Best of the States


True West: Enterprise reporting reveals lurid story that led to Idaho cold case arrest


When an arrest came in a storied, decades-old killing in a remote Idaho mining town, Boise correspondent Rebecca Boone started digging, aiming to tell a broader story about the victim, the suspect and the colorful — and at times shady — pro rodeo and gambling circuit.

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Dan Woolley is shown at home near Clayton, Idaho, in a 1978 family photo. Woolley’s 1980 killing went unsolved for almost 40 years. – Courtesy of Brett Woolley via AP

Forty years ago, Dan Woolley was shot in the parking lot of a small-town bar in the Idaho mountains. The shooter crossed the street to the only other bar in town, ordered a drink and declared, “I just killed a man.” Then he disappeared. It looked like the killing would forever fade into history, unsolved. But late last year an 87-year-old man was arrested for the slaying — a former pro rodeo rider named Walter Mason, who had connections to Las Vegas mobster and casino owner Benny Binion.

The Associated Press was one of several national and local news outlets to try to reach Woolley’s son,Brett Woolley,but he turned everyone down because he only wanted to tell his story once. He asked around,and a few people suggested Boone because they’d seen her coverage of other high-profile Idaho crimes. So began months of trust building and shoe-leather reporting.

Boone first interviewed Brett Woolley toward the end of November 2019 — an exercise to build his trust more than anything – and she continued reporting the story into 2020 between coverage of breaking news,the pandemic and the election cycle. She tracked down historians who could tell her about the rodeo circuit and Binion’s gambling interests. She also coaxed media-averse long-time central Idaho residents into telling her how they remembered the 1980 shooting, sifting through their various versions of events.

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A 1980 wanted poster shows Walter James Mason as authorities sought him for the killing of Dan Woolley in Clayton, Idaho. Mason is shown at right in an October 2019 booking photo after his arrest. – Custer County Sheriff’s Office via AP (2)

Boone needed a few months of sporadic work to reach Binion’s daughter and one of his former bodyguards, and then a few more months to get Mason’s defense attorney to call her back. The end product,written in a narrative,vignette style, included old booking photos and images provided by the Woolley family. The 1,900-word feature moved Saturday and was among AP’s top stories for the weekend with more than 26,600 pageviews and the highest reader engagement by far.

For an absorbing read that is a textbook example of a general assignment reporter chipping away for months at a challenging enterprise piece, Boone earns this week’s Best of the States award.

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