Talking Candy from Strangers

The Man Who Killed Halloween

Ronald O'Bryan and the Houston origins of a national nightmare

By John Lomax September 30, 2013 Published in the October 2013 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Image: Audra Oden

It’s that time of year. The leaves turn, nights get chilly, kids don costumes, and Victor Driscoll gets asked about the Pixy Stix murderer. Now 72 and practicing law in the lower Richmond area, Driscoll generally steers clear of the subject of Halloween. In a way, this is understandable. He was only an assistant district attorney at the time; besides, Mike Hinton, the case’s lead prosecutor, has always talked enough about Ronald O’Bryan for the both of them. But Driscoll also knew him. He too met “the man who killed Halloween,” as O’Bryan’s lawyer once put it.

No one knew O’Bryan on the first Sunday of November in 1974, Driscoll included, but all of Houston knew O’Bryan’s son. A pall hung over Pasadena’s Second Baptist Church that morning, and indeed the entire city, as the congregation grieved the loss of one 8-year-old Timothy. His demise had been horrible indeed. Apparently, some demented soul had put a candy-filled straw laced with potassium cyanide into the boy’s trick-or-treat bag. Within minutes of eating it later that evening, Tim was vomiting uncontrollably and frothing at the mouth, his tiny body wracked with convulsions. He was dead within an hour of his arrival at an area hospital.

Even as the senseless murder of his son shrouded the congregation, the elder O’Bryan, a dedicated parishioner and chorister, rose and began singing “Blessed Assurance” solo. This is Tim’s story, this is Tim’s song, sang the bespectacled sandy-haired man, paraphrasing the hymn’s refrain. Praising my savior, all the day long. There wasn’t a dry eye in the church when he was through. 

 “I’ve seen a person or two who more closely fit the stereotype of the dangerous sociopath,” Driscoll tells us. “But no one who had that appearance of being a trusted part of the community or neighborhood, who had that mask, that ability to calculate and do what he did.”

What O’Bryan had done was take out insurance policies on both of his children to the tune of $30,000 each. Meanwhile, he began asking his coworkers at Texas State Optical where he might buy cyanide. This did not alarm them, since optometrists had once used cyanide to clean gold frames, a practice that lasted into the 1950s. O’Bryan claimed he was interested in trying the old method. 

Witnesses would later note that O’Bryan was uncharacteristically excited about Halloween that year, splurging on nice costumes for his own kids and volunteering to chaperone two other children, along with their father, during a night of trick-or-treating. The group set out into the cool and rainy Pasadena night, O’Bryan still clad in his white TSO lab coat. 

One of the homes they visited was dark, and even though a knock went unanswered, O’Bryan lingered while the others moved on to the next house. Rejoining them a few minutes later, he announced that the house had apparently been home to some “rich neighbors,” and as proof held up several jumbo-sized Pixy Stix he said they’d given him.  Later that night, as the O’Bryans bid goodbye to the other family, Ronald handed one straw to each of the four children; another went to a boy who happened to be trick-or-treating in the neighborhood. The O’Bryans went home.

Tim was the first to try the cyanide-laced candy. He hesitated initially, complaining that it tasted bitter; his father gave him Kool-Aid to help wash it down, whereupon the boy became violently ill almost immediately. Driscoll believes that the speed with which the cyanide attacked Tim’s body almost certainly saved O’Bryan’s daughter Elizabeth, and possibly the three other children. Tim “went into convulsions so quickly, O’Bryan kind of got diverted from giving it to his other child,” Driscoll says. “This is conjecture, but I think he thought that several children in random homes would wake up dead the next morning.… There would be no connecting him to it.”

Once at the hospital, doctors rapidly determined the source of Tim’s poisoning, and Pasadena police searched frantically through the night for the other tainted treats. One Pixy Stix was found unopened in a sleeping boy’s hand.  

The very next morning, his son’s body still in the morgue, Ronald O’Bryan went to the insurance office to collect his $30,000. He was arrested a few days later. His trial was brief; it took a jury 46 minutes to convict, just 71 minutes to recommend the death penalty. He died by lethal injection in 1984.

Across the state in Amarillo, prosecutor Mike Hinton floated on a raft in a lake and toasted the heavens with a bottle of beer. Driscoll did not celebrate. “The process worked to its end, and his execution was the end of that process, but it was just too tragic to celebrate any part of it, including his execution,” he tells us.

After all, among the casualties of O’Bryan’s heinous actions was Halloween itself, here and nationwide, at least for a generation. “It went to the core of our insecurity because this wasn’t kids just running the neighborhood—they were with their parents in their own neighborhood in a group,” Driscoll says. “It was about as secure a way as you can do it.”

It was also merely one parent’s act of violence against his own child, but the myths it spawned—of lunatics targeting random children with tampered candy—spread like wildfire. The media gleefully broadcast unsubstantiated reports of Milky Ways with pins in them, of drug-laced Smarties. Parents who had never thought twice about the matter began scrutinizing their children’s Halloween bags under the harsh light of the kitchen table, discarding anything suspicious, anything that looked unwrapped or rewrapped. Fire stations everywhere volunteered to x-ray candy. 

Halloween wasn’t killed altogether, of course. It came back, eventually, but it’s never been quite the same. For Driscoll, the murder was Halloween’s 9/11 moment. “It changed the way we did things and our anxieties about things on a much smaller scale than 9/11 changed the country itself,” he says, “[but] it caused a completely different focus on what we did, how we did it, what our sensibilities were. And it made us more wary of our neighbors and people that we knew.”  

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