The letters arrived in the third week of May. They came in the mail, dozens of them, addressed to city council members, county commissioners, ministers, teachers, parents--anybody who was anybody in Las Animas, a town of 2,500 on the eastern plains, where everybody seems to know everybody else's business.
First time I met officer Bob Keenan was at the Street Light Cafe...I was sitting in the middle of the room, reading a book.
The letters carried no return address and were postmarked Birmingham, Alabama. Inside each envelope was a photocopy of a seven-page, handwritten statement from a local fifteen-year-old girl, a statement she had given the previous summer to the Bent County Sheriff's Department.
A couple of weeks later we've become friends...Bob asked if I would like a ride home. I said, "Yes." So I got in the car [and] we went for a ride down toward the power plant. Bob said he wanted to get to know me better.
The girl was well-known to local law enforcement. Nude photographs of her and another teenaged girl had surfaced in the course of an investigation of James Nolan Mason--a 44-year-old white supremacist with ties to several American Nazi organizations, a longtime pen pal of Charles Manson, and quite possibly the town's most bizarre resident.
Before I got out we both kissed each other. While we were kissing I put his hand up my shirt. I wanted to see how Bob would react.
Las Animas police had arrested Mason in the spring of 1994 and charged him with two counts of sexual exploitation of a child and two counts of contributing to the delinquency of a minor for supplying his underage models with alcohol.
The case raised hackles all over town, particularly after the local newspaper, the Bent County Democrat, reported that investigators had seized hundreds of videotapes, photos, and magazines--"all with a child pornography theme"--from Mason's sprawling two-story house and were planning to file additional charges.
"Everybody thought they ought to hang him," recalls Orvis Smith, Mason's next-door neighbor.
It seemed as if I could trust him with anything. Was it because I fell for him the first time I met. I don't know how to explain it. Any ways when he would work grave-yard I would [go] to the P.D. and visit him. We would talk and kiss.
But in the months following Mason's arrest, something went seriously wrong with the state's case. For one thing, Mason's hoard of kiddie porn turned out to be far less spectacular than reported. For another, the principal victim of Mason's photo sessions filed a sexual-assault complaint against the lead investigator in the case: Las Animas police officer Robert Keenan. The complaint--the same seven-page statement that was sent anonymously all over town this past May--claimed that Keenan had carried on a physical relationship with the victim throughout the course of the investigation.
After I got Bob's trust I came to him...[and] told him I had taken nude pictures. Bob said he really wanted the case. So I gave him the pictures.
By the time the letters arrived in May, the sexual-exploitation and delinquency charges against Mason had been dropped as part of a plea-bargain arrangement that sent him to prison on a weapons charge. The sexual-assault complaint against Keenan had resulted in no charges at all, and Keenan had moved on from the city police department to a job as undersheriff of Bent County.
Bob and I went out in his bronco to the old baseball field. We went there to make out. But we didn't have sex we had what you call oral sex. He told me we would not have sex until the nude case was over.
Although no one could say for sure who sent the letters, many locals were convinced that Mason was responsible for distributing the girl's statement and making it public. He was, after all, an accomplished propagandist, a writer of racist pamphlets, and he had been shipped off to prison only days before the letters arrived. Las Animas mayor Keith Varner quickly denounced the letters as a smear campaign, a "vendetta" against the officer who helped to put Mason away.
Bent County Sheriff Brian Spencer says that even though the allegations against Keenan were investigated by an outside prosecutor, the girl's complaint and other attacks on him continue to circulate in the area.
"This is something that's gone on for a long time," Spencer says. "I wish it would stop. There was more than one internal investigation done, plus the outside investigation. There was nothing they could substantiate. There was no coverup involved in this. This is a dead issue."
Mason disagrees. Interviewed recently at the Arrowhead minimum-security prison outside of Canon City, he declined to comment on the source of the anonymous letters--"Am I gonna admit to that?"--but conceded he had a pretty good idea why they were sent.
