BOISE, Idaho — 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 into the night.
Nearly 40 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, leaving no trace.
Until a sunny summer morning last year, when word came that the man who shot Dan 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 like it was,” he said that November, voice choked. “It’s like it just happened yesterday, all over again.”
And as the accused shooter’s story came to light — along with lurid rumours involving the pro 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 town of Clayton sits smack in the middle of Idaho, nestled deep in a canyon alongside the Salmon River. Today just seven people live in the town proper, though the village was in a veritable heyday when Brett Woolley was growing up in the early 1970s.
“I mean, Clayton had a Little League team. People probably wouldn’t believe that now,” said Alison Steen, Brett’s longtime girlfriend. “Clayton Silver Mine was running and they employed about 75 people year round, you had the Forest Service, all the ranchers — it was a very viable little community.”
But a hardscrabble one. Many kids, like Brett, lived in homes with limited plumbing and worked from a young age to help support their families.
If Brett’s childhood living conditions were rough, his father’s were downright primitive. No running water, no money to speak of — as a child, Dan Woolley would catch and milk the skittish range cattle for extra cash. He expected the same work ethic from his kids.
On Sept. 22, 1980, Dan Woolley and his friends were working on the family’s property, building a garage. Brett was in the house, recovering from a motorcycle wreck. When his father asked if 19-year-old Brett wanted to head into town for a beer, he 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. Those invites came maybe once a week,” he said. “That’s always bothered me.”
Instead, Brett settled in with a dirt bike magazine while his mother puttered around the house. He was interrupted a few hours later by knock on the door. Then he heard his mother’s wail.
Brett went downstairs and heard the news.
“First thing I did, as quickly as I could because I was crippled, was I ran upstairs and grabbed the gun. They made me put it down; I was going to go to town.”
“I’ve never …,” he said, stopping to draw a shuddering breath. “Hearing my mother like that? They were getting ready for their 28th anniversary. Dad was 52.”
The story of what happened at the Sport Club bar has changed a hundred times over the years.
In most versions, however, 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 for some imagined slight.
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.
Mason was a bully and not well liked, most people say, but he did have one friend: Dan Woolley. Dan was friends with everyone, described as someone you could count on to share a beer or lend a hand.
As the fight between Mason and the Montana boys spilled into the parking lot, the bartender and Dan Woolley jumped in. Maybe they were trying to keep Mason from getting beaten too badly, or maybe they were just trying to break things up. Either way, witnesses said, Mason broke free of the melee and ran to his truck.
Police reports say Mason came back with a gun and fired at least twice. One of the Montana boys was shot in the arm. Dan Woolley was shot in the face.
Mason was a relative newcomer to Idaho, arriving a few years earlier. He was easily recognized — a horse had stepped on his face during a rodeo in Arizona years earlier — and quickly developed a reputation, in part because of penchant for fighting and in part because of a rumoured connection to Las Vegas mobster and casino owner Benny Binion.
Mason “had a sad upbringing if the story I got was true,” said Brenda Michael, Binion’s daughter. She heard that his parents died in a car wreck when he was about 8; an 18-year-old brother failed to take care of him, and Mason ended up living “with some farmer who matched him in bare-fisted fights.”
Michael’s first husband, Bert France, was just 15 when he met Mason at a rodeo in Arizona.
It was at that rodeo that Mason was injured by the horse, Michael said. France, seeing that Mason had no money or family, took him back home to his parents’ house in Las Vegas. Mason lived there for a time, eventually marrying a singer from the Golden Nugget and moving into a trailer behind the France family home.
“He always thought he was tough, always had a bully’s personality,” Michael said.
Michael, a longtime pro rodeo supporter and rancher who now lives in Amarillo, Texas, lost touch with Mason around 1963, a short time after her husband died in an accident. Despite rumours to the contrary, she doesn’t believe that Mason ever worked for Benny Binion.
They did know each other, though. “Back then Las Vegas was a small town, and the Horseshoe had cheap drinks, cheap food and everyone congregated down there,” Michael said.
