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Silence golden as couple awaits justice for daughter

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Chaffee County officials mum on arrest warrants for potential suspects

By Gene Sears

SALIDA – Bill and Miriam Gaede, of Brighton, found a measure of long-sought satisfaction late Friday, when the jury in a special coroner’s inquest into the suspicious 2004 death of their daughter, Nancy Mason, returned to the courtroom, following deliberations, and said nothing.

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Under the strict rules of the Chaffee County Coroner’s inquest into the cause of Mason’s death (initially listed as accidental), had the jury reached a verdict of homicide in the case and issued arrest warrants, the family would be the last to know. The case would be sealed at that point from all public inquiry.

Chaffee County Coroner Randy Amettis offered no comment Monday to a news report that murder warrants had been issued in the case for potential suspects Dan Mason and Efren Gallegos. For the Gaedes, no news would be good news, for a change.

Nancy Mason, 47, died following a reported fall from a cliff into Chalk Creek in remote Chaffee County while on a fishing trip with husband, Dan Mason, and his live-in companion, Efren Gallegos. Chaffee County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Keith Pinkston, suspicious of the accident scene and the accounts of Mason and Gallegos, had long sought a grand jury in the case.

The inquest was an effort by the department and the coroner’s office to shine additional light into the case – and bypass the district attorney – by reclassifying the manner and parties responsible for Nancy Mason’s death. Amettis presided over the hearing with help from Chaffee County Attorney Jenny Davis.

Day 1

Following jury selection, Pinkston presented the foundation of his case to reclassify Mason’s death from accidental to a homicide. After whittling the jury pool from 11 prospects to six jurors and one alternate, Pinkston led them through a four-hour PowerPoint presentation of evidence gleaned by the Chaffee County Sheriff’s Office in the case since 2004.

Evidence included timelines of the day of Mason’s death as and the hours and days immediately following the incident, during which Dan Mason and his friend, Efren Gallegos, allegedly cashed out Nancy’s life insurance policy, cleared out a string of his and Nancy’s bank accounts and took multiple steps to remove all physical traces of Nancy from his life.

Particularly damning in Pinkston’s eyes was a written script found by CCSO detectives during a search of the Mason residence, which chronicled the events of the day Nancy Mason died in meticulous detail from Gallegos’ perspective. According to Pinkston, Dan Mason admitted writing the document, saying it was a form of therapy suggested by a grief support group following Nancy’s untimely demise. Pinkston noted that the script was found beside Gallegos’ bed, on his nightstand, and not in Dan Mason’s possession.

Pinkston found a document changing Nancy’s Mason’s will and executor information and instructions for the dissolution of a marriage on computers seized from the home. Of particular interest to Pinkston’s team was the Internet search history on Dan Mason’s computer, which detailed searches for ghost towns, silent weaponry and poisons.

Pinkston, wary of the responding officer’s initial account of the accident scene, recounted how he began investigating the case almost immediately, suspecting foul play. The officer, according to Pinkston, has since been removed from the department due in part to his handling of the case.

The jurors bundled into a convoy of county vehicles in the afternoon for a tour of the sites that Pinkston showed them throughout the morning presentation. The visit included the Chalk Creek site where Nancy was presumed to have fallen to her death.

Dan Mason recounted to investigators hearing Nancy scream his name from about 80 yards upstream. Pinkston called it an implausible scenario because of the roar from the snowmelt-fed creek. The coroner’s report listed Nancy’s cause of death as a broken neck, which also would have made screaming highly unlikely. To illustrate the point, the scream was recreated for the jurors, with a woman located at the point Nancy Mason was said to have fallen screaming for the jurors, located at the approximate point where Dan Mason said he heard her. No jurors were able to discern the sounds above the water, and most had to crane their necks to hear Pinkston give his briefing from roughly six feet away

Salida Fire Department Capt. Chris Bainbridge, a 15-year veteran and whitewater expert, testified that the scenario put forth by Mason and Gallegos was “highly unlikely,” particularly Nancy’s supposed fall into the river. He said he found it implausible that Nancy Mason floated downstream due to the presence of a “strainer,” or log, in her projected path of travel, and a rock situated near the point where she supposedly fell, either of which would have trapped her body upstream.