"I would say the person who did that mailing was probably disgusted with the way the real criminals stay in power, how one of them could just whitewash himself and end up as the number-two lawman in the county," he says. "If you want to talk about a child molester, they had a child molester as their undersheriff."
Robert Keenan resigned from the sheriff's office two months ago, shortly after wrecking his patrol car and being cited for driving under the influence of alcohol. Keenan did not respond to Westword's request for an interview. Nor did the mother of the minor who filed the complaint against him.
Other witnesses, including Mason's seventeen-year-old ex-girlfriend, have left town or made themselves scarce. Resignations, elections and other shakeups have considerably altered the makeup of law enforcement in the county, and many officials claim to be unfamiliar with the case or legally bound not to discuss it.
Yet there may be more to Mason's claims than pure spleen. Although the investigation of Keenan did not yield sufficient evidence to file charges against him, it hardly earned him any accolades for his conduct. In fact, certain elements of the girl's complaint have been corroborated by other sources, ranging from the special prosecutor appointed to investigate the complaint to Mason himself.
In addition, the peculiar circumstances of Keenan's departure from the Las Animas Police Department (under the terms of a secret agreement officials still won't talk about) and his sudden departure from the sheriff's office a few months later raise a host of other questions. At the very least, the strange outcome of the town's fizzled kiddie-porn case suggests that the fifteen-year-old minor who triggered the investigation may have been victimized twice--not just by Mason and his predilection for nude photos of underage girls, but also by the police officer who was supposed to protect her.
Around Las Animas, Robert Keenan was known as a sharp, aggressive but amiable police officer, one who got along with all kinds of people.
"I always thought Keenan was pretty bright, for Las Animas," says Steve Jones, the former deputy district attorney for Bent County who worked with Keenan on the Mason case. "It's a different world out there. Still, I have a hard time believing he'd get himself hooked up with that girl."
Sheriff Spencer goes further. Although Keenan came to his department under the cloud of the girl's complaint and resigned after totaling a patrol car--with his wife and the sheriff's wife, both named Jean, on board--Spencer staunchly defends his former undersheriff.
"Bob is controversial, but he's a talented officer," Spencer says. "He's got a photographic memory. He can find narcotics a mile away. Some people around here just don't care for law enforcement, but I had absolutely no problems with his honesty or integrity."
Yet Spencer is under the impression that Keenan was "conducting an undercover investigation into child pornography" when he befriended Mason and began to show up at his house for parties involving adolescent girls. Mason says that's ludicrous; not only was Keenan too visible in the community for undercover work, but Mason had already had several official contacts with the police officer months before the "investigation" began.
"There was no investigation. It was blind, shithouse luck," Mason says. "And it certainly wasn't undercover. I've dealt with cops for thirty years. I've been harassed by cops, infiltrated by them--I can smell them coming and going."
Mason had arrived in Las Animas in 1992, bringing with him considerable baggage, both physical and political. He possessed a staggering array of swastikas, Hitleriana, and racist and anti-Semitic literature, mementoes of his early years in the American Nazi Party and his associations with various right-wing extremist and skinhead organizations. For several years he'd produced a newsletter, Siege, the voice of a quasi-underground white supremacist movement known as Universal Order, founded by Mason and inspired by his extensive correspondence with Charles Manson and other members of Manson's notorious Family (see "Beyond the Pale," July 28, 1993).
His new neighbors knew Mason as an oddball collector of Nazi memorabilia who seemed to support himself with occasional janitorial work and income from rental property. "He's the finest neighbor I ever had," insists Orvis Smith. "I didn't think it was anybody's business what he believed."
Until his arrest last year, few people in Las Animas knew anything about Mason's racist beliefs or his ties to Charles Manson. Fewer still knew about his hankering for nude photos of teenagers, which had landed him in trouble with the law before. In fact, it was his shutterbug habit, not his politics, that had driven Mason to Colorado.
