The wrongful conviction of Tim Masters is one of the most egregious miscarriages of justice in Colorado history.
Scene of the Crime
On a sweltering midsummer afternoon, Tim Masters pulls his metallic blue 2011 Chevy Silverado into a space behind the Olive Garden on College Avenue in Fort Collins. He points out where the Prime Minister used to be, a few paces away, and then drives across the street to where his trailer once sat above a vacant field.
The land his father owned has been developed into an office park, and the field is now home to the Landings Bay townhomes. From the curb, Masters waves along the 103-foot trail where Peggy Hettrick’s body was carried or dragged. It is now landscaped with colorful flowers. As Masters walks his old neighborhood, he reflects on the days he swam and fished in Warren Lake and built a tree house in a thicket nearby.
He still wonders why none of the checks and balances in the process protected him. There is no easy answer. But all three ranking division commanders in 1998 had links to the case—and a respect, almost reverence, for Jim Broderick—that may have clouded their perspectives. Head of investigations Bud Reed was married to detective Marsha Reed; head of patrol Sherri Wagner was one of the cops who interrogated the young Tim Masters and accused him of the murder the day after the homicide; and head of information services Deryle O’Dell had written the memo recommending the fake story in the Coloradoan in the failed sting. None of the bosses stopped the case from moving forward, and the chief of police relied on the judgment of his division commanders. Nor did any of the prosecutors, who didn’t listen to their own concerns with the case, perhaps because they feared standing in the way of a conviction.
Since being released, Masters, whose email address includes the word “innocence,” created a PowerPoint presentation about his case, which he delivers to criminal justice and psychology classes at Colorado universities. In Masters’ talk, he urges students to recognize the power they will have over people’s lives and the need to exercise it with integrity. That message will be part of a book he has written for Berkeley Publishing Group.
He walks past the bus stop where he was headed the morning he saw what he thought was a mannequin in the field, and thoughts of his father watching from the trailer cross his mind. His dad died of a heart attack while visiting Masters when he was in the Navy. Going through his things, Tim found a letter his dad had written in a tablet notebook years earlier. The letter was to no one in particular. Clyde Masters just wanted anyone who read it to know that his son had nothing to do with the murder of Peggy Hettrick. Masters holds no anger toward his father for waiving Miranda and allowing Broderick to search the trailer.
“Dad was career Navy. He was a law-abiding citizen. A by-the-book kind of guy. He thought the police and law enforcement were there to protect us,” Tim says. “Unfortunately, in this case, they were not. But the way Dad handled it, he was doing what he thought was right. We didn’t have a lot of experience dealing with police. Now, everyone in my family knows you don’t talk to them without a lawyer.”
A few days earlier, the attorney general’s office—which is investigating the once-again open Hettrick homicide—announced that Attorney General John Suthers planned to release a statement saying that although they didn’t yet have enough evidence to charge anyone else with the murder, “The time has come for law enforcement to fully exonerate Tim Masters.” Masters got a call that morning from a cousin who worked in the Fort Collins city government, saying that the mayor and a few other local officials wanted to meet with him. He agreed to go to his cousin’s office.
“When I got there, the mayor, the DA, and the police chief had already arrived. One by one,” Masters says, “they took their turn to say they were sorry.” He breaks into a slight smile. “It was a good day. I’d been waiting a long time for someone in authority to say that.” He walks to his truck for the drive home to Greeley, to the security—and relative freedom—of the old farmhouse, his bachelor-pad fortress.