Post Register Clayton murder archive

Editor's note: This article on the murder of Dan Woolley was first published in the Nov. 25, 1986, edition of the Post Register. Walter James Mason, the suspect in Woolley's 1980 murder, was arrested earlier this month in central Texas and extradited to Idaho to face a charge of first-degree murder.

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CLAYTON — Dan Woolley was a good friend of Walt Mason, by one account the only real friend he had. 

But, friends or not, one of them was left dead, allegedly at the hand of the other, more than six years ago outside a Clayton tavern.

Mason, then about 47, is alleged to have killed Wooley, 52, on Sept. 22, 1980, with a single shot to the head. 

The shooting followed a brawl involving Mason and three other East Fork residents at the Sports Club. Woolley was shot and killed, reportedly after he tried to break up the melee. 

"It was a shock, I'll tell you," said Dan Strand, a Challis resident who knew both men. "Nobody could believe it."

At the time, the Clayton area was booming. The Cyprus Thompson-Creek Mine was under construction and the area was full of itinerant workers. The Sports Club was a beehive of activity on any night.

Woolley, a married father of three who owned a ranch on the Salmon River's East Fork, was an established resident.

Mason had lived in the area since at least the early ’70s, working as an outfitter and a guide.

Few knew Mason well, said Strand, a Challis service station owner with whom Mason frequently did business. 

"I don't think anyone knew Walt Mason personally," he said.

Few would know him any better after the publicity from the shooting. 

Gary Sullivan, a Clayton resident, was a witness to the shooting. According to a statement Sullivan made during the coroner's inquest, Mason entered the crowded Sports Club between 9:30 and 10:30 on the night of the shooting and began arguing with his wife, Candice, who was at the bar.

He accused her of being unfaithful to him. In profane language, he then accused Woolley, also present, of being involved with Mrs. Mason, Sullivan said. 

"He was requested to leave by the bartender if he couldn't clean up his mouth " Sullivan said. "But, he left of his own free will."

Mason soon returned. This time Bob Sweeney, another bargoer, and Sweeney's son dragged Mason from the bar.

Outside, the men began brawling. Woolley also went outside, apparently to stop the fight.

"I heard there was a fight and I jumped up to see if I could do anything and Dan Woolley was laying on the ground belly up and young Bob, uh, young Sweeney, was astride him beating him about the head," Sullivan said.

Moments later, Mason appeared with two pistols, a .22 Smith and Wesson revolver and a .222 single shot, Sullivan said. He had apparently retrieved them from his stock truck, parked nearby, while Woolley and Sweeney fought.

By then, the fight between Sweeney and Woolley had been broken up. Sullivan and Woolley were standing by a pickup parked near the bar when Mason reappeared with a gun in each hand.

"I started going back toward the bar and toward a pickup that was parked approximately six feet away and I'd taken two, maybe three steps, and Dan had taken two, maybe three steps toward Walt, and Walt raised the gun and shot him," Sullivan said.

He was killed instantly by a single .222 shell shot to the head. The time was 11 p.m. Mason then threatened Sullivan, who dived behind a parked vehicle.

Mason stepped into the bar and began firing a pistol four or five times. About 30 people were in the bar that night.

One round struck Sweeney, hitting him in the shoulder. Others struck a jukebox, a pool table and window, before some of the patrons in the bar disarmed Mason. Mason left the Sports Club during the ensuing confusion for the Silver Bar, located across U.S. Highway 93 in the Clayton Hotel. There he ordered a drink, his last, he reportedly told those in the bar.

"I have just killed a man," he said, according to Sullivan.

He soon left the bar for a telephone booth outside. By one account, he tried to call his lawyer. He was last seen leaving the booth unarmed and on foot.

He left his pickup and attached stock trailer behind at the Sports Club.

The Custer County Sheriff's Department was notified of the shooting at 11:22 p.m. Ambulance personnel dispatched to the scene pronounced Woolley dead.

Sweeney was taken to a Salmon hospital for treatment. Mrs. Mason reportedly was kept in protective custody until the next day at the Custer County jail.

Despite intensive efforts by law enforcement officials of Custer and neighboring counties, with the assistance of the FBI, Mason has not been apprehended.

In the early ’60s, Mason was one of the top bareback riders in the country on what is now the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association circuit. His days as a rodeo cowboy left him with a distinctive physical characteristic — the left side of his face was paralyzed after he was kicked by a horse.

Before his rodeo days, he reportedly worked as a security guard at a Las Vegas casino.

Brent Nyborg, a conservation officer who dealt with Mason in the early ’70s at Seafom northeast of Stanley, said that he never had any trouble with the outfitter.

"As recall, Walt was never charged with anything," he said. "I never charged him with anything."

Some believed that Mason may have been drinking when he entered the Sports Club.

"Walt was a helluva nice guy until he got on the whiskey," said Carl Ellis, a former Custer County deputy sheriff who knew him.

The FBI had sought Mason under a federal warrant for unlawful flight from prosecution, but dropped the case last November. "All logical investigation had been considered," said Kent Madsen, FBI special agent. "There were no other leads to pursue."

The Custer County Sheriff's Department under Doug Leaton hasn't given up the case. It still has a warrant out for Mason's arrest for first-degree murder.

"If people know or have heard of anything, I'd sure appreciate a call," Leaton said. "I don't know of what else we could do. It'll be an open case until something happens." 

Clayton is no longer the boomtown of the early ’80s. The Cyprus Mine has cut back its work force and production. Both the Silver Bar and Clayton Hotel have closed.

Many of the witnesses to the shooting have since left the area. Sweeney couldn't be reached for comment, along with the county sheriff at the time, who has moved, and the FBI special agent who worked on the case, who has retired.

Woolley's family declined to comment on the shooting.

As for Mason, a resourceful man with friends around the West, some say he could remain on the loose indefinitely.

Ellis said that Mason was a crack shot, the kind of person who could pivot quickly on his heels and hit a target as he came around.

"He was an excellent pistol and rifle shot," he said. 

That's why to many, the mystery of the incident is not so much where Mason is, but why he allegedly killed Woolley.

"They were friends, I mean good friends," Strand said. "That's why it was such a shame to anybody. It was just unbelievable."