45 Years Later, Fingerprint Points to a Suspect in Case That Shocked a City

Times Staff Writers

It was a routine traffic stop on a quiet summer night. Two El Segundo police officers had pulled over a man on Rosecrans Avenue, then a quiet, semirural road fringed with woods, fields and a vast Standard Oil refinery. The year was 1957.

Six shots rang out, mortally wounding the young officers, one of whom managed to gasp a dying request into his patrol car radio: "Send

At least, that was how it seemed until Wednesday, when authorities knocked on the door of a retired, 68-year-old businessman in Columbia, S.C., and arrested him on charges of murdering Officers Milton Curtis and Richard Phillips more than 45 years ago. He also was charged with robbing four teenagers at gunpoint and raping one of them, on a lover's lane in Hawthorne a short time before the shootings.

The suspect, Gerald Fiten Mason, was described as a pillar of his community who had enjoyed a round of golf the day before his arrest, and apparently had no idea of the net that was about to encircle him.

"He said he was very stunned," said Los Angeles County Sheriff's Det. Kevin Lowe, who was among the arresting officers. "We explained to his wife why we were there and what the charges were. She was also very shocked at what we had to say. She lived with this man for over 40 years and apparently never knew that part of him, that hidden past."

At a news conference in El Segundo, Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley expressed the satisfaction of law enforcement officers at apparently cracking the case after so many years: "The message is, when it comes to killing a police officer, we don't forgive. We don't forget. We don't give up."

In fact, investigators had largely given up after an intense but frustrating manhunt in the years immediately after the crime. Evidence was scanty; leads led nowhere; suspects were arrested and freed.

Detectives had one prize -- a vivid fingerprint left on the dusty door of the Ford. But without a finger to match it with, the print was no more useful than the dust in which it was etched.

Then, in the last two years, two developments -- one a fluke, the other a forensic leap forward -- brought the case back to life.

In September 2002, El Segundo police received a tip about a possible suspect. Police investigators, with help from the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, checked out the tip, which turned out to be another dead-end. But the old case piqued the interest of two sheriff's detectives, Lowe and Dan McElderry, neither of whom was born until two years after the El Segundo killings.

In February 2002, the Sheriff's Department became linked to a national FBI fingerprint database. McElderry and Lowe ran the print. It had a match: Mason's.

It turned out that Mason had been convicted in South Carolina in 1956 of burglary, said Sheriff's Capt. Frank Merriman. He had been routinely fingerprinted, and his prints eventually found their way into the FBI database. Those were the prints, authorities said, that match the one on the Ford.

With that link, it was a relatively easy matter to track down Mason, a retired gas station owner who lived in a three-bedroom brick home in an affluent subdivision of Columbia, the state capital. Detectives began trailing him as they assembled their case. They interviewed three of the four teenagers who were robbed the night of the killings, and found the forensic expert, now 88, who took the fingerprint off the Ford.

On Tuesday, Merriman said, they watched Mason play golf -- a regular pastime, neighbors said. On Wednesday morning, they pounced.

The arrest was announced at a news conference outside El Segundo police headquarters, a few blocks from the crime scene, in front of a memorial wall that contains plaques of the department's fallen officers, including Curtis and Phillips.

"This is the oldest homicide I am aware we've ever solved," Merriman said. "And it's especially important because it's the murder of police officers."

Mason was booked into a Richland County jail in Columbia pending extradition proceedings. Earl Johnson, an intake officer who was present when Mason was brought in, described him as polite, docile and mellow.

"He looked slightly confused," Johnson said.

Mason's attorney, Chris Mills, said it was too early for him to discuss the case. "This is the first the family has heard about this," he said. "We'll take a look at the charges and take a look at what's appropriate, but we're still assessing documents and the situation."

Cooley said Mason faces a maximum possible sentence of life without parole. Prosecutors cannot seek capital punishment because the death penalty statute in effect in 1957 was overturned and later replaced.

The arrest reflects a growing interest among Los Angeles-area police agencies in using new technology to pursue old cases. Though large police departments have long made a habit of reviewing "cold cases," both the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and the Los Angeles Police Department have created special units in the past few years to pursue them full time.

Since 2000, the Sheriff's Department has dedicated a five-member team of detectives to reviewing 2,000 of the 3,000 unsolved homicides dating back to 1980. Thus far, they have solved 29 cases.

The LAPD, which started its unit in November 2001, is looking at more than 8,000 cold-case killings dating back four decades. Thousands of those cases include fingerprints, some of which have been run through state and national fingerprint databases, Det. Rick Jackson said. DNA evidence also has given a boost to some cases, especially those involving sexual assaults. Detectives said it is not expected to play a role in Mason's case because the physical evidence of rape was not kept.

In many ways, it was a different world.

The crime spree in which Mason is charged began on a dirt road near Van Ness Avenue and El Segundo Boulevard in Hawthorne. It was a spot -- difficult to imagine now, with four lanes of traffic whizzing by factories and a golf course -- that had a reputation as a quiet lover's lane. Four teenagers -- two boys, ages 16 and 17, two girls, age 15 -- told authorities that they were parked there when a man approached them, flashed a gun and demanded money.

The teenagers said the man tied up the boys and one girl, and sexually assaulted one girl. He ordered them to strip and left the boys wearing only shoes, the girls wearing underpants.

It was a short time later, about 1:20 a.m. on July 22, 1957, that the two officers -- apparently unaware of the rape and robbery -- pulled over the car stolen from the teenagers when the driver allegedly ran a red light at Rosecrans and Sepulveda Boulevard.

Curtis, 25, and Phillips, 28, were regulars on the midnight-to-8 a.m. shift, recalled a retired colleague, John Booterbaugh. At the time, he said, the day shift was quiet in El Segundo, a blue-collar town filled with the families of veterans who had moved to Southern California after World War II. At night, he said, "You could shoot a cannon down Main Street and not hit anybody."

Homicides of any kind were rare; a double homicide of police officers was almost unimaginable.

"Everyone in El Segundo was shocked at the time," Booterbaugh said. "We worked this case night and day for two years."

Phillips, a laid-back Oklahoman who was a Korean War veteran, had managed to fire three shots before he died, and one early clue came from a woman who said a man matching the description of the killer had come to her door, complaining of an injured shoulder and asking for a glass of water.

Eventually, Booterbaugh said, police decided that "the guy must have been dead."

Curtis left behind a widow and two young children; Phillips, a widow and three children. Phillips' son, who asked not to be named, said Wednesday he was shocked but grateful that the case had apparently been solved.

"This many years later, we had resigned ourselves to the fact that the guy got away with it," he said in a telephone interview. "Whether it's justice for the family or for police officers, I was glad they were able to stick with it. Hopefully, people in the future won't have to wait 45 years to have a person who changes a family's life forever brought to justice."

In the Lost Creek Patio Homes subdivision in Columbia, Mason's neighbors were also shocked by the turn of events.

"I just could not even eat. I am just nauseated. That's how much I think of the couple," said Betty Wiggins, who has been living next door to Mason and his wife, Betty, for nine years. The couple has two daughters and three grandchildren, neighbors said.

Wiggins said she noticed police at the Masons about 9:30 a.m. and thought that something might have happened to the couple. When she called the house, Wiggins said, a detective answered the phone.

Margie Weed, who lives two doors down from Mason's brick house on the corner, said she was "absolutely devastated."

"I call him the mayor of our street," she said of the suspect. "I just pray that it'll go away, that it's a mistake, but I know when they come this far, they pretty much know what they're doing."

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Times staff writers Errin Haines and Andrew Blankstein contributed to this report.

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