Joe Arridy Was the Happiest Man on Death Row

Joe Arridy Was the Happiest Man on Death Row
Jay Vollmar

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Aguilar insisted he was innocent. His aged mother said that he was home that night. But the evidence suggested otherwise. Even some fingernail scrapings taken from Aguilar contained blue chenille fibers consistent with the bedspread in the girls' bedroom.

Still, Sheriff Carroll had found in Joe Arridy another promising suspect. And this one was dying to confess.

Chief Grady, District Attorney French Taylor and other investigators headed to Cheyenne. Taylor brought the hatchet head recovered from Aguilar's house. Asked if he recognized the hatchet, Arridy said that it belonged to someone named Frank. The story had shifted overnight; now Arridy was claiming that he'd committed the crime with Frank, that it was Frank who'd hit the girls with the hatchet. He offered little other useful information, and Taylor told reporters that the suspect seemed to be hung over "from use of marijuana or something similar."

Grady had to adjust his notions of ax murderers on the spot. He'd been pursuing one fiend. Now it seemed he had two. "It is indeed a rare occurrence when two sexually perverted maniacs join forces outside an institution, and even a rarer occurrence when they combine to commit a sexual crime," he wrote in an article for Official Detective. "The Drain murder undoubtedly will find a place in medical history as one of the most unique crimes of the ages."

Amid highly publicized security, Arridy was taken to Pueblo and escorted through the Drain home, where he re-enacted the scenario he'd provided about he and Frank turning off lights and attacking the girls. Then he was taken to police headquarters for a confrontation with Frank Aguilar, witnessed by several officers.

"That's Frank," Arridy said.

Aguilar studied his accuser. "I never seen him before," he said.

click to enlarge 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. - HISTORICAL IMAGE FROM 2012 PRINT EDITION OF WESTWORD.
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.
Historical image from 2012 print edition of Westword.

The more Bob Perske learned about who Joe Arridy was, the more convinced he became that Arridy could not have done the things the police insisted he had. The greater mystery was why anyone in authority at the time, who had access to all the same information and more, could have believed he had.

Arridy was born in Pueblo in 1915, the son of Syrian immigrants who were also first cousins. His father, Henry, worked in one of Colorado Fuel and Iron's foundries. The couple had several children who died young. At least one of Joe's brothers who did live, George, was considered mildly retarded — or, as the doctors put it, a "high moron."

Joe was a more severe case. He didn't utter his first words until he was five. After one year of elementary school, his parents were informed by the principal that he was incapable of learning and should stay home. For several years, he did just that — hammering nails, making mud pies, keeping mostly to himself. When he was ten, his parents were persuaded to commit him to the Colorado State Home and Training School for Mental Defectives in Grand Junction.

Perske found the tests Joe took as part of his evaluation at the school. They indicate that he could not correctly identify colors or explain the difference between a stone and an egg. He couldn't repeat a sequence of four numbers. He was described as "slow," with a "stupid, distant look." His examiners considered his father to be of average intelligence; his mother, Mary, was described as "probably feeble-minded."

Henry Arridy regretted putting his son in an institution and took him home after only ten months. But Joe had little supervision there; Henry lost his job and was soon in jail for bootlegging. Joe wandered all over town. At fourteen, he came to the attention of a juvenile probation officer, who wrote a furious letter to the superintendent of the state home, demanding that he be recommitted.

"He is one of the worst Mental Defective cases I have ever seen," the officer wrote. "I picked him up this morning for allowing some of the nastiest and Dirtiest things done to him that I have heard of."

According to the officer, Joe had been "manipulating the penis of Negro Boys with his mouth" and allowing said boys "to enter the 'dirty road' with their penis." ("I would be more technical," the officer explained apologetically, "but do not know the terms.") In another time, Arridy might have been deemed an at-risk teen who'd been sexually exploited by older youths. But in 1929, he was simply a pervert who had to be locked away.

A court sent him back to the state home. He spent the next seven years there, where he learned to wash dishes, mop floors and do other simple chores. The superintendent, Dr. Benjamin Jefferson, regarded him as highly suggestible and vulnerable, often taken advantage of by other boys; at one point, he confessed to stealing cigarettes when he clearly wasn't the culprit. His family asked several times if he could be sent home, but Jefferson responded that Joe's "perverse habits" made it advisable to keep him there. He didn't try to peep at the girls, like some of the boys, but he was inclined to "masturbation, sodomy and oral practices on other boys of his erratic type," Jefferson noted. "His affection is always towards other boys...never towards the female sex."

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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