Austin’s Secret: Killing in the Classroom 1978

Posted by mcorcoran on April 25, 2012

by Michael Corcoran

Austin was not big enough to hold all its grief on May 18, 1978, when two authority figures- a policeman and a schoolteacher- were shot to death hours apart while doing their jobs. The murder of Ralph Ablanedo of APD made news all over again in June 2010 when his killer David Lee Powell was executed on Death Row.

But much lesser known is the case of Murchison Middle School teacher Wilbur “Rod” Grayson, who was shot to death with a .22-calibre rifle by 13-year-old student John Daniel Christian. Witnesses said Grayson, 29, a first-year English teacher, was sitting on a stool when Christian entered the classroom, raised his father’s rifle and shot Grayson three times.

The story was huge news at the time, but has been scrubbed from Austin’s conscience through the years. The young killer was the son of George Christian, former White House press secretary under Lyndon Johnson. John Christian spent 17 months in a psychiatric hospital and recovered his mental faculties to the point that he finished law school at the University of Texas and is currently a lawyer in Austin.

Recently suspended Austin High School geography teacher Ian Grayson was only a year old when his father was killed in that Murchison classroom. While being investigated for allegedly inappropriate text messages with a 16-year-old student, Grayson was arrested for possession of .033 of an ounce of marijuana when police obtained a search warrant. The case came and went without further charges, but seeing the Grayson name in the news brought back some grim memories.

At John Christian’s 1978 hearing, a pair of psychiatrists testified that the 8th grade honors student  suffered from latent schizophrenia and that putting him in a juvenile detention center would only increase the severity of his mental illness. Christian told doctors he didn’t single out Grayson, despite reports that he was angry about a failing grade.

Newly elected Democratic district attorney Ronnie Earle wanted to have Christian, too young to be tried as an adult, sentenced to five years at a reform school. But he didn’t offer any evidence to contest the motion by defense attorney Roy Minton to declare Christian mentally ill.

Christian’s best friend told the Austin American Statesman two days after the killing that John had changed in the last month from a peaceful kid to one who “started liking violence.” The friend said Christian talked about disturbing fantasies of shooting at Murchison from atop a hill “to see how the bullets landed on people.”

Classmate Helen Anderson recalled an incident that happened a few days before the shooting of Grayson.  “We had a substitute for a few days and we were reading and discussing the book Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” she said. “Normally reserved, John was extremely animated, vocal and quite inappropriate when he went up to the blackboard to discuss the chapter. Most of us nervously laughed and were quite shocked at this odd transformation that seemed to come out of nowhere.”

When Christian came into the classroom with the rifle on May 18, 1978, Grayson didn’t initially take him seriously. “The joke is up,” the teacher said, then Christian shot him in the head, chest and arm.

Christian’s parents paid $129 a day for him to be treated at Timberlawn Hospital in Dallas, where he remained for a year and a half before living in foster care with a doctor. John Christian graduated from Highland Park High School in Dallas before college at UT.  In 2010 his sister declined to pass along an interview request.

Grayson’s widow, a teacher at LBJ High at the time, settled a lawsuit with the Christian family in 1981 for an undisclosed amount.

After Rod Grayson was killed, fellow Kingsville native Danny Roy Young of Texicalli Grille became a father figure for Ian Grayson. Rod Grayson had worked at Young’s Pizza in Kingsville before serving in the Air Force; Ian Grayson worked at Texicalli during and after high school. Young died of a heart attack in 2008.


15 Responses to “Austin’s Secret: Killing in the Classroom 1978”

  1. Janet Harrison said

    Do you have any other information about this case?

    • I was the Sr Paramedic for the City of Austin EMS that made the call to Murchison Jr High School that morning. It was a very long time ago. I remember that a 22 cal rifle was the weapon used. We provided advance life support including IVs, intubation, EKG and IV meds plus CPR and transported the patient to Brackenridge Hospital. That is what I know and remember.