Day Two

First on the list of those scheduled to testify on day two of testimony were married couple Lynn and Judy Cleveland.

They took the stand separately but shared mirrored accounts of meeting Dan Mason and Efren Gallegos the day of Nancy Mason’s death on a rugged four-wheel drive road near Alpine. Judy Cleveland said a planned ATV ride with her husband to St. Elmo was cut short when Dan Mason, driving a 2002 Nissan Pathfinder with Gallegos in the passenger seat, flagged the pair down, desperate to find a working telephone to report Nancy’s fall into Chalk Creek.

Lynn Cleveland agreed to take Mason and Gallegos to Judy’s parent’s cabin roughly a half-mile away. Judy remembered a palpable unease as she locked eyes with Gallegos, a feeling that failed to dissipate when he again averted his gaze.

Upon their arrival at the cabin, Judy’s father assisted Dan Mason with notifying authorities, a task Judy labeled as complicated by Mason’s apparent inability or unwillingness to clearly articulate Nancy Mason’s location to the 911 dispatcher. Judy’s mother then provided Mason and Gallegos with blankets to return to the scene and wait for paramedics. Judy and Lynn Cleveland followed on their ATV to help.

Arriving at the scene minutes behind Mason and Gallegos, the couple was surprised to find Nancy Mason uncovered, one leg still in the water, while Dan Mason sat, wrapped in a blanket some 20 feet away in a grassy area and Gallegos, still farther from the body and wrapped in a blanket, crouched on the hillside. Cleveland testified that she found it odd that the only fishing gear visible at the scene was neatly packed in the Masons’ SUV and that “there were no signs that anyone had been fishing,” despite Dan’s claim that all three had been angling at the time of the accident.

Lynn Cleveland corroborated Judy’s version of events. He was certified in CPR and immediately went to Nancy’s aid but found no pulse, no breathing and “poor coloring,” noting that Nancy’s skin had taken on a purplish cast. Cleveland tried to reassure Dan Mason but reported that Dan began hyperventilating at that point and thought he was suffering a heart attack.

Retired Chaffee County Emergency Medical Technician Ken Porter, testified that he connected Nancy Mason to a heart monitor but failed to locate any heart activity. He also noted a severe laceration to the left side of her forehead.

While checking on Nancy, his partner noted Dan exhibiting symptoms similar to a heart attack. After Porter covered Mason’s body, he attached a heart monitor to Dan Mason, who was not suffering a heart attack according to the device. Shortly thereafter, Gallegos complained of similar symptoms and a second ambulance was dispatched.

When that vehicle arrived, Porter’s ambulance left for the hospital with Dan Mason and Gallegos on board. During the trip, Porter questioned the pair and received answers only from Mason. He told him that Gallegos was his and Nancy’s business partner.

Mason recounted hearing his wife, Nancy, scream, at which time he ran to the car. Failing to find her, he ran back to the stream to find Nancy floating face down in the water. Mason told Porter that the embankment from where she was fishing broke out from under her feet, causing the fall.

Subsequent witnesses at the hospital testified to odd behavior on the part of and between Mason and Gallegos. Among that group was former Chaffee County victim’s advocate Randa Bess, who noted that Mason wanted to be alone to tell Gallegos of Nancy’s passing and seemed to be overly concerned with consoling him.

Following a two-hour lunch recess, during which the coroner’s inquest staff reportedly met behind closed doors with Chaffee County District Attorney Thom LeDoux, an obviously miffed LeDoux appeared before the court and announced his office would be unable to participate in the hearing because of a lack of a formal invite or notification. When asked if LeDoux’s decision would have any impact on the proceedings, Amettis declined comment but Davis said the the inquest would proceed.

The most dramatic testimony of the day came when Nancy’s parents, and sons, Wesley and Matthew Linville, took the stand in the afternoon session.

Bill Gaede filled in gaps concerning Nancy’s childhood and education and her first marriage to Todd Linville and subsequent marriage to Dan Mason. Never a fan of Dan Mason, Gaede recounted Gallegos moving in with the Masons for what was supposed to be “a little while,” and his attempts to isolate Nancy from her family. Following Nancy’s death, Gaede told the court of Dan’s attempts to disassociate himself from the funeral preparations and blocked the family’s attempts to secure mementoes and belongings of Nancy.

