Joe Arridy Was the Happiest Man on Death Row

Joe Arridy Was the Happiest Man on Death Row
Jay Vollmar

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But the Drain crime scene, like the one at the McMurtree house, yielded few clues. Whoever had attacked the girls had entered through the unlocked front door, doused the light, and lit matches to illuminate the way to the bedroom. Police found some smudged fingerprints and a heel print.

Any useful evidence outside the house was quickly obliterated the next morning by the crowds of people milling around, gawking and talking about a "necktie party" for whoever did this. The girls' grandfather, Perry Dunlap, was a former state senator with many friends in the community, and none of them were inclined to take lightly these attacks on Pueblo womenfolk.

"By 9 a.m. word of the tragedy had spread across the city, and hundreds of excited townspeople were standing in front of the residence," Pueblo police chief Arthur Grady wrote in an article for a true-crime magazine, published just months after the killing. "Pueblo has a population of about 50,000, and by 10 a.m. it seemed as though 49,000 of them had swooped down on Stone Avenue."

Grady's men grilled swarthy ethnic types and former WPA workers who might have a grudge against Riley Drain, checking alibis. Police departments across the Front Range rousted vagrants, known perverts, immigrants and suspicious characters of all kinds. The manhunt stretched all the way to Cheyenne, Wyoming — where, eleven days after the Drain murder, Sheriff George Carroll decided to question a bedraggled young man who'd been found by Union Pacific bulls that afternoon wandering around the railyards.

The man's name was Joe Arridy. He was 21 years old, 5' 5", 125 pounds, with a dark complexion — a description not unlike that of the man seen assaulting women near the Drain home, although Arridy's heritage was Mediterranean, not Mexican. But what caught Carroll's attention was that the kid said he'd come by train from Pueblo.

A former cowboy and newspaper publisher, Carroll was a bluff, confident lawman with a reputation for breaking big cases — and courting the publicity that went with them. He'd helped to track down Ma Barker and several members of her gang after the murder of one of his deputies. In 1933, he'd cracked the kidnapping of Claude K. Boettcher II, heir of a wealthy Denver family, locating a South Dakota hideout and springing Boettcher unharmed. As the Arridy case would prove, he still had a few headlines left in him.

It took Carroll only a few moments of conversation with Arridy to realize that he wasn't the sharpest knife in the drawer. His speech was slow, his words short and simple. But he seemed willing to talk. Carroll would later tell reporters that he asked the man if he liked girls. Arridy said he liked them fine.

"If you like girls so well, why do you hurt them?" Carroll asked.

According to Carroll, Arridy replied, "I didn't mean to."

Carroll questioned Arridy for almost eight hours over the next two days. He would later testify — from memory, since there were no notes, much less any witnesses, for most of the interrogation — that Arridy had volunteered, in his halting way, a harrowing story about the night Dorothy Drain died. He'd spied on the girls from the bushes outside, seen their parents leaving and snuck inside. He'd hit them in the head, taken his clothes off, assaulted Dorothy, dressed and left.

Certain elements of the story made no sense. At first he talked about hitting them with a club, then changed it to a hatchet. He was unable to say where he got the hatchet. But Carroll insisted that Arridy provided details about the Drain house — the arrangement of the rooms, the color of furniture and the walls in the girls' bedroom — that only someone who had been there would know. He arrested Arridy and called Chief Grady to tell him he had a "nut" who couldn't read or write but seemed to know all about the Drain case.

"He's either crazy or a mighty good actor," Carroll added.

This wasn't the welcome news Carroll expected it to be. As the sheriff soon discovered, Grady already had a suspect named Frank Aguilar who looked awfully good for the Drain job. Aguilar had caught detectives' notice by showing up at Dorothy's funeral in overalls and going twice through the line of mourners at the casket. He'd also approached Riley Drain and tried to hand him a fistful of nickels to "help the family."

The officers arrested him. They learned that Aguilar had worked for Drain on WPA projects and had been discharged by him. He had seen the girls at work sites. At his house police found news clippings about sex slayings around the country and pictures of nude women. In a bucket, under some rags, was a hatchet head with distinctive nicks in it that seemed to match up with the wounds inflicted on Dorothy Drain.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast