Halloween Horrors: The Poisoning of Timothy O'Bryan
The Case that Killed Halloween
One of my clearest memories of Halloween growing up was the ritual when we got home. My mom would take my sister and I's pillowcases of candy, spread them out in two neat piles, and check to see if there was anything tampered with. I imagine that millions of parents all across North America do a similar thing on October 31st every year.
The idea that there are people out there that would contaminate Halloween candy and give it out to innocent children is honestly terrifying. The news articles pop up every year; stories about everything from illicit drugs like ecstasy and cocaine to dangerous objects like razor blades and straight pins that parents are supposed to be vigilant about finding in their kids' Halloween loot. Many police departments even offer to X-ray bags of candy to ease the fears of worried parents.
Despite the pervasiveness of this idea, incidents of Halloween candy tampering are very rare. According to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, there have been a mere 4 suspected cases of Halloween candy tampering in Canada between 2008 and 2018; all of these involved the discovery of pins inside miniature candy bars in Halifax in 2014. Even in the USA, studies have only found 200 reported cases of candy tampering since the 50s, with most being confirmed as hoaxes - most of the time, it's either a child trying to scare their parents, or a family member playing a prank on the kids. The logic of candy tampering seems a bit spotty as well - in the case of illegal drugs, why would someone lace candy with something that has a street value? What purpose does that serve, other than sadism?
However, it does occasionally happen. The first recorded case of real, live candy tampering was that of a dentist in 1959. Apparently in protest against the practice of Halloween, he laced candies with laxatives and gave them out to trick-or-treaters, sickening 30 children. Charges were laid against him, of course.
But there is one case of candy tampering that rocketed this myth into the realm of hardcore belief. The murder of Timothy O'Bryan in 1974 was every parent's worst nightmare - so much so that the perpetrator was forever accused of being the man that killed Halloween.
Just Another Halloween
On October 31st, 1974, trick-or-treaters in Deer Park, Texas had taken to the streets. Ronald Clark O'Bryan was escorting his two kids, eight-year-old Timothy and 5-year-old Elizabeth, around the neighbourhood. Timothy was dressed in a Planet of the Apes costume, and Elizabeth was dressed as a princess. The family travelled with their neighbour, Jim Bates, and his son.
On the course of their trick-or-treating that night, the group came upon a house that didn't have any lights on. Undeterred, the kids went up to the door and knocked; they ended up waiting several minutes before giving up and moving to the next house. For some reason, Ronald decided to stay behind. His patience was apparently rewarded because when he caught up with Jim Bates and the kids, he had 5 21-inch Pixy Stix with him. He said that he'd gotten them from the house without their lights on. He gave one each to Timothy, Elizabeth, and Bates' son, and gave another to Bates for his other child that hadn't come along. The last Pixy Stix tube ended up in the hands of another neighbourhood child, a 10-year-old that Ronald O'Bryan knew from church. Reports differ on whether they came across this boy on their way home or if he came to their door later, but he ended up with the Pixy Stix all the same.
When they arrived home, Ronald told Timothy and Elizabeth that they could each pick out one piece of their Halloween candy to eat before bed. No one knows what Elizabeth picked, but Timothy picked the Pixy Stix that his father gave him. The detail that would become the most horrifying later was that, because the powder inside the tube was clumped together, Ronald Clark O'Bryan rolled it between his hands before pouring it into his son's mouth. The child complained that the powder tasted weirdly bitter.
Within moments, Timothy said that his stomach hurt. Shortly after, he ran to the bathroom and began vomiting uncontrollably. Soon, the little boy was convulsing on the floor; his parents called 911. Ronald Clark O'Bryan would later say that he held his son while he vomited, and that the boy went limp in his arms. Timothy O'Bryan died while en route to the hospital, less than an hour after his father poured the candy down his throat. His autopsy determined that he'd died after ingesting enough potassium cyanide to kill two full-grown adults.
Parents in Deer Park panicked; hundreds of bags of candy were submitted to the police for inspection. Eventually, police determined that the only tampered candy in the entire haul was the 5 Pixy Stix that Ronald Clark O'Bryan said that he'd gotten from the darkened house that night. The parents of the 10-year-old boy that O'Bryan had given the last Pixy Stix to were hysterical; upon hearing the news of Timothy's death, they'd been unable to find the tampered candy among their son's stash. They'd rushed upstairs to find their boy asleep, clutching the poisoned candy in his hand. The only thing that saved him was the staple that had been used to seal the candy after tampering; he hadn't been strong enough to pry it out of the plastic. None of the other children had eaten the candy either, fortunately.
