Friends: Accused Killer Led Quiet Life
Feb. 10, 2003
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) _ Long-time friends say it's hard to understand how a man who lived a quiet, law-abiding life for more than four decades is charged with killing two California police officers more than 45 years ago.
The people who have known Gerald Fiten Mason for years struggle to comprehend the arrest of their good friend. They describe Mason, 69, as a simple, helpful, outgoing family man.
Police say that may be an accurate portrayal of the past four decades, but they allege Mason was different in 1957. That's when he is alleged to have kidnapped four teenagers, raped a girl and killed two officers in a case that went cold until the investigation was resurrected last September.
For more than 30 years, Dayton Sisson, 83, lived next door to Mason in Cayce, about 10 minutes from downtown Columbia. Sisson and Mason shared a driveway and part of their lives in their quiet neighborhood.
The two helped one another cut down tall, spindly pine trees that might snap and crash onto their homes during a storm. They played golf and helped each other build garages. Mason, the handyman, was always the supervisor.
``If it hadn't been for him, I wouldn't have no garage like this,'' said Sisson, standing by his one-car garage looking over Mason's old backyard. Then, reflecting on the charges against his old neighbor, adds, ``I really hope it's not true.''
Mason is charged with robbing four teenagers, two girls and two boys, at a lovers lane in California on July 22, 1957 and then raping a girl before fleeing in the car of one of the boys. About 90 minutes later, two El Segundo, Calif., police officers pulled the car over. A man got out and shot both officers before fleeing on foot, authorities said.
Police in California reopened their investigation last September after receiving a tip. While the tip proved false, a new FBI database matched Mason's fingerprints from South Carolina to those found in the stolen car, authorities say.
Mason plans to fight extradition.
A judge has scheduled a Feb. 20 hearing to determine if authorities legally obtained a saliva sample from Mason when he was arrested at his home in a retirement community across town late last month.
Friends and neighbors don't know much about Mason's childhood and don't remember him ever talking about it.
Born in Columbia on Jan. 31, 1934, he had four brothers, enrolled in the Army in 1950s and was honorably discharged, his attorney Chris Mills says.
Mason studied business for a semester in 1954 at the University of South Carolina. In April of 1956, he was arrested and sentenced to prison for three years, suspended to one, for homebreaking and larceny.
Released from prison after about eight months, police allege Mason used an alias to purchase a pistol at a Sears in Shreveport, La., four days before the officers were killed. As to why Mason might have gone to California, authorities say they are still investigating.
Mason married his wife Betty in September 1960 and the couple had two daughters. He owned and operated several service stations before retiring in the 1990s.
Mason's brother Don says the arrest is a case of mistaken identity. His brother, he says, is not capable of killing anyone.
C.M. Carter, who lives a couple of doors down from Sisson, also knew Gerald Mason for about 30 years.
``I keep thinking back,'' Carter says. ``He didn't even have a temper and everybody has a temper.''
``Nobody has ever heard him mention California,'' Carter's wife, Betty adds.
Carter said if there was any inkling Gerald Mason committed a crime, he's sure the two would have discussed it. And they had plenty of time to talk during their many rounds of golf, dirt bike rides or trips to nearby Lake Murray.
``The whole thing is so mind-boggling,'' Carter says.
Carter and Sisson don't doubt they really knew Gerald Mason and say he is and always will be a friend.
Mason's neighbors at the retirement community describe him the same way.
He was a handyman, who helped fix sprinklers and water lawns, says Oscar Peeler, 85, who lives across the street. ``He's the best neighbor I ever had.''