The gas swirled up from beneath the chair. He took three deep breaths and died.

Warden Best wept.

********

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.

With few exceptions — Best, Ireland, a small circle of family and clergy and people of kindness and courage — the citizens of Colorado weren't inclined to mourn Joe Arridy. A Denver Post editorial likened the execution to a mercy killing: "He never could have been anywhere near a normal human. Alive, he was no good to himself and a constant menace and burden to society. The most merciful thing to do was put him out of his misery."

For some, the misery didn't end there. George Arridy was kept in a state institution for years, despite his plaintive written pleas and demonstrated good behavior, out of fears about the public uproar that would result if the "high moron" brother of an executed killer was allowed to run loose.

Although colleagues had warned him that taking on the Arridy appeal might blight his career, Gail Ireland went on to serve four years as Colorado's attorney general. Roy Best enjoyed a long and popular reign as warden before getting suspended for whipping prisoners in 1952. He was acquitted of embezzlement and civil-rights violations but died shortly afterward. George Carroll grabbed his last headline in 1961, when he expired at a Cheyenne rest home.

The story of Joe Arridy might have vanished forever at that point — if not for a poem about a condemned man and his toy train, which led to Robert Perske's book, which led to so much more.

Trinidad journalist Daniel Leonetti read about Perske's book when it was first published and immediately got in touch with the author. Over the years, the two have swapped research and theories, and Leonetti has written a screenplay about the case, focusing on Gail Ireland's efforts to save a client who doesn't even understand what is happening to him. The script is now under option by Keller Entertainment Group.

"He was a righteous man," Leonetti says of Ireland. "If he saw something was wrong, he had to do something about it — despite his social status. Even his wife questioned him when he took this on."

Perske's work was also a source of inspiration for Craig Severa, an advocacy specialist for The Arc of the Pikes Peak Region, a nonprofit serving people with developmental disabilities. Severa recalls going with Perske to visit Arridy's grave in the prison cemetery. The only marker was "a rusted-out motorcycle license plate on a steel pole" that had the deceased's name as ARRDY. Severa decided to raise money for a decent headstone, hitting up judges, attorneys and community groups.

Along the way, Severa talked to longtime residents in Cañon City and learned some local folklore about Arridy's grave. People said it glowed at night because it was the resting place of a child.

Severa believes Arridy's story still has bearing today, when many chronically arrested street people have some degree of mental impairment. He trains police cadets how to recognize and deal with suspects with disabilities. "I've got one guy I've gone to court with 42 times," he says. "But the system has become more understanding. There are judges who are absolutely great in Colorado Springs. The danger comes when you're dealing with guys who have a verbal IQ of 72, but to the police they look completely normal."

By the time the new tombstone was unveiled, in 2007, a small group calling itself the Friends of Joe Arridy was talking about organizing a campaign to seek a pardon. Denver attorney David Martinez attended the ceremony and was quickly enlisted in the cause.

"That's where I met Bob Perske," Martinez says. "He said he talked to a lot of attorneys who said they would try to help him get a pardon for Joe, and they never called him back. I can't help everybody, but I figured I might try to change his opinion about attorneys."

Three years later, Martinez delivered a massive 400-page appeal for an Arridy pardon to Governor Ritter's office, based largely on Perske's research and official records. A former prosecutor, Ritter wasn't known for giving executive clemency much of a workout. Perske was pessimistic.

He was sitting in his office in Darien, Connecticut, the day Martinez called to tell him the pardon had been granted — 72 years and a day after Arridy's execution. Perske sent out e-mails to the Friends.

"We suddenly felt so happy and free, like we were at a state fair in January," he recalls. "We learned a long time ago that if we face a tough situation like Joe's and give up too quickly, we may miss out on a fantastic conclusion."

Ritter issued a statement citing the "great likelihood" that Arridy was innocent of the murder of Dorothy Drain. He also noted that a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court ruling abolished the death penalty for the mentally impaired as cruel and unusual punishment — although what constitutes sufficient impairment is still a matter of debate. (The Supremes failed to intervene last month when Texas executed Marvin Wilson, an inmate with an IQ of 61.)

"Pardoning Mr. Arridy cannot undo this tragic event in Colorado history," Ritter said. "It is in the interests of justice and simple decency, however, to restore his good name."

The Friends of Joe Arridy added the date of the pardon to his tombstone, and an epitaph: HERE LIES AN INNOCENT MAN.

« Previous Page
 |
 
1
 
2
 
3
 
4
 
5
 
6
 
7
 
8
 
All
 
My Voice Nation Help
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 topcommentereditor

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.

 
Loading...