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First to trial, first to be convicted of the Drain murder, Aguilar also got the gas first. He did not go gently.

On his last day — August 13, 1937, an unlucky Friday — he had a hell of a row with his wife in his cell. His octogenarian mother collapsed and was taken to the prison hospital. He was hauled to the death house "whimpering and cringing," the Denver Post gleefully reported.

Found wandering the Cheyenne train yards, Joe Arridy promptly confessed to a notorious Pueblo murder — and other crimes he couldn't have committed.
Found wandering the Cheyenne train yards, Joe Arridy promptly confessed to a notorious Pueblo murder — and other crimes he couldn't have committed.
Sheriff George Carroll called Arridy insane — but changed his opinion at trial; a jury took 28 minutes to find Frank Aguilar guilty of killing Dorothy Drain and sentence him to death.
Sheriff George Carroll called Arridy insane — but changed his opinion at trial; a jury took 28 minutes to find Frank Aguilar guilty of killing Dorothy Drain and sentence him to death.

It was one of the most heavily attended executions in state history. Riley Drain had a front-row seat as Aguilar bucked, strained against the straps and fought the cyanide gas for almost a full minute. One of the spectators, a Missouri Pacific railroad conductor, dropped dead of a heart attack just as Aguilar expired.

Reporters made much of the fact that Aguilar's henchman, Joe Arridy, did not bid him farewell during his march from death row. But then, Arridy had told the men in court that he didn't know Frank Aguilar.

That same day, Sheriff Carroll and the two railroad employees who nabbed Arridy collected a $1,000 reward for solving the case.

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Like Sheriff Carroll, the warden of the Colorado State Penitentiary was a tough lawman who knew his bad apples. But Roy Best could see a world of difference between the likes of Frank Aguilar and little Joe Arridy.

A former state patrolman and driver for the governor, Best had been one of the troops called out to put down a bloody riot that all but gutted the pen in '29. In the shakeup that followed, he became, at 31, one of the youngest wardens in state history. He would stay on the job for twenty years.

Best not only rebuilt the prison, he remade it, according to his own hard-nosed ideas about discipline and rehabilitation. He pushed for better sanitation, silent periods, individual cells, prison industries, an array of privileges that could be used to reward good behavior. He preferred to flog convicts who misbehaved rather than send them to solitary confinement. He befriended (and all but adopted) some of the prison's most vulnerable inmates, including Jimmy Melton, who'd been tried as an adult for murdering his sister when he was twelve.

Arridy was one of Best's special cases. The warden brought him picture books, a battery-powered toy car — and, toward the end of his stay, the toy train. "Joe Arridy is the happiest man who ever lived on death row," Best told reporters.

The twenty months Arridy spent in Best's domain were unlike anything he had known before. Taking their cue from the warden, the guards didn't harass him. The other condemned men humored him and put up with his games. They didn't call him a feeb, a pervert or, worse, a diseased germ plasma. Perhaps he reminded them of the children they had once been. To others, it may not have seemed like much of a life, but it was something like acceptance.

Yet when Bob Perske retraced those last months of Arridy's life, he couldn't help feeling that his subject had become a kind of afterthought in the Drain investigation, collateral damage in someone else's scheme. He had been required for a specific purpose, to provide a confession implicating Aguilar, and now he was expendable.

"They needed Joe to get Aguilar," Perske says. "But you couldn't unring a bell. Once they had what they wanted, people just gave up on him."

One man did not give up. Prominent Denver attorney Gail Ireland agreed to take on Arridy's appeals at the request of Ben Jefferson, the superintendent of the state home. Correspondence between the two reveals that both men were convinced of Arridy's innocence; but as a legal strategy, Ireland's briefs didn't contest "the fact that Arridy was present when the crime was committed." Instead, Ireland challenged the finding that Arridy was sane. A man who is mentally incompetent cannot adequately defend himself at trial, Ireland argued, and cannot be legally executed in such a condition.

Ireland obtained nine stays of execution. The Colorado Supreme Court found his arguments intriguing, but, as Justice Norris Bakke opined, their job was to interpret "the law of the state as it now is, not under what we wish it might, or should, or may be at some time in the future."

Arridy was less impressed. He scarcely looked up from his toys when told of the reprieves. He didn't seem distressed when the petitions eventually failed, either. Death was not real, the way the train was. (Headline from the Chieftain: HE DIES FRIDAY BUT LAUGHS TODAY.)

Eleventh-hour appeals for another sanity hearing and for clemency from the governor failed, too. The day of ice cream arrived, and Arridy was persuaded to give up his train and say prayers with the chaplain, who recited slowly, two words at a time, so Arridy could repeat after him: "Our Father...who art...in heaven..."

