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Hixon found guilty of murder

| March 16, 2006 11:00 PM

By BRENT SHRUM Western News Reporter

A jury deliberated for about six hours Wednesday before reaching a guilty verdict in the second trial of a Eureka man charged with killing his neighbor last spring.

Wayne Hixon, 52, was convicted on charges of deliberate homicide and evidence tampering in connection with the death of Bob Mast, 42, on April 30, 2005. A jury deliberated for a day and a half following a weeklong trial in November but failed to reach a unanimous verdict.

Hixon's retrial began March 7 and wrapped up on Wednesday with closing arguments from county prosecutor Bob Slomski and defense attorney John Putikka. The jury reached its verdict around 6:45 p.m.; sentencing is scheduled for Monday, April 24.

According to Slomski's argument, Hixon shot Mast out of pent-up frustration and anger arising from neighborly disagreements. A self-described "neat freak," Hixon resented Mast — described by one witness as "a slob" — for buying an adjoining lot and letting his horses and dogs roam loose, Slomski said. Hixon often complained about Mast "to anyone who would listen," Slomski said.

One woman testified that Mast had played her two answering machine messages in which Hixon had threatened to shoot him, his horses and his dogs.

"The defendant later made good on that threat, at least as far as shooting Bob Mast," Slomski said.

On the day of Mast's death, Hixon called game warden Jim Roberts around 3:30 p.m. and reported that he had seen some bighorn sheep and then heard a gunshot, leading him to suspect that Mast had illegally killed one of the animals. Roberts arrived around 5 p.m. and visited with both Hixon and Mast but left about an hour later after finding no evidence of poaching.

At 6:24 p.m., officers at the nearby border station reported hearing a shot coming from the area where Hixon and Mast lived. The first investigator, a county deputy, arrived at the scene about 25 minutes later and found Mast lying in his driveway dead of a charge of buckshot to the neck.

When a search warrant was executed the following day, a partially burned 12-gauge shotgun shell was found on the top of the ashes in the woodstove in Hixon's cabin. Experts determined that the Winchester brand shell had been fired in Hixon's gun, which was found under a couch. Several unfired shells were found lying on the floor in a manner suggesting

they may have been ejected from the pump-action gun, and Slomski said they seemed out of place in Hixon's tidy cabin.

"He's not the kind of a guy who would leave a bunch of shotgun shells lying around on the floor to trip on," he said.

At about the same time Mast's body was discovered, Hixon was stopped by a police officer for driving 51 mph in a 35 mph zone 9.4 miles away, just south of Eureka. The officer eventually placed Hixon under arrest for driving under the influence; his blood alcohol level was later determined to have been three times the legal limit.

Hixon told the officer he had driven straight from his home near the border. That would place him in the vicinity of the crime scene at the time when Mast was shot, Slomski said.

"He's got plenty of time to drive it, plus 10 minutes or so to spare," Slomski said.

Hixon said he was headed for a friend's house to spend the night and go fishing in the morning. The friend testified that Hixon had called him unexpectedly between 6 and 6:30 p.m. and suggested the idea. Although they had gone fishing and camping together in the past, Hixon had never spent the night with him at his house, the friend said.

"The defendant was setting up an alibi for himself," Slomski said.

Hixon wasn't wearing shoes at the time of his arrest. A pair of shoes found inside his truck matched a number of footprints found on the driveway between his cabin and Mast's, with the closest prints located within six to 10 feet of the body.

Roberts was returning from another call and stopped at the scene of the traffic stop. After hearing that a body had been found near the border, he told the police officer that Hixon might be a suspect in a homicide.

Roberts left the scene of the traffic stop and went to Mast's property, where he helped locate footprints in the driveway. He testified that he saw one of the prints on top of a tire track he had left when he was there before, indicating it had been made since he left.

Once in custody, Hixon's hands were covered in paper bags to preserve any gunpowder residue. After it was determined that a shotgun — which probably wouldn't leave behind such residue — was used in the shooting, a detective gave orders for the bags to be removed. Video footage recorded at the Eureka police station shows Hixon, with one hand cuffed to a desk, pouring coffee on his hands and wiping them on his pants when he was left alone in the room. Slomski suggested that Hixon was trying to wash evidence from his hands.

"Please do not let the defendant wash his hands of the murder of Bob Mast," he said.

In his own closing arguments, Putikka said the prosecution's case was based on speculation, unwarranted assumptions and "incredible leaps in logic," rather than on overwhelming evidence.

"If it was overwhelming we wouldn't be here trying this case a second time," he said.

The state's expert could not say when Hixon's gun had last been fired or that it was the murder weapon, Putikka noted. A search of homes in Lincoln County would probably turn up 12-gauge shotguns in half of them, he said. He also pointed out that no Winchester brand shells other than the burned hull in the stove were found in Hixon's home and that no one could determine if that shell had been loaded with buckshot.

Putikka said Hixon must have left his home earlier than in the prosecution's theory, because officers who responded to the report of the gunshot did not see him driving away. He also questioned whether the shooting happened the way the prosecution contended, pointing to possible inconsistencies in the angle of the shot and the position of the body.

Putikka called Roberts' testimony "suspect" because no one else saw the footprint on top of the tire track, despite its obvious significance as evidence.

"This is like finding Jimmy Hoffa or Noah's ark, finding the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow," he said.

The warden never spoke up about the print until months later, after what was expected to be conclusive evidence — a spot of what looked like blood on Hixon's shoe — tested negative for Mast's DNA, Putikka said.

Roberts was annoyed at Hixon for leaving what he felt was a rude message on his answering machine and for making him work on his day off, Putikka said. He suggested that Roberts, during his visit with the officer who had pulled Hixon over for speeding, made up his mind that Hixon was guilty before even knowing who the victim was.

"Before the detectives even got there, the local boys had it solved," Putikka said.

Putikka also questioned the credibility of the woman who testified that Mast had played threatening answering machine messages from Hixon for her over the phone. Mast didn't have an answering machine at his cabin but instead had a voice mail system that would not have allowed him to play a message while he was talking to someone over the phone, he said. Putikka pointed to testimony indicating the woman didn't like Hixon and suggested she had made up the story.

Putikka downplayed the incident with the coffee in the police station, suggesting Hixon's actions were more indicative of drunkenness, fatigue and confusion than guilt.

"Is that so phenomenally important?" he asked. "How many of you people have sat in a police department for any amount of time with bags on your hands?"

Putikka raised questions about possible leads that were not followed. Several witnesses remembered hearing one or two shots in the area at the time Hixon reported Mast to the game warden, but no one ever determined who had been shooting. One man testified that he had seen a number of $100 bills in Mast's wallet the previous day, but investigators never found the wallet.

Putikka noted that the lead detective on the case had never overseen a homicide investigation before. He said investigators didn't secure the crime scene and never searched Mast's cabin because they didn't expect to find anything there. They also failed to check the nearby First & Last Chance Bar for possible suspects, didn't talk to the bartender until after the first trial, and never interviewed Mast's family about whether he may have had enemies, Putikka said.

Investigators suffered from "tunnel vision" based on their early conclusion that Hixon shot Mast, Putikka said.

"The evidence in this case is not overwhelming," he said. "It's not even substantial, and some of it, to be frank, isn't even credible."