Stealing Time

As its inmate population ages, the Colorado prison system discovers there's no con like an old con.

Twenty years ago, Frank Ashton says in a cowboy drawl, "no one messed with the old prisoners. It used to be that the middle-aged prisoners protected the older ones. But now there's no middle-aged people to protect the older inmates. There's just vultures who pick the bones of others, the ones who get their bones picked, and the ones who stand in the middle."

The 64-year-old Ashton, in on a double-murder rap since 1977, has seen a gradual breakdown of what used to be a key component of the convict's code: Respect your elders. "These youngsters, most of 'em have no work experience or ethics, and they're as low as they can be," he says after steering his wheelchair up to a table in a Territorial prison conference room. "They work in the kitchen and get a dollar a day, and that's not enough for a pack of cigarettes. One dollar a day, and most of them have relinquished their ties to their families, so they get no money from them."

The younger inmates turn to their elders for extra cash, Ashton says, and the result is sometimes ugly. "If they can't talk [an older inmate] out of their money, they'll 'borrow' or steal," he says. "Some of the older guys, they'll forget. They won't lock their door, and they have no idea who goes in and out of their room."

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The older cons, Ashton says, can make it on a dollar a day because they're not inclined to be foolish with their money and they tend to share what they do have with one another. "The older inmates have a better chance of getting something [from another inmate] because they appreciate it so much more," he says.

Ashton meets his own needs for money and canteen items--mainly cigarettes and extra coffee--by working as a prison clerk and performing other assignments. "I've worked pretty near all the jobs around here," he says. But he has had to be more frugal of late. He's been temporarily unemployed and wheelchair-bound since doctors took off a portion of his right leg earlier this year. The surgery was paid for by the state.

"I lost my leg because of being shot in it," he says. "I shot myself once. I broke it a couple times and got it frostbit." He claims, too, that he was ambushed and shot in the leg a second time while serving in the Air Force during the Korean War. The leg, he says, "just wouldn't make it anymore" and was first amputated about thirty years ago. Physicians took off a bit more this past January.

The state has contracted with an outside company to buy Ashton a new artificial leg. Until the prosthesis is ready, Ashton is watching his coffee intake, hoarding his butts and spending most of his time sunning himself in the prison yard and "minding my own business." He's tan and leathered from his time outdoors--just like he was in the old days.

Ashton was born and raised on a ranch about 100 miles west of Bozeman, Montana, and says he never wanted to live anyplace else. "Montana," he says, "is like a magnet to anybody who ever lived there. But it's a hard place to live in, a hard place to make a living."

Ashton says he "supposes it must have been insanity" that led him from Montana to Colorado's Moffat County, where he was tried and convicted for the 1977 slayings of two twenty-year-old women. "I was en route to someplace else in Colorado, and I ended up in prison," he says. "I don't care to discuss the events of the crime, because there's my version and there's others."

The body of Mary Murdoch was discovered in April 1978 at the bottom of a cliff by a Colorado couple conducting a survey of peregrine falcons in Dinosaur National Monument. According to trial testimony, their attention was drawn to the area by Ashton, who allegedly was attempting to blow up the body with a crude homemade bomb.

Ashton was arrested later that same day. Two months later he told investigators where to find the remains of Jan Gentile, whose body lay on a rock outcropping above the spot where Murdoch was found.

By all accounts, Ashton had left Darby, Montana, in November 1977 accompanied by both women, who lived with him on a nearby ranch. Ashton later testified that the three of them were headed to Salt Lake City and that they were drinking and smoking marijuana on the way. In addition, Ashton testified, he may have snorted some PCP. The next thing he remembered, he told the court, he woke up to find the two women laying bloodied and dead in the back of his Dodge pickup truck.

Ashton said he then drove to the national monument, where he disposed of the bodies by throwing them off a cliff. On the day Ashton was arrested, he told investigators he had gone back to the site to bury the women to protect their corpses from scavengers.

When Ashton was taken into custody, officers discovered in his truck a handwritten note on the inside back cover of a paperback book. "Dear Mary and Jan," it read. "I love both of you in every way that is possible. The River has run dry. I must part this earth and join you.

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