We’ve all heard the old something being in our Halloween candy growing up. Razor blades and needles were the regular fears of parents and children, but poison has had its place as well. It is perhaps this urban legend that inspired Ronald Clark O’Bryan in 1974. His actions shook the nation and the ripple effects are still being felt in 2020.
On October 31, 1974, an emergency call was answered to the O’Bryan residence in Deer Park, TX for a young boy, Timothy, having strange symptoms. The young boy, only 8-years old, had begun complaining about stomach pains just as he was going to bed before vomiting and collapsing, beginning to convulse. Timothy passed away on the way to the hospital, and the investigation into what happened began (Ponti, 2020). What had happened to this young boy? Why had he gone from totally healthy to dying within moments? It didn’t take long for investigators to find out.
The day had already seen something unusual: O’Bryan was uncharacteristically excited for Halloween, which he historically had little-to-no interest in. He insisted on taking his kids out trick-or-treating, despite the slight rain, with family friends Jim Bates and his two children. While the group was out, one house didn’t open their door, likely because the family was not home. O’Bryan stayed behind while the rest of the group moved on, seemingly to wait and see if the people in the house would answer. He rejoined the group not longer after with five giant Pixie Stix that he claimed the house had been giving out. After returning home, he handed four of the large candies to the kids that had joined them trick-or-treating and gave the fifth away to a trick-or-treater at their door (Ponti 2020). The first sign that something was wrong was when Bates’ son went to eat his giant Pixie Stix and O’Bryan reportedly leaped across the table to stop him from eating the tainted treat (Glenn and RENDON, 2020).
That night, O’Bryan let his kids choose one piece of candy each to have before bed time. Timothy chose, under the urging of his father, his giant Pixie Stix (Glenn and RENDON, 2020). Timothy didn’t eat much of the Pixie Stix, complaining that it tasted strange, to which O’Bryan gave him some Kool-Aid to wash the treat down. It was within moments that Timothy began to complain about severe stomach pains, soon enough vomiting and convulsing. Timothy O’Bryan died on the way to the hospital, less than an hour after ingesting merely a portion of the Pixie Stix. Before the autopsy even began, the coroner knew that Timothy had somehow ingested a deadly poison – specifically cyanide. The coroner noted the smell of almonds from Timothy’s mouth, a scent associated with the poison. It was revealed in the actual autopsy that poor Timothy had ingested enough potassium cyanide to kill two-to-three adults (Ponti 2020).
The police jumped into action, quickly collecting the other Pixie Stix from the other children. Horrifyingly, one of the young boys who had received the Pixie Stix was found asleep in bed, curled up with the unopened treat. Luckily for the young boy, he had not had the strength to get through the staples on the Pixie Stix (Glenn and RENDON, 2020). After the offending candy was retrieved, investigators found that the first two inches of each Pixie Stix was replaced with potassium cyanide. Had that young boy been able to get through those staples, he would have died just as quickly as Timothy O’Bryan did (Ponti 2020). It is believed that his initial plan had been to poison other children as well as his son, possibly to disguise what he had done (Blanco, n.d).
O’Bryan was immediately under suspicion. He and Bates were asked to retrace their steps by investigators, and O’Bryan seemed to have a hard time remembering which house he claimed to get the Pixie Stix from. O’Bryan’s conflicting accounts were suspicious, and even worse, when he finally chose a house, the occupants proved they hadn’t been giving out giant Pixie Stix. It didn’t take the investigators long to find out what the possible motive for hurting the young boy was, and it wasn’t a stranger as O’Bryan wanted them to believe. While Ronald O’Bryan was described by others as a “good Christian man” and “an above-average father.” He was a deacon at the local Baptist Church and sang in the choir. Socially, O’Bryan seemed to be a good man. Looks, however, are not always as they seem. It turned out O’Bryan, who took home approximately $150 a week in pay, was over $100,000 in debt. The pay he received barely made covered his bills and food for this family as it was, but the debt undoubtedly made this worse for him (Ponti 2020).
In the 10 years leading up to the murder of Timothy O’Bryan, Ronald O’Bryan held and was fired from 21 jobs. Each job fired him for either negligence or fraud, and the job he was working at the time was almost over as well. Texas State Optical was on the verge of firing O’Bryan on suspicion that he was stealing from the company. It seems O’Bryan may have been at the end of his rope when he chose to kill his son, after taking out several life insurance policies on his children (Ponti 2020). In the days leading up to Halloween, O’Bryan had been practically bragging to coworkers that his financial situation was going to improve soon (Glenn and RENDON, 2020). Regular customers whom he knew worked with chemicals said he had been asking them about buying cyanide and making jokes about how much it would take to kill someone (Ponti 2020).
The O’Bryan house was soon being searched for evidence. The tape from an adding machine, which was a precursor to the calculator usually used for bookkeeping, was found in the house with all of the bills O’Bryan owed totaled on it. The total just so happened to be exactly the amount he was going to get from the life insurance policies he had taken out on Timothy. A pocket knife was found in the home that had candy residue on it, believed to be the knife O’Bryan used to open the Pixie Stix before replacing the candy with the potassium cyanide. These pieces of evidence combined with the testimony of the coworkers and customers previously mentioned, lead to the arrest of Ronald Clark O’Bryan on November 5, 1974. O’Bryan was subject to, and failed, a polygraph test, which at the time was considered more telling than it is today. Before his arrest, O’Bryan had played the grieving father as best as he could for those around him, despite knowing the true horror he had committed (Ponti 2020).
The prosecutors for the O’Bryan trial were Victor and Hinton Discroll, who relied mostly on physical evidence as well as testimony from coworkers and others who knew O’Bryan. During their investigation they learned that O’Bryan had taken classes at the local college, Harris County Community College, and had asked one of his professors about poison on animals. There were also pieces of plastic found in the O’Bryan house that were from the Pixie Stix, likely from when he replaced some of the candy with the potassium cyanide (Blanco, n.d.). On June 5, 1975, Ronald Clark O’Bryan was found guilty of the murder of 8-year old Timothy O’Bryan and sentenced to death (Ponti 2020). It took the jury less than an hour to find him guilty, and just a little over an hour to sentence him to death (Glenn and RENDON, 2020). Ronald Clark O’Bryan may be long passed now, but the memories of what he did remain alive in the urban legends that may have inspired him decades ago.
O’Bryan, dubbed “Candy Man,” filed appeals over the years, including one instance that made it to the Supreme Court. His appeals were all lost, and on March 31, 1984, Ronald O’Bryan’s death sentence was carried out via lethal injection (Glenn and RENDON, 2020). His time of death was called at 12:48 AM (Blanco, n.d.).
Ponti, C., 2020. A+E Networks UK. [online] A+E Networks UK. Available at: <https://www.aetv.com/real-crime/the-man-who-killed-halloween> [Accessed 31 October 2020]. October 31, 1974
Glenn, M. and RENDON, R., 2020. ‘Man Who Killed Halloween’ Still Haunts Holiday. [online] Chron. Available at: <https://www.chron.com/news/houston-texas/article/Man-Who-Killed-Halloween-still-haunts-holiday-1971811.php> [Accessed 31 October 2020].
Blanco, J., n.d. Ronald Clark O’bryan | Murderpedia, The Encyclopedia Of Murderers. [online] Murderpedia.org. Available at: <http://murderpedia.org/male.O/o1/obryan-ronald-clark.htm> [Accessed 30 October 2020].