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Poison Pixy Stix: Ronald O’Bryan Was the Man Who Killed Halloween

During my childhood, I heard stories about razor blades being put in apples and given to trick or treaters on Halloween. I remember the flyers on Halloween safety given out at school every year that urged parents to check their children’s candy. Every year, I went trick or treating with my brother up and down our long block. We also went to the stores along the main shopping center. We left after school when it was light and returned home after dark with two heavy bags of candy.  Our mother was usually with us, and when we got home, we didn’t touch any candy until she checked both bags. One year, I did get the dreaded apple, which was thrown away, along with a very suspicious homemade cookie.

Besides having a scene dedicated to it in the classic slasher film series Halloween, is there any truth to Halloween horror tales of poisoned candy and razor blades hidden in apples to slice up the mouth of a trusting trick-or-treater?  According to more than one source, these stories are, for the most part, urban legends. 

Crystal Ponti quotes writer David Skal in her article in her 2020 A&E article, “The Haunting Legacy of Ronald Clark O’Bryan, the Man Who Killed Halloween”: “There is no general correlation in America between the holiday and increased crime. In particular, the widespread fear of poisoned or booby-trapped candy is an urban legend without a real basis.” Unfortunately, the urban legend became reality on Halloween in 1974 for eight-year-old Timothy O’Bryan in Deer Park, Texas.

On October 31, 1974, the O’Bryan family, Ronald, his wife, Dayenne, and children, Timothy and Elizabeth, age five, had a roast pork supper with family friend Jim Bates and his family in Pasadena, Texas.

Thirty-year-old Ronald Clark O’Bryan and his wife were going through a rough patch. They had recently lost their home and had to relocate to an apartment. Ronald had trouble holding down a job. He had been fired from 21 jobs over the past year and was about to lose his current job. An optician who worked for Texas State Optical, Ronald O’Bryan was an estimated $100,000 in debt.

After the Bates family treated them to supper, both fathers took their children trick or treating. At one point, they came to a dark house. Although it looked as though no one was home, the children rang the bell anyway. No one answered.

As Bates and the children continued trick or treating, O’Bryan stayed behind. When he caught up with the group later, he had some extra treats for the children. O’Bryan told them that wealthy neighbors gave them special treats—five large, 22-inch Pixy Stix, which are straw-like tubes filled with flavored sugar.

A glass filled with straws covered with decorative wrappers.
“Pixie Stix at Epicurean Umbrella” by TheDeliciousLife is licensed under CC BY 2.0

According to Mara Bovsun’s 2016 Daily News article,”‘Candy Man’ killer dad serves his own son a poisoned treat on Halloween in 1974,” Ronald Clark O’Bryan gave the Pixy Stix to his children and the two Bates children, plus a trick or treater who O’Bryan recognized from his church.

According to David Skal’s book, Death Makes a Holiday: A Cultural History of Halloween, Timothy wanted just one piece of candy before bed—the Pixy Stix. His sister, Elizabeth, passed on the bedtime treat. There were some odd things about the Pixy Stix that any conscientious parent would have noticed. For example, the straw was stapled together at the bottom. Not only that, the candy inside, which was simply flavored sugar, had an odd, clumpy consistency. O’Bryan reportedly had to roll the sugar between his fingers to loosen it up for Timothy to eat. After Timothy tasted the candy, he told his father that it was bitter. So, O’Bryan gave Timothy a glass of sugary Kool-Aid to wash the bitter taste away. [1] 

Not even one minute later, Timothy called out for his father and told him that his stomach hurt. According to Bovsun, O’Bryan told the Associated Press, “It seems like it wasn’t long before he was up and complaining his stomach hurt and he didn’t feel good. He was bent over vomiting, and I was holding him when he just went limp.” 

According to Skal, Timothy O’Bryan died on his way to the hospital. He was pronounced dead at 10:30 PM, ninety minutes after just one taste of the candy. [2] 

An autopsy determined that the cause of death was cyanide poisoning. All reports agree that Timothy O’Bryan had enough potassium cyanide in his system to kill two adults.

Skal writes: “Cyanide has many legitimate industrial uses, but as a poison it acts swiftly as a chemical asphyxiant, blocking the ability of oxygen to bond with hemoglobin. Victims sometimes experience the taste of bitter almonds before their death throes begin; their air-starved blood often takes on the appearance of chocolate syrup.” [3] 

Bovsun quotes O’Bryan telling the Associated Press, “We thought we were so careful. We had even wondered if we should go out trick-or-treating this year. There isn’t going to be any more trick-or-treating for us.” 

