EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — Gerald Fiten Mason was a solid member of his South Carolina community, a golfer who lived quietly with his wife of 40 years. He was liked by his neighbors and often made home repairs for local widows.
But 45 years ago, authorities say Mason had a darker side. They allege he was a desperate ex-convict who robbed and raped teens in a lovers lane and gunned down two El Segundo police officers after they stopped his stolen car for running a red light.
Mason, 68, was arrested Wednesday and was being held without bail pending his extradition to California. He is charged with murder, rape, robbery and kidnapping.
Authorities said a new FBI database matched Mason's fingerprints to those found in the stolen car following the July 22, 1957, slayings — an extraordinary development in a case had been cold for decades.
"I prayed for this day. I never thought I'd make it," said John Booterbaugh, a retired El Segundo police detective who worked with both victims. "We never forgot."
Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca said the officers "can now rest in peace with the knowledge that the killer has been caught."
Mason could face life in prison without parole if convicted.
Mason's wife of 40 years apparently didn't know about his alleged crimes, authorities said.
"She was very surprised and I believe very much a victim herself," sheriff's Lt. Raymond Peavy said. "She was devastated."
Neighbors in Columbia, S.C., were shocked by the arrest.
"Well, I don't believe that," said 83-year-old Mary Jane Scherman, who lives across the street. She described him as a trustworthy man who often made home repairs for local widows.
"He helped me get up when I fell one time," Scherman said. "I fell out in the yard getting out of the car. He was right there to help. He just seemed like a very nice man."
Authorities contend it was Mason who held up two 15-year-old girls and their dates in a Hawthorne field one summer midnight in 1957.
The teens were tied up and driven a short distance to a more secluded area, where the gunman raped a girl, stole watches, jewelry and cash, forced the victims to undress and drove off in one boy's 1949 Ford.
About 90 minutes later, El Segundo officers Milton G. Curtis, 25, and Richard A. Phillips, 28, saw the car run a red light and pulled it over.
Phillips, a 2 1/2-year veteran, went to write up a ticket while Curtis, a rookie with just 2 1/2 months, stayed in the patrol car to check whether the car was stolen, Booterbaugh recalled.
At that moment the driver, who had gotten out of the car, pulled a .22-caliber handgun and shot Phillips, then ran back and shot Curtis through the police car's window, Booterbaugh said.
Curtis was able to fire four or five shots from his revolver but missed the gunman, who abandoned the car and ran, loping through back yards and hopping fences.
A second patrol car heard the dying officers' radio request for an ambulance but Phillips and Curtis died before reaching the hospital.
The killings shocked the town, which Booterbaugh described as a "Mayberry" about a dozen miles south of downtown Los Angeles that usually saw no worse crime than marijuana possession.
A nationwide manhunt began and thousands of tips and hundreds of suspects were investigated without success. In 1960, a resident in nearby Manhattan Beach turned in two watches, jewelry and a revolver he had found in his yard, apparently thrown there years earlier by the killer.
Ballistic tests showed the gun was "consistent" with the bullets used to kill the officers, said Los Angeles County sheriff's Capt. Frank Merriman, head of the homicide bureau. The watches belonged to the robbery victims.
But without additional leads, the case languished.
A tip to El Segundo police last September that someone had bragged about the killings prompted the sheriff's cold case unit to dust it off. The lead turned out to be false but it prompted authorities to review the case.
The FBI's fingerprint database found a match to Mason, who had done jail time for a 1956 burglary conviction in South Carolina, Merriman said.
After allegedly killing the officers, however, Mason apparently went straight.
"That's probably one of the reasons this case has gone unsolved for so long," Peavy said. "You commit a crime that many years ago, you got to believe you've pretty much gotten away with it."
Contributing: Pamela Hamilton.