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.

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.

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.

26 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.

    • Charla Cobb Caudill said

      I just ran across this article – the MJH shooting was on my mind in the wake of the Florida school shooting. The media and policiticans act like this is something new in the past 20 years but we know that’s not true. I was also a student at MJH that day in the 7th grade. We were “fortunate” in that John “only” took the life of one individual and didn’t act on his first impulse to rain down bullets on us from the top of the hill overlooking the practice field. It could have been on the same scale as these more recent tragedies. Wake up people, this isn’t some new problem, we just didn’t have 24hr coverage.

  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.

  11. Bradley T said

    I was a student there when it happened, and I can say is definitely left a Traumatic mark on most everyone who attended. I specifically recall the head coach having sought the culprit on nearby cliffs to bring him into custody, that he had scraped his legs in the effort. I conclude that the sweeping under the rug began very early on. We ended the school year with near normalcy, a marginal addition to the yearbook in honor of Mr. Grayson. Ms. Arce, Randy Schurr, the choir teacher (forgot her name) provided remarkable solace. In light of school shootings which ensued, years later, this memory haunted me. I majored in English, and even taught on year of middle school English. But that’s all I could manage, emotionally. I returned there, years later, and only one staff member, a counselor(?), remained. She reported that a regular stream of us come back, a few every year, to confirm, reflect and attempt to recover.

    • Karen Kostor said

      Hi Bradley. Do you happen to have a copy of the yearbook page where Mr. Grayson was honored? He was my dad’s cousin. My email address is karenkk1024@yahoo.com. My name is Karen Grayson-Kostor

    • V. Chang said


      Thank you for sharing your story. I was in the 8th-grade class, and Mr. Grayson was my English teacher. I was also in the journalism class and worked on the yearbook. This tragedy happened at the end of the school year, and the yearbooks were already printed and ready to be distributed. We students and our journalism teacher, Ms. Berry, were scrambling to figure out a way to remember and honor Mr. Grayson with almost no time to spare. We journalism students did the best we could to honor him in our yearbook and stayed after school to update the yearbook by hand with few resources since there was no time to have a professional printer help us.

      The choir teacher was the amazing Ms. Curlee. I was also in the choir, and she, along with many other teachers and our counselor, Ms. Fleury, did everything they could to help us students get through this horrible time for us students, teachers, and staff.

      Thanks for mentioning that former students have returned to Murchison to try to heal. I have talked to some of my friends, who were also fellow students at the time, and they have tried to heal, as well. I haven’t returned but am now thinking about it based on your information. For many of us, it was the last time and our last memory of MJHS. I felt especially sorry for the 7th graders, my brother’s class, because they had to return to school the next year with their last memory of the school being in lockdown right before they left for the summer break. Maybe, a trip back will help put closure on this for me, although I know we will never forget that time.

      • Thank you for your thoughtful comments, and the efforts to honor him (overlooked by me). I found you in the yearbook, the mighty “El Matador” 1978! Sorry for the delay in responding here! I am easily found on the internet. Cheers, Bradley

  12. Tim P said

    I was actually at Murchison when the Florida School shooting happened. My son just transferred there and he forgot his math homework. I got home to see the news about Florida. What freaked me out is I WENT to Murchison and my older sister was there when the shooting happened in 78. The bottom line is we have to do something about this. The politicians are somewhere between bought and paid for an insensitive to the protection of our children. Our most valuable resource. Last year that made it legal to have a gun at UT. Trump got rid of the mental illness screening for gun possession. I am upset by what is going on.

    What if Christian had had a real gun . With a big clip ?


    In the 2016 election, the NRA spent $11,438,118 to support Donald Trump—and another $19,756,346 to oppose Hillary Clinton. That’s over $31 million spent on one presidential race.

    Presidential candidates aren’t the only ones who benefit from the NRA’s largess, though. Here’s a look at the top career recipients of NRA funding, as calculated by the Center for Responsive Politics and the New York Times.

    Top 5 Senators With the Most Contributions From the NRA
    John McCain (R, AZ) – $7.74 million
    Richard Burr (R, NC) – $6.99 million
    Roy Blunt (R, MO) – $4.55 million
    Thom Tillis (R, NC) – $4.42 million
    Cory Gardner (R, CO) – $3.88 million

    Top 5 Representatives With the Most Contributions From the NRA
    French Hill (R, AR) – $1.09 million

    Ken Buck (R, CO) – $800,544
    David Young (R, IA) – $707,662
    Mike Simpson, (R, ID) – $385,731
    Greg Gianforte (R, MT) – $344,630

    • Tony bove said

      First, RIP Rod Grayson!
      “What if Christian had had a real gun . With a big clip ?”
      How dare you? Christian HAD a “real” gun and shot Rod with three rounds! I would argue that it was VERY real to Rod and all who were there at the time!
      Only a leftist with little knowledge of firearms and an agenda would politicize this event. But, since you opened that door, let me kick it the rest of the way open, by asking you to answer as to why, as far as deaths caused per dollars donated, you aren’t you going atter Planned Parenthood, for example, or Big Pharma?!

  13. Did you get this? I was an 8th grader and was in a classroom upstairs that day in Murchison. I have that yearbook if you still want that picture.

  14. Jerry Van Ee said

    Susie Davis has written a book about how that event shaped her life. The book is called “Unafraid” and if you wonder what effect a school shooting has on the people present, the book is worth reading. By today’s standards of school shootings, this one was pretty mild, (One person dead, no automatic weapons, no SWAT team etc.), but the impact is massive. I can only imagine how messed up any student that witnesses a school shooting is.

  15. Miss said

    I was at Pearce, 7th grade, when Mr. Grayson was killed. Later, at LBJ, I knew Laura. From time to time, I think about this, and I’ve Googled it several times, with this being my first hit. I remember my dad saying at the time that ‘nothing would happen to that kid because his dad worked for LBJ’. Thanks, Michael Corcoran, for touching this. I’m sad that the Statesman still won’t.

  16. Maud Chune said

    My consolations to anyone who witnessed this. Does anyone know if Christian still gets psychiatric treatment?

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