"It's a violent world, especially in Los Angeles County, for peace officers," says Deputy District Attorney Darren Levine, who is also the chief instructor of an Israeli Army hand-to-hand combat system that is used by approximately 300 police departments.
Levine is part of the "Crimes Against Police Officers" unit, set up to prosecute anyone who wounds or kills a law enforcement officer. "We have to have a unit like this because in any given week, we could have five, six, seven, eight, 10 police officers shot at," says Levine. "Back then, it wasn't like that."
Los Angeles County used to be a much safer place. But a cold-blooded cop killing in 1957 would haunt the police force in El Segundo for nearly half a century. Correspondent Bill Lagattuta reports on this 48 Hours Mystery.
Bob Dewar, 64, was just 17 back in 1957. Dewar was one of four teenagers coming home from a summer party one night, when he and his friends decided to make a stop at Lover's Lane.
"I rolled the window down. … And that's when the gun came through the window," recalls Dewar. "'This is a robbery.' I said, gotta be somebody pulling a prank. But the gun was real."
Officer Levine said the gunman came prepared with surgical tape and a flashlight. The gunman covered the teenagers' eyes with tape and ordered them to take their clothes off. Naked, bound and blind, Dewar, his buddy, and their 15-year-old dates had no choice but to do what they were told.
"He came around from the driver's side to the passenger side, opened the car and raped the girl," says Dewar.
What had started as a night of innocent fun had now become a horrible dream from which Dewar thought he and his friends might never escape.
"He asked us to get out of the car. He said, 'I think I'm gonna kill you. I want you to march out into the field,'" says Dewar. "The girls were crying, and I didn't know what to think. I mean, I couldn't believe this was gonna happen."
"I figured that it's just takes four bullets and we're all gone," Dewar continues. "And then we heard the car door close and he drove away."
One girl was raped, and three other teenagers, including Dewar, were robbed and terrorized. But the gunman's night wasn't over yet. While making his getaway in the stolen '49 Ford, he made one simple mistake that would add murder to his list of crimes.
"At the corner of Sepulveda Boulevard and Rosecrantz, the suspect stopped for the red light. And then, for an unknown reason, proceeded through the red light," recalls Lt. Craig Cleary, who was just 18 months old at the time of the crime.
Now, as an investigator for the El Segundo Police Department, Cleary knows as much about what happened that night as if he had been there. "There was a marked black-and-white unit parked off the side of the road that obviously the suspect didn't see," says Cleary.
In that patrol car were two young El Segundo policemen -- Officer Richard Phillips and Rookie Officer Milton Curtis – who decided to pull over the '49 Ford. Soon after, a second police car with Officers James Gilbert and Charlie Porter drove by.
Not knowing what had taken place minutes earlier at Lover's Lane, these officers assumed that it was just another routine traffic stop. "Officer Philips appeared to be getting ready to start a citation, and as we stopped and looked the situation over," recalls Gilbert. "He waved a paper at us, like everything was all right. So, we went ahead."
Officers Porter and Gilbert would be the last people to ever see their fellow officers alive. Just seconds later, there was a call on the radio. "Officer Philips said on the radio that they'd been shot, and needed an ambulance," recalls Porter, who raced back to the scene.
It was too late. Phillips had been fatally wounded, shot three times in the back. Curtis was already dead. He was shot three times as well, while still sitting in his patrol car.
"To have them killed like that, right in cold blood," says Gilbert. "It was pretty hard to take."
The call for help came over the radio at 1:28 a.m., and in the short time it took for Gilbert and Porter to respond, the killer had simply disappeared.
Hundreds of police officers from El Segundo and the neighboring communities scoured the area all night. They found the stolen '49 Ford, but there was no sign of the suspect.
"We never gave up," says Porter. "We've always kept looking and looking and looking. The case was never closed."
For Jean Curtis, the memory of her husband, Milton Curtis, will always be closest to her heart. "He was my first love. I never got over the first love. I don't think anybody does, really," says Jean. All she has left is a plaque from the police department with her husband's original badge on it.
What does she remember the night Milton was killed? "We had a little argument, and I've always felt bad about that," says Jean. "We didn't get to say goodbye."
Just a few hours later, Jean would become a 23-year-old widow. And on July 22, 1957, the residents of El Segundo would suddenly find themselves at the center of one of the largest manhunts in California history. It was a crime that would become one of the oldest unsolved murder cases in Los Angeles County. And it was a crime that would haunt Deputy District Attorney Darren Levine 46 years later.
"You can imagine the scrutiny and all the resources that were put forth to try and solve this case back in 1957," says Levine.
But there was one problem. "There has been no report of the '49 Ford having been stolen," says Levine. "There's no report out on the airwaves of this rape and robbery that had just occurred."
