by Pat Hartman
(originally published at Nov. 27, 2007)

I’m telling a friend about this out-of-control, over-the-top example of judicial, prosecutorial, and three or four other brands of malfeasance, that’s been playing itself out in the local courthouse. Over the past few years, Fort Collins, Colorado has been proclaimed by several glossy magazines as the number one place to live in America. Perhaps so - unless you happen to get crossways of the police department, which an increasing number of blameless citizens have been managing to do for some time now. So, I’m telling my friend how things stand with this Tim Masters case, that dates back twenty years and is currently making national news, and he says, "Maybe it’s Mark Fuhrman time."

Fuhrman, who made a not very good name for himself around the time of the O.J. Simpson trial, has earned a mixed reputation since then, showing up in the midst of various murder investigations to expose screw-ups and cover-ups. Given the proneness of detectives to elect a suspect and then cut the evidence to fit, and how easy it is to convict a defendant without physical evidence, somebody’s got to be minding the store. Considering how tempting it is to give in to the importunities of the rich and powerful, somebody needs to mop up after police departments that are progressive enough to consult with psychics and forensic psychologists, but just plain don’t investigate very well. They say it takes a thief to catch a thief, so why shouldn’t it take an unprincipled cop to nail an unprincipled cop? Fuhrman has been compared with Torquemada, big boss of the Inquisitors. The scourge of police departments everywhere, he won’t let them hide those old decayed, moldering sins. "If you know there was a mistake," he says, "and you leave it that way… then that's a catastrophic mistake."

On the other hand, Fuhrman has his detractors, e.g. Brian Rooney, who considers it a damn shame that "a former law enforcement officer, publicly and criminally exposed as a corrupt fraud, can reinvent himself as a truth­seeker and forensics expert." One police chief made the laughable observation that the former Los Angeles cop has done more than any other man in the country to damage the credibility of the police in general. Fuhrman was pretty bad, granted, but if that chief hasn’t known worse, he hasn’t been paying attention. Another critic calls Fuhrman an adept opportunist, apparently because of his knack for making money. Trisha Ready, in one of the more charitable descriptions of him, says he has turned himself "from a perjuring Satan into a sleuthing Good Samaritan."

Be that as it may, no one can deny that when Mark Fuhrman shows up, things get stirred up. His scrutiny of a case tends to focus attention on it and goad the local police to engage their energies more vigorously. And yes, maybe it is Fuhrman Time here – not to imply that things haven’t been thoroughly shaken up already. In this Tim Masters snafu, thanks to a relentlessly dedicated coalition of brilliant post-conviction lawyers, former cops, investigative journalists, relatives, and citizens, revelations have been pouring forth in astonishing plenty. "Catastrophic mistake" doesn’t begin to describe the magnitude of the wickedness.

All we need now is to know who really murdered Peggy Hettrick, as she rambled around in the small hours one night in 1987. Someone killed her, probably in a car, with one knife thrust, and took her body to a place with good lighting and running water, excised one nipple and performed a partial vulvectomy, and washed away a considerable amount of blood. Then this someone, probably with another person’s help, transported the corpse into the middle of a field. Tim Masters, who had the bad luck to be 15 years old and enmeshed in the most superficially damning yet substantially meaningless web of circumstantial evidence ever created, was the chief suspect. Lacking so much as a scintilla of actual evidence, the police were unable to arrest him, though lord knows they tried. For years. Until finally a new player entered the game, an alleged expert in forensic psychology who cooked up a highly imaginative version of events and managed to sell it to a jury. Masters has spent eight years in prison, working toward the completion of a life sentence, and it’s about time he got out.

The current series of hearings, which continues to supply some very exciting reportage, came about because Masters filed paperwork saying his original lawyers didn’t do right by him. In some quarters, there also seems to be a feeling that the pair of them should have proved who really did the murder. It wasn’t, of course, their job, but that doesn’t stop some people from thinking so. Likewise, although this shouldn’t exist either, there seems to be a feeling that the current defense attorneys have an obligation to prove who the actual killer was. Hey, this team has enough on its hands already, just keeping track of the police department’s many lies, and the obstruction practiced by the District Attorney’s office, which in former days of rougher justice would have led the officials concerned to the scaffold or the headsman’s axe.

No doubt, Tim Masters will get a new trial and be exonerated. But just for the aesthetics of the thing, for the sheer closure value, it would be nice to know who killed Peggy Hettrick. As it stands, everybody has a raw deal. The victim, whose murderer may still lurk among us. The victim’s family, who haven’t seen justice done. The falsely convicted prisoner, and his family. The cops who have their heads on straight, but who are tainted by the misdeeds of fellow officers. And of course the public. From the small amount of faith in the system we still clung to, another chunk has been torn away and major hemorrhaging is in progress. Before us is yet more proof, if any were needed, that our public servants are vipers. Mistakes are bad enough, but cover-ups and intentional wrongdoing are unforgivable. Not to mention the squandering of resources. The state is paying half a million dollars to put up a defense for Tim Masters this time around, and who knows how many hundreds of thousands the whole mess has already cost, and guess whose pockets it all came from.

