Video: Man dies after intense exercises

updated 3/20/2009 6:35:40 PM ET 2009-03-20T22:35:40

A transgender woman was sentenced Friday to four years in prison for killing her frail husband by forcing him to exercise.

Chris Mason, 41, was sentenced in Geauga County Common Pleas Court for reckless homicide in the death of 73-year-old James Mason. She pleaded guilty earlier and could have gotten five years at sentencing.

Mason’s voice quivered as she tearfully apologized for the June death of her husband, who had heart problems. A surveillance camera caught Mason forcing her husband around in the pool.

Chris Mason also goes by Christine Newton-John, the name she took after her 1993 sex change.

“I want to apologize to my former husband’s half-sister for her loss as well as to my family and for my loss,” she said in court in an emotional tone. “It’s been very upsetting and devastating for our entire family.”

Regaining composure, Mason described their relationship.

“Jim had been in our family for over 45 years. He came up here from a small town and met my grandmother and my mother, who were like a mother and a sister to him,” Mason said. “Over the years we gravitated towards each other, and he accepted me for who I was not what I was.”

They were in love, Mason said
“We loved each other very much. I’m not going to let jail turn me away. I will continue to hold my head up high and keep plugging along and moving along as I go through my life,” Mason said.

Mason in her remarks to the judge acknowledged the unusual nature of her marriage.

“All along I never forgot for once what this case was about,” she said. “This was a case about him, and what had happened to him and I. It was about a local woman accused, not a local transgender woman accused.”

She added, “What will be, will be. By the grace of God and His son, I have managed to pull myself together over the past few months.”

Her lawyer, Geauga County Public Defender Robert Umholtz, said she had no intent to harm her husband. Unholtz said she struggles with psychological issues due to feelings that some people in society view her as different.

She was born in 1967 as John Leslie Vallandingham.

James Mason collapsed in her arms last June 2 in the indoor pool at the apartment complex where they lived. He died the next day at Geauga Community Hospital.

They shared an unusual bond
James Mason knew his wife since she was born a boy. The janitor and former military man was a boarder in the child's home and was treated like family.

Many were surprised when he married Chris nearly three years ago, not just because he knew she underwent sex-change surgery three years before, temporarily calling herself Christine Newton-John after the pop singer with the same last name. He was in his 70s, she in her 30s. He was mild-mannered; she had a domineering personality.

Although the tale of James and Chris Mason didn't begin as a nightmare, the relationship always was considered unusual. The marriage seemed not much more than a living arrangement, said Chris Mason's sister, Cathy Vondrasek, who learned of it only after the two were wed.

"I never knew of them to be romantic," she said. "Jim was always like an uncle to us."

Her sister is domineering, "although I hate to say it," while James Mason was very gentle and laid back, Vondrasek said.

"Jim was a people pleaser," Vondrasek said. "If you'd ask him to go to a movie he'd probably say, 'Sure, why not?' So my take about him is if you'd say, 'Hey, you want to get married?', he'd say 'OK.'"

Rocky relationship
James Mason, 73 when he died in June, first met his wife's family in 1963 when he became a boarder at Vallandingham's home. Four years later, his wife was born as John Leslie Vallandingham.

Chris Mason, now 41, is a former health care aide for the elderly. In 1983, a decade before her sex-change operation, she decided that she and Mason should be together, she told police. The couple were living together at the time, but didn't marry until Aug. 18, 2006.

They lived in Middlefield, a village within a northeast Ohio area best known for its Amish community, for about four months. Chris Mason's mother lived with them for much of that time.

Vallandingham, who was present during the attack that killed James Mason but told police she didn't see any harsh treatment, does recall previous conflicts between the couple.

She told police she once saw her daughter flip a chair while James Mason was sitting in it, putting a hole in a wall. She said she saw James Mason standing with his nose to a wall in the corner of the living room because, he told her, his wife had ordered it.

'Good days and bad guys'
Neighbors at times heard yelling and objects being thrown in the couple's apartment and complained to a Geauga County social service agency that checks on the safety of the elderly, said Middlefield Police Chief Joseph Stehlik.

"They both had good days and bad days," Vallandingham said. "Some things Chris did, well ... Chris needs help," she said, adding that her daughter once was a crack cocaine user.

"I'd rather not be painting an ugly picture," Vallandingham said. "She did love and care for Jim in her own way, and he loved her. Jim was a very loving and caring person."

Chris Mason told police that she didn't intentionally kill her husband and that they were in the swimming pool at their apartment complex so he could exercise.

A security videotape shows Chris Mason pulling her husband by his arms and legs on June 2, tossing and dunking him. Sometimes he clings to the side of the pool and his wife pulls him away. She appears to block his path as he tries to get out of the water — 43 times, by the police chief's count.

At other times James Mason gets out but goes back in. He doesn't swim but walks slowly in the 3-foot-deep end of the pool.

Chris Mason's attorney, public defender Bob Umholtz, declined to comment.

Fatal attack and bar fights
James Mason, who had coronary artery disease, suffered a heart attack. An autopsy shows that his major arteries had potentially fatal blockages of about 75 percent, Geauga County Coroner Kevin Chartrand said. It was fine for James Mason to exercise, but the condition of his heart made strenuous activity a risk, Chartrand said.

Shortly before Mason collapsed in the pool, Vallandingham had told Chris Mason she was moving out.

"I love Chris with all my heart, but I can't live with her," she told the AP.

Troubles continued after James Mason's death. His widow was involved in a bar fight in December and was jailed after her personal bond was revoked, said Prosecutor David Joyce. She was banned from another bar she frequently visited.

"She was getting obnoxious, and the owner told her she had to stay out of here," said Tracy Hall, a bartender at Middlefield Tavern. "She liked to flirt with all the guys who come in here."

She wasn't working at the time of her husband's death. James Mason, a retired janitor who had served in the Army and Air Force, had Veterans Affairs benefits, Social Security and possibly other retirement assets, according to the police investigation.

Police Chief Stehlik had expected a murder charge, convinced that Chris Mason knew her husband had a weak heart and that she would get VA benefits and Social Security as his widow. He said she did receive benefits of more than $860 a month from the VA and at least one retirement account.

But because there is no audio on the security video, the grand jury could not know what the couple said to each other, Joyce said. They do not appear to be arguing. He does not appear to be fighting her off. She was indicted on a charge of reckless homicide, a third-degree felony.

'She was pretending'
Vondrasek said she and Chris Mason both wept as James Mason died.

But James Mason's half-sister, Cinda Meyer, said Chris Mason appeared to show little grief.

"She had him cremated, and she called and told me to come and pick up the ashes and do something with them," said Meyer, of Seville in northeast Ohio. "She was pretending to be a grieving widow."

Meyer said she arranged her brother's funeral. Chris Mason did not attend.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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