Miriam Gaede recounted going to the Mason residence unannounced to collect family heirlooms after Nancy’s death, only to be stopped by a reluctant Gallegos at the door. Gallegos claimed Mason was not home. Pushing past him into the house, Miriam discovered a completely redecorated environment with no trace of Nancy to be found. Dan Mason later came up from the basement despite Gallegos’ claim he wasn’t home.

A poignant moment in the witness testimony came when Nancy’s eldest son, Matthew Linville, testified via teleconference. As his voice broke into choked sobs, Linville told of hearing of his mother’s death from his brother, Wesley.

Day 3

More dramatic testimony filled the Chaffee County courthouse on the third day of testimony as Dan Mason’s ex-wife and sister testified, both with disturbing tales of a man more in love with money and control than the women he married.

Janet Kiddy, Mason’s wife from 1989 until they separated in 2000, took the stand in the afternoon, keeping the jury and gallery captivated from her opening words. She described how Mason alienated her from family and friends, moving from her hometown, Littleton, to an unknown life in Texas (a move she said Mason told her he felt he had to make to escape a drug-dealing past). Once relocated, she said Dan intensified a campaign of abuse “of every kind – physical, verbal, emotional,” against her. The testimony included repeated incidents in which Mason held knives to her throat and threatened to kill her. She also described a time when Mason held a pillow over her face until she passed out while he peppered her with blows to her head and stomach. Kiddy quietly endured the abuse for several years, she said, due to her fear of Mason, a fear which finally moved her to action in 1992. She said Mason threatened her again, saying he would “kill her, and this time he meant it.” Kiddy said she ran to a nearby 7-11 convenience store and begged the clerk to call the police. Mason was arrested and served a few days in lockup, Kiddy said.

Kiddy finally left Mason after she refused his order to physically abuse her daughter, a decision she said enraged Mason. When Mason departed for Las Vegas looking for work, she made her break with him, moving back to the relative safety of her parents’ home. She testified that her ex-husband would later tell her, “Nancy is not my type, and I don’t love her. She just has a nice house and a lot of money.”

Mason’s sister, Sandra Moody, also said Mason confided early on in the marriage that he was not in love with Nancy, just that she was a “good person and good to him.” Moody testified to Dan Mason’s lifelong substance abuse problems, saying he started quite young and “tried everything, coke, heroin, meth.” She also testified to his explosive and irrational bursts of rage that left Moody feeling awkward and frightened of her brother.

Moody recounted traveling from her Utah home to the Mason residence in Highlands Ranch, following Nancy Mason’s death, to help Dan sort through Nancy’s belongings. When she began the Herculean task, he was very clear about the disposition of valuables. She recalled Mason telling her “Everything here belongs to me. If it is anything of value, I get first choice.” She said Mason began drinking the first evening she was in town and said she didn’t feel safe or comfortable around him.

Next to testify was neighbor Brenda Sepan, a friend of Mason’s first wife, who lived closed to the Mason’s in Highlands Ranch.

Sepan testified she saw Mason and Gallegos, just days after Nancy’s death, back the couple’s SUV into the driveway and open the rear cargo area. Donning bright blue protective gloves, (like the kind one would use to clean the toilet, Sepan said) the pair began a thorough cleaning of the vehicle’s interior. They did not wash the exterior, Sepan noted.

Sepan said her family got together about a week later for a planned garage sale at Sepan’s home. Shortly after her sale began, the Mason’s garage door went up, and Mason and Gallegos began selling Nancy’s belongings.

“And private items,” Sepan said, such as homemade mementos, Nancy’s scrap booking items and Nancy’s vanity. Sepan said Mason appeared on her doorstep one day not long after Nancy’s death, asking her and her husband to hide a grocery bag of Nancy’s jewelry and Rolex watch because Nancy’s sons were coming to “ransack the house.” Pressured, Sepan took the items but returned them days later. She told Mason it made her uncomfortable.

Attorney Stacey Margolin, Nancy’s divorce lawyer through her dissolution from first husband Todd Linville, testified she was uncomfortable with Mason and the speed at which he moved into Nancy’s life.