Initially, Ronald Clark O'Bryan told the police that he couldn't remember the location of the house that had given him the poisoned candy. He went further and said that he didn't even see the person that gave him the candy; he said that a man's arm had poked through a crack in the front door, and that's all he'd seen. His only descriptor for the mysterious candy poisoner was "hairy."
He stuck to this story until police started suspecting that he was lying, because Jim Bates told police that they had only taken the children to two streets that night because it was raining. Further, police discovered that none of the houses that they canvassed following Timothy's death had given out Pixy Stix on Halloween. Eventually, after being made to walk the neighbourhood with police three separate times, O'Bryan led them to the darkened house where he said that he'd gotten the Pixy Stix.
This house was occupied by a man named Courtney Melvin, along with his wife and daughter. Unfortunately for Ronald Clark O'Bryan, Courtney had a rock-solid alibi for Halloween night - he'd been at his job as an air traffic controller at William P. Hobby Airport, and hadn't gotten home until past 11pm the night that Timothy died. And considering that Ronald had specified that a man gave him the candy, his story deflated very quickly.
As they dug deeper into O'Bryan's background, police discovered that he was over $100 000 USD in debt - that's about $520 ooo USD in today's currency. In the preceding 10 years, O'Bryan had held 21 different jobs; at the time of Timothy's death, he was very close to losing his current job as an optician because he was suspected of theft. Even more damning was the fact that he'd recently taken out multiple life insurance policies on each of his children, but not himself or his wife. All included, the policies totalled around $60 000 USD. O'Bryan's wife told police that she had no idea about the policies on her children's lives.
Police learned that O'Bryan had contacted his insurance company about collecting Timothy's insurance policies the very next morning after he died - a move that was much too cold for a grieving parent. They also discovered that he'd visited a chemical supply shop in Houston to enquire about buying cyanide shortly before Halloween, but had left without buying anything after learning that the smallest unit available was five pounds.
Becoming the Candyman
Though they never figured out where O'Bryan bought the poison, police arrested him for Timothy's murder on November 5, 1974. He faced one count of capital murder and four additional counts of attempted murder, for the children that had received the Pixy Stix but hadn't eaten them. He entered a not guilty plea to all of the charges, and the trial began on May 5, 1975.
During the trial, it became increasingly clear just how terribly bad Ronald O'Bryan was at hiding his crime; multiple witnesses testified that in the months before the murder, he'd been unusually interested in the subject of cyanide, asking friends and various professionals about how much of the compound it would take to kill a person, and where he could buy it. Disgustingly, he'd spoken with several relatives about how he was going to use the insurance money - to take a long vacation, apparently - on the day of Timothy's funeral.
O'Bryan maintained his innocence throughout the trial. His defence mainly used the urban legend of the mad candy poisoner, of the depraved individual who laces candy with poison or hides sharp objects in it purely for the purpose of harming random children. These stories have lived on as urban legend, likely because of the huge press coverage that the case received. The press would eventually start called Ronald Clark O'Bryan "The Candyman."
On June 3, 1975, the jury took only 46 minutes to find O'Bryan guilty of all counts, and only 71 additional minutes to sentence him to death. Shortly after his conviction, his wife filed for divorce.
Ronald Clark O'Bryan spent the last years of his life in the Huntsville Unit in Huntsville, Texas. According to a chaplain from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, O'Bryan was despised by all of his fellow death row inmates because he had murdered a child. According to some reports, the inmates petitioned to hold an organized demonstration on his execution date to show him just how much they hated him.
His first execution date was set for August 8, 1980, but it would be rescheduled four times due to various legal actions. His last appeal was for a stay of execution on the basis that lethal injection was "cruel and unusual punishment." This appeal was denied on March 28, 1984, and on March 31, O'Bryan was executed shortly after midnight. His last statement consisted mostly of him maintaining his innocence, and saying that he thought that the death penalty was "wrong."
His execution drew a strange mix of protesters; some were anti-death penalty activists that opposed the execution, while others celebrated O'Bryan's demise, yelling "Trick or treat!" and showering the anti-death penalty protesters with candy. Many believe that O'Bryan's execution acted as a sort of catharsis for Texas; their Halloween boogeyman was finally gone.