many of those same Republicans could never bring themselves to vote for a Democrat. That’s where he comes in.

“The key to this district is the moderate Republicans,” he said.

[…]

Even though he is running against one of the most powerful men in the county — as well as a Democratic challenger who is making a serious bid of his own — Fjetland insists he has a chance.

“I think it’s possible for me to pull out a plurality,” he said.

I don’t think it is, but I’ve come to the conclusion (which I admit may simply be wishful thinking) that a vote for Fjetland is a vote that DeLay would have gotten otherwise, so it’s fine by me if he exceeds expectations. You can read my interview with Fjetland here.

One more thing, from Fjetland’s email:

And don’t forget to see “Candidates Straight Talk” featuring the top three contenders for District 22 – DeLay, R. Morrison and Fjetland, Sunday, October 31 at 4 p.m. on KPRC, Channel 2.

Set your TiVos accordingly.

DeLay himself continues to be active. The article is mostly on the spate of negative ads DeLay has run, but we’ll look at what Rice University political scientist Bob Stein has to say.

“Tom DeLay will get re-elected. I don’t think there is too much of a doubt about that. The only question is how much does he win by.”

Stein said the 22nd District has been Republican for years but noted that growth trends and redistricting indicate it may begin to swing back to the Democratic camp.

Stein said if DeLay’s ballot total falls below 60 percent the result could encourage Democrats in 2006.

He said a candidate who has held elected office before and is adept at raising money might enter the 2006 race if DeLay’s election numbers fall off.

DeLay won with 63 percent of the vote two years ago and 60 percent in 2000.

Campaign finance reports show that as of Sept. 30, DeLay had spent $1.4 million compared to $417,000 for Morrison.

[Fort Bend County GOP Chair Eric] Thode said DeLay is running a bigger campaign this year because 30 percent of the district’s residents have never been represented by him before.

“So they don’t know him. So there is always a fear the other side is going to try and define you in a negative way,” he said.

We’ll see how accurate Stein’s prediction is. As for Thode, it sure took DeLay long enough to start “introducing” himself to all those new voters, didn’t it? Would he have bothered to do so if he weren’t being challenged? I wouldn’t be so sure.

Finally, Chris notes that Bev Carter, who thoroughly excoriated Tom DeLay in her last column, has endorsed Richard Morrison in this week’s column (which Chris reprinted in full as it is oddly not available online yet). Bev’s a GOP precinct chair, and I’m certainly sympathetic to the idea that a party’s precinct chairs should support that party’s candidates – Lord knows I’d be pissed at any Fort Bend Democratic precinct chairs who endorsed Tom DeLay. I know nothing about her, so I don’t know if she’s more of a Betsy Lake-style Republican, someone who’s worried that DeLay’s unbridled sleaze will eventually bring ruin to her party, or just an attention-seeker. Maybe she’s taken the old saying that “sometimes party loyalty asks too much” to heart, I don’t know. I do know you should read what Bev has to say, and then go read Juanita, who (I think we can all agree) is nobody’s idea of a Republican of any stripe.

Last day of early voting

This is it – it’s either today or Tuesday. Expect long lines and be patient. Forty-nine thousand people voted in Harris County on Wednesday, the third straight day this week that the already-heavy turnout has increased. Tiffany will be heading out to cast her ballots soon. I’ll report back on what she sees.

Even the libertarian Jim Henley

Has there been an upswing in rivers running uphill lately that no one has told me about? Jim Henley has endorsed John Kerry for President. OK, so it’s not much more enthusiastic than the Denver Post endorsement of Bush was, but hey. He’s a libertarian. It comes with the territory. And I’m sure he won’t get 700 angry letters criticizing him for it.