The railroad is the reason for the existence of this quiet piney woods community of 1,938. It has spurred the economy, lured new residents, and, on a fall night in 1998, brought death.
In time Mason and her hometown would become a part of the violent legacy of a sadistic serial killer whom the media would elevate to Ted Bundy-like stature: Angel Maturino Resendiz, the 41-year-old freight-hopping drifter who last week was convicted of murder in the robbery, rape, and slaying of 39-year-old Houston physician Claudia Benton. Before being apprehended, he had vented his homicidal rage in other cities in Texas, Illinois, and Kentucky between August of 1997 and June of last year, leaving nine dead. And though it would take months to prove it, he had also left his bloody mark on little Hughes Springs.
On the afternoon of October 2, 1998, Randy Kennedy, the town's 42-year-old police chief, received a call from a woman concerned about the well-being of 87-year-old Mason, whom she was to have given a ride to visit her sister at a nearby nursing home. There had been no response when the woman knocked at Mason's door. It immediately troubled her, she would later tell the chief, because Mason, well known for her punctuality and impatience with those who lacked it, was always ready and waiting for her daily arrival.
Kennedy hurriedly made the short drive to the West First Street address that had been so long familiar to him. As a boy he had mowed Leafie Mason's yard in the summers. "She was always very nice to me," he would later recall. "She would bring me a glass of iced tea or lemonade when I was working. She had a reputation for being pretty demanding and outspoken, but I liked her."
In the idiom of rural Texas, the spinster Mason was something of a local "character."
Entering the house where Mason had lived alone since the departure of a lifelong mentally disabled sister to the nursing home, Kennedy encountered a scene unlike anything he'd seen since becoming police chief four years ago.
In the back bedroom he found the bludgeoned, bloody body of Mason covered with a blanket and lying on the floor near her bed. She had been struck in the head repeatedly by an antique flat iron--a "weapon of convenience," as Kennedy would write in his report. A nearby back window, he noticed, was open.
News of the manner in which she died spread a wave of terror through the community 150 miles east of Dallas. Aside from a domestic homicide seven years earlier, no one could remember another murder occurring in Hughes Springs. A homicide-scene investigator from neighboring Mount Pleasant quickly suggested it was the work of someone who had known Leafie Mason. A resident. A neighbor.
"It was frightening to think it might have been done by someone we lived with, someone walking among us," remembers Betty Traylor, administrator of the nursing home where Mason's sister resides.
Leafie Mason's violent death occurred long before the world had ever heard the name of Angel Maturino Resendiz, long before news magazines would make him the subject of cover stories and paperback books would detail his aimless death travels.
When Kennedy's investigation of the crime reached a quick dead end, he compiled a narrative of the event and submitted it to the Texas Department of Safety's Crime Bulletin, a monthly publication distributed to others in law enforcement. "It was shortly after it was published," Kennedy says, "that I was contacted by Sgt. Ken Macha of the West University Police. He told me of the similarities in our cases." Police in the Houston suburb were investigating the murder of Dr. Benton.
"That was the first time I heard the name Resendiz."
Unknown to Kennedy, there was in the law enforcement community a growing belief that the Mexican national, who made frequent visits to the United States, had committed murders from the Rio Grande to Illinois. In each case Macha told him about, the similarities were chilling: Each of the murders had occurred near a railroad track; the killer had entered the homes of his victims through a window; he had used a "weapon of opportunity"; the assaults had all escalated to "overkill"; and, finally, each victim's body had been covered when authorities found it.
Authorities, Kennedy was told, had a name and fingerprints, a manhunt was ongoing, and rewards were being offered nationwide. Yet all the Hughes Springs police chief had was a palm print lifted from Mason's open window and a growing belief that his initial gut feeling--that his murder case involved a drifter, not someone local--was on target. He could only wait until Resendiz was captured and a palm print could be made to compare to the one Kennedy kept locked away in his evidence drawer.
It was not until late July of last year that Kennedy would finally get the opportunity to make that comparison and prove that the infamous Resendiz was, indeed, the man who entered Mason's home and murdered her. In time, Resendiz confessed to the crime. By then, however, the media were focused on activities in the big cities--El Paso, where Texas Rangers took Resendiz into custody, and Houston, where he would be jailed to await trial. Leafie Mason and Hughes Springs fell through the cracks, an afterthought in one of the most highly publicized crime stories in recent years.
Not until the punishment phase of the recently completed Benton trial, in fact, was Mason's name even mentioned.
Now, Cass County District Attorney Randall Lee says he's made no final decision about trying Resendiz for Mason's murder, but it sounds doubtful. "We'll wait and see how the appeals process [on Resendiz's death sentence] goes," he says. "Frankly, I doubt there will be any problem with the verdict in the Houston case. Some of the best prosecutors in the country were trying it.
"And I understand the D.A. in Kentucky [where two University of Kentucky students were attacked] has said he definitely wants to try the guy. Even if we should decide to move forward, we're pretty far down the waiting list."
To bring a capital murder case to trial, Lee adds, would almost certainly require a tax increase to fund such a proceeding. "I think," he says, "that folks here feel that justice was served by the conviction in Houston."
Still, in Hughes Springs, Leafie Mason, whether she ever gets her day in court or not, is remembered.
With the exception of a couple of years in her 20s when she worked as a secretary in Dallas, Mason lived her entire life here. Her father was a well-known deputy sheriff who was killed in a 1919 train accident. Her mother died several years later, leaving Leafie and her two sisters to live alone. Following the death of an older sister, it eventually became impossible for Mason to properly care for her mentally disabled younger sister, and Mason placed her in a nursing home.
"Her sister was her life," the nursing home's Traylor says. "Every day, promptly at two in the afternoon, she came here to visit Berdie. She'd always cooked something for her and would sit and talk with her and sing her songs that were popular back in the '40s. And she would always stop by my office to leave a recipe or bring me a copy of the latest poem she had written."
Time was, in fact, when she was quite well known as a local poet. Writing under the pen name "Piney Woods Pete," her verse was regularly published in the neighboring Daingerfield Bee.
"She was a strong-willed person but also very thoughtful," says friend Jenny McKinney. "She was always coming by with a jar of jelly or a pie she'd baked. I miss her--and to this day I feel guilty about what happened to her. I'd been busy back then and hadn't called to check on her for a couple of days. I'll always regret that."
People here, then, would rather remember her in life than revisit her death in a lengthy and expensive trial. As Chief Kennedy says, "You can only kill the guy once."
"I think people here are just glad it's over," Traylor says. "I was pleased when I heard that Resendiz received the death penalty, happy that the jury didn't buy that insanity defense he was trying to use."
For Kennedy, now returned to the routine work of a small-town police chief, only one regret remains. "I wanted to ask him why he picked our little town," he says, "but the only time I got to speak to him, he wouldn't even make eye contact, wouldn't say anything."
In all likelihood, Resendiz, now on death row, would have had no satisfactory answer anyway.