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Arrest Shreds Genial Image Decades in the Making

Model resident of South Carolina community was traced from two partial prints.

January 31, 2003|Ken Ellingwood and Richard Winton | Times Staff Writers

COLUMBIA, S.C. — The world that Gerald F. Mason made for himself was the very picture of middle-class convention.

He ran a gas station, then retired with his wife to a staid subdivision where all the houses are brick and brown and all the streets are a variation of the name Patio. He was a genial fellow who checked up on neighboring widows and was always willing to lend a hand with a man's traditional chores: painting a mailbox or fixing an electrical problem. He golfed weekly and was a better-than-average bowler. He drove a Buick.

On Thursday, those trappings suddenly seemed dizzyingly remote as Mason, 68, stood in a jail inmate's jumpsuit and Los Angeles County investigators outlined evidence linking him to the slayings of two El Segundo police officers in 1957.

Mason, who was arrested Wednesday at his home after Los Angeles detectives tied him to the killings through a chance fingerprint match, signaled during a brief hearing at the Richland County jail that he would fight extradition to California on charges stemming from a crime rampage that ended with the fatal shooting of Officers Milton Curtis and Richard Phillips on July 22, 1957. Mason is also charged with kidnapping and robbing four teenagers at gunpoint, and raping one of them, on a lover's lane in Hawthorne a short time earlier.

Los Angeles investigators disclosed at the hearing that the fingerprint allegedly tying Mason to the crime, which police found on the dusty door of the 1949 Ford that the killer had driven, was a digital composite put together from two partial fingerprints -- a technological feat that would have been impossible in 1957, and that will probably attract close scrutiny by defense attorneys.

Sheriff's officials said detectives had uncovered other physical evidence that appeared to link Mason to the killings. This includes unspecified evidence showing that Mason was in Shreveport, La., four days before the killings, according to Sheriff's Capt. Frank Merriman. That was the place and time that the murder weapon, a .22-caliber revolver, was purchased at a Sears store, he said.

Police officials said Wednesday that they had used a single fingerprint from the killer's stolen car to track down the suspect after it matched prints in a new FBI national database. Those prints were taken from Mason in 1956, when he was arrested and convicted for burglary in South Carolina.

According to Capt. Chris Beattie of Los Angeles County Sheriff's Scientific Services Bureau, a set of partial fingerprints from the 1957 double homicide lay untouched in a case file until September, when a man on his deathbed said he knew who had committed the murders. That tip turned out to be false, authorities said.

The false tip, however, renewed interest in the case. Stuck with the problem of two partial fingerprints, a forensic identification specialist, Don Keir, went to work. "He used a digital program to make one full print out of two partial prints," Beattie said. "Don's work brought this man to justice."

The fingerprint was run through the state's fingerprint database and the FBI's database. The FBI system, known as Universal Latent Workstation, has been available only since February 2002. The system matches a fingerprint with the most similar prints in the database. Experts then evaluate them to determine which is the best match.

Once the match was made, Beattie said, the partial prints, not just the composite, were compared with Mason's prints by three experts. All agreed that the prints were his, he said.

Photographs of Mason were shown to various witnesses in the case, Merriman said, although he refused to identify the witnesses, describe the circumstances under which they were shown the photos or say whether they had identified Mason. Among the potential witnesses are three of the four teenagers.

The .22-caliber pistol was found in the backyard of a Manhattan Beach home, authorities said. A homeowner found a revolver without its cylinder in April 1959, nearly two years after the killings and tossed it on a shelf in his garage. About a year later, the homeowner was rototilling his backyard when he heard a metallic sound and discovered the pistol's cylinder.

He took the gun and cylinder to police, who said ballistics tests showed it was the murder weapon. Police speculated that the gun had been dropped by the killer as he escaped through Manhattan Beach on foot, hopping fences and crossing yards.

Shortly after that discovery, investigators obtained the records of the gun purchase from the Shreveport Sears. The buyer was listed as G.D. Wilson, who gave a fictitious address in Miami. Detectives also found a ledger from a Shreveport YMCA showing that a man registered as George D. Wilson had stayed there at the same time.

Merriman said investigators had obtained copies of Mason's handwriting but declined to say how they were being used.

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