By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
What Fowler routinely encountered were inmates eager to use his visit to avoid prison work for the day. No interview, he recalled, had gone more than 10 minutes before he was convinced there was nothing that would shed new light on the case.
"One afternoon as Fowler and I sat in my office, reading through the transcripts of the original trial," Kinne said, "I told him that I'd done absolutely everything I knew to do and wasn't able to break Geter's story." Though neither mentioned it, both had privately begun to share the belief that Geter, indeed, might be innocent.
Then, on the afternoon of March 15, 1984, David Kirkland, then a captain with the Lufkin Police Department, placed a call to Kinne that would turn the investigation into a frenzied search that would ultimately result in the truth: The man who had robbed the KFC was not Geter but, instead, was apparently a former Dallas resident named Curtis Eugene Mason. Captain Kirkland told Kinne of receiving a call from a former Lufkin city official who insisted to him that the Balch Springs robbery had been committed by Mason, who was the boyfriend of the ex-official's cousin. Mason was currently being held in Houston's Harris County jail. The Lufkin officer gave Kinne a telephone number where the former city official could be reached.
Kinne and Fowler then began a six-day investigation that would help free an innocent man.
On Friday, March 16, 1984, Kinne summoned Fowler into his office to tell him of the previous day's conversation with the Lufkin police captain. "Give this guy a call," he said. "It may be nothing, but just in case it is, I want to keep it quiet."
Fowler returned to the office he shared with several other investigators and waited until they had left for lunch before he placed his call to Lufkin. The ex-official's wife answered, explaining that her husband was at the dentist's office. While Fowler waited for the return call, he checked to see if there was any existing record of Dallas crimes committed by Curtis Mason. Indeed, Mason had been arrested on a drug charge a few weeks before the Balch Springs KFC robbery. The co-defendant in the case was a known drug dealer who had provided Fowler information that had helped him make numerous cases during his days as a narcotics investigator with the Dallas police. Fowler immediately drove to the home of his old snitch.
The man admitted that he and Mason had been snorting cocaine when the arresting officers had arrived and that they had blown the residue of the drug off the table and into the carpet before the police entered the room. "The only evidence seized," Fowler said, "was the razor blade used to cut the coke." The two men spent a couple of days in jail and were released. Mason had remained in Dallas for several days after he was set free. As well, Fowler learned that the apartment where Mason had been living at the time the robbery was committed was located only a few blocks from the fried chicken restaurant Geter had been accused of robbing.
"This guy told me that he had no proof that Mason had been involved in any robberies," Fowler recalled, "but he did tell me that he would occasionally 'disappear' for a day or so, then return with a lot of money in his pocket."
Returning to his office late in the afternoon, Fowler telephoned Wilbert Alexander, one of the chief assistants in the Harris County District Attorney's Office, and asked to speak to whomever was assigned to the Mason case. Karen McAshen was the prosecutor in charge, he was told, but she had left for the day. "I'm not familiar with the details," Alexander volunteered, "but there are apparently several cases--and all of them have to do with robberies of Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants."
Fowler hurried across the hall to tell Norm Kinne what he had learned.
"I think maybe we need to make a trip to Houston on Monday," the prosecutor said.
It was that Friday evening when the ex-official in Lufkin telephoned Fowler at his Midlothian home and began to elaborate on the story he'd earlier told the local police captain. "My cousin," he said, "was living in Dallas with Mason when the robbery took place."
"But what makes you think he committed the particular robbery we're interested in?" Fowler asked.
"Because he told my cousin he did it," the man said. He explained that she and Mason had moved to Houston soon thereafter and that he'd been arrested for a series of robberies there. "She called me the other day after an attorney representing him on the Harris County charges had come to her house, saying that Mason had indicated she could provide an alibi for him. She's scared to death. She doesn't want to have to get on the stand and lie for him."
"I'll need to talk with her," Fowler said.
"She says she doesn't want to get involved, but I'll ask her about it and get back to you." The caller refused to give Fowler his cousin's name or say where she was living. The investigator waited up until past midnight, hoping for a return call, but the phone never rang.