The Way of the Gun

The untold story of why Lenell Geter was freed

As Fowler drove the rental car back toward the airport, Kinne told him, "I want you to go on over to Beaumont and see what you can find out there."


It was 10:30 Saturday night when the investigator arrived at the Beaumont Police Department and explained to the desk sergeant that he was looking for information on a year-old accident involving a man now suspected in a robbery investigation.

Lenell Geter leaves a Dallas courtroom in March 1984, the month in which District Attorney Henry Wade ordered all charges against Geter dropped. The case had attracted worldwide media attention, but the results of the reinvestigation of the Balch Springs Kentucky Fried Chicken robbery had never been reported.
Mark Graham
Lenell Geter leaves a Dallas courtroom in March 1984, the month in which District Attorney Henry Wade ordered all charges against Geter dropped. The case had attracted worldwide media attention, but the results of the reinvestigation of the Balch Springs Kentucky Fried Chicken robbery had never been reported.
Billy Fowler, who died in 1992, was assigned to investigate the case against Geter for his retrial.
Mark Graham
Billy Fowler, who died in 1992, was assigned to investigate the case against Geter for his retrial.

"Their traffic division was already closed," Fowler recalled, "so they had to call an officer in to locate the files." On the evening of September 6, 1982, it stated, a man named John Davis had been driving his 1979 Ford Futura eastbound on College Street. As he entered the intersection, Curtis Mason had suddenly walked into the path of his car.

There was, however, nothing in the report about the victim carrying any kind of athletic bag or pistol.

It was near midnight when Fowler, having checked into a Beaumont motel, sat reviewing the accident report. Reading the telephone number of the driver of the car, he ignored the hour and phoned John Davis.

Davis remembered the incident well. He described in great detail how Mason had run in front of him. "Was he carrying anything?" Fowler asked.

"Yes," Davis remembered. "He had this blue and white bag. It flew up and hit my windshield. I remember thinking that it was going to come through the glass." He went on to tell how the bag had been lying near the curb when police and the ambulance arrived. "I pointed it out and told one of the officers that it belonged to the man I'd hit.

"I thought it sort of strange when he [Mason] denied that the bag was his. The police took it, though."

"Did you ever see what was in the bag?" Fowler asked.

"Yeah, a pistol. One of the officers took it to his patrol car and put it in the trunk. I was standing right beside him when he unzipped the bag and looked inside. It was a really nice-looking black pistol."

Fowler thanked Davis and apologized for the late-night call. Frustrated that he would have to wait until morning to return to the Beaumont Police Department and see if the bag and gun might still be in the property room, the investigator could not sleep. Soon he was back in his rental car, driving in the direction of the intersection where the accident had taken place. Upon his arrival he checked the diagram attached to the report and determined where Mason had run into the street. He had, the diagram indicated, apparently been coming from the driver's left.

Fowler mentally traced the path the victim had taken before the automobile hit him. Then he looked to the corner, fewer than 100 feet from where Mason had been hit. Pulling a pencil from his jacket pocket, he added his own notation to the diagram. On the corner was a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant.

"He was on his way to rob the place," he said aloud.


Early the following morning, a sergeant in charge of the Beaumont Police Department property room found an invoice indicating that the bag and a Colt .45-caliber revolver had been received on September 7, 1982. The invoice was signed by the two officers who had investigated the accident.

The Beaumont police had a policy of issuing usable handguns to its officers once they were released by the courts. The .45, records showed, had been issued to a patrol sergeant. The bag had been one of many small items that the department placed in "grab bag" type boxes that were sold during periodic public auctions. There was no way to trace who might have purchased it.

The officer, however, dialed the number of the sergeant to whom the gun had been issued, then handed the phone to Fowler. Soon thereafter, the officer arrived with the handgun and signed it over to the investigator's custody.

By midafternoon Fowler was back in Dallas, bringing with him serious doubt that Geter had in any way been involved in the robbery for which he'd already served more than a year of his life. He phoned Kinne at home and said, "I've got the gun that was used in the Balch Springs robbery."

On Monday he arrived in the district attorney's office with the pistol in his briefcase and took it directly to Kinne's office. "Pick someone to go with you," the prosecutor said, "and go back to Houston and get Mason."

Still adamant about keeping the investigation secret, Kinne instructed Fowler to go to the court of District Judge Ron Chapman and get a bench warrant to have Mason returned to Dallas County--not as a suspect but a "witness."

With the warrant in hand, Fowler sought out misdemeanor investigator Bob Whitney and asked if he would accompany him to Houston to pick up a prisoner. Eager for an opportunity to get out of the office for the day, Whitney agreed. "What's going on?" he asked.

"I'll tell you when we get on the road," Fowler replied.

It was just after four in the afternoon when they arrived at the Harris County Sheriff's Department and presented the paperwork authorizing them to take Curtis Mason to Dallas. "I'm not sure I can release him," the lieutenant in charge said. "He's scheduled to go to trial in two days. You'll have to get the judge's approval."

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