WENATCHEE — Police believe local geology sage Charles L. Mason shot and killed his wife Ruth Berthold Mason on Friday, then turned the gun on himself.
Mason, a lecturer, author and frequent tour guide leader, was 81. Wenatchee police say he apparently shot his wife Ruth, 97, in a parked vehicle in the couple’s condominium garage, then took his own life.
A housekeeper summoned police and emergency crews to the condominium in the 300 block of South Elliott Avenue at 12:07 p.m. Friday. Both husband and wife were pronounced dead at the scene, and notes and other items found in the home indicated the deaths were planned, said Wenatchee Police Capt. Doug Jones.
Friends said Mason may have taken the step as age and ill health threatened to separate him from his wife and collaborator of 55 years.
Charles Mason was best known as the founder of the Wenatchee Valley Erratics, a group dedicated to studying and teaching the unique geologic features of the area; and as author of “The Geological History of the Wenatchee Valley and Adjacent Vicinity,” a pictorial guidebook he published himself in 1996. The early printings sold out, and the book came back into print in a revised edition in 2006.
Ruth Mason was an adventurous traveler whose personality complemented her husband’s, said longtime friend and Erratics co-founder Susan Lacy of Trinidad. The couple spent long periods traveling the world and prospecting for minerals — not for wealth, just for fun.
“These two were soulmates before that was a popular term,” Lacy said. “They cared for each other.”
The Masons had known each other since Charles was 12, and married in California in 1958, when he was in his mid-20s and she in her 40s. He worked with hydroelectric generation for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, while Ruth worked in Hughes Aircraft’s experimental electronics division.
They moved to the Wenatchee Valley in 1978, where Charles took a similar job with the Chelan County Public Utility District. In 1994 he began teaching geology at Wenatchee Valley College, despite having no advanced degree in earth sciences.
Mason fell in love with North Central Washington’s geologic formations — the columnar basalt, the Chumstick outcrops, the boulders known as erratics that washed far afield with the Ice Age Floods of 12,000 to 18,000 years ago. Charles and Ruth built their dream home along Keane Grade Road near Rock Island, at the foot of the basalt formations that fascinated him.
“Every place I looked, I could see what happened here,” he told The Wenatchee World in 2004. “It’s fascinating. It never happened like this anywhere else in the world.”
Mason’s book remains the gold standard for explaining NCW’s unusual landscapes to a layperson, said Ralph Dawes, professor of geology at Wenatchee Valley College.
When Dawes began teaching in the WVC system 14 years ago, he said, “it was the only source specifically on the geology of this area. There’s ‘Roadside Geology of Washington,’ but that’s so old it’s out of date, and it only lightly touches on central Washington.”
Ruth was an aid and partner in Mason’s explorations. She appears in photographs throughout “Geological History,” often standing next to huge rocks for scale.
Mason was a self-trained geologist, but he knew the science of his adopted home region as well as any Ph.D., Dawes said.
“Once he went a on a field trip with a professional geologist from the U.S. Geological Survey,” Dawes said. “They had a couple of little disagreements along the way, and Charlie pretty much held his own.”
In 2000 the Ice Age Floods Institute, dedicated to public awareness of the region’s geologic history, decided to spawn local chapters. Mason, Lacy and her husband Ken were among the founders of the first such chapter, dubbed the Erratics, in 2001. Mason led countless field expeditions for all comers, teaching local geology firsthand to anyone with a pair of boots and a willingness to learn.
The Masons sold their Rock Island home and moved to the Wenatchee condo in 2011. Ruth was not able to live alone without aid, and Charles suffered two emergency hospitalizations in the last month. With no children or nearby relatives, Charles worried that he might die and leave Ruth with no one to care for her, Lacy said.
Jones said Charles Mason appeared to have arranged his affairs before taking gun in hand. He left behind letters on personal affairs, keys designated for specific people, a check to pay a due bill and other documents. Jones said it was unclear from the early investigation whether Ruth Mason agreed to die with her husband.
“It could’ve been they were both okay with it,” he said, “but we’re really not sure.”
Mason used a semi-automatic handgun, which police found in his lap. Jones said the two appeared to have died within eight hours prior to the discovery of their bodies.
The investigation led police to briefly lock down nearby Washington Elementary School, until they determined no gunman was at large.
Lacy, executor of the Masons’ estate, was among the first people police called. She last saw the couple on Monday, and said neither gave any indication they were planning to die.
Still, she said, “I think he’d been thinking about this, and possibly the two of them had been thinking about this, for a long time.”