CAMP WOOD, Texas — For years, federal investigators believed Madalyn Murray O'Hair was killed. They just couldn't prove it.
But the weekend discovery of human remains in a shallow grave on a ranch suggest the long investigation into the atheist leader's 1995 disappearance may be near an end.
Investigators believe O'Hair, her son, Jon Garth Murray, and adopted granddaughter, Robin Murray O'Hair, were killed, dismembered and dumped on the private 5,000-acre ranch in south Texas.
A metal artificial hip and three skulls were unearthed Sunday near the area where other human bones had been found a day earlier.
"The bones indicate three sets of human remains," said Roderick Beverly, special agent in charge of the FBI's San Antonio office. "All appeared to have their legs cut off."
O'Hair had a hip replacement operation several years before her disappearance.
Though Beverly stopped short of confirming the identity of the bodies, he said officials believe the search is over.
"The likelihood of three individuals walking around here, one of which has a hip replacement, and the trauma and marks we see on the bones, it's a better than even chance" the remains belong to the O'Hair family, he said.
It could take weeks to identify the remains, which were found about 2 feet down and layered on top of each other. DNA tests and dental records will be used. Investigators also will try to match the serial number on the metal hip with O'Hair's medical records.
Investigators also found a skull and hands in the grave, buried separately from the other remains.
The body of Danny Fry, one of the suspects in an alleged plot to kidnap, rob and kill the O'Hair family, was found near Dallas in 1995 with the head and hands severed.
A break in the O'Hair disappearance came on the eve of the trial of David Roland Waters, who was facing kidnapping and extortion charges in the case.
Waters struck a deal with investigators Wednesday that was ordered sealed by a federal judge in Austin.
The 53-year-old Waters, who had pleaded innocent in the case, was to have gone on trial Monday.
A law enforcement source who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity confirmed Waters was taken to the ranch Saturday. His two lawyers also were present.
A hearing was scheduled Monday to hear objections from the AP on the judge's decision to seal the agreement. Waters' attorneys had made the request.
O'Hair, 77 and suffering from diabetes and heart disease when she disappeared, enjoyed calling herself the most hated woman in America. She was involved in successful court battles in the 1960s to ban prayer and Bible-reading in the nation's public schools.
O'Hair and her two relatives left their Austin home in August 1995 under mysterious circumstances. Breakfast dishes were still on the table and O'Hair's medication was left behind. The family's dogs were left at the house.
They were later seen in San Antonio but dropped from sight along with about $500,000 in gold coins from one of O'Hair's atheist organizations.
Investigators have alleged that Waters, O'Hair's former office manager, masterminded a kidnapping and extortion scheme.
Prosecutors contend the victims were dismembered at a public storage shed in Austin, and their bodies dumped on the ranch property under Waters' directions.
Waters was convicted in 1994 of stealing $54,000 from O'Hair's atheist organizations. He is serving 60 years in prison on weapons charges, and is to be sentenced in connection with his plea agreement on March 31.
Last August, Gary Paul Karr, 52, a former jailmate of Waters, was sentenced to life in prison for extorting money from the O'Hair family.
O'Hair's disappearance wasn't reported for a year until her estranged son, William Murray, told Austin police she was missing.
Theories ranged from foul play to O'Hair and family having run off with the money from her atheist organization, United Secularists of America. Others said she went away to die somewhere Christians wouldn't pray over her.
Yet on Sunday, as law enforcement officers came and went through the ranch gate, a man walked down the road pulling an 8-foot wooden cross.
"I'm not doing it for her, I'm doing it for her family," said Bob Hanus, 35, a self-described Christian missionary. "I said, 'What better place to go and pray."'
On the Net:
American Atheists: www.atheists.org