Tim Masters, who has spent nearly 9 1/2 years in prison for a murder he has always denied committing, could be freed any day after a stunning DNA discovery Friday.
The lab work, completed at the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, found skin cell DNA on the clothes of Peggy Hettrick that matched the genetic profile of a man who had once been considered a potential suspect in the case.
As a result, Adams County District Attorney Don Quick, the special prosecutor in the case, said at a hastily called press conference that he will file a motion Tuesday seeking to have Masters’ conviction thrown out.
“I always hoped this day would come,” said former Fort Collins police detective Linda Wheeler-Holloway, one of the first to believe in Masters. “There were times in these years when I didn’t know if it would ever happen.
“This case has caused me to have the worst days of my career, and today the best day of my career.”
Multiple sources confirmed that the DNA on Hettrick’s clothes matched the genetic profile of a former boyfriend of hers, who was among dozens of people considered potential suspects in the case.
“I have such mixed emotions,” said Erik Fischer, one of the attorneys who defended Masters at his trial. “I’m extremely happy for Tim Masters and his family. I’m still extremely upset, and can’t imagine how this ever happened, quite frankly.”
Hettrick, a 37-year-old manager at a Fort Collins Fashion Bar, was stabbed in the back early on the morning of Feb. 11, 1987.
Her killer sexually mutilated her, slicing away tissue from her genitalia and left breast, and drug her into a vacant field with her pants pulled down and her shirt pulled up.
The recently discovered DNA was on the cuff of Hettrick’s blouse and on the inside band of her panties — places that her killer may have touched dragging her body into the field or pulling down her pants.
Within hours of the discovery of her body, the focus of the investigation shifted to Masters. At the time, he was a 15-year-old high school student who lived with his widower father in a mobile home that overlooked the field where Hettrick’s body was found.
Despite hours of questioning, Masters never cracked, insisting repeatedly that he had nothing to do with Hettrick’s death.
But investigators were suspicious of his collection of survival knives, of his hundreds of pages of violent writings and drawings, and of some of the statements he made, and by 1992 they believed they had a strong enough case to arrest him. That year, detectives traveled to Philadelphia, where Masters was serving in the Navy, with a warrant for his arrest.
But after questioning Masters, they realized they had problems with their case, and they returned to Fort Collins without arresting him.
In the mid-1990s, a forensic psychologist breathed new life into the case after he examined hundreds of drawings and writings produced by Masters. He concluded that one in particular represented Masters reliving the killing.
Fort Collins police investigators arrested Masters in August 1998, and he was convicted in 1999 and sentenced to life in prison.
Both the Colorado Court of Appeals and the Colorado Supreme Court upheld the verdict.
But over the past several years, attorneys David Wymore and Maria Liu have fought to win Masters a new trial, and in a series of hearings they have raised numerous questions about information that was never turned over by prosecutors before the trial.
As part of their work, they had sophisticated DNA testing done at a laboratory in the Netherlands. That testing found skin-cell DNA on Hettrick’s clothing, but none of it matched Masters.
At the same time, Wymore and Liu had testing done on genetic samples taken by Fort Collins police investigators years ago from other potential suspects. Technicians in the Netherlands matched the DNA on her clothing to a sample that had been given by a former boyfriend of Hettrick’s.
It also excluded Dr. Richard Hammond, a Fort Collins doctor who committed suicide in 1995 after being arrested in a sexual exploitation case.
Attorneys for Masters had pointed to Hammond as a potential suspect who should have been investigated by police.
On Tuesday, Wymore and Liu shared the findings with Quick.
His office turned to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, seeking a separate set of tests to confirm the findings of the lab used by the defense. Officials at CBI rushed the testing, and Friday morning they confirmed the results — confirming DNA “consistent” with a man considered a potential suspect in the initial stages of the investigation.
As a result, Quick and two members of his staff who have been handling the courtroom work, Assistant District Attorney Mike Goodbee and Chief Deputy District Attorney Tom Quammen, gathered with lab technicians and investigators at CBI early Friday afternoon to go over the test results.
By 3 p.m., they concluded that the murder conviction against Masters should be thrown out, and they called his attorneys to tell them.
At 5 p.m., Quick stepped before a bank of television cameras and reporters and announced his intention to file a motion Tuesday. It will call for the conviction to be vacated, for Masters to be released on a personal recognizance bond, and for Judge Joseph Weatherby to determine whether he should be granted a new trial or whether the charges against him should be dismissed.
“I had no faith that anything good would ever come out of anything,” Wymore said. “I had no faith that it would happen.
“I was somewhat flabbergasted that somebody finally did the right thing.”
He initially said he hoped to have Masters freed over the weekend, but later Friday it appeared that nothing would happen before Tuesday’s scheduled court hearing.
“I have a full, unwavering, founded belief that he’s innocent,” he said.
Rocky Mountain News