I recently interviewed Beth Mason, one of my golfing friends, for the “Snapshot” column I write each month for Life in Chenal magazine, and boy did I get a shock! I’ve interviewed many of my other friends as well, and I always learn so much about them that I never knew. One of my friends had touched Elvis! One has had several books of poetry published. One of my friends is an outstanding artist, but I never knew that one of her pieces had been on Readers’ Digest until I interviewed her. I’ve also interviewed and written about a lot of strangers over the last four years and have learned so much about their experiences, professions, avocations, and family.
After interviewing Beth, however, I’m convinced that we should all be interviewing all of our friends. It is amazing what you can learn about your friends when you take the time to ask them some questions.
Since the article ran in August and September (It was too long for one column), I have received comments from many of Beth’s friends and many people who didn’t even know her but who were fascinated by her story. I think the readers of this blog will enjoy it, also.
Arkansas native Beth Mason grew up in Stuttgart where her father worked for Riceland Foods and was the president of the school board. Her mother managed the house and the children, all five of them. “Stuttgart was a great place to grow up,” said Beth. “It was so safe that kids just ran free, played, and had fun. Our parents stressed education and being self-sufficient, and we always had a great sense of family and community. In truth, we were a product of ‘us.’” All of the Mason children are achievers. Beth’s two brothers are both doctors, one sister is a psychiatric nurse, and the other is an industrial engineer. In high school, Beth was an honor student, played clarinet in the band, was co-editor of the yearbook, and in the junior and senior plays, among other activities. She graduated in 1966. It was an idyllic childhood.
Beth attended the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville but had to transfer to Henderson State to finish her degree in speech therapy. She met her husband, Ray, a math major who was in ROTC, and they married during her senior year. Upon graduation, Ray joined the army, and the young couple was assigned to Germany for five years. Beth worked as the only English-speaking speech therapist in Germany, and she became involved with the on-base community theatre. Ray became the general’s aide. “We had a great life in the military. Eventually, I was able to speak ‘Shopping German’ or ‘Drinking German,’ Beth said. “In 1976, we got a little TV. One night we were watching Bob Hope, and we didn’t get the jokes. We’d been away too long. It was time for us to go home.”
The trip back to the states was an adventure. “Daddy got us on a cargo ship, and we had the owner’s cabin. Then the ship got rammed in the Balkan Sea, and we limped into London for five days of repairs,” said Beth. Back underway, the captain made up time by going full speed. “Everyone was seasick! Then in the canal to New Orleans, the ship was hit by lightning and stalled. We just started drinking! One of Daddy’s friends came rescued us by putting us up in a hotel. We didn’t have a credit card, and we certainly didn’t have any money! Eventually, we got our car off the ship and drove home to Arkansas. I think we stopped at every burger joint we passed!”
Before too long, Ray was sent to Ft. Belvoir in Virginia with the Corps of Engineers and then to Ft. Bragg in Fayetteville, North Carolina. “I went house hunting, and I told our realtor in Fayetteville that I wanted a house with a back door and a garage,” said Beth. “She kept showing us houses with carports! I changed realtors, bought a house that matched my criteria, and went to work for the realtor who heard what I was saying. This was a small company that mostly worked with the military market. There were only 5 of us, and I learned so much so fast. Using carbon paper and one-page contracts, we filled out the contracts and did the HUD statements. There were only five women in the whole board [N.B. all the realtors in a designated area]. We all worked hard to prove we could survive in real estate.”
Beth was selling a lot of houses and starring in the comedy Born Yesterday at one of the city’s community theaters. One day in 1979, she was holding an open house for a new subdivision when a man showed up wanting to look at houses with land outside the city. Beth asked him if he wouldn’t rather look when his wife was with him. The guy insisted, so Beth agreed to show him some homes in the city to give him an idea of houses in his price range. “If I had been an untrained, new agent,” said Beth, “I might have gone to the country with him.
“But I didn’t have a good feeling about this guy, so while driving to a property, I used my two-way radio to report my whereabouts to the people back in the office. Real estate is highly competitive, and most of the town’s agents used the same frequency. Afterward, I learned that my fellow agents wondered why I was letting everyone know what I was doing.
Beth’s intuitions, however, were right. She and the guy entered an empty house, and when they were in the hallway, she turned around. “He had a gun on me. It’s crazy, but I remember Carol Burnet, when she was attacked, said, ‘I went frigging bananas.’ So I went ‘frigging bananas.’ I yelled and fought and screamed and fought and knocked the clip out of his gun. So he just beat me with the gun until I gave in. He tied and bound me, strangled me, and beat my head against the wall until I passed out, and when I came to, I was a bloody mess. While I was unconscious, I had a true, out-of-body experience. I was at peace, but I told the angels floating around me that I didn’t think it was my time to die. They agreed, and while I have no memory of it, somehow I got out of the house and crawled to the next-door neighbors. Although they wouldn’t let me in their home, they did call the police and an ambulance. I believe if I had been a new agent or a young agent, I would have gone to the country with that guy and I would have been dead.”
Beth talks very matter-of-factly about the attack and how she came through it. “I had no choice about what he did to me,” she said, “but I had control over how it would affect the rest of my life! Besides, I loved selling real estate. I wasn’t going to let him take my life away from me.” Beth took time to heal then went back to living and to work. The case went unsolved.
When Beth’s husband Ray went to Oklahoma State for his masters in physical engineering, Beth stayed in North Carolina and continued growing her real estate business. Then Ray became the Deputy District Commander of the Corps of Engineers and was assigned to Little Rock. The couple came home in 1982, and Beth went to work for McKay and Company Realtors.
