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Town rallies around man wrongly convicted of murder

  • Story Highlights
  • Man freed after decade in prison: Outpouring of good will, support "pretty cool"
  • MP3 player, digital camera, cell phone among gifts Tim Masters has received
  • Masters' 1999 conviction tossed out in January, but he remains suspect
  • Defense attorney: "They're still trying to keep him on a leash"
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By Eliott C. McLaughlin
CNN
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FORT COLLINS, Colorado (CNN) -- The greeting card came from a woman Tim Masters had never met. She was unemployed, she wrote, but had scrounged up what money she could because "every little bit helps."

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Tim Masters, free after nearly a decade behind bars, says he appreciates all the support he has received.

"It's great to see justice has been served in your case," she wrote, referring to a judge's January 22 decision to throw out Masters' murder conviction after the 36-year-old spent nearly a decade behind bars.

Moved, Masters held up a pink $20 check. "I'm not going to cash this one; I'm going to keep it," he said.

The check is but a sample of the good will showered upon Masters since a prosecutor said DNA evidence in a February 1987 murder pointed to another suspect.

Though Masters is free, the January 25 motion to dismiss the charges explicitly stated the evidence doesn't exonerate him; it merely warrants another investigation into the murder and sexual mutilation of Peggy Hettrick.

Masters' case is the talk of Fort Collins, a northern Colorado town of about 137,000. The co-owner of The Armstrong Hotel downtown explained on the day of Masters' release that one of her managers "knows everything about the case."

The next morning, at Mugs Coffee Lounge next door, a man and woman hovered over a newspaper, the man explaining that Masters' 1999 trial may have been a farce. That night, at The Canyon Chop House a few blocks away, a waiter giddily told a bartender that a local newspaper editor was trying to uncover whether police had railroaded Masters.

Case History

  • In 1987, a bicyclist found the maimed body of Peggy Hettrick, 37, near the home of Tim Masters.
  • Masters, then 15, quickly became the top suspect in the slaying, but it was not until 1999 that police and prosecutors saw Masters convicted. He was sentenced to life in prison.
  • In hearings that began in September, Masters' new defense team alleged police and prosecutorial misconduct in the investigation and trial.
  • On January 22, a judge threw out the conviction and freed Masters after DNA evidence pointed to someone else.

Aside from the chatter, the interest in the case has manifested itself in presents, favors and letters of support, Masters said Tuesday after his first week of freedom.

"I've had so much support and every place I've been people have just been nice to me," he said. "It's pretty cool."

Masters received a tidy discount at a Greeley suit shop the day after he was released. His aunt bought his 1996 Pontiac from one of his cousins and gave it back to Masters.

"He loved that car as much as I do," Masters said.

He's also received gift cards, a digital camera and several checks, ranging from $5 to $1,000, he said. The money helps because he's still looking for a job, said the former aircraft mechanic.

One letter of support accompanied a "welcome back to the outside world gift package," containing a cell phone, an MP3 player and instructions on how to use the devices. It also contained Wal-Mart and Blockbuster cards, books, coffee, biscotti and a warning: "Starbucks is now taking over the world."

"Enjoy each day, Mr. Masters," read the letter. "When the sun rises and sets, and you are free to view it from wherever you want, free to pick out your own dinner, and never again wear a color that you don't choose, treasure each moment... these are your days now."

The support helps him cope emotionally after being locked up for a crime that for 21 years he has insisted he didn't commit.

"People have been so nice, I can't feel bitter right now," he said. "I really appreciate all the support everyone's shown."

Though out of prison, Masters still carries the label "suspect." District Attorney Larry Abrahamson made that clear in his order to dismiss charges against Masters.

The new DNA doesn't vindicate Masters, Abrahamson wrote, but it "clearly warrants a complete re-examination of the evidence related to the murder of Peggy Hettrick."

Masters said he was relieved the charges were dismissed, "but I didn't care too much for the language of his motion." Masters' defense attorneys voiced a stronger reaction.

"They're still trying to keep him on a leash," said attorney Maria Liu. "They know there's not one single shred of evidence against Tim Masters and they don't have the backbone or integrity to acknowledge it."

Added attorney David Wymore, "I've got more evidence excluding Tim than I do excluding Larry Abrahamson from the murder of Peggy Hettrick."

Abrahamson did not return a phone call or an e-mail sent to his office this week.

This week, Colorado Attorney General John Suthers agreed to investigate Hettrick's murder. Suthers' only comment was a brief statement that there was no timetable for the investigation and that the Colorado Bureau of Investigation would assist the effort.

At least one Fort Collins police officer involved in the Hettrick case is being investigated by two specially appointed district attorneys and by his own police department. Separately, the prosecutors in Masters' 1999 murder trial are under investigation by the state Supreme Court's Office of Attorney Regulation. The two prosecutors, both now judges, said through their clerks they did not wish to comment on an ongoing investigation.

While there remains a possibility that Masters could again face a judge and jury, Wymore said he is more concerned with Masters' new life outside the courthouse.

Masters is subsisting on the generosity of those who sympathize with his plight, mainly Colorado lawyers who are sending him a few hundred dollars here, a few hundred there, Wymore said.

As for compensation from the state or city, "Nada. They haven't even called him," Wymore said. "He just gets thrown in the bucket of suspects again."

For now, Wymore will not discuss the possibility of suing the city or state for compensation. "My concern is getting Tim back to whole again," he said. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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