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New arrest prompts investigation in 40-year-old cold case

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Forty years ago, Dan Woolley was shot in the parking lot of a small-town bar. The shooter has never been found.

As days turned into years, Brett Woolley came to accept that his father’s murderer would never be found and that his family’s private tragedy had become a Wild West legend, the kind of thing folks shared when they were a few too many drinks deep.

Forty years ago, Dan Woolley was shot in the parking lot of a small-town bar.

The shooter crossed the street to the town’s other tavern, ordered a drink and declared, “I just killed a man”.

And then he disappeared.

Until last year, when word came that the man who shot Mr Woolley was living in Texas under an assumed name.

Brett didn’t want to hear it.

“I didn’t want him to be found. I was fine with it,” he said that November, voice choked.

“It’s like it just happened yesterday, all over again.”

As the accused shooter’s story came to light, along with rumours involving the rodeo circuit and a reputed Las Vegas casino crime boss, it became clear that the legend of Dan Woolley’s death would only grow.

The night of Dan Woolley's death

The tiny town of Clayton sits in a remote Idaho canyon alongside the Salmon River in north-western US.

When Brett Woolley was growing up in the early 1970s, the hardscrabble town was thriving thanks to a local silver mine.

Brett worked from a young age to help support the family.

His father expected hard work but allowed plenty of freedom in exchange.

On September 22, 1980, Dan Woolley, 52, had finished working on the family’s property and invited 19-year-old Brett to go for a beer.

Brett, who was recovering from a motorcycle crash, declined.

“I was feeling pretty puny because I’d never passed down a chance to go to town and get a beer with Dad — never,” he said.

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“That’s always bothered me.”

Brett settled in for the night, only to be interrupted a few hours later by a visitor with news: his father had been shot and killed by a man he'd called a friend.

The story evolves

The story of what happened at the Sport Club bar has evolved over the years.

In most versions, a few details stay constant: a couple of Montana boys who worked the mines were at the bar.

In some versions, they flirted with a woman there; in others, they took umbrage when the woman’s boyfriend came storming in and hit her.

In most accounts, a scuffle broke out between the Montana boys and the man, identified by witnesses as a former pro rodeo cowboy named Walter Mason.

As the fight spilled into the parking lot, the bartender and Dan Woolley jumped in, perhaps trying to break things up or help Mr Mason.

Then, witnesses said, Mr Mason got free and ran to his truck.

Police reports say Mr Mason came back with a gun and fired twice, hitting one of the Montana boys in the arm and Mr Woolley in the face.

Walter Mason

Mr Mason arrived in Idaho a few years earlier.

He was recognisable — a horse had stepped on his face years earlier — and developed a reputation because of a penchant for fighting and a rumoured connection to Las Vegas mobster and casino owner Benny Binion.

Mr Mason “had a sad upbringing if the story I got was true,” Brenda Michael, Mr Binion’s daughter, said.

She heard that his parents died when he was about eight, and Mr Mason ended up living “with some farmer who matched him in bare-fisted fights.”

Ms Michael’s first husband, Bert France, met Mason at a rodeo in Arizona, and Mr Mason lived with the France family for a time.

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“He always thought he was tough, always had a bully’s personality,” Ms Michael said.

Ms Michael, a rodeo supporter and rancher in Amarillo, Texas, lost touch with Mason around 1963.

Despite the rumours, she doesn’t believe Mr Mason ever worked for Mr Binion.

They did know each other, though.

“The Horseshoe had cheap drinks, cheap food and everyone congregated down there,” Ms Michael said.

Books, articles and historians give conflicting accounts of Mr Binion.

Some call him a cold-blooded criminal.

Others call him the patron saint of rodeo, recounting his habit of paying cowboys’ entry fees to the National Finals Rodeo.

Some suspected Mr Binion had an ulterior motive.

Rodeo riders are strong, and if cowboys owed Mr Binion a favour, he may have called it in the form of muscle.

Mr Binion, who died in 1989, “loved cowboys and would often employ them,” Doug Swanson said, a journalist and author of the book, Blood Aces: The Wild Ride of Benny Binion, the Texas Gangster Who Created Vegas Poker.

“And he had a whole house of two-bit thugs," Mr Swanson said.

"It wouldn’t surprise me at all if Benny had a friend who was a pro rodeo competitor and at the same time a killer and a thug.”

It wasn’t clear to the folks in Idaho what brought Mr Mason to their town.

Some speculated he’d repaid his entry fee through crime and was on the run.

After the killing, law enforcement patrolled the highways for Mr Mason. But he was gone.

Brett Woolley believes his father’s shooter was rescued by Mr Binion’s gang.

Mr Binion’s daughter, Ms Michael, thinks people in the rodeo circuit likely helped Mason flee.

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Nearly four decades later, a woman in Texas came across a Facebook post on a page dedicated to unsolved crimes in Idaho.

The suspect was a lot like her mother’s common-law husband, but with a different name.

She reached out to Brett Woolley and authorities.

Mr Mason, living under the name Walter Allison, was arrested on October 10, 2019, at his East County, Texas, home.

When law enforcement arrived, “Mason made the admission that he had shot Mr Woolley,” Custer County prosecutor Justin Oleson said.

“I think it’s interesting that Mason told the officers it was self-defence when Woolley was trying to get these Montana guys off of him.”

Mason likely never face a jury

A trial would bring answers but seems unlikely.

Mr Mason returned to Idaho, pleaded not guilty and the case stalled.

Now 87, Mr Mason has “all sorts of medical issues that old folks have,” Mr Oleson said.

He’s since been found unfit for trial and transferred to a long-term care facility, said Mr Mason’s public defender, David Cannon.

Brett Woolley has again come to terms with the fact that Mr Mason will likely never face a jury.

He’s making plans to preserve his father’s legacy, lest it be overcome by the shadow of his death.

The Sawtooth Valley is now a tourism hotspot, and Brett Woolley fears his dad’s way of life will be lost to history.

He dreams of opening a “dude farm” of sorts, where city kids can learn how to milk a cow or drive a tractor.

If people don’t remember anything about his dad but the day he died, Brett figures, at least his lessons will be passed on.

Source: 9News

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