Charles Whitman: Forgotten Rampage

A 50-Year-Old Columbine
(Tower, directed by Keith Maitland)

Just for this week, I’d like to take a detour from Forensic Files to talk about a new documentary that’s now available on Netflix: Tower.

The movie re-creates a 1966 University of Texas mass murder that somehow — sandwiched between the more-lurid horrors of Richard Speck and the Manson family — got lost in America’s collective memory bank.

Charles Whitman in a widely circulated yearbook photo
Charles Whitman in a widely circulated yearbook photo

On August 1 of that year, a former Marine named Charles Whitman packed up his own personal arsenal, rode the elevator to the 27th floor of the school’s centrally located clock tower, and began shooting at people on the campus below.

Situated within the structure’s walled wraparound observatory deck, the 6-foot-tall blond sniper seemed to have found an invulnerable spot from which to execute strangers in a rain of bullets for an hour and a half.

He hit 46 men and women and at least one child. Sixteen died.

At the time, of course, the massacre made headlines around the world and terrified Americans. (And elicited a prescient opinion piece from Walter Cronkite, which the film shows.) But the horrific saga was referenced only lightly in popular culture over the subsequent years.

A brief mention of the Texas tragedy in a 2012 Mad Men episode, “Signal 30,” is the only one I can recall seeing on TV.

Perhaps the public forgot about the nightmare-by-daylight because Whitman died at the scene on the afternoon of his crime, eliminating the need for any courtroom drama.

Cathy Leissner, seen here as a bride, was murdered by husband Charles Whitman
Kathy Leissner, seen here as a bride, was murdered by husband Charles Whitman

And because the engineering student had murdered his mother and his wife the previous day, there were no prominent female relatives to publicly agonize over how their devoted blue-eyed young man had turned into a deranged executioner.

Tower spends very little time giving background information about Whitman and instead tells the story of the victims and rescuers — via an unorthodox method.

The filmmakers re-created them with an animation technique called rotoscoping and had actors provide their voices. At first, I had trouble getting used to this unusual storytelling element (especially because one of the rotoscoped police officers looked and sounded a little too much like Matthew McConaughey), but after about 15 minutes, I was fully invested.

The ordeal of a pregnant student named Claire Wilson James, who was shot and immobilized during the attack, is the emotional centerpiece of the drama.

But I don’t want to spoil any more of the movie’s revelations for those who will get a chance to see it.

Whitman said he killed his mother, Cynthia, to spare her from the pain o fher life
Whitman said he killed his mother, Margaret, to end her pain

One thing not included in the film is the fact that the 25-year-old Whitman sensed he was coming unhinged a few months before the tragedy.

“Whitman was intelligent enough to realize he had problems, so he went to a psychiatrist,” author Jay Robert Nash wrote in his true-crime encyclopedia Bloodletters & Badmen (M. Evans and Company, 1973).

Dr. Maurice Heatly later said that Whitman suffered from rage related to his parents’ breakup; his father had badly abused his mother during the marriage. Whitman also revealed to the doctor that he had thoughts of shooting people with a deer rifle from the clock tower.

In those pre-Columbine days, however, the confession apparently wasn’t enough of a red flag to trigger preventative action.

The UT Austin tower stands 307 feet tall and dates back to 1937. Paul Cret designed the structure
The UT  tower stands 307 feet tall. Paul Cret designed the structure, finished in 1937

I hope that Tower, directed by Keith Maitland and produced by Meredith Vieira reaches the wide audience it deserves.

The movie had me spellbound for 96 minutes, the same amount of time it took Charles Whitman to traumatize a nation unused to mass shootings. RR

Note: This post was updated on April 30, 2017, to reflect that Netflix streaming has picked up Tower.