Before that, the supplier had received multiple calls from neighbors, trying to get her water turned off. When technicians arrived, they found the house’s water meter padlocked. Technicians cut the lock off.
A year later, in September 2009, they returned. Someone had locked the Masons out of their own water meter. After cutting the lock for the second time, the technicians from Bethesda Water Supply wrote in a work order that a “neighbor had been causing problems, locking her meter off [and] other things.”
After cutting off the stranger’s lock in 2009, the technicians noted that Mason would attach her own lock “due to malicious conduct by someone.”
Other incidents in the neighborhood put Mason and her family on guard. Once, a rifle-toting neighbor hurled racial slurs at Mason’s kids as they waited for the school bus on the sidewalk in front of his home, she recalled. Mason later called the cops and the Tarrant County sheriff. Nothing happened to the neighbor; the school district subsequently had the bus stop directly in front of Mason’s house instead.
Another neighbor brandished a gun at her kids while they played in their cul-de-sac, Mason said, but nothing happened after she reported the incident to the police.
"I just tried to keep my head down and live, and wanted to keep my kids safe," Mason said. "If they [neighbors] were talking to me, I'd talk to them. If they were nice, I'd be nice. Otherwise, that was it."
But Karl Dietrich wasn't that kind of neighbor, Mason said.
Since 2008, Mason and Dietrich had lived directly across the street from each other on Autumn Breeze Circle in Rendon. It was the sort of neighborhood that was too small not to know the others who lived there, according to Mason.
When she arrived at the Tarrant County Courthouse for her trial in March 2018, accused of voting illegally, Mason was surprised to see Dietrich in the courtroom. She had no idea why he was there.
“I was like, 'Mom, that's — that's my neighbor,'” Mason said.
Mason stood accused of breaking voting laws by casting a provisional ballot in the 2016 election while on supervised release following a conviction for federal tax fraud. Mason has always maintained she didn’t know she wasn’t allowed to vote at the time.
Dietrich served as the head election judge at their local precinct, the Tabernacle Baptist Church in Rendon, during the 2016 general election.
"I know Karl. There's no way that I would see him at the church and not say, 'Hey, Karl, how're you doing?' and just casually speak," Mason said.
Mason liked Dietrich. The two had never had issues and had remained friendly for years. When prosecutors called Dietrich to the stand to testify against her as the state’s star witness, she was stunned.
When Mason arrived to cast her ballot on the afternoon of Nov. 8, 2016, a 16-year-old poll worker named Jarrod Streibich, another neighbor of hers, said she didn’t show up on the precinct’s list of registered voters.
The way Mason remembers it, Streibich said she could instead cast a provisional ballot, which election officials would either approve or rule ineligible later. She took him up on the offer. In 2019, Streibich told the Huffington Post, “I knew for a fact that she was just recently let out of prison and that she was a felon,” he said. He also said he knew felons couldn’t vote while on supervised release.
Dietrich said in court that he only learned of Mason’s supervised release status a day or so after Election Day, when Streibich informed him.
Rather than allow election officials to disqualify her ballot, as standard provisional ballot procedures dictate, Dietrich took matters into his own hands.
On Nov. 11, Dietrich called the Tarrant County District Attorney’s Office “regarding the possibility that [Mason] may not have been eligible to vote and voted illegally” on Election Day, according to an investigative report from the Tarrant County DA’s office. Within a week, the district attorney launched an investigation.
"This movement to find illegal voting or something isn't just hypothetical. It has real consequences that affect and devastate real people's lives.” - Tommy Buser-Clancy, ACLU of TX
During the trial, the state relied on testimony from Dietrich and Streibich to show that Mason knew she was ineligible. Though they presented different accounts of what happened at the polling place while Mason was there, accounts which Mason maintains are fabricated, Mason was found guilty and sentenced to five years in prison.
Dietrich told the judge that he “had no reason to suspect that she was a felon” when she cast her ballot. “I had no reason to believe that there was an issue at that point,” he said, according to court records. “I knew that she had had something previously, but it was a long time ago, and I wasn’t even sure whether there had been a conviction.”
Because they had lived near each other for so long, Mason insists, Dietrich knew she had been in prison from April 2012 until November 2015. “Of course he knew. Everyone in the neighborhood knew. It was in the papers. He knew,” Mason told the Observer.
During the trial, Dietrich said he was unaware of her stint in prison because he was serving a tour of duty in Afghanistan with the Navy Reserve from 2014 until 2016.
Niether Dietrich nor the Tarrant County District Attorney’s Office immediately responded to requests for comment.
“There was a concerted effort on the part of the Republican Party to find and prosecute voter fraud since the 2016 election, when that was [the GOP’s] mantra,” said Kim Cole, Mason’s attorney. “And when that didn’t come to fruition, enter Crystal Mason,” Cole said.
Former President Donald Trump drummed up fear over supposedly widespread voter fraud in both the 2016 and 2020 elections, despite a lack of evidence. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, voter fraud is "extremely rare."
During the 2020 election, Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick offered $1 million in cash to anyone who reported credible allegations of illegal voting to law enforcement.
“President Trump’s pursuit of voter fraud is not only essential to determine the outcome of this election, it is essential to maintain our democracy and restore faith in future elections,” Patrick said in a press release at the time.
This year, states around the country have passed new laws introducing a slew of voter restrictions. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who declared "election integrity" an emergency item ahead of the legislative session, signed a controversial voting bill into law last month.
Meanwhile, Mason is awaiting a decision on her appeal from Texas’ highest criminal court. “The law requires that the individual know that they are not eligible to vote to prosecute them,” said Tommy Buser-Clancy, a senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas.
“Crystal's case demonstrates that … this movement to find illegal voting or something isn't just hypothetical, it has real consequences that affect and devastate real people's lives,” Buser-Clancy said.
"They took me away from my kids, and I'm still fighting not to go back in prison," said Mason. "All over what? I never did anything to you guys."