by Pat Hartman

(written and first published in print September 2007)

Lately, you practically can’t turn around in Fort Collins without bumping into the Tim Masters story – and it’s about time. David Wymore, one of his lawyers, says the District Attorney’s office has “taken every opportunity for 20 years to express their bias and personal beliefs concerning Tim Masters…and sharing their innermost feelings…” If it’s good enough for the DA, it’s good enough for me. (Full disclosure: this writer is on Tim’s side.)

It’s appropriate to feel strongly about a flaw in the law so heinous that it could ruin any one of us. Thanks to crusading reporters, Tim Masters has become a symbol of the system gone wild. Evidence was mishandled, misplaced, misused, misappropriated and messed up, spurring state-wide calls for reform. Thanks to the courage of several police officers, we finally see into matters that highly-placed people hoped would remain hidden. Now, we know about the twisted lifestyle of Dr. Richard Hammond, who was never officially a suspect in the 1987 murder of Peggy Hettrick, but who should have been at the top of the list.

The history of this case is difficult to keep track of, stretching back over so many years and involving so many participants. The hardest part is to count the mind-boggling number of things wrong with it. This is the nitty gritty: we would not now be confronting the DNA evidence scandal, or shaking our heads over Dr. Hammond’s secret life, if the Tim Masters case had been done right in the first place – because there never would have been a Tim Masters case. The authorities made, and may still be making, a series of bad calls that for two decades have multiplied like compound interest.

20 Years of Fubar

Tim became the prime suspect because he didn’t immediately report seeing Peggy’s body in the field. But there are forensic psychologists who swear the prime suspect should be the person who does report finding a body. Where’s the logic? Anyway, a faction of the police department locked in on Tim Masters, developed tunnel vision and, resenting the total lack of evidence to tie him to the crime, simmered with frustration for years.

In early 1995, when Dr. Richard Hammond’s week of disgrace ended in suicide, he was ignored as the possible killer of Peggy Hettrick. By the time Tim Masters was arrested in mid-1998, the Hammond evidence had been destroyed and the Hammond case had been neatly tucked into the memory hole. Everybody in the police department and DA’s office knew about it, but when Tim was arrested, more than 10 years after the murder and 3 years after the Hammond weirdness, they were like, “Dr. who?”

People always ask: Why did it take so long to arrest Tim Masters? The answer is, because there was no evidence to justify doing so. When the warrant was eventually drawn up, there was no new evidence – only a new tactic.

Officer Broderick went to retired FBI profiler Roy Hazelwood, who might not have said what he wanted to hear. Hazelwood has stated publicly that those who commit sex crimes “don’t stop, start, stop and start. They’re never dormant.” Since Tim Masters had gone 11 years without committing any sex crimes, this would, by the profiler’s own reasoning, eliminate him as a suspect. Unable to help, Hazelwood did recommend a colleague.

Dr. Reid Meloy is a forensic psychologist with impressive degrees and credentials, if you’re into being impressed by degrees and credentials. He is recognized as an expert on stalking, violent sex crimes, risk management, and the Rorschach test. His famous quotation is, “Once they start to murder, the act becomes habitual.” Despite this pronouncement, he was able to overlook the clean record of Tim Masters, out in the world for 11 years without killing anybody, in contradiction of his own theory.

The police packed up 2200 pages of writings and drawings they had seized from Tim Masters when he was 15 and sent them off to Dr. Meloy, who was hired to formulate a relationship between Tim and the murder of Petty Hettrick. They didn’t send anybody else’s drawings for analysis, and Meloy never interviewed Tim in person. For a $70,000 paycheck, he constructed a highly imaginative circumstantial case.

The arrest warrant ran to 30 pages, most of it direct quotes from Dr. Meloy. The justification for the arrest consisted of the stale evidence from 1987, which had already proven inadequate, and Dr. Meloy’s professional opinion of a person he had never met. The affidavit included the untrue information that Tim’s mother had red hair, a lie that was maintained throughout the succeeding legal actions, with a negative impact on Tim’s fate.

When the murder charge came to trial, in 1999, some observers thought the big, challengeable issue would be the admission of the “productions.” This did indeed turn out to be one of the questions later brought to the Supreme Court, which ruled that “the drawings and writings were essential to the prosecution’s theory of the case.” In other words, it’s an open admission that, without the notebooks and papers confiscated from Tim, there would have been no case. Basically, they’re saying: When the prosecution has nothing to show but bleep (Meloy’s theories), rather than call the whole thing off, what you do is bring in some more bleep (hundreds of pages of doodles) to throw on top of it.

Legal opinion is also divided on whether Dr. Meloy should have been allowed to testify. The law says, a qualified witness can give an opinion if it helps the jury to “understand the evidence or to determine a fact.” The prosecution needed Dr. Meloy to explain to the jury how and why the drawings and stories made by Tim were relevant to the murder proceedings. And the Supreme Court bought into that too. In the majority opinion, the judges said the “productions” needed to be admitted as evidence, to “give the jury a basis for evaluating testimony by a psychologist who testified.”

It’s a textbook illustration of circular logic. They had to have the notebooks, so the jury would know what Meloy was talking about as he spun his theories. And they had to have Meloy’s testimony, so he could tell the jurors how they were supposed to interpret the notebooks. The absurdity is mind-bending, especially when someone’s life is at stake. Actually, neither the “productions” nor the psychologist should have gotten through the door. The Supreme Court was asked to look at the faulty reasoning, not just take it for granted. The majority judges failed us all, when they let that one slip by.

So, now the bleep is two layers deep, with more on the way.

