Looking back on an old friendship with JP murder defendant Daniel Mason, and recognizing the clues from afar
BY ROBERT DAVID JAFFEE
DANIEL MASON’S FACE looks fatter, puffier than I remember it. On trial for murder in Suffolk Superior Court, Mason, in the defense chair, cranes his neck and turns to his mother, Beverly, and half-brother Ben, who are seated in the second row behind the bar enclosure. Mason taps his balding pate, another change in his physical appearance since I last saw him; an Orthodox Jew, he is pleading for a yarmulke. As he touches his head, he looks needy, almost helpless. Perhaps he believes the yarmulke will provide him with spiritual protection.
Mason, 36, is accused of murdering Michael Lenz, 25, and of attempting to murder Lenz’s roommate, Gene Yazgur, 28. The two victims were shot before dawn March 2, less than 24 hours after Mason received a court order to pay Yazgur $118,000 in damages resulting from a road-rage incident. That encounter took place in September 1997, when Mason, stuck on a narrow street near Cleveland Circle, tried to commandeer Yazgur’s van and then slashed him with a knife after Yazgur refused to move the vehicle. Mason was convicted of misdemeanor assault and battery. Yazgur subsequently sued Mason in civil court and won the $118,000 default judgment.
It is Thursday, December 6, the first day of trial, and Mason cradles his cheek with his left hand as he watches Assistant District Attorney Josh Wall make his opening statement on behalf of the Commonwealth. Wall points to colored dots on a large-scale map of the city of Boston and relates the fateful sequence of events that allegedly led to Lenz’s death and the brutal shooting of Yazgur: Mason receives the court order at his Malden apartment on March 1 mandating that he begin payments to Yazgur; hours later, at 1:30 a.m. on March 2, Mason’s roommate, J.D. Smith, hears Mason say, "I’ll kill him first. He’ll never see a penny of it"; at 5:30 a.m., an assassin executes both Lenz and Yazgur’s Great Dane, Samson, and shoots Yazgur six times in his and Lenz’s Jamaica Plain apartment; at roughly 6 a.m., Mason gets into a car accident on the Riverway near the Brookline border, a few miles north of Yazgur’s building; at 7 a.m., Mason arrives at Boston Medical Center, where he is on rotation — two months away from receiving an MD from Boston University Medical School.
There are no fingerprints, footprints, or DNA samples tying Mason to the crimes. But one witness, Thomas Connelly, testifies that he passed a stocky, five-foot-six-inch Caucasian man with dark eyebrows (the heavy-set, dark-haired Mason is five-foot-five) on the sidewalk not far from Yazgur’s apartment. Another, Jennifer Trieshmann, testifies that she saw a stocky, short man fleeing the building in question at the time of the murder. Ballistic tests reveal that the 15 bullets riddling the victims came from a nine-millimeter Glock semiautomatic and quite possibly a .38-caliber revolver, two guns owned by Mason’s uncle, both of which were reported missing in June of this year. And there is, of course, the motive: bad blood between Mason and Yazgur.
After lunch recess, Wall calls to the stand Jefferson Boone, the attorney who represented Yazgur in his civil suit against Mason. Wall, whose habit of squinting makes his face look perennially pained, employs the tactic of questioning a witness in the present tense about events long in the past. Going over the July 2000 hearing, Wall refers to the moment after a judge assessed damages against Mason, asking Boone, "What happens next?" Boone replies, "He said, ‘You’ll never see a penny of it.’ " Boone, who speaks with a pronounced stutter, growls like a junkyard dog as he tries to replicate Mason’s voice. He repeats the damning words at Wall’s prompting.
The moment is dramatic. Admitted over the objection of defense counsel Robert Jubinville, Boone’s testimony leaves the jurors with the image of a vicious, snarling defendant, full of uncontrollable rage.
The first day of the trial is over.
Mason, the man who uttered those words of defiance, now has an air of resignation as court officers cuff his legs and wrists. A squat man dressed in a suit, tie, and 46-inch belt that his family FedExed to the court for him to wear during the trial, Mason turns to them once again. Plaintively, he reminds his half-brother, a bearded man in his mid 20s, "Don’t forget my yarmulke." Then he’s led off to Worcester County jail.
IT IS fitting that Mason is spending the night in Worcester. That is where he was born and lived until he was seven. At that time, his mother, recently divorced, moved the family to Israel. Years later, in the late 1980s, Mason returned to his natal city after serving in the Israeli Special Forces. Worcester is where we first met during the High Holidays of 1990.
I was a first-year law student at Boston University, staying with relatives at their Worcester home on Lynnwood Lane. I spent a lot of time with my cousin Julie, who lived nearby on Barry Road, also located in the predominantly Jewish neighborhood near the Holden border.
During one visit, my 23-year-old cousin was standing outside in the driveway with her boyfriend, Daniel Mason. She had already told me about him: he was an undergraduate at Dartmouth College and had served in the special forces. Upon seeing Dan for the first time, I was surprised by both his size and his demeanor. I had pictured a big, burly man, not the modest-size one before me. I was impressed with the fact that he had fought for the Jewish people and had served with distinction in the army. I myself had only recently returned from Israel. After completing a six-month ulpan (or intensive course of Hebrew instruction) at a kibbutz in the Jezreel Valley, I had enrolled in a volunteer program called Marva, an introduction to the Israeli military, in the summer of 1990.
I remember running in work boots on rocky terrain at a base in Northern Israel. Just shy of 25, five years older than my cohorts, I won a sprinting contest that included a series of "suicides" on a basketball court and then a dash up a hill that overlooked the Sea of Galilee. I also did more pull-ups than all but one of the men in my group of 12. Unfortunately, due to my flat feet and bad knees, I got injured and left the program. I felt humiliated. As I told Dan about my painful experience in the military, he averted his eyes, which I took to reflect his modesty and decency.
Over the next few months, Dan and I became friends. He seemed very comfortable with himself. I, on the other hand, suffered from low self-esteem and a lack of direction, which is probably why I was so drawn to him. Although I finished in the top quarter of my first-year law-school class, I was horribly depressed and felt that I could never be an attorney. A former English major at Yale College, I had always yearned to be a writer and eventually dropped out of law school.
While I had procrastinated in my studies, Dan, by contrast, was motivated academically and planned on applying to medical school. He told me on more than one occasion that he couldn’t have envisioned himself as a student just a few years earlier. After his stint in the special forces, he believed he was best suited to physically strenuous activity. He had even considered working as a bodyguard. He did not say this with any braggadocio; he just stated it factually. I had trouble imagining him in this role, given his moderate frame. He had also contemplated working for El Al as a hidden air marshal, but decided against it. He noted that being a marshal would be a stressful job that would always keep a person on edge.
But there was no doubting that he was a resourceful and adventurous man. He knew how to pilot a plane and on several occasions flew Julie to Newport, Rhode Island. He could also scale the walls of a house. He kept a police radar in his car and said that he owned a semiautomatic weapon, a Glock as I recall. (At the trial, it was revealed that Dan did in fact purchase a Glock in 1992; he later gave it to his uncle. It is one of the guns that is now missing.) I still remember Dan describing a gun in a most unusual and intimate way. He said a gun was a machine and that you had to treat it like a friend, take special care of it.
Issue Date: December 20 - 27, 2001