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45 Years Later, Fingerprint Points to a Suspect in Case That Shocked a City

January 30, 2003|Richard Winton and Mitchell Landsberg | Times Staff Writers

It was a routine traffic stop on a quiet summer night. Two El Segundo police officers had pulled over a man on Rosecrans Avenue, then a quiet, semirural road fringed with woods, fields and a vast Standard Oil refinery. The year was 1957.

Six shots rang out, mortally wounding the young officers, one of whom managed to gasp a dying request into his patrol car radio: "Send

At least, that was how it seemed until Wednesday, when authorities knocked on the door of a retired, 68-year-old businessman in Columbia, S.C., and arrested him on charges of murdering Officers Milton Curtis and Richard Phillips more than 45 years ago. He also was charged with robbing four teenagers at gunpoint and raping one of them, on a lover's lane in Hawthorne a short time before the shootings.

The suspect, Gerald Fiten Mason, was described as a pillar of his community who had enjoyed a round of golf the day before his arrest, and apparently had no idea of the net that was about to encircle him.

"He said he was very stunned," said Los Angeles County Sheriff's Det. Kevin Lowe, who was among the arresting officers. "We explained to his wife why we were there and what the charges were. She was also very shocked at what we had to say. She lived with this man for over 40 years and apparently never knew that part of him, that hidden past."

At a news conference in El Segundo, Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley expressed the satisfaction of law enforcement officers at apparently cracking the case after so many years: "The message is, when it comes to killing a police officer, we don't forgive. We don't forget. We don't give up."

In fact, investigators had largely given up after an intense but frustrating manhunt in the years immediately after the crime. Evidence was scanty; leads led nowhere; suspects were arrested and freed.

Detectives had one prize -- a vivid fingerprint left on the dusty door of the Ford. But without a finger to match it with, the print was no more useful than the dust in which it was etched.

Then, in the last two years, two developments -- one a fluke, the other a forensic leap forward -- brought the case back to life.

In September 2002, El Segundo police received a tip about a possible suspect. Police investigators, with help from the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, checked out the tip, which turned out to be another dead-end. But the old case piqued the interest of two sheriff's detectives, Lowe and Dan McElderry, neither of whom was born until two years after the El Segundo killings.

In February 2002, the Sheriff's Department became linked to a national FBI fingerprint database. McElderry and Lowe ran the print. It had a match: Mason's.

It turned out that Mason had been convicted in South Carolina in 1956 of burglary, said Sheriff's Capt. Frank Merriman. He had been routinely fingerprinted, and his prints eventually found their way into the FBI database. Those were the prints, authorities said, that match the one on the Ford.

With that link, it was a relatively easy matter to track down Mason, a retired gas station owner who lived in a three-bedroom brick home in an affluent subdivision of Columbia, the state capital. Detectives began trailing him as they assembled their case. They interviewed three of the four teenagers who were robbed the night of the killings, and found the forensic expert, now 88, who took the fingerprint off the Ford.

On Tuesday, Merriman said, they watched Mason play golf -- a regular pastime, neighbors said. On Wednesday morning, they pounced.

The arrest was announced at a news conference outside El Segundo police headquarters, a few blocks from the crime scene, in front of a memorial wall that contains plaques of the department's fallen officers, including Curtis and Phillips.

"This is the oldest homicide I am aware we've ever solved," Merriman said. "And it's especially important because it's the murder of police officers."

Mason was booked into a Richland County jail in Columbia pending extradition proceedings. Earl Johnson, an intake officer who was present when Mason was brought in, described him as polite, docile and mellow.

"He looked slightly confused," Johnson said.

Mason's attorney, Chris Mills, said it was too early for him to discuss the case. "This is the first the family has heard about this," he said. "We'll take a look at the charges and take a look at what's appropriate, but we're still assessing documents and the situation."

Cooley said Mason faces a maximum possible sentence of life without parole. Prosecutors cannot seek capital punishment because the death penalty statute in effect in 1957 was overturned and later replaced.

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