Until the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech, the deadliest school shooting in American history occurred at the University of Texas in 1966. Charles Whitman, an architecture student at the university (and a Marine Corps veteran) climbed the landmark, 28-story clock tower on the UT campus with a high-powered rifle, then opened fire. Sixteen people died before a small group of Austin police officers, accompanied by armed citizens put an end to the rampage.
Now, one of the heroes of that deadly day has died. Former Austin policeman Houston McCoy passed away Thursday at the age of 72, following a long illness.
McCoy, then a young patrol officer, was among the first members of the Austin police department to arrive at the scene after Whitman began shooting. They found death and horror across a wide stretch of the campus surrounding the sniper's perch. Dozens lay dead or wounded while Whitman continued firing. When a police sharpshooter in a small plane circling the tower was unable to draw a bead on the shooter, McCoy and other officers made their way to the tower and began moving towards the observation deck, where Whitman was partially obstructed by the structure.
The Austin American-Statesman describes how McCoy, armed with a 12-gauge shotgun, ended 99 minutes of chaos:
The frantic moments on the observation deck and who did what and when have been rehashed, researched and analyzed by history buffs and family. It’s generally accepted that it was McCoy’s shotgun blast that felled Whitman. But [fellow Austin policeman Ramiro] Martinez shot him, too, and initially got the credit until about 1970, when then-Police Chief Bob Miles first began to publicly talk about McCoy’s role in stopping Whitman. By then, McCoy had resigned from the department and was a civilian flight instructor in Del Rio for the U.S. Air Force.
From his bed in a rest home in 2011, McCoy recounted what he remembered: “I got him. But it really doesn’t matter whether I got him or Martinez did. Martinez is a good man, and he was the first police officer on the deck to confront the sniper. There were many heroes that day, police officers and civilians.”
Houston McCoy's humility belies his heroism on that fateful day. Back in 1966, virtually no police department in America was prepared for what unfolded in Austin. There were no SWAT teams; few police units had dedicated helicopters and officers on the beat generally didn't have access to rifles like the ones Whitman used during his shooting spree. Urban legend has it that the Austin PD issued a public plea for citizens to bring hunting rifles to the scene to increase officer's firepower. In fact, one of the men who climbed the tower with McCoy, Martinez and fellow officer Jerry Day was Allen Crum, a deputized civilian carrying a borrowed rifle.
Most people were unaware of McCoy's role in stopping Whitman until 1970, when new details of the shooting were made public. Until then, Martinez had been credited with firing the shots that killed the sniper. Indeed, autopsy results showed that one round from Martinez's service revolver struck Whitman. But it was a pair of shotgun blasts--fired by McCoy that felled the gunman.
Years later, McCoy insisted that he did not want to be defined by that day--or Charles Whitman:
n an interview with the American-Statesman in April 2011, he vehemently requested that Whitman — whom he didn’t call by name but referred to as “the sniper” — not be included in his final story. “But I guess you have to do that, mention the incident,” McCoy said. “Just be sure to say that I was not the only police officer there that day. It was teamwork.
Officer McCoy's heroism and selflessness are reminders of what is often necessary to stop a madman. Now, in the wake of the Connecticut school shooting, it's instructive to look back at the first deadly rampage at an American school and how it finally ended, not with the passage of new restrictions on the Second Amendment, but at the end of a shotgun barrel, carried by a brave man wearing a badge.
Forty-four years after Whitman's rampage, another gunman appeared on the UT campus. He terrorized students briefly before taking his own life as university police arrived. Incidentally, the sprawling Texas campus had been declared a "gun free zone" several years before the would-be shooter, Colton Tooley, opened fire in the campus library. Go figure.