People v. Masters
A case for DNA preservation

by Jess Brovsky-Eaker

The Black Dahlia murder case is nationally infamous, but few know of a similar, but unrelated, Colorado crime that took place in February 1987.

Peggy Hettrick was found in a field in southern Fort Collins, and, like the Black Dahlia, was initially thought to be a mannequin by the bicyclist who uncovered the body. The crime launched a national conversation on false imprisonment and the failure of the state justice system as well as a statewide conversation about preserving DNA evidence, even after a case has been officially “closed.”

According to coroner reports, Hettrick died from a stab wound to the back, but mutilation done to her body left investigators baffled. Similar to the Dahlia case, the skill required to commit the atrocities to Hettrick required professional surgical equipment.

Then-15-year-old Timothy Masters saw the body on his way to school but didn’t report the crime because he also thought the body was a mannequin left there as a prank. Masters was questioned after his father mentioned his deviation to the field before school that day.

Because of the report of Masters in the field, police considered him the prime suspect, but with no evidence linking him to the crime, they relied upon the discovery of violent pornography, knives, artwork and writing found in his bedroom. Still, no physical evidence linked Masters to the crime, and police administered a lie detector test that proved inconclusive. Masters maintained his innocence throughout the subsequent surveillance.

Investigators interviewed Masters’ former classmates in 1992 and discovered he’d told them details about the mutilations that investigators believed only the killer would only know. Investigators spoke with Masters again, who by that time was enlisted in the Navy and serving out of Philadelphia. Masters let them know he’d only heard the details from another classmate who aided the police in searching the crime scene for evidence.

By 1997, police had few leads and consulted with a California forensic psychologist. The psychologist reviewed the more than 1,000 pieces of artwork and writings obtained from Masters’ childhood bedroom and concluded, without first interviewing Masters, due to his Fifth Amendment protection, that he had been “reliving the crime.”

Based on the psychologist’s and others’ findings and the drawings found in Masters’ room, he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Masters appealed to the Colorado Court of Appeals, asserting his drawings and testimony from one of his former teachers were inadmissible as evidence. He also objected to the testimony from the out-of-state psychologist, but the court upheld the conviction in 2001.

By 2002, Masters’ appeal made it to the state Supreme Court, which found some evidence should have been suppressed but that the error was harmless. The Colorado Supreme Court denied a petition to rehear the case.

Masters again appealed in 2004 contending he had ineffective counsel, and the state appointed him a new defense team. The new legal team uncovered evidence — including physical evidence found on Hettrick and her purse — was missing. In 2007, as Masters’ second appeal process was underway, mounting evidence showed police and prosecutorial misconduct and evidence destruction prevented a fair appeals process in addition to the possibility police entirely withheld evidence that pointed to other suspects.

On Jan. 18, 2008, Masters’ defense team released more evidence that pointed to his innocence and proved his original defense team was not given critical investigation information that could have led them to similar conclusions. It was also uncovered that DNA evidence gathered by the team didn’t even include a sample from Masters and that DNA evidence that had been collected instead pointed to one of Hettrick’s former boyfriends. By the end of the month, Masters was released from prison, and in June 2011, former Colorado Attorney General John Suthers concluded Masters was no longer a suspect in the case.

“Based on the testimony, the forensic analysis and the crime scene analysis, the overwhelming conclusion is that Timothy Masters was not involved in the murder of Peggy Hettrick,” Suthers said in 2011.

After this case, Colorado legislators passed House Bill 1397 in 2008, requiring investigators to preserve all DNA evidence collected for cases involving conviction for Class 1 felonies or sex offenses for the lifetime of the defendant. The bill also required DNA evidence be preserved for the length of the investigation if charges are not filed.

This article appeared in the Oct. 26 issue of Law Week Colorado. To read other articles from that issue, order a copy online. Subscribers can request a digital PDF of the issue.