Trailblazer 'Ranger Ray' remembers infamous sniper incident, 50 years later
As he heard the rifle shots that hot August afternoon 50 years ago, Ramiro “Ray” Martinez knew there was a strong possibility he’d die.
Before going any further, he said an act of contrition.
“I’m Catholic, and in case of pending death, you want to make sure you’re in good graces with the Good Lord,” he said. “I didn’t know if I was going to survive the day or not.”
After saying the prayer on that Monday, Aug. 1, 1966, Patrolman Martinez of the Austin Police Department continued up the University of Texas Tower, in pursuit of a heavily armed shooter. Bodies were on the ground on campus, and he’d walked past bodies inside the tower.
Martinez helped take down Charles Whitman, an ex-Marine who shot at people on the UT campus for 96 minutes, killing 16 and wounding three dozen.
When Martinez returned to the bottom of the tower, two of his superior officers tried to put him into an ambulance after seeing blood on the right shoulder of his uniform shirt — not knowing the blood actually came from one of Whitman’s victims.
The patrolman, who shot Whitman, emerged from the brush with death without a scratch.
To this day, he still has his bloodstained uniform.
Gunshots end quiet day
Martinez and his wife, the former VerNell Schmidtzinsky (a Fredericksburg native), had just celebrated their fifth wedding anniversary on July 30, 1966. (This Saturday will be 55 years).
He remembers Aug. 1, 1966 well.
“It was hot as hell that day, but it seemed like it would be just another ordinary day,” the officer said.
Watching the noon news prior to beginning his shift at 3 p.m., he saw a breaking news report that a shooter atop the University of Texas Tower had wounded several people.
Instructed by his police department to go to the university area, find an intersection and direct traffic away from campus, he arrived and saw every intersection was already covered.
“I decided to see if I could assist the police department in another way,” said Martinez, who now lives in New Braunfels. “You have to remember that we didn’t have communications back in those days like we do today. We didn’t have handheld radios. There were some at the police station, but not for the rank and file.”
Martinez decided to assist in an assault on the shooter. He ran as fast as he could to the tower to avoid being an easy target, sprinting past people lying on the ground. Some were dead, and some were wounded.
In pursuit, seeing victims
Martinez wanted to phone his department to report he was in the tower and that armored trucks would be needed to be sent to pick up the wounded, but the phone lines were jammed.
Because Martinez had been on the UT campus 10 years prior, he knew where the tower’s elevator was.
He said his act of contrition and then took the elevator to the 26th floor.
There, he met Austin Police Department officer Jerry Day and a civilian, later identified as Allen Crum. He also encountered W.A. (Dub) Cowan, a Texas Department of Public Safety intelligence agent.
“At that time, I found out there was no assault squad from the police department,” Martinez said. “We were it. So, I decided to secure the floor we were on before we could pursue anywhere else.”
One room was barricaded, filled with approximately 12 frightened people hiding from Whitman and the gunfire. Among them was an angry man whose family had been killed.
Once all the people were sent down to the first floor, Martinez went to the stairs and saw a trail of bloody footprints.
“Crum told me I wasn’t going alone, he’d cover me and we’d do it service-style. ‘I’ll cover you, you cover me,’” Martinez said.
As they went up the landing, they saw more results of Whitman’s carnage: a dead young boy, his lifeless eyes staring at Martinez as the patrolman reached the landing; the body of an older woman, later identified as the dead boy’s aunt; and the boy’s mother, severely wounded.
“At the end there was another young man, who was conscious and against the wall,” Martinez said. “He said, ‘He’s outside.’”
Martinez and Crum turned the mother over to keep her from drowning in her own blood. They then moved the young man back since they still had to go up the steps.
Once they got to the final flight of stairs, they saw it was barricaded with a desk.
“Before we got there, Mr. Crum asked me if we were playing for keeps,” Martinez said. “I said, ‘You’re damn right.’ We just passed all those dead people and all the shooting going on. He said I should deputize him.”
They pushed the desk around to secure the floor and saw what looked like a bloody mop had been dragged across the floor.
The trail went behind a couch, and they discovered a U.T. receptionist, Edna Townsley.
“She was severely wounded,” Martinez said. “She was dying, but we couldn’t do anything for her.”
Zeroing on Whitman
Whitman had barricaded himself with a dolly he had used to bring up his weapons. He had it propped against the door.
“While we were trying to open the door, a bullet came in the top of the door, cracking the glass panel,” Martinez said.
He pushed until the dolly went over backwards, clanging. Once it clanged, he waited a while in case Whitman heard it.
“Evidently he didn’t because of all the shooting,” Martinez said. “You have to understand with the rifle shots that went off, it would bounce and ricochet in the building and echo back and forth, like rolling thunder.”
Martinez went out the door and looked down to the southwest corner. He couldn’t see the sniper, so he decided to keep moving and look down the northeast corner.
“Not seeing the sniper, I got Crum out and positioned him and his rifle pointing at the west wall,” Martinez said, ostensibly preferring not to refer to Whitman by his name. “I told him, ‘If he comes around, shoot him, because I’m going to go around and search for him.’ I left him there in that position, and I took off.”
Before Martinez got to the corner, he turned around and saw that a fellow Austin PD officer, Houston McCoy, and another policeman were there. He motioned McCoy to lower his head.