Twice, in 1988 and 1991, sheriff's deputies raided Mason's rural home in southern Ohio and seized photos of a fifteen-year-old girl he had taken several years earlier (with, he claims, the permission of the girl's husband). Mason wound up pleading guilty to two misdemeanor counts of "illegal use of a minor in nudity-oriented material," received a $500 fine and a suspended sentence, and quietly left the state.
Given his notoriety in law enforcement circles--police in Ohio reportedly contacted the Colorado Bureau of Investigation about Mason shortly after he arrived in Las Animas--it's doubtful he could have kept a low profile for long. His first brush with Keenan, however, had to do with a police matter far more common in small towns than child pornography: vandalism of a lawn ornament.
Around Halloween 1993 Mason called the city police to complain that kids had tipped over and damaged the plaster deer in his front yard. Thirty-two-year-old Robert Keenan answered the call. He was, Mason recalls, "super-friendly," and he reminded Mason that they'd met months before, when Keenan was manning the grill of a family restaurant in Springfield and Mason was passing through town with his common-law wife, a native of the area, from whom he soon separated.
"He told me, `I like your politics; your old lady told me all about you,'" Mason says. "The glowing reports of me he had supposedly gotten from my ex were more than incongruous, as the woman hated my guts. Still, I allowed him to ingratiate himself. And he certainly kept the local punks off the deer in my yard."
How much Keenan knew about Mason's activities at this point is unclear, but before long the whole town had some inkling of his passion. In December a striking-looking fifteen-year-old girl named Eva showed up in Las Animas. She wore Doc Martens and dark clothes and dyed her long hair jet black. She seemed to have a strong interest in serial killers and National Socialism, had once been engaged to a well-known satanist musician and had left her home in California to live with James Mason. He described her as the daughter of an old friend and as "my mistress Eva," a phrase that conjured up images of Hitler and his Eva.
According to Mason, Eva had come across a collection of Mason's Siege writings and had struck up a correspondence. "She sent me some very nice photographs of herself," he says. "They weren't explicit, but they were provocative. I was looking for someone to live with me, and hey, she was a good-looking Movement girl--what more could you ask for?"
Still, Mason's relationship with Eva was a rocky one, and she was frequently out of town. Late in January 1994, around the time of her sixteenth birthday, she appeared on Sally Jessy Raphael's talk show to discuss her obsession with serial killer Richard Ramirez and got into a shoving match with another of Ramirez's female fans--a fight that a producer described as "too violent and sensational" to air. Despite the brawl, her appearance led to an invitation to appear on The Bertice Berry Show to talk about Charlie Manson.
Eva was still out of town in February, when Mason became involved with another fifteen-year-old girl--the one who would figure so prominently in the investigation. Mason says he ran into the girl at a local restaurant and mentioned that he had pictures of her now-absent father, a former "drinking buddy" of his. She came over that night with an eighteen-year-old male friend, ostensibly to see the photos.
"She and this boyfriend came over around eleven," Mason says. "They'd already been drinking--in fact, I think they had some booze with them. I showed her the pictures of her father, and the topic of photography and modeling came up, and--boom. I didn't have to talk anybody into anything. I didn't have to ply anybody with any liquor. She said something about nude pictures, and I'm telling you what, her clothes were off, just like that."
While the boyfriend watched, the girl "started draping herself over the furniture," and Mason clicked away. "She got rid of her boyfriend later that night and we did a little kissing and petting, but that was the extent of it," he adds.
A few days later, when the girl asked him for prints of the photo session, Mason apparently began to have second thoughts about what he'd done. His Ohio experience had taught him to be wary of letting the evidence out of his sight--but not wary enough.
He gave the girl the photos, and she gave them to Robert Keenan. According to her statement, she was already meeting "Bob" for late-night kisses at the police station, and after she gave him the nude pictures, "Bob was really nice and caring more than before."
Under Colorado law, it's not illegal for an adult to have sexual intercourse with a fifteen-year-old. However, taking explicit photographs of anyone under the age of eighteen--what the statute calls "erotic nudity"--is a Class 3 felony, punishable by up to sixteen years in prison.
