On Halloween night, 1974, an 8-year-old boy named Timothy O’Bryan opened a “giant pixy stick” he received during a trick-or-treat run in Pasadena, Texas (just outside of Houston), took a mouthful of the flavored sugar inside, and complained to his father “that it tasted bitter.” His father told him to wash the taste out of his mouth with Kool-Aid, so he did. But then he started vomiting, so he called an ambulance. By the time they arrived at the hospital, Timothy was dead.
That part of the story—the spooky first half about a child who was poisoned by an murderous stranger—was enough to scare generations of parents away from letting their children eat Halloween candy without inspecting it first. But the second half—one that seems to be re-told every year around the end of October—is worth remembering. Timothy wasn’t killed by a maniac getting children to unknowingly participate in a game of Russian Roulette with cyanide-tainted candy. He was killed by his father, Ronald, in an equally tragic and pathetic attempt at some good, old-fashioned insurance fraud.
In a 2009 interview with the Austin American-Statesman, one of the detectives who first investigated the case, Bill LaNier, spoke about how quickly O’Bryan became a suspect in his son’s death. He said O’Bryan’s memory of their trick-or-treating route was suspiciously fuzzy, and that the house he eventually claimed had given his son the tainted candy was inhabited by someone who wasn’t even home that night. “The guy had an iron-clad alibi,” LaNier told the Statesman. “He was a shift worker, a supervisor at Hobby Airport. He had more than 200 people who could vouch for him.”
O’Bryan was ultimately found guilty of murder and sentenced to death by the State of Texas. It was also revealed that he handed the cyanide pixy stix out to other kids who never consumed them, “presumably hoping that if several children died, it wouldn’t look nearly as fishy”). The court’s opinion, reported the AP in September, 1979, read:
“A more calculated and cold-blooded crime than the one for which appellant was convicted can hardly be imagined. Appellant murdered his child in order to collect life insurance money. The record reflects months of premeditation and planning.”
While on death row, his fellow inmates (and several media outlets) called him the “Candy Man.” But to others, including prosecuting DA Mike Hinton, he became known as the man “who killed Halloween.”
Two years after O’Bryan’s conviction, in October, 1977, Hinton spoke with the AP about the case’s immediate effect. They wrote:
Hinton says there is no question in his mind that the crime has greatly restricted the trick-or-treat activities of children.
“Our kids are restricted to going only to homes we personally know and all our friends, either in or out of law enforcement, have the same policy,” Hinton said.
Five years later, the Halloween paranoia hadn’t subsided, primarily because of another high-profile tampering—only it wasn’t candy that time, it was Tylenol. The September 1982 deaths of “six adults and one 12-year-old girl” were caused by cyanide-laced capsules of Extra Strength Tylenol, but even though the deaths were isolated to the Chicago area, fear spread throughout the entire country. Partly because the person responsible was never caught, but also because Americans had seen a version of this before.
That October, just one month after the Tylenol deaths, Snickers bars were taken off store shelves in New Jersey around Halloween because one person complained a bar “made her mouth burn.” At the same store, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups were removed from shelves “after someone else reported similar symptoms.”
Wrote the AP in October, 1982:
Fears about poisonings are more intense this year because of the deaths of seven Chicago-area people who took Extra-Strength Tylenol laced with cyanide. The killings set off a wave of copycat poisonings, especially among groceries’ Halloween candy supplies. Bags of candy have been taken off the shelves in several cities where signs of tampering have been found.
“I know I’ve got two little girls who ain’t going trick-or-treating this year. My 2-year-old doesn’t mind, but my 8-year-old is ready to trade me in on a new daddy,” said an Alabama police officer.
“Halloween is a horror and it shouldn’t be a horror,” said a Long Island, NY resident named Beatrice Kern “who found pins in Baby Ruth bars.”
But Kern isn’t the only one who thinks the holiday shouldn’t be a horror. A sociology professor named Joel Best said that after nearly three decades of studying the subject, “he hasn’t yet been able to find one single instance of a child dying as a result of candy given them by a stranger on Halloween.” And when objects like pins and razor blades are found, they’re almost always revealed to have been put there by friends and family “as a prank.”
So while it never hurts to check your child’s Halloween candy for tampering (there’s no harm in being safe!), the odds that you’ll discover a piece of Laffy Taffy coated in cyanide are almost non-existent. What you really need to worry about finding in your child’s jack-o-lantern bucket are bullshit “treats” like Annie’s Organics Halloween fruit snacks.