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Sunday, October 31, 1999

Child-killer's poisoned treats still haunt Halloween
By MARK BABINECK
Associated Press Writer

HOUSTON (AP) - A quarter century has not erased the stain on Halloween left by the "Candy Man."

Ronald Clark O'Bryan earned his sweet-sounding nickname most distastefully: He killed his 8-year-old son with cyanide-laced candy after a night of trick-or-treating, for $20,000 in insurance money.

"It profoundly affected the whole community, every child of trick-or-treating age," said Mike Hinton, then a Harris County prosecutor who sent O'Bryan to death row. "There's no question it had a national effect on Halloween."

Before Oct. 31, 1974, the idea of carefully examining children's Halloween booty might have seemed like a paranoid waste of time. O'Bryan, a suburban Houston optician, shocked the city and the nation when it was discovered he replaced some of the sugary powder inside five Giant Pixy Stix with enough cyanide to kill two or three grown men each.

Only Timothy Marc O'Bryan ate the deadly confection and died shortly afterward. Four other children, including Timothy's younger sister, received the straws but did not ingest their contents.

Halloween changed forever once word of the slaying spread.

"It sure brought it into sharp focus that the potential is certainly there," said Mike Ellis, director of the Southeast Texas Poison Center.

Ellis still frowns on random trick-or-treating, instead encouraging children to attend controlled activities. He suggests that the parents of children who go door to door either purchase candy to replace gathered sweets or ensure their kids visit trusted homes.

Experts recommend that parents closely inspect all candy collected. Hard, individually wrapped treats tend to be the safest from molestation. Hospitals and other agencies often provide free X-ray examinations of fruits and other sweets that might contain foreign objects.

In the notorious Houston case, O'Bryan clipped off one end of the package and crudely stapled the straw back together, a method that ironically might have saved one neighbor boy.

"When police got to Whitney Parker's house, his parents almost died on the spot because they couldn't find the Pixy Stix," said Hinton, now a lawyer in private practice. "They found him holding it asleep. His little fingers were not strong enough to get the staples out."

Authorities said O'Bryan distributed the extra sticks to Whitney and two other neighborhood children to hide his motive.

"That was what was horrible, his willingness to sacrifice other kids to cover it up. That really shook us," said Bill Lanier, then a detective with the Pasadena police force. "We got lucky getting that candy back."

O'Bryan never admitted to killing his son. He testified at his trial that he let Timothy eat the Pixy Stix before bedtime, giving him Kool-Aid when the boy said the candy tasted bitter.

Timothy soon complained of searing stomach pains, threw up twice and collapsed, O'Bryan said. He died before arriving at the hospital.

O'Bryan - dubbed "Candy Man" by his death row mates - was executed on March 31, 1984. He made no mention of Timothy in his final written statement, but did write this vague passage: "Also, to anyone I have offended in anyway during my 39 years, I pray and ask your forgiveness, just as I forgive anyone whose offended me in anyway."

Both Hinton and Lanier use the word "evil" to describe O'Bryan, noting that he was a trusted figure to the children who received the tampered candy.

Lanier recalls that many Houston-area parents dumped all their children's candy at the police station after Timothy died. For years afterward, the holiday was largely bereft of trick-or-treaters, he said.

Longtime Pasadena-area resident Chris Berryhill said O'Bryan's legacy still lingers this time of year. Worse, he blames the local murder for spawning copycats.

"It took all the fun out of Halloween. It really has," Berryhill said. "If I had a little child now, I would not allow them to pick up candy from someone and put it in their mouth.

"The fear it caused almost makes Halloween not worthwhile."

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