The little man shook hands with the other doomed men and handed out his toys. A sparse crowd watched him head to the death house, flanked by Best and Father Schaller. Riley Drain had vowed to return to see Arridy executed, but he didn't attend. Outside the chamber, Arridy was stripped to his socks and shorts. He smiled as the guards strapped him to the chair and Best patted his hand. Then he was alone in the room.

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24 comments
dudleysharp
dudleysharp

Alan:


You write: "Like Ricky Ray Rector, the lobotomized Arkansas killer who told his executioners that he was saving a slice of pecan pie in his cell "for later," "


A few years back I called Arkansas doc about this. They had no idea what I was talking about.


I suggest it never happened.

The_Yeti_Knows
The_Yeti_Knows

Nothing like glaring injustice and blatant State sanctioned murder of a convenient scapegoat to remind us of how ludicrous the past can be.

Too bad that future generations will tell some similar stories of how backward we've become, tolerating hatred daily, allowing for freedom of speech and expression at the expense of dignity... protecting our outdated right to bear arms at the expense of countless victims of senseless coldblooded( theatre) murder.. Yes... we've come a long way... precisely an inch... coincidentally the length of my friend pikeman's acorn.

patricia.calhoun
patricia.calhoun moderator editortopcommenter

I would like to publish some of these comments in our print edition, ideally with your real name/town. If that's okay, let me know at patricia.calhoun@westword.com.

strangerthan_thou
strangerthan_thou

i've been following this story. it's so sad. i'm glad that i don't live in that time, since i also have mental handicaps that would be easy to exploit. good to put this story to rest, especially with the advances we've had in mental health and services in colorado in the past few years. we should always remember our past before we forge forward into the future. 

Mission Supports
Mission Supports

As noted in this must-read article, Texas executed Marvin Wilson, an inmate with an IQ of 61, just last month. The verbal descriptions of "moron" or even "diseased germ plasma" may not be as prevalent today, but the indifferent attitude toward those who have intellectual and developmental disabilities still certainly exists. Thank you Alan Prenergast for exposing this historic injustice toward a segment of our population who need the support of our community more now than ever.

RevBF
RevBF

Awesome story! Sometimes it's interesting to dig up these accounts about the judicial system and notice that it's very rarely changed over the course of hundreds of years. With the new social media platforms - we ourselves are also very much involved in modern day witch hunts. The innocent until proven guilty via popular opinion is far too relevant. Why defend someone who's so unpopular if you're trying to push your own career and agenda? The ideals are very much prevalent still...unfortunately. God bless America... 

aljohn
aljohn

Hopefully this will happen to our own local "imbecile" Corey Donahue AKA Donkey Hotay.

 

Zing!!!

dleonetti
dleonetti

Great Job Alan! Wish you could have got the Frank Aguilar fire in there; we just couldnt track it down. It was a train wreck on all sides, but beautifully written.

Juan_Leg
Juan_Leg

I most definitely see where you are going w/ this & I couldn't agree more !!!

I don't care if they compile a million charges , what's RIGHT is RIGHT !!!!

Evita Chase
Evita Chase

I wonder if this is where Stephen King found his inspiration for The Green Mile?

teddiroberts1313
teddiroberts1313

should have said, There is no better man than Robert Perske, and Joe Arridy.

teddiroberts1313
teddiroberts1313

It was such an honor to be involved with Joe's story.  There is no better man then Joe Perske

 

 

teddiroberts1313
teddiroberts1313

It was such an honor to be involved in Joe's story,  He should have never died, the injustice back then was so bad... But thanks to Gov. Ritter, he gave us all an education about the truth. 

 

Legen Dairy
Legen Dairy

He was innocent. Didnt deserve to die.

ghadaway
ghadaway

This story is about my uncle Joe. He was my mother's brother. I never knew about this until after she died this past May, she never talked about her family.

alanprend
alanprend

 @dleonetti Thanks Daniel. I did just recently locate a clip dealing with the fire, some months after Aguilar's execution. His widow not only refused to take his body but abandoned his children. But that's a story for another day...

dleonetti
dleonetti

 @ghadaway

 Cant wait till we meet up in Pueblo, I am trying to finalize a date and time to have breakfast and then motor up to see Joe in Canon City.

alanprend
alanprend

 @ghadaway Thanks for commenting. Did your mother ever mention her other brother, George, who apparently also suffered as a result of this case? I would be very interested in knowing what happened to him.

charenton_
charenton_

@GavotteAndBowel really good! I'm weirdly fascinated by true crime tales.

 
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