Austin’s Secret: Killing in the Classroom 1978

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 nearly two years 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.

Widow Laura Grayson and son Ian, with photo of Rod and Laura’s wedding day.John Christian 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 almost two years 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.


8 Comments on “Austin’s Secret: Killing in the Classroom 1978”

  1. Janet Harrison says:

    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 says:

        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. says:

    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 says:

    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 says:

    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.

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