Binion had grown up in Texas, where he developed a lucrative business running illicit gambling operations before moving to Las Vegas to open Binion’s Horseshoe casino.
Books, articles and historians give conflicting accounts of Binion. Some call him a cold-blooded murderer who bought his way into Nevada authorities’ favour. Others call him the patron saint of rodeo, recounting his habit of paying cowboys’ entry fees into the National Finals Rodeo after he convinced government and rodeo officials to make Vegas the permanent home of the world championship finals.
The finals were a boon to all the casinos, filling hotel rooms and gambling halls. Binion started a side business as well, launching what has become an iconic livestock sale at the finals every year.
Some suspected Binion had an ulterior motive when it came to paying cowboys’ entry fees. Rodeo riders are strong and scrappy, and not afraid of getting rough. If they owed Binion a favour, he may have called it in in the form of muscle.
Binion — who died in 1989 — “loved cowboys and would often employ them to do other things for him,” said Doug Swanson, 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, that was his element. They were his pals and people who worked for him. 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 Mason from the glitz of Vegas to their mining town. Some speculated that he’d repaid his entry fee to Binion by working on the dark side of the casino business and was on the run from the law.
After Woolley’s death, rumours flew among rodeo families, too.
“Of course everybody knew about it when it happened, in the rodeo world. I just heard that he got in a fight with the guy and shot him point-blank and walked off,” Michael said. “There were always rumours about him, but I don’t know if some of them were true. I really didn’t know if he was dead or not.”
The killing drew the attention of local, state and federal law enforcement. The highways leading in and out of Clayton were patrolled for any sign of Mason. But he was gone.
New rumours spread: That Brett and his brothers had avenged their father, perhaps leaving Mason’s remains in the woods for mountain lions and bears to clean up.
“I knew them kids, they couldn’t keep a secret,” said Dan Woolley’s best friend, Paul Gibbs. “If they had killed him, it would have been out the next day. And they’d never left to go anywhere, so they’d have had to shoot him right in the valley.”
Brett Woolley said being eyed as suspects was particularly difficult to a family already reeling with grief. He believes his father’s shooter was rescued by Binion’s gang, spirited away to another hideaway. Binion’s daughter, Michael, thinks people in the rodeo circuit likely helped Mason flee.
Nearly four decades later, a woman in Texas came across a Facebook post on a page dedicated to unsolved crimes in Idaho. The details seemed familiar; the suspect was a lot like her mother’s common-law husband, but with a different name. Eventually, she reached out to Brett Woolley’s girlfriend, Steen.
They came to believe he was the same man when the stepdaughter described Mason’s elaborate, leather-bound photo album, holding photos from his pro rodeo days. Brett remembered seeing the same album once as a teen when he was in Mason’s Idaho home.
Walter Mason, living under the name Walter Allison, was arrested on Oct. 10, 2019, at his home in East County, Texas.
After law enforcement arrived on his Texas doorstep, “Mason made the admission that he had shot Mr. Woolley,” said Justin Oleson, the Custer County prosecutor. “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.”
A trial, at least, would bring some answers. But that seems unlikely to happen.
Mason was brought to Idaho, appointed a defence attorney and housed in a rural county jail for a time. He pleaded not guilty and then the case stalled. Now 87 years old, Mason has “all sorts of medical issues that old folks have,” Oleson said.
He’s since been transferred to a long-term care facility, said Mason’s public defender, David Cannon.
“They have made a determination that he’s not competent to stand trial,” said Cannon. “I think it’s unlikely it would change.”
Once again, Brett Woolley has come to terms with the fact that Mason will likely never face a jury.
Now he’s making plans to preserve his father’s legacy, lest it be overcome by the shadow of his death. Tourism, not agriculture, is now the dominant industry in the Sawtooth Valley, and Woolley fears that his dad’s work-hard, play-hard, calloused-hands and worn-out-coveralls way of life will be lost to history.
He dreams of opening a “dude farm” of sorts, where city folks can take their kids to learn how to milk a cow, drive a tractor or break a steer.
If people don’t remember anything about his dad but the day his life ended, Brett figures, at least his lessons will be passed on.