On February 11, 1987, the body of 37-year-old Peggy Hettrick was found in a field in Fort Collins, Colorado, less than 500 yards from the Prime Minister Pub and Grill where she was last seen leaving about 1:30 a.m.
Witnesses told police she left after spotting her boyfriend with another woman. She had been stabbed in the back and sexually mutilated.
Fifteen-year-old Timothy Masters, who lived with his father in a trailer near the field, saw the body on his walk to school that morning, but did not report it. When his father mentioned that his son had seen what he thought was a mannequin in the field, they pulled Masters from school for questioning. The boy told police that his mother had died four years earlier, so he assumed someone had placed a mannequin there as a prank. The body was found about 100 feet from the trailer.
He allowed police to search his room and they found several thousand pages of violently misogynistic writings and drawings in his closet as well as a collection of knives.
As the investigation continued, police focused on Masters for several reasons. The date of the killing was close to the date of his mother’s death, news clipping about Hettrick’s murder was on his desk and he owned a flashlight and collection of knives.
No physical evidence could be found linking him to the crime, although police found a considerable amount of blood—a blood trail stretching more than 100 feet from the woman’s body was found, caused by excessive internal bleeding. None of the victim’s blood was found on any of Masters’ knives.
The investigation continued for years without an arrest, but with numerous suspects, all of whom were rejected. In 1992, police learned that Masters told a friend that a nipple had been cut off of Hettrick’s body—a detail that was not believed to be public.
Investigators questioned Masters in Philadelphia where he was stationed in the U.S. Navy. He said he had learned the detail from a girl in his school art class whose Girl Scout troop had been to the field shortly after the crime. The girl corroborated Masters’ story.
In 1997, police enlisted the help of J. Reid Meloy, a psychologist specializing in sexual homicide. Meloy concluded that Masters’ artwork implicated him in the crime. He called the crime “displaced sexual matricide,” arising from Masters’ feeling of abandonment by his mother’s death.
Armed with Meloy’s report, Masters was charged with murder on August 10, 1998.
He went on trial in Larimer County Court in February, 1999. The prosecution relied heavily on Meloy’s testimony, as well as Masters’ drawings and knives. On March 26, 1999, Masters was found guilty by a jury and sentenced to life in prison.
In 2007, after Masters’ appeals had been denied, his lawyers petitioned for a new trial and asked for access to evidence for DNA testing. The lawyers asserted that prosecutors had failed to inform the defense of a possible suspect, local surgeon Richard Hammond, who was arrested in 1995 for voyeurism.
Hammond was arrested for surreptitiously filming the genitals of female guests and family members with video equipment positioned behind fake ventilation grates. He had an extensive pornography collection that allegedly showed an obsession with female genitalia. Hammond, whose home was 100 yards from the murder scene, had committed suicide two days after his arrest.
On January 2, 2008, prosecutors admitted that certain evidence had been withheld from Masters’ defense lawyers. The evidence included reports from two experts contacted by police prior to the trial that disagreed with Meloy’s opinion of Masters’ guilt as well as information about the arrest of Hammond.
On January 18, 2008, prosecutors announced that DNA tests pointed to a different suspect in the Hettrick murder and said that Masters should be released from prison.
On January 22, 2008, the charges were dismissed and Masters was released.
On February 16, 2010, Larimer County agreed to pay $4.1 million to settle a wrongful conviction suit brought by Masters. On June 8, 2010, the city of Fort Collins agreed to pay $5.9 million to settle the lawsuit.
Meloy later said he was “appalled and stunned” at some of the evidence withheld from him as he developed his profile of Hettrick's killer and claimed he was intentionally manipulated into targeting Masters. He said that he knew nothing about Hammond and that, had he known, Hammond would have been the leading suspect.
After Masters’ release, the two prosecutors who presented the original case against him, Terry Gilmore and Jolene Blair, were censured by the Colorado Supreme Court for failing to turn over evidence to Masters’ defense. The lead detective in the case, Jim Broderick, was indicted for perjury for allegedly lying about evidence to the grand jury to obtain Masters’ indictment. In December 2011, a judge dismissed three of nine counts and the case was put on hold while the prosecution appealed the judge’s order.
– Maurice Possley