Joe Arridy Was the Happiest Man on Death Row

Joe Arridy Was the Happiest Man on Death Row
Jay Vollmar

Page 5 of 9

Shortly after he turned 21, Arridy ran away from the state home, only to return on his own. Then he disappeared again. He was joined in the Grand Junction train yards by three other walkaways. Five days before the Drain murder, they hopped an eastbound freight. The train pulled into Pueblo the next day. That night, they rode it back to Grand Junction. According to one other escaped youth, Arridy was still in the Grand Junction railyard on August 13, 48 hours before the murder. The same youth insisted that he and Arridy didn't make it back to Pueblo until the evening of August 16 — the day after the murder. Then Joe rode the rails alone to Denver and Cheyenne, where Carroll arrested him.

The alibi witness was never called to testify on Arridy's behalf. Perhaps his account was considered unreliable; he was, after all, another "feeble-minded" unfortunate. But how reliable, Perske wondered, was the confession Arridy made in Cheyenne?

The circumstances were certainly suspicious. No one heard the bulk of Arridy's story but Carroll, who made no effort to record it. Arridy started out talking about a club, then it became a hatchet; Carroll knew from the newspapers that it had to be an ax. Arridy didn't start blaming "Frank" for the murder until after Carroll talked to Chief Grady and discovered that Frank Aguilar had already been arrested. And how likely was it that Arridy, who still couldn't get the names of colors right, had provided a detailed description of the Drain home — unless he was prompted in some way?

"I know an awful lot about the Joe Arridys of this world because I've worked with them in the community all my life," Perske says. "Joe, he never gave any data. This was a case of a sheriff who saw one more chance to be famous."

Much of the "data" Arridy did provide in his confession turned out to be wildly untrue. He said he ran from the Drain home to his family's house, where his mother and sister beat him and kept him in an upstairs room for days. He provided several addresses for his family, none of which panned out; the detectives who tried to check out his story soon learned that his family hadn't seen him in years, and that the bungalow in which they lived had a dusty attic that hadn't been entered by anyone for a long time.

Arridy also confessed to other recent assaults. A woman in Colorado Springs said that a picture of Arridy in the newspaper looked exactly like the man who'd attacked her on August 23, and Arridy readily admitted to the crime. The only problem was that investigators soon determined that he arrived in Cheyenne three days before the Springs assault and stayed there, working with a Union Pacific kitchen crew until he was arrested on August 26. Cigarette thefts, rape, murder — the agreeable Arridy would have 'fessed up to the Lindbergh kidnapping if they asked the question right.

Yet Arridy wasn't the only one telling strange tales about the Drain murder. After first denying that he knew Arridy, Aguilar changed his story, too. Several days into his interrogation, Aguilar gave a statement in which he claimed to have met Arridy in a park a few hours before the murder. The two of them plotted the attack on the Drain girls — Aguilar had already learned that the parents were going out that night — and then carried it out together. Much of the "confession" consisted of terse yes-no answers to leading questions ("Then Joe assaulted the big girl, didn't he?"). Aguilar later disavowed the whole thing, claiming that he'd been threatened and bullied into signing it.

Coerced or not, the statement reeked of desperation, a diversionary tactic by a man who could feel the noose tightening and was eager to share the blame. Perske found it ludicrous. Even if it could be positively established that Arridy was in Pueblo the day of the murder, one would have to believe that Aguilar, the prime suspect in a series of brutal but carefully planned attacks on women, had impulsively recruited a dull-witted stranger, fresh off a boxcar, to join him in his latest homicidal venture. A unique crime of the ages, indeed.

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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