Presumed Guilty

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

January 2012

Under Surveillance

In February 1988, on the first anniversary of the murder, a team of 16 police officers staked out Tim Masters’ trailer and followed him 24 hours a day for six straight days. The chief of police even approved a strategy that included planting a false story in the local paper saying they were closing in on a suspect and leaving copies of the story where they knew Masters would see it. The police watched Peggy Hettrick’s grave, as well, hoping to catch the teen in odd and incriminating behavior. They didn’t. The cops ran another surveillance on the second anniversary of the killing, and the most unusual activity they observed was Tim skipping school one afternoon to play video games at a pizza place.

There was not enough evidence to arrest Masters for the crime in 1987, or after the surveillance in ’88 and ’89. After graduating high school, he traveled with the Navy and worked on aircraft, learning hydraulic and structural systems and developing proficiency in reading blueprints and testing equipment. Although watched closely by the Naval Intelligence Service, which had been asked by the police to keep an eye on Masters, the only mark on his service record was for driving a car on a base in California without a license, which he had lost earlier for an alcohol-related DUI.

While Masters was in the Navy, the first officer to point the department toward him, Linda Wheeler-Holloway, reopened the Hettrick homicide. In 1992, she discovered new evidence and teamed up with Broderick to write a warrant to arrest Masters for first-degree murder. The cops traveled to Philadelphia, where Masters’ ship was being repaired, to interview him, again. The new evidence was unreleased information about the nipple excision that Masters had told a friend in high school. But during the interview, Masters explained that he had overheard what he’d passed on from a classmate who had been a member of an Explorer Scouts group that helped police search the vacant field. Broderick felt there were still questions Masters hadn’t satisfactorily answered, and Wheeler-Holloway said her colleague still hoped to bring the suspect back to Fort Collins, saying he “would have a confession by the time we get back on the plane.” But once police back in Fort Collins confirmed Tim’s story, Wheeler-Holloway realized that what she had thought was evidence was a circle of gossips. Hal Dean, a third detective on the trip, said that he and Broderick were disappointed the information fell through, and that after a discussion with the district attorney’s office, the three agreed not to execute the warrant. Masters left the Naval Intelligence Service Headquarters, where the interview had occurred, thinking the Hettrick matter was done at last. He walked to his car with the NIS agent in charge of the case. “Put all this bullshit behind you,” the agent told Masters. “It is finally over. Don’t worry about it.”