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Countdown to Death

O’Bryan tripped over string of lies

The Houston Chronicle
March 31, 1984
By Joe McQuade

Police generally like Halloween about as much as trick-or-treaters like fresh fruit. But bill La Nier, a Pasadena police sergeant, remembers being in a good moon on Halloween night 1974.

A steady drizzle had kept many kids home, and things were unusually quiet in the detective division. La Nier was finishing his last night on the late shift and looking forward to taking of a little early.

Then the phone rang. Dead boy. Southmore Hospital.

Timothy Marc O’Bryan, a blond 8-year-old from Deer Park, had died suddenly and violently after eating some Halloween candy picked up in a Pasadena. When La Nier stepped up to the emergency room stretcher, he saw a sight he never forgot.

“He was lying there foaming at the mouth,” he said.

Tim’s father, optician Ronald Clark O’Bryan, sobbed quietly as he described how he sat at his son’s bedside, helped him open a 22-inch Pixy Stix, and titled the tube so Tim could swallow the treat. He recalled getting the boy a glass of Kool-Aid when he complained the candy tasted bitter.

O’Bryan told la Nier that Tim then raced to the bathroom, vomiting, convulsing and crying in pain. And he described how Tim, who a few hours earlier had whooped in a Planet of the Apes costume for candy, collapsed unconscious in his father’s arms.

Where did Tim get the Pixy Stix? Either on Citation or Donerail Drive in the Bowling Green subdivision, O’Bryan said. There seemed no way around it: Somebody was out there giving deadly poisoned candy to trick-or-treaters.

Police officers knocked on doors until the wee hours, collecting candy and asking parents o wake their sleeping children to see if they were safe. the search uncovered four more lethal candies, all of them cyanide-laced Pixy Stix, all of them miraculously unopened by their intended victims.

And every one was linked to the trick-or-treat group that included Tim O’Bryan.

Tim made his fateful Halloween rounds that night with his 5-year-old sister, Elizabeth, and their friends from church, Mark and Kimberly Bates. O’Bryan lived in a Deer Park townhouse, but he had arranged weeks earlier with the Bates’ father, Jim, to escort the children in his more fashionable Pasadena neighborhood.

The crucial moment came near at the home at 4112 Donerail. Bates watched from the sidewalk as O’Bryan and the children approached the door, and he watched the impatient youngsters run from the darkened porch when it appeared no one was home.

O’Bryan stayed behind and moments later emerged with a handful of Pixy Stix. “I never saw the door open,” Bates said recently. “He came out and said, ‘You’ve got rich neighbors. Look what they’re giving out.’ ”

Back in the Bates’ home at the end of the trip, O’Bryan gave one stick to each child and joked he would eat the fifth himself. Soon a cluster of trick-or-treaters knocked on the Bates’ door, and O’Bryan held up the remaining Pixy Stix and asked who wanted it.

Whitney Parker, an 11-year-old boy who lived a few blocks away, caught O’Bryan’s eye by raising his hand and reminding him they both attended the Second Baptist Church in Pasadena. Parker ran to the next house, carrying the treat with enough cyanide to kill him and some of his friends.

Within hours, one of those five children was dead. And there other people would come within seconds of a similar fate.

One of them was Whitney Parker, who was cutting open his Pixy Stix on the kitchen drain board when his father told him it was time for bed. another was young Marc Bates, who lost his chance to eat his candy when he tried his mother’s patience by swinging his Pixie Stix and spilling some of its powder on the floor.

The third was Deer Park ambulance attendant David Malone, who was prepared to give Tim O’Bryan mouth-to-mouth resuscitation if he stopped breathing on the way to the hospital. Doctors later told Malone that the boy still had enough cyanide in his mouth to kill anyone trying such a maneuver.

Parents across the nation recoiled from the crime, and the deeply religious O’Bryan won the sympathy of million by singing a moving solo at his church after the funeral.

“He was all boy,” O’Bryan said. “He loved football, basketball, anything. He never met a stranger.

“But I have my peace in knowing Tim is in heaven now.”

Already some investigators were developing grave doubts about the homely, heavy-set man with the gentle manners. “You just knew something was wrong,” said Deer Park police Lt. W.P. Bess. “I was always looking for his emotions. He seemed too cool, calm and collected for a parent who had just lost a child.”

Then, while cruising the Bowling Green neighborhood with police, O’Bryan made one of his biggest mistakes. He identified the same house that Bates had mentioned in separate interrogations, and he went one step further. He identified a man standing in the front yard as the one who had handed him the Pixy Stix.

But C.E. Melvin of 4112 Donerail had an airtight alibi. He was working as an air dispatcher at Hobby Airport Halloween night, and he had more than a dozen witnesses.

Grieving victims often are excused for such mistaken identification. But detectives now were asking themselves how O’Bryan could have seen anyone at Melvin’s address if Bates, from a few yards away, never saw the door open at all.

On Monday, Nov. 4, the other shoe fell. Pasadena police received a call from a Galena Park insurance agent, recounting how O’Bryan paid cash for $20,000 life insurance policies on each of his children – on Oct. 3.

Insurance agent Robert Ballew Jr. said he unsuccessfully urged O’Bryan to buy more attractive policies with smaller death benefits that would have set up $25,000 cash funds for each child at age 23. He said O’Bryan stipulated that his wife not sign the policies and that they be kept in Ballew’s office “for convenience.”

Detective Sgt. David Mullican, who today is Pasadena police chief, was O’Bryan’s lead interrogator Monday evening after Ballew’s tip arrived. His first question was blunt: “Mr. O’Bryan, how much insurance did you have on Timothy, and how long was it in effect prior to his death?”

O’Bryan flinched, and then he lied. He mentioned a $10,000 policy he had bought earlier that year over his wife’s objections, but he said nothing about the other. In a three-hour interview, Mullican caught O’Bryan in lie after lie, and he soon was convinced that the Halloween candy killer was sitting right across the table from him.

In another conference room, Detective Sgt. Harold Nassif questioned O’Bryan’s wife, Daynene. He, too, asked her about Timothy’s insurance, and she mentioned the earlier, $10,000 policy.

Nassif still vividly remembers Mrs. O’Bryan’s reaction when she first believed her husband was guilty. “I told her that O’Bryan recently had increased the insurance on the children to about $60,000. (Timothy’s share was $31,000). She said, ‘Oh, my God,’ and broke down. We didn’t even need to tellher at that point that we thought he had poisoned her son.”

The evidence kept coming. Friends and Texas State Optical customers reported O’Bryan had asked them about how much cyanide was needed to kill a person. His funeral director said O’Bryan coolly asked for six death certificates on Nov. 1 and stated his son died of potassium cyanide poisoning.

A quick review of O’Bryan’s past uncovered a chronic series of financial troubles, dubious insurance claims, job-hopping, habitual lying and O’Bryan’s idle boast to acquaintances that he would come into enough money by year’s end to buy a house.

Jurors took 45 minutes to find Ronald Clark O’Bryan guilty and 70 minutes to sentence him to death.