"The whole statutory regimen concerning sex crimes is a little scattered," notes former La Junta prosecutor Jones. "Basically, for sexual assault on a child, it has to be a child under the age of fifteen. You can't get child abuse on a child over sixteen. Sexual exploitation is a child under eighteen. Between eighteen and twenty-one, there's still a problem, particularly with incest. If you want to have sex with your stepdaughter and she's not over twenty-one, good luck."
The penalties for sexual assault on a child are more severe if the perpetrator is in a position of trust, a designation that includes guardians, physicians and therapists--but not police officers. "A cop wouldn't be in a position of trust," Jones says. "If he was caught doing something like that, he would just be in the category of being an idiot."
Whatever transpired between Keenan and didn't constitute sexual assault on a child. Trinidad's district attorney, Barclay was asked to investigate the girl's complaint against Keenan. He didn't believe the available evidence warranted any kind of criminal charge.
"There were some credibility issues," says Barclay, now in private practice in Denver, "and she was over the age of consent. Also, she was saying the guy kissed her. Well, that's not sexual assault." The mention of "oral sex" in the girl's statement, he insists, refers to French kissing.
At the same time, Barclay believes that Keenan did engage in "some inappropriate behavior with a girl who was fifteen," he says. "It may not be criminal, but it's totally unethical." And on at least one occasion, the alleged behavior took place in front of other witnesses--including James Mason.
According to Mason, his girlfriend Eva returned to Las Animas in March and quickly found out about the other girl's nude photo session with Mason. In spite of this, "the two girls got to be good friends," he says, and for a brief time, "it was the three of us constantly together."
The other girl dropped by his house frequently to see Eva, Mason insists, and she was often joined by Robert Keenan. "It would be Keenan and her and me and Eva--like a couple of couples, a double date or something."
In her complaint, the girl described only one such gathering at Mason's house, but it was a memorable one. She was "staying over with Eva" one night, she wrote, when Keenan and another Las Animas police officer, Darrel Bogart, stopped by. Soon everyone was drinking pina coladas and vodka pops. (As Mason recalls it, Bogart declined to drink because he was going on duty soon; Bogart, who no longer works for the Las Animas police, couldn't be reached for comment.)
The girl excused herself to put on a short dress because "Bob and Bogart never seen me in a dress." When she returned, she wrote:
I had a sunburn that night so I asked Bogart to put some lotion on me and he did on my shoulders. Bob put it on my chest and on my legs. While Eva and I were drinking we got in an argument over whose [breasts] were bigger. So I unbuttoned my dress and showed them my chest...Bob and Bogart said that my breasts were nice looking. Eva didn't show her chest she chickened out. When I was sitting on Bob's lap we kissed.
If Mason had any qualms about serving booze to minors in the presence of two police officers, he's never admitted it. "I didn't think there was a problem," he says now. "I mean, what are they going to do? I knew they were cops. They were in it with me; they're doing it, too."
Yet the lotion-and-smooching party apparently provided the police with all the additional "evidence" they needed. A few days after the party, on March 30, Mason and Eva walked to the local Val-U-Med Healthmart pharmacy to drop off some film for processing--pictures of Eva in a new dress.
Two police officers, neither of whom had ever partied at Mason's house, arrested him inside. On the warrant, the complainant was identified as Officer Robert Keenan.
"When I saw that," Mason recalls, "I just laughed and said, `You've got to be kidding.'"
Mason's downward spiral was just beginning. He spent the next month in jail, trying to get his bond reduced. Meanwhile, the police had spent hours hauling hundreds of pounds of suspected evidence from his house, and District Judge Robert Blackburn had ordered Eva, one of the alleged victims in the case, to vacate Mason's residence.
