The wrongful conviction of Tim Masters is one of the most egregious miscarriages of justice in Colorado history.
On April 5, 2006, according to real estate records, Jim Broderick took out a loan on his 5,449-square-foot home built on 35 acres on the edge of Fort Collins. On the same day, Masters put in a request to be transferred to a 40-square-foot cell. The new cell would be a third smaller than his current one, but with anticipated prison overcrowding, it would be less likely to be doubled up.
As Masters’ world became more and more suffocating, Broderick’s life skyrocketed on a trajectory of fatherhood, professional success, and community respect. Broderick had a knack, former colleagues said, for always being in the room with top brass and, in an unassuming way, making sure they knew of his accomplishments. He deftly represented the image of a growing Fort Collins: smart, fit, likeable, and successful in a matter-of-fact and nonthreatening way. By 2009, he had headed some of the department’s top units, including Crimes Against Persons, a countywide Drug Task Force, and Investigations. He was named to lead the Professional Standards Division, and his salary pushed close to $100,000 a year. The department held an annual fitness event, during which the officers could earn time off by excelling in events including running, sit-ups, and bench press. Broderick set records that still stand and earned the nickname Superman.
“The bosses thought he walked on water, and there were cops who would follow him to the top of Horsetooth Dam to find Al Capone’s body,” said Krenning, who had refused to follow Broderick into his pursuit of Masters. “A lot of people in this department and in this town jumped on the Jim Broderick bandwagon.”
The former high-school middle-distance runner ran regularly with a group of cops and investigators at lunchtime. They would head out from the old police headquarters on Laporte Avenue west along the banks of the Poudre River. They ran about five miles, talking about everything and nothing, said colleague Tom McLellan, who recalls Broderick chatting about fishing and fixing up junkers, camping trips and getting old. Generally, the conversation was not personal. Broderick, especially, was very private. “He was very family-oriented,” McLellan said. “He spent a lot of time with his sons.”
Back in his 40-square-foot cell, thoughts of Jim Broderick held dual meaning for Tim Masters. On the one hand, they inspired him to hate, while on the other, they motivated him to survive. In his journal, he wrote:
Jim Broderick is my archenemy, my nemesis—the man who destroyed my life for a murder I didn’t commit. At first, I thought that Broderick knew I was innocent, but arrested me because I was the easiest conviction. That was before I read his police reports and began to understand his mental state. He was convinced that I’d done it from the very first day and never changed his mind. The only reasons I care whether I live or die is that people out there care about me, and I’ve got to live long enough to have these lies told by Broderick set straight, and to make the Fort Collins Police Department do their job and put the real killer of Peggy Hettrick behind bars.
The idea that detective Wheeler-Holloway shared with Masters’ attorney, Liu, grew out of a conference the cop had attended. Wheeler-Holloway had met a couple of forensic scientists from the Netherlands who had pioneered a new way to capture epithelial cells for DNA testing and analysis. Rather than swabbing the clothes, Selma and Richard Eikelenboom used an adhesive material to collect the cells. If any still existed on Hettrick’s clothing, the Eikelenbooms believed they could find them.
Winning the release of the clothes, which were still in evidence, so they could be taken to Holland for testing was not easy. All the bureaucratic wagons in Larimer County circled, and battling the entrenched law enforcement community—what Liu called “the Monarchy”—was not simple. But the attorneys remained resilient, and eventually the judge agreed to allow Barie Goetz to bring Hettrick’s clothing to the Netherlands. The momentum around Masters’ case began to shift. In spring 2007, after losing the battle to keep Hettrick’s clothing from being tested by the defense, the Larimer County district attorney’s office withdrew from hearings on whether Masters should receive a new trial, and the Masters case gained attention from reporters who questioned the validity of the evidence that put Masters in prison.
A reporter from the Denver Post, Miles Moffeit, wrote the first big story, headlined “Sketchy evidence raises doubt,” in July 2007, and continued to cover the case. Moffeit recalls that during an interview with Broderick, the detective paused and tears welled up in his eyes as the discussion turned to faith. He became reflective. “I’ve seen some things in my career that are really hard for me to explain other than some higher power looked down and moved something in the right direction,” Broderick told the reporter. The detective mentioned a case in which Broderick’s team discovered the body of a 20-year-old woman that had been difficult to find. That college student’s body had been buried beneath piles of dirt in Poudre Canyon, in a wooded area about 23 miles northwest of Fort Collins. “We could have easily not found it. You just wonder in times like that, you take a right turn instead of a left turn, and there you are. I mean, some people would say that’s good police work, but I think, I do believe, there’s some guidance there.” Moffeit did not report that part of the interview, noting it never fit into the stories he was writing about the Masters case, but it stuck with him. If Broderick believed in such external guidance, perhaps the sketches, writings, and Bible passages were more than evidence; perhaps they were not so much clues as they were signs. Broderick said recently that is not the case, only that, “In police work and life, there are some very fortunate things, and you wonder if there is some intervention.”
Press coverage started to filter its way into the conversation inside Buena Vista, and Masters, while still guarded, became increasingly hopeful he might win his release. “Two white guys in the shower mentioned my case to me,” Masters wrote. “They are Solid White Guys—and for so long had seemed to be my enemies. So, I was surprised to hear them say, ‘I hope you get out of here, that’s bullshit what they did to you.’ ”
In Europe, the Eikelenbooms had captured enough DNA to begin testing. Then, one evening, Wymore’s phone rang. The call was from Richard Eikelenboom in Holland.
“It’s Matt Zoellner!” he shouted.
“What?” answered Wymore.
“Oh, yes. It is Matt Zoellner.”
Everyone was shocked. Not only was the DNA not a match for Tim Masters, but it also pointed to Peggy Hettrick’s mercurial boyfriend, the last person known to have seen her alive. DNA found inside the waistband of her panty lines and under the cuffs of her blouse matched Matt Zoellner’s profile. Perhaps there was an innocent explanation for this, but, regardless, nothing in the DNA pointed to Masters.
I spoke to Maria last night. She had good news from overseas,” Masters wrote in his journal. “Everyone is so optimistic right now that it’s contagious. It took more than 9 years, but everyone is finally seeing that Broderick’s stories about me are bullshit. Everyone is seeing that I didn’t kill Peggy Hettrick.”
On January 22, 2008, swayed by the DNA results, the new special prosecutor moved to finally vacate Masters’ conviction. Wearing a black suit, white button-down shirt, and yellow-print tie, Masters walked out of the Larimer County courtroom unchained. He had lost an uncle and an aunt while in prison, but his sister and the rest of his family were there. Many remembered prosecutor Jolene Blair’s celebratory gesture in 1999. As Masters walked past, this time his family cheered, pumping their fists eagerly in the air.
They celebrated at the Elks Club that evening, where Tim grabbed two pieces of grocery-store fried chicken and inhaled them without even using a napkin. At the party, his cousins ran around with cellphones with cameras and talked about MySpace pages. Masters realized that he’d spent the entire rise of the digital era behind bars.
He spent that night at an aunt’s house in Fort Collins. Although pumped beyond any rush he’d ever experienced, he eventually fell asleep on a real mattress. Tim opened his eyes in the morning to beige walls—not the white prison walls—and to windows and sunlight, and he walked to a separate, private bathroom where he brushed his teeth in front of a glass mirror over a porcelain sink. It had been 3,452 days since his arrest in California on August 10, 1998. Now, the day he wrote in his journal that he hoped for had arrived; it was finally his August 11.