Everybody’s a forensic psychologist

The day after Peggy’s body was discovered, the news quoted a police officer’s opinion about why it was left in the middle of a field, when there was a nearby ditch it could have been dragged into. "That shows he has a perverted mind and he's showing off." Which doesn’t even make any sense in its own frame of reference. Whether Peggy was killed at the edge of the road, or brought in dead and dropped off at the roadside, in either case it would be more logical for a show-off to leave the body right there - where the public would pass by and see it. The dragging into a field looks more like an attempt, however feeble, to remove the body from sight. So: no showing off. Why didn’t the killer make a good job of it then, and hide the body more effectively, in the ditch? Because he wasn’t familiar enough with the field at ground level to know that if he dragged the body just a little further, there would be a ditch. (Which points away from Tim, who was very familiar with that piece of ground.)

Amateur shrinks are bad enough, but the professionals can be hell. Meet Steven Moss, who wrote “Opinion for Sale: Confessions of an Expert Witness.” He says, “More often than not, only one [side] has the financial resources to get its story heard. Not everyone has access to a top-shelf expert at $600 an hour. The winner is too often the side wealthy enough to purchase the highest-caliber experts.”

In the hard sciences, the expert witness game may not be quite so much of a racket. But when it comes to psychology, expert witnessing is a sanctimonious scam on a grand scale. Psychiatric opinion evidence has been widely accepted in cases where the mental state of the accused needs assessment, and this could be a very bad thing. In the case of Tim Masters, even the appeals court admitted that “the research and theories upon which the prosecution expert relied are relatively new and not universally accepted.” But they went ahead and bought into the whole myth of the red-headed mother, the displaced matricide, etc. etc.

Whether or not Tim gets a new trial, and even though he is innocent, the facts and circumstances of his life will join the authorities’ supposed knowledge about murderers. The drawings will become part of what they fondly think of as their database, but which is miles from being scientific. Profiling is a synonym for guessing, drawing unwarranted conclusions from untrustworthy evidence, and making up bleep. Whether the conviction stands or falls, there’s no doubt the particulars of this case, "victim's hair same color as mother's" and "kills on anniversary of mother's death", will become embedded in the lore of the profilers. The non-existent red hair and the alleged anniversary murder will be added to the curriculum at FBI school, to further confirm the preconceptions and perpetuate the inaccuracies taught to the next generation of acolytes in the necromantic trade. Forensic psychiatry, as a science, is in a league with psychic hotlines and penis enlargement.

Give me a truck to carry away all the papers and books from Reid Meloy’s house and office. Pay me thousands to pore over this stuff for months and formulate a relationship between him and the murder of Peggy Hettrick. On paper, I could prove he killed her. Or maybe the trial judge did it, or just about anyone who reads this. All it takes, to make an elaborate and convincing case against any suspect when there is no real evidence, is a little imagination and a whole lot of chutzpah.

Ancient History Revisited

The many exciting recent developments in this case have an unfortunate side effect. The first cause is delivered with one perfunctory sentence, such as “He was convicted primarily based on an analysis of his violent drawings...” The wrongful conviction of one man, which is costing the taxpayers a ton of money, was accomplished on the word of one man, the forensic psychologist. If people really understood what this means, there would be riots in the streets.

When Tim Masters was tried for murder the jury members, like mushrooms, were kept in the dark and fed manure. The fact that the defendant had grown into a man’s physique must have worked against him. Even if they couldn’t picture a skinny 15-year-old killing a woman with one knife blow and then dragging her body across a field, they could all too easily envision this adult doing so. As we have learned, they were told nothing of Dr. Hammond, who should have been suspect number one. And they had to deal with the confusion between writings and drawings created by a young teenager, and those which issued from the pen of an adult.

As a result, Tim was convicted because, as one juror told a reporter, "He admitted his guilt to us through his pictures." Tim was sentenced to life in prison; took it to the Appeals Court, got shot down; took it to the Supreme Court, which looked at some complex legal angles and let the conviction stand. But – and here’s what a lot of people don’t realize – there are seven judges on the Supreme Court bench. Four of them bought the outright lies which had persisted throughout the case and were never corrected, and also bought Dr. Meloy’s bleep. The majority went against Tim.

, Justice Martinez, Justice Bender, and Chief Justice Mullarkey saw things differently. The dissenting opinion examines at length such legal principles as the admissibility of uncharged acts. These are things the defendant has done or is said to have done, other than what he or she is on trial for. There’s a major debate about whether a jury can know about uncharged previous acts. If there’s so much controversy over actual actions, including previous crimes, then pieces of paper with words and pictures on them should be even less allowable in a trial as evidence. It’s not just me saying this. The dissenting opinion written by the three Supreme Court judges says, “First, the writings and drawings are not even ‘acts.’”

Right. Drawing a picture or writing a description of somebody getting hit over the head with a two-by-four is not the same as actually hitting somebody over the head with a two-by-four. If you don’t believe it, let’s do an experiment. We’ll bring in an artist to draw a picture of hitting you; and a novelist to write a paragraph about hitting you; and a goon to hit you. You tell me, which one hurt the most?

And the whole damn trial was built on this non-evidence, right from the prosecutor’s jury-seducing opening statement: “This case is very different than most murder cases…. It is a case of an individual acting out a fantasy life.”

Again, it isn’t only me. “From the beginning of this case until the verdict, the defendant’s uncharged fantasies dominated.” That’s a direct quote from the dissenting judges. They said the admission of Tim’s productions “cast an irreparable cloud of condemnation over the defendant” and guaranteed that the trial would be unfair. “There exists a substantial risk,” the judges said, “that the defendant was convicted not for what he did, but for who he is.” And this (need it be mentioned?) is not the American way.

(First published in Fort Collins Forum)