How every parent's worst nightmare unfolded in a small Texas town in 1974.
A trick-or-treater in the 1970s, for illustrative purposes and not related to this case.
On a rainy Halloween night in 1974, the children of Deer Park, Texas were out knocking on doors. Ronald Clark O'Bryan, an optician, was out too, watching over his kids—eight-year-old Timothy and five-year-old Elizabeth—as they trick-or-treated in a suburban neighborhood near their home. Joining them was the O'Bryan's neighbor, Jim Bates, and his young son.
One of the houses the group approached had all its lights switched off, but the kids banged on the door anyway; the vague promise of candy was too enticing.
But there was no answer: either the occupants were hiding or no one was home. Growing impatient, the kids ran off to find another house and Jim followed. Ronald was left alone.
Catching up with the others a short while later, Ronald had good news. He produced a handful of 21-inch Pixy Stix, tubes of powdered sour candy. Turned out someone had been in at the dark house all along. The sweets were handed out—one to each of the children there, one for Jim's other child and another to a ten-year-old boy Ronald had recognized from church as the group walked home.
Before bed, Timothy O'Bryan was allowed one treat from the evening's haul, and picked his Pixy Stix tube—but the powdered sugar was stuck in the straw, and it wasn't until his dad helped him to dislodge it that he could take his first mouthful. It tasted bitter, he complained, so Ronald grabbed him a glass of Kool-Aid to wash the taste away. Less than an hour later, Timothy was dead.
"It was just a coincidence that I was working the police intake that night," says former Harris County prosecutor Mike Hinton, decades later, on the phone from Houston. "I got a call from the Pasadena police department—they told me an eight-year-old boy had died. He was rushed to hospital, but he'd already passed."
Wanting to get his investigation underway, Hinton called Dr. Joseph A. Jachimczyk, chief medical examiner of nearby Harris County. "I told him the situation and he asked what the young man's breath smelled like," says Hinton now. A call to the morgue revealed there was a scent of almonds coming from the boy's mouth. "It's cyanide," said Dr. Jachimczyk.
An autopsy proved the medical examiner's hunch: a pathologist said Timothy had consumed enough cyanide to kill two people. Tests later found that the top two inches of the Pixy Stix had been packed with the poison.
Police officers managed to recover the remaining sweets from the other children before any of them had a chance to dig in, and noted that whoever was responsible had used staples to seal the Pixy Stix after tampering with them. "That's what saved another boy's life that night," Hinton recalls. "They found him in bed with the sweet in his hand, but he wasn't strong enough to undo the staples."
The police took Ronald back to the neighborhood the group had been trick-or-treating in so he could direct them to the house where he'd picked up the Pixy Stix. But he was stumped—he just couldn't find the house, and said he'd never seen the face of the person responsible; that had just emerged from a doorway and handed him the candy. Investigators started to become suspicious.
"A few days went by, and it was incredibly frustrating," says Hinton, "so they took O'Bryan out again and were pretty firm with him."
The tactic worked: Ronald's memory was jogged. He pointed towards the house.
The man who lived there wasn't home, so officers went to his place of work—Houston's William Hobby P. Airport—and arrested him in front of his colleagues. The mystery was over; cased closed.
Only, the man had an alibi. "It turned out he was working that night," says Hinton in his long Texan drawl. "His wife and daughter were home and had turned out the lights early as they'd run out of candy." Colleagues and time sheets confirmed the man's story. "This only magnified my suspicions," says Hinton. "I'd also heard O'Bryan was angry at his relatives for not staying up the night of Timothy's funeral, which was odd."
Ronald, it transpires, had written a song about Jesus, and Timothy joining the Lord in heaven, and had grown agitated when his grieving family wouldn't stay up late to watch a recording of the performance being broadcast on television. "Something strange was going on," says Hinton.
Soon after, while he was teaching a class at the Pasadena police academy, detectives arrived at Hinton's door. They had discovered that Ronald had recently taken out life insurance policies on both of his children—$10,000 per child in January of that year, and then a further $20,000 on each a month before Halloween. Investigators already knew Ronald owed debts of over $100,000, so when they found out he'd called his insurers to ask about the payout at 9 AM the morning after Timothy's death, it was clear the case against him was beginning to come together.
Granted a warrant, a search of the O'Bryan house offered up a pair of scissors with plastic residue attached, which was similar to that found on the cyanide-laced sweets. O'Bryan was arrested and taken in for questioning.
As the investigation continued, says Hinton, the evidence started to stack up against Ronald. "It turned out O'Bryan was going to community college and in class would ask his professor questions like, 'What is more lethal: cyanide or another type of poison?'" says Hinton. "Why would someone ask that?"
Another witness, who worked for a chemical company in Houston, told police a man had come in to buy some cyanide, but left after being told the smallest amount he could buy was 5 lbs. "The man from the store said he couldn't identify O'Bryan, but he remembered that his customer was wearing a beige or blue smock, like a doctor," says Hinton. "O'Bryan was an optician—that was exactly the uniform he wore to work."
Still, this was years before DNA testing and contactless debit cards, and police couldn't put the Pixy Stix in Ronald's hands or prove he'd bought any cyanide. So the 30-year-old optician maintained his innocence.
Hinton remembers the case vividly; in the decades that have passed, his memories have remained sharp. "O'Bryan adored the attention," he says. "I think he even loved it during his trial."
Ronald entered a not guilty plea, with his defense blaming the tainted candy on some untraceable boogieman—a sick individual using the cover of Halloween to poison unsuspecting children. But friends, family, and co-workers all testified against the man the press was now calling the "Candy Man," and on June 3, 1975 it took just 46 minutes for a jury to return a guilty verdict for one charge of capital murder and four counts of attempted murder. An hour later, it was decided that Ronald would be executed by electric chair.
Before and since the Deer Park poisoning, rumors of dodgy sweets being handed out have always surfaced around Halloween. But whether the fear is that the candies contain broken glass and razor blades, or that they're actually ecstasy pills, there's not much evidence to suggest parents actually have anything to worry about.
In 2000, a man in Minneapolis was charged with putting needles in the Snickers bars he'd handed out to trick-or-treaters—but the only victim he claimed was a teenager who got a slight prick from the hidden sharp object. Since Timothy O'Bryan, there hasn't been a single case where a child has actually died after consuming contaminated Halloween treats.
Ronald Clark O'Bryan's appeal avenues were explored and turned down for nearly a decade after his guilty verdict, so it wasn't until March 31, 1984, when all routes to survival had been exhausted, that he was finally put to death for his crime. By this point, the US Supreme Court had ruled the electric chair a cruel and unusual punishment, so his life was ended with a lethal injection.
Outside the Texas State Penitentiary in Huntsville, a crowd of around 300 people gathered to hear if the man the Halloween poisoner had met his end, shouting "Trick or treat" and throwing candy at anti-death penalty protesters.
At 12:48 AM, when Ronald was pronounced dead, Hinton was in his childhood home in Amarillo, an eight-hour drive from Huntsville. That evening, he'd gone to his favorite lake, fishing rod in hand, and drunk a beer in celebration as he drifted out into the darkness.
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Photo: Don Scarborough, via