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Zoo chief, former officer remembers ‘instant evil’ of rapist-murderer

As director of the Las Vegas Zoo, Pat Dingle has worked with a lot of predators over the years. But mere mountain lions and alligators can’t begin to compare with the most vicious animal in Dingle’s life: Michael Dee Mattson.

As Dingle sat behind his desk at the zoo Tuesday morning, his memories of helping to capture Mattson swirled like smoke around his office. A rapist and serial killer who was suspected of murdering as many as six females ranging in age from 9 to 22 years old, Mattson was convicted in a California courtroom and sentenced to death in 1980.

In a testament to the absurdity of the death penalty, the 55-year-old finally died Friday morning in a medical facility outside San Quentin State Prison. Mattson survived 29 years on death row, far longer than any of his victims had lived.

Back in 1978, Dingle was the head of the North Las Vegas Police Department Homicide Bureau when he got a late-night call to interview a rape victim who had been kidnapped from the Clark County Community College’s Cheyenne campus.

The young co-ed narrowly escaped death after her abductor noticed the gas tank of her automobile was nearly empty.

Instead of continuing on into the night, he was forced to turn around and wound up at a Shell Station on Civic Center Drive. When he tried to fill the tank, she escaped and shouted for help.

Working through the night, Dingle sent out a description of the rapist and found his car in the college parking lot. The vehicle was littered with women’s clothing.

Within a few hours, he had tracked the vehicle back to the Los Angeles area, where police identified it as belonging to Michael Dee Mattson, a convicted rapist.

With a name and a face, Dingle disseminated more information. A short time later, a White Pine County lawman noted the similarity of the name with a family living outside Ely.

An arrest was made, and not long afterward, Dingle was in Ely escorting Mattson back to the North Las Vegas jail.

“The first moment I saw him, the hair on the back of my neck stood up: instant evil,” Dingle recalled. “He had no remorse. He could sit on your chest, strangle you, and watch you die, then go eat a sandwich. He was an evil human being.”

Dingle had plenty of evidence linking Mattson to the co-ed rape, but privately he knew he had a witness so afraid she refused to testify. The detective promised the victim he would figure something out.

Over the next six months, Dingle visited Mattson often. Dingle spoke in an easy monotone, slipped the predator coffee with seven sugars and unfiltered Camels. Mattson had been read his Miranda rights and could have shut him out at any time, but instead he opened up to the easygoing cop.

Mattson reeled off 15 rapes, including the one of the co-ed. He admitted killing a 9-year-old girl in Los Angeles County and a 16-year-old girl in Orange County in 1978. Mattson listed other crimes, alluding to several other murders that didn’t result in convictions because of a lack of sufficient evidence.

“After I overcame my revulsion for him, I worked it,” Dingle recalled. “He really gave it up over time.”

Mattson faced a long sentence in Nevada, but of all things was deathly afraid of doing time at the notorious state prison at Carson City. So he agreed to a plea bargain that meant double life without parole plus 40 years, but also a transfer to California for his next trial, which in 1980 resulted in a death sentence.

That sentence was overturned in 1984 after parts of his confession were ruled invalid. After a second conviction in California, that state’s Supreme Court upheld the death sentence. (Mattson’s defense was the subject of “Right to Counsel,” a 2008 book by James William Potts.)

After destroying and damaging many lives, the predator Mattson is gone like a ghost in a waking nightmare.

These days, the former detective spends his time at the Southern Nevada Zoological-Botanical Park on Rancho Drive. He likes working with the animals and doesn’t even mind occasionally getting snapped at by the diminutive zoo’s 10-foot alligator.

“At least these animals at the zoo are upfront,” Pat Dingle said. “They are what they are.”

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295. He also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/smith.

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