      • Chris Cohen said

        I grew up in the neighborhood and knew John Christian – though not well – and several kids who were in the classroom the day he murdered Doctor Grayson. I heard from someone who was there that his parents disowned him and he was adopted by his psychiatrist. My friend told me he saw him on UT campus and resisted the urge to punch him out. He was traumatized by the event, as he was sitting in the front row. I understand that Christian graduated from UT Law School and now practices law in Austin.

  2. John H. said

    I was a student at the school at the time, and Grayson was my 4th period English teacher. I also knew both Christian and some of the students who were present at the time of the shooting.

    It’s amazing to me that this has been swept under the rug and Christian is now leading a “normal” life. Some of the other students there that day remember seeing him on U.T. campus when Christian was studying there. What a shock it must have been.

    But then, Christian’s dad had connections. And no one could have figured that this would lead to a spate of bloody school shootings. If he had been an ordinary kid, or black, it would have been very different.

  3. So i go to school at murchison and today i heard a kid talking about this so i looked it up now im scared!

  4. Piers Nicholls said

    I have resisted speaking on this for years. I knew both Mr Grayson, who was my major mentor, who spent hours making a bonkers installation with me :Rod like no other, was a tough master and I adored him. When he was lost, I think I was hurt more than I can I say.

    I will write no more without Grayson family agreement.

  5. Pam Baggett said

    How is it possible to even be admitted to law school, much less to the bar, with that history?

  6. Just saw that John’s mother, Jo Anne Christian, died, and a *ping* went off in my mind. Remembered when it happened, but thought he must have done jail time. Thanks for being first on my Google inquiry.

  7. George Webster said

    As school shootings became more commonplace, the American-Statesman never revisited this local affluenza tragedy. It was glaringly absent from the ever-lengthening “school shooting timelines”. Several years after, the Statesman’s “Society” writer mentioned the shooter in attendance (from Dallas) at a heartwarming birthday bash for his father.
    His punishment apparently consisted of being sentenced to Highland Park High School, and having to drive a Camaro instead of a Bimmer.
    No special anniversary edition articles ever appeared, unlike the episodic “rumor about a tumor” retellings of the UT Tower shootings of Charles Whitman.
    Morris Hohmann once told me that every year, around August 1 (every year, not just five year intervals), he received calls from the world over for a first-hand account.
    In all the write-ups of the Christian family and their civic accomplishments, not a mention of the smiling killer in the family portraits. Creepy. Cute kid, like baby pictures of Richard Speck, another Texan.
    Mental illnesses, as medically real as broken bones, are still widely viewed as failings of personality and will.
    The boy was ill. The man is well?
    John Hinckley lives with his mother.
    Has he been rehabilitated? Is this another case of affluenza or just white privilege?
    Maybe Elizabeth Christian and Bruce Todd can pull some strings for Ian Grayson; after all he grew up without a father.
    Thank you Michael Corcoran for posting this. This “forgotten” story has stuck in my craw since 1978.

    • Pamela Baggett said

      I strongly support individuals with mental illness who are dealing with their illness and trying to make a go of it in life. My problem is with the unfair coverage granted this prominent family and denied other families.
      The man in question is now an attorney. How he ever got admitted to law school, much less allowed to take the bar exam totally befuddle me. No other person without his family connections would ever have made it into law school. That should be a part of the stories about Powers and his granting entrance to UT to friends of influential people.

    • mcorcoran said

      I started working on this story when I was with the Statesman and they wouldn’t touch it.

  8. Murchison... said

    I go to Murchison now and nobody talks or knows about this, only when we had a lockdown. They should notify the students better…

  9. George Christian bought a ranch in Joppa Tx in the late 70s across from our ranch. I wondered what he was doing so far out in the middle of nowhere. I’m sure he got it so he could escape…..

  10. Jill LF said

    This terrible tragedy haunts the hill. I live in this neighborhood, and my husband is a native. He first told me of this story, as I was not here when it happened. Any tragedy that befalls an adult at the hands of a child is almost indescribable. Can you imagine how his parents felt? Can you imagine the guilt that once young boy may have to live with.

    Texas neglects the health of many of its residents who are not prominent, monied, or powerful. Bless all the children who have died through accidental or deliberate gun violence. Bless all the teachers, civil servants, and students who wish to live in peace and learn.

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