The couples’ next move was in 1984 when Ray went to work for the Department of Energy in Washington, D.C. “We barely qualified for the house I wanted, because the banks wouldn’t consider my potential income,” said Beth. “Ray asked me how we were going to pay for the house. I went to the nearest Long and Foster Realtor’s office and said, ‘I’m ready to go to work.’”
The manager looked at Beth and said, “We don’t hire that way. You have to apply, interview, etc.”
“Well,” she said, “through June of this year I’ve sold 48 houses in Little Rock.”
He looked out over the office cubicles and said, “Which desk do you want?”
One day Beth got a call from her mom back in Arkansas. A female real estate agent had been attacked and killed in Bossier City, Louisiana, and although this woman had died, the attack was similar to Beth’s experience. Beth’s mother was positive that the killer was the same guy who had attacked Beth. Beth’s mom insisted, “I know this is the guy, and I want you to call the police.” After some persuading, Beth called the police in Fayetteville, North Carolina, who immediately said, “We’ve been looking for you!”
The story was about to get unreal for Beth. A guy named Michael Debardeleben had been arrested at a shopping mall near Knoxville, Tennessee for passing counterfeit $20 bills, bills that matched thousands of others that had been passed in 44 states over the past 17 years. When the U. S. Secret Service examined Debardeleben’s vehicle, they discovered lurid photos of sex crimes and mementos from what appeared to be the victims. Eventually, the Secret Service was able to find DeBardeleben’s storage shed where they discovered photos, mementos, and audiotapes of the attacks. The problem was the Secret Service didn’t know who the women in the photos were. The Secret Service turned to the F.B.I., but they couldn’t help as there wasn’t a victim.
Next, the police in Fayetteville contacted the Secret Service, and Beth was able to identify DeBardeleben as her attacker. Several other victims were also located. Based upon the photos in DeBardeleben’s office, he had preyed upon a staggering number of women, including the four wives the Secret Service eventually located.
The story of how Beth lived through the attack came to the attention of a local TV show like 48 Hours. Then the story was picked up by Phil Donahue, and she went his show with one of DeBardeleben’s wives and a daughter. Beth talked about the incident, and eventually, Donahue played excerpts from one of the audiotapes found in DeBardeleben’s home. “Hearing that tape brought me to my knees. I learned that he would commit an assault or murder, and take a bunch of pills to keep him awake. Then he’d drive several states away or across the country to establish an alibi,” said Beth.
DeBardeleben was tried, convicted of counterfeiting, kidnapping, and assault, but not murder in 1983. He was sentenced to 375 years and was serving his time in Leavenworth. His life was often threatened, and he was diagnosed with cancer, so he was moved to the Federal Medical Center in Butner, North Carolina where he died of pneumonia in 2011. The other states where he had victims declined to prosecute since DeBardeleben wouldn’t be eligible for parole until he was 100 years old. You can read about Debardeleben’s chilling career in Stephen Michaud’s book, Lethal Shadow.
By 1996, Beth and her team were #1 out of 6,600 area agents, selling an average of a hundred houses a year. It was also the year her success came to the attention of real estate agent mentor Howard Brinton and his Star Power system for sales training. Before long Beth became a motivational speaker at Howard Brinton University, and she discovered she loved teaching and helping other realtors.
Beth also became an industry advocate for Realtor safety. “Unfortunately it is not just new or young Realtors that are too trusting and too hungry for a sale,” Beth said. “I want them to know they are vulnerable, and they need to be prepared if a dangerous situation arises. Developing safe practices is good business and will lead agents to long term success.”
“In 1998,” Beth said, “I realized my values weren’t being met. I was very successful in business, but I sold my business to my lead assistant, came to Little Rock to be near my siblings, nieces, and nephews, bought a lot, and built a house and a koi pond.”
Beth also went back to school, earning a master’s degree in interpersonal and organizational communications from the University of Arkansas Little Rock and her certificate as a life coach. She then incorporated a new business called Smart Talk, a consulting, training, and coaching practice for businesses and individuals.
Beth was doing a lot of traveling, speaking at national conferences and conducting seminars, but in 2000, her mammogram showed she had a tumor in her breast. The very next day the tumor was removed, and Beth started chemotherapy and radiation. After her recovery, she took herself off the road and began working with local real estate companies and small businesses. In 2003, she joined Chenal Country Club, took golf lessons, and joined the Ladies’ Golf Association. “I fell in love with golf,” she said. “I loved being outdoors and loved the people who played golf. As much as I love our two fabulous golf courses at Chenal, I also like playing in tournaments all over the area.”
These days Beth is in charge of the referral department at RE 501 Partners, a realty firm, and she still does training and coaching for Realtors. She spends a lot of time with friends and family at Chenal Country Club where she is a past president of the Ladies’ Golf Association. She developed a love of pottery making after taking a class at the Arkansas Art Center Museum School with a friend, and she sells her work at the Museum School’s annual show. Beth is also active in the Downtown Rotary and Arkansas Women Executives, serving as their president for two years. As a member of the Executive Networking Organization, Beth says, “I couldn’t live without my puppies and those guys in my network. They are my roofer, accountant, electrician, insurance agent, great friends, and more!”
Most recently, upon hearing about unpaid bills for lunches in the Little Rock School District, Beth quietly took up a collection and paid off the $2,500 bill for numerous families.
It’s obvious that the attack she suffered back in 1979 hasn’t slowed Beth down. She’s got a full plate of activities, but there’s one thing she’d like to do again–stand-up comedy. We should probably start looking for her on a nearby stage soon!