A businessman was sentenced Monday to a pair of life terms after he admitted murdering two El Segundo police officers in 1957 and offered a teary-eyed apology to the families of his victims. "I do not understand why I did this," said Gerald F. Mason, 69, who was caught when an old fingerprint from the crime scene matched his in a new FBI national database. "I detest these crimes.... I still do not want to remember what happened."
Mason, 69, of South Carolina, asked for forgiveness for the killings of Milton Curtis, 25, and Richard Phillips, 28. "Please believe I am still looking for ways to express my remorse for the horror I have caused," he said in court.
That did not impress Keith Curtis, Milton Curtis' son.
"He says he's sorry now, but he hasn't been for the past 46 years. He's only sorry now because he got caught," the younger Curtis said, standing in the courtroom surrounded by El Segundo officers, prosecutors and family members.
Mason, a retired gas station owner, entered the plea during his first court appearance in Los Angeles since his arrest Jan. 29 in Columbia, S.C., where he has lived a quiet life since the killings.
Curtis and Phillips were shot three times each on July 22, 1957, shortly before 1:30 a.m., after they pulled Mason over for running a red light. About an hour and a half before, prosecutors said, Mason robbed two 15-year-old girls and their dates at gunpoint in a Hawthorne lovers lane and raped one of the girls.
Mason's attorney, Gaston Fairey, said his client accepted what he had done and wanted to save the victims the pain of testifying. Fairey said his client had written the statement he read in court.
Mason's case, assembled by sheriff's investigators, led to disclosures that the Los Angeles Police Department has more than 6,000 prints from unsolved homicides that have not been forwarded to the FBI's computers for comparison. The Board of Police Commissioners is considering how best to correct the problem.
Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley said Mason had little choice in the case, given the evidence, which included the fingerprint lifted from the getaway car, handwriting records tying him to the murder weapon and three witnesses.
In his dying act, Phillips marked his killer for life, said Deputy Dist. Atty. Darren Levine. One of the three bullets the officer fired into the getaway car struck Mason, he said. When detectives arrested him, they discovered a tell-tale scar on his back.
In Los Angeles Superior Court on Monday, the officers' children told Mason he had scarred them for life.
"Your cowardly act shattered our lives forever," said Carolyn Phillips, the daughter of Richard Phillips. "You caused our mother to become a widow with three babies to raise alone."
"There is no way to describe our pain," Phillips said. "There is no way to describe the emptiness and anguish we have felt all our lives without Dad.... We cannot and will not forgive you."
Keith Curtis, who noted that his sister died last year without seeing her father's killer brought to justice, said, "Gerald Mason, your family may be shocked, but my family has been devastated."
Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, whose investigators made the case against Mason, attended. While advances in technology were key, Baca also credited generations of investigators who ultimately brought Mason to justice.
"I thought this day would never come," said Sheriff's Deputy Howard Speaks, now 88, who had dusted the 1949 Ford for prints.
Sheriff's forensic experts reviewing the case last September combined two partial prints of the same finger from the Ford's steering wheel and submitted the result to the FBI. The match was from a 1956 burglary conviction.
Sheriff's detectives Dan McElderry and Kevin Lowe said that match allowed them to make the connection with evidence gathered shortly after the crime.
The evidence was presented to Mason's lawyer before he entered the plea.
In 1960, a Manhattan Beach resident called police to report the discovery of a watch and a chrome-plated revolver behind a house. The police then found a second watch, and both watches were identified as belonging to the Hawthorne victims.
The rare, nine-shot, Harrington & Richardson .22 revolver was identified as the murder weapon. It had been purchased four days before the killings in a Shreveport, La., Sears store, where the buyer gave the name G.D. Wilson and a fictional Miami address. A day earlier at a YMCA across the street, the registry had been signed by a George D. Wilson, also of Miami.
Prosecutors said they had expert evidence that the handwriting on the registry name was the same as on Mason's 1999 South Carolina driver's license application and on an automobile bill of sale.
When detectives served a search warrant on Mason's Columbia home after his arrest in January, they found in his gun collection another rare nine-shot .22 revolver.
In addition, investigators found three witnesses who identified Mason from a 1956 photograph as the man they had seen the night of the murders.
El Segundo Officers Charles Porter and James Gilbert, who had briefly stopped to assist Curtis and Phillips but left when everything appeared all right, said Mason was the man they had seen. Prosecutors said a news reporter, who went to the murder scene, told detectives that Mason was the man he recalled asking him for a ride near the scene.
The 1957 law under which Mason was convicted allows him to be considered for parole after a minimum of seven years in prison. Cooley said Mason "will never see the light of day."
"You can run, but you cannot hide," Porter said in court after the plea. "Kill an officer and we'll get you, no matter how long it takes."