The Way of the Gun

The untold story of why Lenell Geter was freed

On Saturday morning, Fowler was mowing his yard when his wife summoned him to the phone. It was another long-distance call from the Lufkin source.

"He told me that he had spoken with his cousin and that she had said she didn't want to get involved. I begged and pleaded for him to give me her name and number, but he refused," Fowler remembered.

The caller did, however, provide the investigator with additional information on Mason. About a week after the Balch Springs robbery, Mason had stolen his cousin's car and taken it to Beaumont. While there he had been in an accident. "One night he was crossing the street and a car hit him, breaking his leg and knocking out several teeth."

Norm Kinne, now retired, was assigned to prosecute Geter in his retrial. Kinne immediately began having doubts when he started investigating the case he was assigned to prosecute, concerns that echoed the media's contention that Geter was wrongly accused.
Mark Graham
Norm Kinne, now retired, was assigned to prosecute Geter in his retrial. Kinne immediately began having doubts when he started investigating the case he was assigned to prosecute, concerns that echoed the media's contention that Geter was wrongly accused.

Fowler listened with only casual interest; he had no idea how a pedestrian auto accident might figure into the investigation he was conducting. Then a statement jolted him to attention. "The blue canvas bag and the pistol you've been looking for," he said, "are in the possession of the Beaumont Police Department. Mason had it with him when the car hit him. The police took it when they investigated the accident."

During the first Geter trial, the investigator knew, witnesses to the robbery had testified that the gunman had been carrying a blue canvas bag with white stripes and a white handle. They had also described the weapon as being "large and black." Neither the bag nor the gun had ever been found.

"Did you ever see the gun?" Fowler asked.

"Yes, he showed it to me one time when he was visiting in my home. All I can remember was that it was black and had a long barrel."

The caller went on to say that after Mason was released from the hospital he had traveled to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to stay with a sister. "That's when he contacted my cousin, and she went over there to be with him. She told me they had stayed with Mason's sister for only a few days before he cut the cast from his leg and they drove to Houston."

It had been shortly thereafter that Mason was arrested for a series of Kentucky Fried Chicken robberies.

Aware that he had sparked Fowler's interest, the caller interrupted his narrative. "Before I go any further," he said, "I want to know how lucrative this is going to be."

Surprised that the man was evidently interested in selling his information, Fowler said he wasn't sure. "I'll have to talk with my boss about it."

"Is he Geter's lawyer?" the man asked.

"No, sir," Fowler replied, "he's a prosecutor with the Dallas County District Attorney's Office."

For several seconds the caller was silent. "I guess I'm talking to the wrong people. Could you give me the name of Geter's lawyer?"

Fowler hedged, saying that he understood Geter had several attorneys but that he did not know their names. He said he could get their names Monday when he returned to the office.

"By then I was convinced that the information he had was certainly worth looking into," Fowler said, "and I knew Norm [Kinne] wouldn't want the defense attorneys to know about it before we had a chance to check it out. I begged the guy who had called to not talk with anyone else until Monday. Though I had absolutely no authority to do so, I told him I'd see what we could do about paying him for his information."

The informant reluctantly agreed to wait. Fowler immediately phoned Kinne at home to tell him about the conversation. "We need to go to Houston right away," the assistant district attorney said.

That afternoon, they flew to Houston and, at the Houston Police Department, read reports of seven aggravated robberies, all attributed to Curtis Eugene Mason. Attached to the files were reports of two armed robberies of Beaumont Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants.

Though Mason had, during the later robberies, been armed with a shotgun instead of a pistol, the manner in which the November-December crimes were carried out bore a striking resemblance to that described by witnesses to the previous August's Balch Springs robbery. The only marked difference was that on each of the Houston reports the robber was described as "having a limp" and "several front teeth missing."

From the police department, Kinne and Fowler went to the Harris County jail and had Mason called to one of the interview rooms. The man Kinne interrogated for over an hour looked nothing like Lenell Geter. He was 5-foot-10 and weighed 150 pounds, while Geter was 6 feet and 180 pounds. Mason wore his hair in an Afro and had a goatee. At the time of his arrest, Geter's hair was short, and he was clean-shaven.

Despite Kinne's best efforts, Mason refused to admit any involvement in the Balch Springs robbery. Finally weary of the prisoner's denials, Kinne angrily told him that he and Fowler would be back on Monday to transport him to Dallas where he would be placed in a lineup to be viewed by witnesses to the Balch Springs robbery. Mason just shrugged and said he'd be looking forward to seeing them again.

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