Sunday, July 21, 2024

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.

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 the day before the shooting of Grayson.  “We had a substitute 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.

Rod Grayson.

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.

(Originally posted April 2012)

48 thoughts on “Austin’s Secret: Killing in the Classroom 1978

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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. 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. 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.

  8. 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.

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

  10. 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…..

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. 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

  14. Bradley,

    I think my reply went into some error, anyway…
    Could you email me the year book page where Mr. Grayson was honored? Not sure if you’d still have something like that. He was my dad’s cousin and would like to see it and I do ancestry research and would love to have a copy. Please email karenkk1024@yahoo.com. Thank you! Karen Grayson-Kostor

  15. 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 ?

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZxD3o-9H1lY

    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

  16. Bradley,

    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.

  17. 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.

  18. There is no question that this story has been supressed by the local media. The Christian family and in-law Bruce Todd are perceived as very powerful. Whether they are or not is open to debate. The whole thing is a giant tragedy for all involved.

  19. 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.

  20. 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.

  21. 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?!

  22. 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

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

  24. I don’t think it’s just the Statesman – I’ve heard for years that the Dallas Morning News is always up for a hard hitting story that may upset a lot of people, as long as the story happened at least “three rivers away”, in some other town a safe distance away, where the political fallout is sure to be fairly muted.

  25. In front of coop in August 1966. It does not go away. Still always look for a way to exit/ escape. Spoke to others. Same reaction. After all this time.

  26. Apparently John Christian owns the house next to my mom’s in North Austin. I’m not sure how the people living there are related to him, but ever since they moved in, they have harrassed my elderly mother. They are nuts!

  27. Hi, Piers!
    I don’t know if you remember me: Stacey Mann. We went ice skating together at Northcross Mall when we were in Jr. High. My father, Gerald Mann, did the service for Mr. Grayson. That day was a horrible day. I don’t know where you are, presently, but it was good to see your name!

  28. Tim gets political, and then Tony gets evangelical.

    You don’t have to know much about firearms to know that a firearm with a larger capacity and a higher rate of fire and, for that matter, a larger caliber can do a lot more damage in a short amount of time.

  29. my younger brother was a student of Mr Gregory. he insisted on going to the (open casket) funeral. he told my my parents, “i just wanted to see him one more time”.
    those kids that were there – all of the students, at the time – received ZERO follow up counseling, guidance. we all used to drive by the Christian house – stare at it, like we’d find some kind of answer. the influence that the Christian family held over austin was no less than mob-like. as Michael Corcoran stated, “..the Statesman wouldn’t touch it”
    the trauma these kids endured – ALONE – is still excruciating to fathom. those kids were EXPECTED to “handle” it. think of something else. pretend it never happened. to this day, they’ve still never been given answers. never even been given an opportunity to ask questions.
    they only know their teacher was murdered by one of their own. now, all these years later, all they know is John Christian is living a successful life, as an attorney, in Northwest Hills (not far from his childhood home)..
    my heart is heavy, still. how crisply, firmly, and forever – that drawer was closed. never to be open again.

  30. I worked with him at a law firm. He was in-house counsel for a company we had a partnership with. Was very odd, always seemed empty inside. I didn’t know anything about this murder until years after I met him, well after I stopped working with him. Always seemed like one of the dangerous quiet types.

    What was particularly weird was that the preliminary basis of working with him was entirely by email, even though he was only 10 floors up from our office in the same building. The picture he used for his profile on the company’s website/email was of this robust, portly fellow so I was particularly surprised when he came into our office once to meet with me and he was a short, frail, gaunt looking person. Someone mentioned he had lost a lot of weight but they didn’t seem to know what day it was half the time tbph. In hindsight, I figured it was just to veil who he was given that the name is so generic.
    When I found out about this case and that he was the shooter, I mentioned it to one person I worked with who I was close to. This may have been around the 30th anniversary of the shooting in 2018 because when I went to look him up in the company’s directory — he was completely removed from it.
    His dad worked in the LBJ admin, so he was obviously well-connected.

  31. Guns don’t kill people. People kill people. I just want to know WHY John Christian killed his favorite teacher. WHY did he say, “The joke is up.”? What was the joke? Was he angry that Mr. Grayson did not grade and return his latest essay about castrating robots? (See Texas Monthly for details). Most everyone who learns about the murder wonders why but there have never been answers, not even hints besides his family ignoring him.

  32. I was a teen in Austin at the time. I was about same age as John Daniel Christian.
    I was not in the same school and lived in North Austin at the time but I vividly recall how shocking it was.
    I never forgot about it and a few years ago I was thinking about one day. I was wondering if Christian was still in jail or ever got out. I was SHOCKED to see how little time he did and even graduated UT and became a lawyer in Austin.
    NONE of that was ever covered in the Austin news. I just figured they locked him up and threw away the key,,,,, boy was I wrong.

  33. I took drawing lessons from John Christian at Murchison in the 7th grade during lunch. I say “lessons” because I would trade him my desert for a lunchtime drawing lesson. He drew war pictures, soldiers, etc. This was in 7th grade and no one thought anything of it – he was a quiet, studious type. We weren’t friends but acquaintances. I wanted to learn how to draw. We moved away in the Spring of 7th grade but I heard about the shooting the next year and recognize a lot of the names in this thread and in the Texas Monthly article. What a shocking tragedy. – Scott York

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