"Not a whole lot" of the materials seized from the house turned out to be relevant to the case, Jones admits. Aside from the nude photo session with the fifteen-year-old, some semi-nude photos of Eva and an album of photos that seemed to be related to Mason's previous bust in Ohio, investigators found nothing that remotely resembled child pornography. The vast majority of the materials seized were horror videos, Nazi and Manson literature, adult erotica and "stuff that was just weird," says Jones.
Still, Jones is convinced that investigators found "just the tip of the iceberg. He had volumes of this stuff back in Ohio, and they only stuck him with two misdemeanors there," he says. "What concerned us is that he was starting the same thing here, and who knows where it would take him?"
Mason insists he has never taken photos of girls younger than fifteen and that he had "nothing harder than a Hustler" on the premises. "I've never messed with kiddie porn," he says. "But they're trying to give me this jacket."
When he was finally released on bond in May, Mason's problems quickly multiplied. Eva had moved into the carriage house behind Mason's place and was hanging out with a crowd closer to her own age, including ninteen-year-old Chris Cardenas. Agitated, Mason made a series of phone calls to Eva, taunting and upbraiding her for having a "brown boyfriend."
Mason says now that Eva was taping his calls, trying to get him to say something incriminating. Cardenas says Mason tapped into Eva's phone, in violation of federal law. In any event, Mason had been out of jail scarcely three weeks when he confronted the couple while they were sitting in Cardenas's truck on the other side of a fence from Mason's backyard. Mason made a crude remark about condoms, pulled one out and then patted his pocket, where he kept a .25 automatic pistol.
Mason says he never drew the weapon, but Cardenas remembers the incident quite differently. "He pulled out the gun and pointed it toward us, but not directly at us," he says. "He said he'd use it if we came over the fence."
The couple retreated and called the police, and Mason was soon back in jail on a charge of felony menacing.
Cardenas says he still receives copies of letters Mason has written denouncing Eva and her "race treason." "He makes copies of these letters and sends them to all these important people," he says. "He's cutting her down, saying she was dating a `spic' and that it was wrong."
Mason wasn't the only Las Animas man experiencing female troubles that summer. In July, Eva's friend, accompanied by her mother, handed a Bent County sheriff's deputy her complaint against Robert Keenan. The mother said her daughter was willing to take a polygraph to prove she was telling the truth.
Sheriff Spencer declines to speculate on the girl's motive in filing what he considers to be "nothing more than an unsubstantiated allegation." One possible explanation is in the statement itself, which suggests that Keenan promised the girl a more intimate relationship when "the nude case" was over, but then reneged on that promise.
"She was lied to, used and used up," Mason says, "and she was probably feeling a bit unhappy about it. I'm not a moralist, but he was lying to these girls and using them."
Prosecutor Jones, though, says that the girl's mother--a former law enforcement officer herself--was outraged that Keenan hadn't notified her as soon as he learned of the existence of the nude photos and had allowed the girl to continue to associate with Mason. "It wouldn't surprise me if all this had been put in her head by her mother to get even with Robert Keenan," Jones says.
Jon Barclay doesn't think so. Although his investigation didn't result in criminal charges, the former Trinidad district attorney believes that the girl did have a relationship with Keenan--and that Keenan attended a party where alcohol was served to minors. Barclay recommended that the case be turned over to the Las Animas police internal affairs officer for further inquiry into possible ethical violations. "I am disturbed that a police officer would engage in such activity," Barclay wrote in a letter to Bent County district attorney Gary Stork.
Las Animas officials refuse to discuss whether such an investigation took place, or what the results might have been. They also won't say whether Keenan left the city police force "by mutual agreement," as Sheriff Spencer claims, or was fired. In fact, they decline to discuss any aspect of Keenan's association with the police department, including his dates of employment, citing a mysterious "contractual arrangement" Keenan apparently reached with the city upon his departure.
"I'm not at liberty to discuss it," says Las Animas city attorney Phil Malouff. "Nor are any city employees. The city of Las Animas cannot discuss it. We contractually agreed not to discuss it."