In fact, at the time of the murders, the teenagers – naked and terrified – had just been found wandering the streets, looking for help. When their story was finally reported, investigators were already arriving at the scene of this crime.
Howard Speaks, now 83, was the first to arrive that morning as a crime scene investigator with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. "I took some pictures, I think, of the back of the car," says Speaks. "Bullet holes in the trunk, two in the rear windshield that shattered the windshield. So we know that the car was hit three times."
To this day, Cleary and all the members of the El Segundo Police Department are amazed at how those bullet holes got there.
"Officer Phillips happened to be one of the top marksmen on the department at the time," says Speaks. "After being shot and actually in the process of dying, he was able to give off six shots at the fleeing suspect vehicle hitting the vehicle three times."
Phillips may have marked his killer for life. "Two rounds were recovered from the interior of the vehicle, one was not," adds Cleary. "The suspect might be carrying a bullet from Office Phillips' handgun."
Did the killer leave something behind in the stolen '49 Ford – something that would lead investigators in the right direction? Today, samples of DNA can point the way to a killer. But back in 1957, they would have to rely on the best tool they had the time: the fingerprint kit.
Speaks searched the car from bumper-to-bumper, searching for anything that might lead them to a suspect.
"I was very hopeful knowing that he must have been highly nervous and perspiring. He had to leave fingerprints on the steering wheel," says Speaks. "I just dusted the steering wheel and moved it around and found the ridges that were showing. I found two latent lifts of the left thumb print."
Now, investigators needed to put a face on their suspect. Fortunately, there were several witnesses who would never forget the man they had seen that night. Dewar, who had been held at gunpoint by the suspect for almost an hour, says he looked at the man.
Officer Porter also says he had a good look at the suspect: "He was about 6 feet tall, probably 200 pounds, short hair, and he had a peculiar way he held his head. He was arrogant or frightened. It looked a little bit of both."
It would take authorities nearly half a century to find the man who committed those crimes that night. But new technology would finally catch up with this old mystery.
Homicide Det. Kevin Lowe and Det. Dan Macelderry inherited the coldest case on the books. "Ice cold," says Lowe. "It was colder than cold."
But in September 2002, a phone call to the El Segundo Police Department, from a woman who said she had some new information on the murders, became the most promising new lead in years. The call was from a woman who said her uncle had bragged about being responsible for murdering two El Segundo police officers.
Their first order of business was simple: to see if the 1957 fingerprint matched up with their new suspect. "We gave the information to the crime lab," says Lowe. "They worked it. They cleaned up the print."
The prints were sent to the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department crime lab, which is easily the busiest in the country, handling more than 70,000 cases a year. They used the same print that Speaks lifted in 1957.
Dale Falicon and Don Keir, top specialists in fingerprint identification, immediately knew that their new suspect was no match to the old print.
But they decided to try again, this time with the advantage of modern science. Using everyday computer technology that was not even dreamt of in 1957, Keir was able to digitally reprocess the original photographs.
Even with a new digital image of the original fingerprint, you still have to have someplace to search for a match. After the events of 9/11, the FBI finally created a nation-wide computer database that includes a copy of every criminal fingerprint in every state in the entire country.
They loaded a digital copy of the killer's print into the system. And just like that, a man that had eluded capture for nearly half a century was found in a matter of minutes.
The print tied investigators to Gerald F. Mason, who was arrested for burglary in 1956 in South Carolina. It was the only time he had ever been arrested, and it was the only record they had on file.
Some quick police work easily located Mason, who was, remarkably, still living in his hometown of Columbia, S.C. He wasn't a career criminal, but a retiree living with his family.
"We thought we were gonna be looking at a guy with a serious criminal history," says Det. Lowe.
But Lowe and Macelderry would need a lot more than just a decades-old fingerprint match to prove to a jury that Mason was indeed a cop killer.
Lowe says the first thing they did was look through boxes and boxes of evidence, collected over the years, which now had to be re-examined to see if any other clue could be connected to Gerald Mason.
"In 1960, the actual murder weapon was recovered in Manhattan Beach in a back yard," says Macelderry. "It was uncovered by a man that was doing some yard work."
"We were digging up the weeds when I found the gun," recalls Doug Tuley, who has lived in the same house since 1956. His house was less than a mile from the scene of the murders, in the same neighborhood police believe the killer used to make his escape.
"The finding of that gun was huge to this case also," says Macelderry. "The serial number was traced by investigators back then to Shreveport, Louisiana."
Officers Lowe and Macelderry followed the trail of evidence to Shreveport, 1,600 miles and 46 years from El Segundo, Calif. They found out that the gun was sold there in 1957, and sold by Billy Gene Clark.
"I pointed out that this was the least expensive one, at $29.95, then that's he decided that's what he wanted," recalls Clark, who was 18 at the time and working his first job behind the sporting goods counter at a local Sears.
