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.