“[McCoy] didn’t understand, then two bullets hit above his head and he understood then,” Martinez said.
Martinez finally located Whitman when he got to the corner and looked around the off-set that supported the clock.
“The sniper was in the sitting position with a rifle pointed toward the southwest wall,” Martinez said. “I was afraid that Mr. Crum had left his position and the sniper was aiming at him. I later found out Mr. Crum had accidentally fired a shot since he didn’t know how to operate his rifle, and the round hit the west wall.”
Martinez considered it a blessing in disguise, since the shot got Whitman’s attention.
“The sniper focused on that corner and wasn’t facing me when I came around, and I think that may have saved my life,” Martinez said.
End of the threat
Police are trained to aim for body mass when firing their weapon.
“If you aim center, you might hit up or down or on the side but at least you could score a hit,” Martinez said. “I fired and I could tell I had impacted [him] because of the way he’d reacted. I could tell I’d hit on the side somewhere.”
Whitman sprung to his feet.
“I kept advancing and shooting at him,” Martinez said. “I could see by his reaction that I was scoring hits. I emptied my gun and after I had emptied my gun at him I hollered at McCoy to shoot.”
One of McCoy’s shots spun Whitman around, and he slid down.
Martinez noticed Whitman still held his rifle, so he took McCoy’s shotgun and shot Whitman once more at point blank range.
“I wanted to make sure that he wasn’t a threat anymore,” Martinez said. “Once I saw he was dead, I started to wave the shotgun and hollered at the people down below to stop firing. There was still a lot of friendly fire coming up.”
As McCoy searched Whitman’s clothing for identification, Martinez left, his adrenaline had stopped pumping.
“My knees buckled and I felt the strain of the heat and the fatigue,” he said. “Also, I was very dehydrated since I’d perspired so much.”
Martinez’s lack of injuries might seem remarkable, given the situation Whitman appeared to be in.
The ex-Marine, who had murdered his mother and wife prior to entering the tower, appeared to have no intention of surrendering or being taken alive.
“He was going to fight to the end,” Martinez said of Whitman.
Looking back, no regrets
Even 50 years later, Martinez has no dreams or bad memories of what he did to help neutralize Whitman.
He does, however, wish the police department had done things differently. If they had, he feels more lives could’ve been saved.
“Those things do bother me and go through my mind every time something like that happens,” he said. “One of the biggest things they should’ve done is not have everybody shooting a long-range rifle. You need to have boots on the ground. By that I mean having people who can go there and face the suspect. You have to neutralize him or take him into custody. Only way you can do that is going over there face to face.”
Martinez noted that a first responder left the scene and did other things for 40 minutes. He believes the responder should’ve taken a unit with him and gone in.
“This could’ve been done in first 30-40 minutes,” Martinez said. “A lot of people possibly could still be alive. That’s what bothers me — that there were people who died who should still be alive today.”
The officer also believes this error resulted in people being needlessly wounded.
As per Whitman’s request in a note he left prior to the shooting rampage, an autopsy was performed and his brain examined for any abnormalities. The autopsy revealed that Whitman had a brain tumor, but whether it caused his behavior has been heavily debated.
Martinez prefers to stay out of that argument.
“I leave that to the psychologists and the psychiatrists,” he said. “My mission was to stop the shooting, not analyze why he did it.”
Ray Martinez worked eight and one-half years for the Austin PD, along with four years with DPS Narcotics and 18 years with the Texas Rangers. He retired in December 1991.
The 79-year-old Rotan native is currently on the board of directors of the Former Texas Rangers Foundation.
He was one of the first Hispanic Texas Rangers (two were already there when he joined). And when he joined the Austin PD, there were only two Hispanics on the force.
“I think I’m sort of a trailblazer — at least I like to think that — and a role model for Hispanics in the state of Texas in the general area I’ve been,” Martinez said. “When the tower incident happened, there were four of us out of 270 sworn officers. When I went to the Rangers, I was the third one out of 88. Previous to that, when I joined DPS Narcotics, I was the second one.”
Now, there are about 20 Hispanic Rangers out of a force of 155.
Hillary Pierce was a coordinating producer for the 2016 Documentary “Tower,” a film inspired by director Keith Maitland’s seventh-grade history teacher (who was there that day in 1966).
The documentary, designed to look further into the incident and tell untold stories of the survivors, heroes, and witnesses, uses a rotoscopic visual technique (animation tracing over footage, frame by frame, to use in live-action and animated movies) to give the viewer a sense of the moment while making the film more accessible to younger audiences.
“I think all of the men who took down the sniper that day are incredibly brave,” Pierce said. “You never know how you will react in a moment like that and luckily, those four men who went to the top of the tower that day were able to summon something within themselves that ultimately saved a lot of lives. I admire each of them very much.”
Pierce described it as an honor to get to know “Ranger Ray” while making “Tower” and to be entrusted with the stories of him and the others.
“I think Ranger Ray is a very sensible and matter-of-fact man,” she said. “I’ve learned from him the value of training our first responders so that they have methods and tactics to fall back on in events such as these.
“I admire officers Ray Martinez, Houston McCoy, Jerry Day, and civilian Allen Crum who stopped the sniper that day for doing the best that they could do with the tools and training they were given at the time,” she said. “We have the benefit of learning from them and being inspired by their bravery.”