Investigators found one name, G.D. Wilson, in a record of firearms sold at the store. Lowe says they started canvassing the area around the Sears and tracked George D. Wilson to a nearby YMCA.
The case finally went cold in 1960, after investigators checked out every George Wilson in the country and didn't find a match to the 1957 fingerprint. Obviously, G.D. Wilson was an alias. But Officers Lowe and Macelderry knew that one piece of evidence found here would close this case.
"They were able to locate the register from the actual piece of paper where he signed in to the YMCA as George D. Wilson," says Lowe.
Paul Edholme once worked at the Beverly Hills Police Department, and was one of the country's leading forensic document examiners. He was enlisted to examine the evidence. "The handwriting jumped off the page at me, and it was something that I'm going, you know, 'I gotcha.'"
He matched the handwriting of the George D. Wilson who checked into the YMCA to a South Carolina eye examination report in the name of Gerald F. Mason.
"If you put one [handwriting] over the other, I mean, it's almost identical," says Edholme. "I indicated to the sheriff's department that I was 99.9 percent sure that this was done by the same person."
Now confident that their case against Gerald Mason was solid, California detectives moved to South Carolina to finally get their man. But it wasn't over yet.
When Gerald Mason answered a knock on his front door on the morning of Jan. 29, 2003, he never expected that his past would finally catch up with him.
"He was just shocked. Completely shocked," says Lowe. "And he just kept saying, 'I don't understand. I don't understand why you're here.'"
El Segundo Police Lt. Craig Cleary, who took Mason into custody, said he never denied committing the crime. "He never denied it. He never reacted," says Cleary. "He just stared off and just shook his head."
Even though Mason was almost 70 years old, police still considered him potentially dangerous. A search of his house turned up a collection of loaded firearms. But this 46-year manhunt had turned up a fugitive very different than anyone had expected.
There's no record that Gerald Mason ever committed another crime after the 1957 police killings. Instead, he got married, raised a family and started his own business.
But the case against Mason was strong. Investigators had matching fingerprints and handwriting, but there was one piece of evidence investigators always wondered about -- one that would eliminate any doubt forever.
When he was examined, it was discovered that Mason had a bullet-shaped scar on his back. "He was in fact hit by gunfire from [Officer] Phillips, shot," says Macelderry.
"The last thing that officer did before he died was mark the man that killed him for life," adds Levine.
After a judicial hearing in South Carolina, Mason agreed to return to Los Angeles, to answer for his crimes. "Officers that hadn't been around for 20 years came in walking on canes," says Levine.
He was referring to officers like Howard Speaks, who lifted the fingerprint that solved the case. "I've been waiting for this date a long time, but the wait was well worth it," says Speaks.
Mason pleaded guilty to murdering officers Phillips and Curtis – and he tried to make amends before being sentenced to life in prison: "It's impossible to express to so many people how sorry I am. I do not understand why I did this. It does not fit in my life. It is not the person I know. I detest these crimes."
"He was remorseful," says Levine. "But I think he was more sad and more sorry for having been caught."
Mason will now spend what's left of the rest of his life in prison. But one question still remains: Why did he do it?
Why did Mason, after just getting out of prison for burglary, end up in California with a gun?
"I didn't have a family life. I didn't have any place to go, and things were not going well for me, so I took off to California," says Mason. "I bought a gun at Shreveport with the intention of using it simply as a deterrent in so far as I was hitchhiking."
When asked why he attacked the teenagers and raped a 15-year-old girl, Mason said he really didn't remember. But as far as why he killed two cops in cold blood, Mason's answer was shockingly simple: "I thought, 'If I don't get them, they're gonna get me.' So when the officer turned away from me, I shot both officers, got back in the car and drove away."
It was a simple answer for an incredibly senseless crime – but there was great comfort in knowing that after 46 years, these victims were never forgotten. The investigators were presented with pocket watches from the families of the slain officers. The message on the watch says, "Thank you seems so small."
"We carry these with us everywhere we go," says Lowe. "It's just a reminder of this great case and how it came together, and these great families that we feel such a part of now."
In the end, what it took to solve the case wasn't one clue or one break, but generations of police officers who were determined to protect their own.
"I didn't think I'd ever live to see it," says Speaks. "It'll live with me the rest of my days," says Porter.
Adds Levine: "I hope we brought them some measure of comfort, knowing that we got the guy."
The town of El Segundo hasn't changed much since that fateful night in 1957, but one thing has changed. The wounds that were suffered almost 50 years ago have finally begun to heal.
"I'm not his victim anymore. My son is not his victim anymore," says Curtis' wife, Jean. "I'm so grateful, and I had to wait this long. It's worth the wait."
Gerald Mason will be eligible for parole in 2017. He will be 83 years old. The State of California has vowed that he will never be released.