“I was very disturbed Dan was there,” Margolin said. “Who was this guy, and why would you take this on when you were O.K.?” Margolin added, referencing the hefty support agreement she negotiated in Nancy’s divorce.

Nancy’s close friend for more than a decade, Sherry King, also thought the relationship went too far too fast, but only to a point.

“Dan said no sex till (sic) marriage,” King said. “But after the marriage they never slept together.”

Day 4

On the final day of the inquest, forensic pathologist and El Paso County Coroner Dr. Robert Bux listed what he noted as “significant problems with the original autopsy report” on Mason’s death from Dr. Scott Potts..

Bux specifically listed Potts’ notation of a depressed skull fracture, which appears in the introduction to the report, then is not mentioned or substantiated elsewhere in the report. Also lacking, according to Bux, was a comprehensive toxilogical screen, adequate evaluation of lung tissue and a failure to adequately annotate the neck fracture in the manner consistent with a forensic pathologist investigating an accidental or suspicious death.

Bux conceded that if the fracture was an unstable C1-C2 neck fracture, then not only would the break have resulted in death, the victim would have been unable to scream due to loss of muscle control to the diaphragm, resulting in an inability to breathe.

Amettis followed Bux on the stand after a recall by Chaffee County Attorney Jenny Davis to bolster the original autopsy report. Amettis examined Mason the day of the accident and had a subsequent follow-up conversation with Potts. During that meeting, Potts reaffirmed that Mason’s death was due to a C1-C2 neck fracture.

Detective Jon Priest from the Denver Police Department testified that he had been tasked early in the investigation by the CCSO to look into the case, due to his 30 years investigating crimes, many of a similar nature and many involving falls or drownings. After reviewing the evidence, documentation and autopsy photos gathered in the case, Priest said he was convinced that the story given to the CCSO by Mason and Gallegos didn’t fit with the facts of the case.

“In my 30 years investigating cases, I’ve seen a lot of falls,” Priest said. “And I really wasn’t seeing those types of injuries.”

Priest also found the fact that Mason and Gallegos left the body alone, uncovered and within “running distance” of an open general store while traveling the opposite direction for help implausible. He testified the pair was deceptive in body language and demeanor when interviewed about the incident.

Davis then recalled Chaffee firefighter Chris Bainbridge, who said he always had a hard time with Nancy Mason’s injuries – particularly those to her hands – that showed no signs of injury from grabbing or blunt trauma like he would have expected from a person falling.

Unum Insurance Co. investigator Roy Middleton testified regarding an apparently conflicted Dan Mason who, during an interview regarding Nancy’s last day, alternately told him to keep an outstanding $50,000 accidental death benefit rather than discuss Nancy’s death, then stayed online talking about the matter long enough for Middleton to garner three pages of notes. Proclaiming that he would not talk about it as he was just “pulling out” of a deep depression over the death, Mason then told Middleton he was suffering financial ruin after spending the previous $100,000 insurance payout on remodeling his home and a pair of luxury cars.

Dan Mason said he felt he “deserved a fun car” after Nancy’s death. Middleton found Mason’s complaints about the financial difficulties particularly odd in light of his insistence that Middleton should just “keep your insurance money.”

Unum attorney Kerry Attencio also talked with Mason, informing him that the company was considering filing a lawsuit to forfeit Mason’s payout in favor of Nancy’s children. During that conversation, Mason asked for a period of time to find and retain legal counsel and Attencio obliged. When Attencio called a few weeks later, she found Mason’s phone disconnected.

Attencio then received a call from a “Mr. Jimenez” who claimed he wanted to represent Mason in his dealings with Unum and in court. Attencio explained that would not be possible because Jimenez was not a lawyer. It was the last Attencio heard from Mason or Jimenez, whom she testified she believed to be Gallegos. During the following court proceedings, Mason defaulted on the suit by failing to show, and the insurance benefit was distributed to Nancy Mason’s children.

Mason and Gallegos were subpoenaed to appear for the four-day inquest but neither did.

Contact MetroWest Staff Writer Gene Sears at 303-659-2522 Ext.217, or e-mail gsears@metrowestnewspapers.com.