Presumed Guilty

The wrongful conviction of Tim Masters is one of the most egregious miscarriages of justice in Colorado history.

January 2012

A Troubled Teen

A sophomore at Fort Collins High School, the other kids called the 5-foot-10-inch, 115-pound Tim Masters “Toothpick.” He was awkward, introverted, and an outcast, wheat-grass thin with a slim face and a mop of frayed, shoulder-length brown hair. He grew up just outside San Diego. His father, a Vietnam veteran, was stationed there as a chief petty officer with the U.S. Navy. When Tim was in second grade, the family moved to Fort Collins, where his father had relatives and some property. They settled into the trailer while Clyde finished his last few years in the service in California. The transition was tough for Tim. He seemed isolated and withdrawn. In January 1978, one teacher noted that he lacked the ability to stay on task, and the school suggested counseling. Tim told his mother that he hated his new school and missed California. During fifth grade, teachers indicated that although he had above-average intellectual ability, Tim had difficulty completing assignments, and that when he became upset, he would mouth words unintelligibly under his breath and not do his work.

Masters’ dad retired in 1982 and moved to Fort Collins. With the family together, it seemed their lives might stabilize. Then, one evening while Tim was in sixth grade, February 11, 1983, his mother was not feeling well. Clyde drove her to the hospital. She never came home. The autopsy report says that Margaret Masters died of toxic shock syndrome the next day.

The way Clyde Masters ran the trailer, as if it were a naval ship, was difficult on the boy. Tim’s older sister, Serena, had joined the Army, and his father was still grieving the loss of his wife, often taking out his anger by yelling at Tim. It took its toll on the kid. Masters was busted twice: once for shoplifting some toy cars from Target, and once for vandalism. A middle school counselor, Ann Livingston, who worked with Tim to improve his grades, and—in general—improve his self confidence, told investigators that Masters was shy and that he was not doing well in school. “He appeared to miss his mom,” she said.

Outwardly, Masters did not display anger or violence, but often withdrew into his drawing. The pictures were mostly about monsters or war, often grotesque and showing a lot of blood. “He was very interested in the armed forces,” Livingston told police, “and was very enthusiastic whenever his sister came home for visits.”

During his first semester of 10th grade, Masters received everything from As to Fs. He did not appear openly aggressive, but teachers did notice a preoccupation with racism and cruelty, weapons, militarism, and death. And a few weeks before the Hettrick killing, a teacher tried to confiscate an Army manual Tim was reading in class. Furious, he refused to hand it over and stormed out of the classroom.


Peggy’s Last Night

On February 10, 1987, Peggy Hettrick finished her shift in the lingerie department at the Fashion Bar clothing store and clocked out at 9:01 p.m. The 37-year-old did not own a car and walked the few blocks to her apartment, where she realized she was locked out because she had given the key to a friend who was staying with her. The friend had passed out, drunk, and couldn’t be awakened despite Peggy’s banging on the door.

Irritated, Peggy walked back to town and headed to a local bar. She returned to her apartment later that night and was able to rouse her friend, get the key from her, and change clothes before rushing back out at around midnight. Peggy headed to the Prime Minister, a restaurant half a mile from her apartment, where she sat at the bar drinking vodka tonics and smoking Merit cigarettes.

Peggy was 5 feet 2 inches tall and weighed maybe 110 pounds. She had red hair, pale white skin, and dimples in cheeks that bracketed thin lips and a soft, easy smile. Her blue eyes opened widely beneath slight eyebrows and curled lashes. They were inquisitive and drew anyone speaking to Peggy into her presence.

Her on-again, off-again boyfriend, Matt Zoellner, was a local car salesman who liked pretty women, cold beer, and cocaine. He would tell police that he arrived at the Prime Minister at about 12:30 a.m. and bumped into Peggy. Zoellner was waiting for another woman, but, as he would tell police, he offered Peggy a ride back to her apartment. She said OK, but after Zoellner returned from the bathroom, he said, he saw her walking out the door.

The next morning, Peggy’s grandmother arrived at her apartment. The two had planned to go out to breakfast and do some shopping. Peggy was not there. The light was still on in her bedroom.