A sign that reads "Danger, Cyanide"
“Cyanide” by Midnight Believer is marked with CC PDM 1.0

The police visited the Bates family at 11 PM that night. Fortunately, the children’s mother didn’t let her children eat any candy. The police also found the last recipient of the Pixy Stix. They stopped at the home of the trick-or-treater at 2 AM. Fortunately, his parents stopped him from opening the candy. In an odd twist, he fell asleep with the Pixy Stix beside him. [3] 

Ronald Clark O’Bryan retraced his steps, trying to recall where the poisoned candy came from. He couldn’t seem to get his story straight. Bovsun writes that O’Bryan did point out the dark house as a possible source—the one that Mr. Bates and the kids left when no one answered the door. O’Bryan said that all he saw was a “hairy arm” reaching out and giving him the five Pixie Stix.

Bovsun reports that investigators found out that the owner of the house, an air traffic controller, had a solid alibi—200 witnesses confirmed that he was working at the time O’Bryan said he handed out the candy.

Police turned their attention to O’Bryan. They found out about how deeply in debt he was. O’Bryan had lost both his house and his car. Crystal Ponti reports that investigators found out that O’ Bryan had been terminated from 21 jobs within ten months for “negligence or fraudulent behavior.” At the time of Timothy’s death, Texas State Optical was about to fire him for suspected theft. Besides his car being repossessed, he had also defaulted on a bank loan. His take-home pay at the time wasn’t enough to cover basic expenses such as food and rent.

In addition to his financial situation, Ponti writes that police found out that O’Bryan had taken out multiple life insurance policies on his children. Skal writes that nine days before Timothy’s death, O’Bryan contacted his insurance company and took out a $20,000 policy on each of his children in addition to the $10,000 policies he already had on them. He also forged his wife’s signature on the policy as co-beneficiary. Investigators also found a piece of tape from an adding machine that O’Bryan wrote the amount of each one of his debts on. All of his debts added up to the amount of the insurance policies. [4] 

Ponti goes on to report that police found out that O’Bryan had asked many companies about purchasing cyanide. He also asked, as if kidding around, the amount of cyanide needed to kill someone. Investigators also found a knife in O’Bryan’s house with Pixie Stix residue on it. 

Skal writes that, as police investigated, O’Bryan told the press that Timothy was “all boy. He loved football, basketball, anything. He never met a stranger. But I have my peace knowing that Tim is in heaven now.” [5] 

As O’Bryan said these words, his behavior is described as a bit disturbing. 

A close up of halloween candy
“Halloween Candy” by Accretion Disc is licensed under CC BY 2.0

According to a mini-documentary by Biographics, The Pixy Stix Killer: The Man Who Killed Halloween on YouTube, O’Bryan behaved strangely. His wife, Dayenne, said that he acted strangely, almost jumping across a table when a child went to take candy from Timothy’s bag. She also later told investigators that Timothy originally wanted a lollipop and not the Pixy Stix. It was her husband who insisted that he have the Pixy Stix instead. Days before the murder, he told co-workers that his financial situation was about to change.

O’Bryan made sure to call his insurance company on the day before Timothy’s funeral for information on how to collect his son’s policy. At his son’s funeral, he sang a hymn but also talked about how he was going to use his son’s insurance money for a vacation. [6] 

Police arrested Ronald Clark O’ Bryan for his son’s murder on November 5, 1974.

Who was Ronald Clark O’Bryan? According to the Biographics documentary, O’Bryan was a “model citizen” who served as a deacon and sang in the choir at Second Baptist Church. However, he had a fiery temper that led to him losing many of his jobs. His tendency to live above his means led to his massive debt.

Forensic psychologist and private investigator Joni Johnston told A&E True Crime that “[poisoning] is also an instrument for someone who is kind of cunning and sneaky, not somebody who is going to be physically or verbally aggressive. They are also more likely to be polite behind the scenes and, as a result, they tend to fool people “

However, the jury wasn’t fooled. It took them only 90 minutes to reach a guilty verdict. After an additional 70 minutes, the jury decided to sentence him to death. O’Bryan never confessed to the crime. Despite numerous appeals, Ronald Clark O’Bryan was executed by lethal injection on March 30, 1984. [7] 

Works Cited

[1] Skal, David J. Death Makes a Holiday: A Cultural History of Halloween. New York: Bloomsbury, 2002, pp. 10-11

[2] Skal, p. 11

[3] Skal, p. 11

[4] Skal, p. 12

[5] Skal, p. 11

[6] Skal, p. 12

[7] Skal, p. 13, 15

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Written by MD Bastek

I'm just a being who writes about unusual things.

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