So maybe it is time for Fuhrman to get in here and figure out who killed Peggy Hettrick. Of course, it won’t be easy to prove, because the juiciest evidence seems to have a way of disappearing into some parallel dimension. Still, many more people every day become convinced that Tim Masters didn’t do it. Masters himself has always been certain that he didn’t. So, who did? Was it the part-time boyfriend? The Icicle Man? The local loser who killed two other women the same year? A drifter? A disgruntled barfly? Was it…the twisto doctor?

This mess is at least as complicated and suspect-rich as the other cases where Fuhrman made his post-Simpson reputation. Take Martha Moxley, the teenager killed in a Connecticut neighborhood of multi-million dollar homes, where parents sent their wayward adolescents to pricey "schools" that are actually torture academies. The girl was beaten to death with a golf club, and her mother believed it was done by one of the young wastrels hanging out at the Skakel house. But alas, it has been widely reported that the police did not get much cooperation from the Skakel family. (Why do the police need "cooperation" from Skakels, Ramseys, and their ilk? Why don’t they deploy the SWAT team that’s always itching for action, and simply bust up the place, like they do with the tacky apartments of single mothers and senior citizens in the shabby neighborhoods? Just asking.)

In the Connecticut matter, an official spokesperson said that the local gendarmes, not having met with a homicide case in three decades, made mistakes through inexperience. The hard truth is, no police department anywhere ought to make the elementary blunders that are avoided by little old lady detectives in cozy British murder mysteries. No excuses. An eight-year-old with sub-par IQ knows not to pick up evidence with bare hands; not to glom onto a suspect and then tailor the investigation; not to do any of the baldly unprofessional stunts performed in the kind of police work that ends up under the microscopic gaze of Fuhrman.

So the killing of Martha Moxley went twenty years without an arrest, till Fuhrman arrived on the scene and garnered nearly universal scorn. He solved the case by causing the conviction of a guy with a Kennedy connection. But Robert F. Kennedy Jr. said Fuhrman and his backers were full of it. The local police chief said nobody wanted him and he couldn’t do any possible good and yada yada yada, and anyway, the interloper only wanted to make money. Just because he signed a quarter-million dollar book contract? That’s hardly fair, especially since Fuhrman was never reticent about his fondness for projects involving "money, power, celebrity, deceit, corruption."

If Mark Fuhrman did descend upon the "Scary Doodles Case," as the conviction of Tim Masters for killing Peggy Hettrick has come to be called, it would be déjà vu all over again. The similarities between it and the Connecticut case include an eerie conjunction of elements, the same cards shuffled differently and holding different significance. Heavy circumstantial evidence, no witnesses, a 15-year-old technically minor child interrogated for hours without benefit of parent or guardian. Lag time, resulting in a defendant older and more developed than at the time of the crime. Theories positing skinny teenage boys capable of great feats of athleticism when it came to dragging dead women around, and with even more impressive powers of mental agility when it came to eradicating physical evidence. A multiplicity of viable suspects, including some deceased in the interim. Witnesses, too, eliminated by the attrition of time. Lost evidence and compromised evidence. Overconfident and under-motivated defense lawyers. Pornography.

In another re-examined case back East, Fuhrman found that the crucial early days of investigation were skipped because no one acted on a missing person report. The crime scene was examined by only one of the assigned detectives, and the appropriate crime scene log and assignment logs weren’t kept. The officers working the case weren’t told enough, the press found out too much, and one ego-driven lawman was excessively attached to the whole situation. The same problems turn up over and over again. When he looked into a series of prostitute murders in the Pacific Northwest, Fuhrman discovered that the police had had everything they needed to capture the killer a long time ago. He blamed their failure on technological over-reliance and a consequent neglect of traditional, contact-intensive police work. Fuhrman has also chronicled the death of Terry Schiavo and indicted the criminal justice system of Oklahoma, and the intrepid true-crime writer has even taken on the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

There are very important legal issues in this infamous false-conviction case, not to mention the fate of an innocent man who’s already served eight years in prison. The traits Fuhrman finds intriguing in a case - power, deceit, and corruption - are certainly present in abundance here. Celebrity, not so much. The most likely suspect was only a doctor, which, while more prestigious than being a retired military man like the father of Tim Masters, is not like being a Kennedy. Not even close. Although it wasn’t mentioned on the list, respect and an increase in reputation would surely accrue to whoever solved this thing definitively. And what about money – could there be a paycheck in it for Mark Fuhrman? Now, if only some philanthropist would pony up the dough to bring in the freelance detective. It’s not the worst idea we’ve heard this week.