Produced by Joshua Yager, Taigi Smith and Marc Goldbaum
This episode was originally broadcast on Nov. 29, 2008. It was updated on Dec. 24, 2011.
In February 1987, people in Fort Collins, Colo., were on edge after a woman, Peggy Hettrick, was found murdered and sexually mutilated.
Police almost immediately zeroed in on a local teenager named Tim Masters, even though there was no physical evidence to tie him to the crime. But investigators kept revisiting the case, and years after the murder arrested Tim, tried him, and won a conviction.
But as correspondent Susan Spencer reports, this case is anything but open and shut. Is Tim really a crazed killer, as the lead investigator insists, or is he just a victim of circumstance?
Tim went to prison in 1999, and for much of that time, lived in a cramped, dreary cell, sentenced to life for a grisly murder he swears he did not commit.
"I'd be laying in my bunk... and it still astounded me that I was there. I couldn't believe it," he said.
His latest court hearing didn't seem real either, because after years of hearings and petitions and unsuccessful appeals, a judge at last was about to make a ruling that could set him free.
If he does walk free, he'll have a small army of unlikely supporters to thank - not just his gigantic extended family, but also lawyers and even former cops, all of them claiming they've been sure for years that Tim didn't do it.
Tim Masters, 37, has walked in the shadow of this murder since he was 15 years old. On the morning of Feb. 11, 1987, the half-naked body of a 37-year-old woman named Peggy Hettrick was found in a field in Fort Collins, Colo. - a stone's throw from Tim's house.
There were a lot of people who felt Tim was a viable suspect, including , in 1987, veteran cop Linda Wheeler.
"I think it was like 7:13 in the morning. The body has just been discovered... The body was very clean to look at; there was no blood on the body," Wheeler explained.
The passerby who spotted the body first mistook it for a mannequin.
There was a deep stab wound to Peggy's upper back. "You could see a bloody drag trail in the furrows," Officer Jim Broderick recalled. "It was pretty apparent that the victim was dragged out to the final resting point..."
When Officer Broderick arrived at the scene, he was struck by footprints along that trail, leading back to a pool of blood by the curb and he was struck by the body itself.
"The positioning of the body is something to pay attention to," said Broderick.
Peggy's pants were pulled down to her knees, her shirt pushed up to her chin. Part of one of her breasts had been removed.
It was, in fact, a sexual homicide," he continued.
The prospect of a madman sexually mutilating his victims created near panic and Broderick and the Fort Collins police went into overdrive.
Among the early "persons of interest" was Peggy's one-time boyfriend, Matt Zoellner. He was questioned for hours, even took a polygraph, and was then released.
Police meanwhile were canvassing every house near the crime scene, talking with businessmen, housewives and even with prominent eye surgeon Dr. Richard Hammond. Years later, Hammond would figure in this case, but back then, he was just another neighbor who had seen nothing suspicious.
But Linda Wheeler was sure someone must have seen something. She says the first house she went to was the Masters home, where Clyde and his 15-year-old son, Tim, lived. Tim had few friends, but no history of trouble.
His mother had died four years earlier, when he was only 11.
Usually, Tim cut straight through the field to catch the school bus, but his father told police that on that morning, he'd seen his son hesitate. "And had veered to the left as he was walking through the field, and had stopped for a few moments," Wheeler explained. "It became very obvious to me that his son must have seen the body."
Tim's footprints were in the field, but he hadn't reported a thing. A few hours later, police appeared at Tim's high school and yanked him out of class for questioning, as Broderick recalled in an interview in 2000.
"His explanation for not reporting it was that he thought it was just a mannequin and that somebody was playing a trick," said Broderick. "I didn't believe it was real...a 15-year-old kid," Tim said. "But all morning long, as I'm at school I'm thinking about it, 'What if it was really a body?'"
The passerby who called in the crime also thought he'd seen a mannequin, but police weren't buying that story from Tim. Broderick searched the Masters' trailer, and hit pay dirt. "And there on his dresser he's got seven knives, six, seven survival knives, all sequentially displayed," he said.
And one of them, Broderick assumed, could be the murder weapon. With Tim's father's permission, Broderick and a team of cops interrogated the 15-year-old for more than 10 hours without a lawyer.
Tim insisted that he didn't know what had happened and that he was innocent. Police also gave him a lie detector test. The official report of the test results is lost today, but Broderick says Tim failed.
"He definitely needed to be looked at, yes. Definitely he did, and it was very easy for everybody a kind of pack mentality to start focusing on him," said Wheeler.
And leading the pack was Jim Broderick, who was about to find evidence that, for him, erased all doubt -- Tim had killed Peggy Hettrick.