Walter James Mason Image Credit: Eastland County Sheriff


Mason denied shooting Woolley in cold blood, Eastland County Today reported, but claimed it was in self-defense.

There were two bars in Clayton, Idaho, a tiny mining town tucked into a bend in the Salmon River, and on the night of Sept. 22, 1980, Walter James Mason would go to them both.

The central Idaho town at the foot of a mountain was home to 43 people, and that night, plenty of them were parked at the Sports Club bar when Mason walked inside. He was 47 then. A burly retired bareback rider who toured the pro rodeo in the '60s before settling down in Clayton. Mason had worked in the area for years as a rancher and hunting guide, but nobody really knew him, as locals would recall to the Post Register.

That was about to change.

Mason stormed inside the first bar around 10 p.m. that September night to accuse his wife of cheating on him with another man at the bar named Daniel Mason Woolley, witnesses told the Post Register at the time. The bartender threatened to throw Mason out "if he couldn't clean up his mouth" and before long, three men dragged him outside. A brawl erupted. Woolley, a 52-year-old father of three, went outside to break it up, the Post Register reported. But at that point, Mason had crossed the street to grab two pistols from his truck, witnesses said.

He allegedly returned to fatally shoot Woolley in the head. He went back inside the Sports Club bar to fire multiple shots in a fit of rage, striking the jukebox, the pool table and a man in the shoulder, the Post Register reported.

Then, escaping the grasp of the bar patrons who disarmed him, he fled for the Silver Bar at the Clayton Hotel across the highway. He sat down and ordered one last drink, and then he allegedly said, to no one in particular, "I have just killed a man."

By the time Custer County deputies arrived, he was gone. He left his pickup truck parked at Sports Club, and disappeared into the Idaho backcountry never to be seen or heard from again - that is, until this month.

On Monday, the Custer County Sheriff's Office revealed that after nearly 40 years, Mason was discovered living under the alias Walter James Allison on a Central Texas ranch nearly 1,500 miles away, located on the outskirts of the sleepy rural town of Rising Star, Texas, population 835. Now 86 years old, Mason was arrested by Texas authorities and extradited back to Idaho this month to face murder charges in Woolley's death, said Custer County Sheriff Stu Lumpkin.

His identity was confirmed through fingerprinting, the sheriff said, and he has since pleaded not guilty to the charges. Mason's court-appointed attorney could not immediately be reached for comment.

Back in the 1980s, as Mason vanished from Clayton and authorities launched a fruitless search, the town spent years recovering from the damage of the frightening rampage.

"It was a shock, I'll tell you," Dan Strand, a nearby resident who knew both Mason and Woolley, told the Post Register in 1986, when the paper ran a postmortem on the stagnant investigation. "Nobody could believe it."

The fatal shooting affected nearly the entire community in more ways than one. Mason's wife was the town's only teacher in its two-room schoolhouse, the Post Register reported at the time. The Idaho State Journal also reported that a woman believed to be Mason's wife was battered on the face on the night of the man's alleged rampage. Shaken up by what happened, and the lingering publicity, his wife reportedly left town for Challis, Idaho.

With no schoolteacher left in Clayton, all the children had to be bused to Challis to attend school more than two dozen miles northeast of the town - a treacherous journey in icy conditions along a two-lane highway, the Post Register reported.

The school apparently reopened in later years when a new teacher arrived. But the challenges for the small town kept snowballing. An earthquake in 1983 would leave the school unstable, causing it to close again, and the community fearing for the end of Clayton itself.

"In Clayton," the school's superintendent told the Associated Press in 1984, "there's little left of the community without the school."

By the time the Post Register published its reflection on the Mason case just a few short years later, Clayton was "no longer the boomtown of the early '80s." The Silver Bar and Clayton Hotel were closed. The Clayton Silver Mine closed after a half-century. And most of the witnesses and even original investigators had left town. By 1990, the population of Clayton had been sliced in half, and today it is home to just seven people.

The FBI attempted to assist the Custer County Sheriff's Office in the case until 1985, when it gave up.

"All logical investigation had been considered," Kent Madsen, FBI special agent, told the Post Register in 1986. "There were no other leads to pursue."

Authorities stressed that Mason had defining characteristics that would make him hard to miss. In a wanted poster for Mason, the sheriff's office noted that his arms, back and chest were covered in scars. He had also lost control of the muscles on the entire left side of his face, paralyzed by a kick from a horse during his rodeo days.

But Mason still managed to live quietly and unnoticed in a farmhouse in Eastland County, Texas, police now say.

It's unclear how he was discovered there. Eastland County Today reported that the sheriff's office received a tip that a man by the name of Walter James Mason was living on a farm on a county road just north of town and was wanted for murder in Idaho.

Eastland County Chief Deputy Don Braly confirmed with Custer County that it was true, and then made the short drive to his home.

When he arrived, the newspaper reported, Braly asked the elderly suspect if his name was really Mason, rather than Allison, to which the man allegedly replied, "If you did not know the answer to the question, you would not even be here."

Mason denied shooting Woolley in cold blood, Eastland County Today reported, but claimed it was in self-defense.

He said he had been to both bars in Clayton that night in September 1980.

He left the first after finding his "live-in" drinking with Woolley, the newspaper reported, only to leave the second to find Woolley outside. He allegedly claimed that he feared Woolley would beat him to death, and so he pulled out his pistol and shot him.