Asked if the city's deal with Keenan involved any additional compensation or a release of liability of some kind, Malouff snaps, "I can't give you any information at all. If I explain to you why, then I've breached the very thing that prohibits me from answering the question."
And what if such an agreement is in violation of the state's open-records laws? "So be it," Malouff says.
While Keenan may have emerged unscathed by the allegations, they put a noticeable kink in the already problematic case against Mason. "It sure didn't help," recalls Jones, who left the district attorney's office last spring and now works for the Colorado Compensation Insurance Authority. "It put things on hold, and it was something we had to disclose, and the public defender seized on it, appropriately."
Faced with an ambiguous case, a paucity of kiddie porn, reluctant or unreliable witnesses and claims of inappropriate behavior by the lead officer in the case, the district attorney's office ultimately dropped the exploitation charges in return for a plea of guilty to the menacing charge. This past spring, Mason was sentenced to three years in prison.
District Attorney Stork defends the plea bargain. "We wanted to get a felony charge, the attorney got a felony charge, and he considered it appropriate, considering the circumstances," Stork says.
Mason also seems oddly pleased with the outcome--possibly because he was facing up to 32 years in prison on the exploitation charges. Instead, he's looking at a parole hearing as early as next spring. Having done time in his youth for a racially motivated assault as well as for the more recent misdemeanors in Ohio, he's acquired a certain appreciation for prison life and speaks highly of the Arrowhead minimum-security camp.
"Some folks pay big bucks to retire to places not nearly as nice as this," he says, "so I'm not exactly sweating it."
He also expresses relief that he's in prison for waving a gun at two teenagers, rather than for a sexual-exploitation rap; many of his associates in the "movement" consider child pornography to be an unworthy pursuit for the master race.
"Anybody aspiring to a revolutionary position has got to expect to be in prison sooner or later," Mason says. "If I have to be in, I'd rather be in on the charge I'm here for, having confronted what we call racial treason. I think I have a few more credentials now."
In search of a few more credentials himself, Keenan ran for sheriff of Bent County and was defeated in the primary shortly after Mason's arrest. Last January he was hired as undersheriff by the victor, Brian Spencer, who says he's "comfortable" with the way the complaint was handled. "Had I had a doubt about how it was investigated, I would not have taken him on," Spencer says.
But others have been reluctant to let the case go--hence the anonymous letters. Orvis Smith muses that the letters probably caused less of a stir than Mason and his supporters might have hoped, simply because rumors about the case and Keenan's alleged improprieties had already been floating around town.
"About the only outrage was that people were hollerin' that they had to pay 23 cents' postage due," Smith says.
Although subsequent letters have appeared around Las Animas, Smith says the case is no longer a hot topic in town. "Everybody's forgot about it," he says. "This is a little Peyton Place, and stuff like that really doesn't last very long, because something more sensational comes around."
Not that Keenan has been forgotten altogether. In June he made headlines again when his patrol car skidded off a rainy highway, over a dirt bank and into a field outside the town of Hasty. Keenan and his wife reportedly sustained minor injuries in the crash, while the sheriff's wife and another Las Animas resident were unharmed. Keenan was cited with a DUI; both Sheriff Spencer and the state trooper who investigated the accident say they don't know whether he was on duty at the time. Although the case has yet to go to trial, Keenan resigned voluntarily the next day.
Spencer bemoans the fact that Keenan's conduct continues to attract comment months after he's left the force. "These allegations--I have people point the finger at me all the time," he says. "Well, if you're a suspect in a case, I have to have evidence to prove it. Unfortunately, society doesn't have to have evidence to prove anything against a cop."
Keenan is now said to be living in Baca County. "My understanding is that he isn't going to get back into law enforcement," Spencer says. "I think that's a terrible misfortune, because the man is a talented officer. If he got into a large agency, he could be a tremendous asset."
Whether Keenan makes the move to the big city or not, Mason has already made up his mind. "Never again," he vows, "will I live in a one-mule town.