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Joe Arridy Was the Happiest Man on Death Row

Joe Arridy Was the Happiest Man on Death Row
Jay Vollmar

Page 6 of 9

Yet what most impressed Perske wasn't Aguilar's ever-changing story; it was Joe's own words. He was allowed to speak for himself in court only once, for a few brief moments in a sanity hearing, during which the defense argued that he was too imbecilic to know the difference between right and wrong.

In response to a series of questions from the prosecutor and his own attorney, Arridy said he didn't know who Franklin Roosevelt was — or George Washington, for that matter. He didn't know Dorothy Drain or Frank Aguilar. He didn't know what a hatchet was. He didn't know why he was in court. He did know the difference between a dime and a nickel, and he did recognize the doctors from the state hospital who had been on the stand before him, "talking about me."

"What about you?" prosecutor Ralph Neary asked.

"Oh, about something," Arridy replied.

"Don't you know what they were talking about?"

"No. Forgot."

"Can you tell me anything they talked about?"

"I don't think so."

click to enlarge Warden Roy Best reads the death warrant to Arridy at his cell door, shortly before his execution. - HISTORICAL IMAGE FROM 2012 PRINT EDITION OF WESTWORD.
Warden Roy Best reads the death warrant to Arridy at his cell door, shortly before his execution.
Historical image from 2012 print edition of Westword.

The murder of Dorothy Drain touched off waves of hysteria and political recrimination across Colorado, much of it directed at the phantom menace of train-hopping, sex-crazed mental defectives who needed to be put away, if not put down. Governor Edwin "Big Ed" Johnson fired off a telegram to Ben Jefferson, demanding a full report on the Arridy boy and an explanation why "this pervert" hadn't been transferred from the low-security institution in Grand Junction to the state asylum months ago. "Have you any more dangerous persons in your school who should have closer supervision than you are equipped to give?" he blustered.

PEOPLE OF COLORADO BLAMED FOR IMBECILES RUNNING LOOSE, blared a headline in the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel. The story claimed that the state had six times more imbeciles than could fit in existing institutions: "Some of them are dangerous criminals, and some of them are sex perverts.... Hundreds of them are hidden in homes under the watchful care of loving relatives."

Chief Grady had vowed there would be no lynching; Arridy and Aguilar were kept in cells at the state prison at Cañon City, rather than the Pueblo jail, out of fear of mob violence. But the climate hadn't improved by the time the cases went to trial.

Aguilar went first. His attorney, Vasco Seavy, labored unsuccessfully to exclude his client's multiple confessions, including one Aguilar made to Riley Drain when the grieving father joined in the prison interrogations. But it was another member of the Drain family — young Barbara, who'd spent weeks in the hospital recovering from the beating she received — whose testimony made the case. At DA Taylor's urging, the girl stepped down from the stand, stood in front of Aguilar, and identified him as the man she saw in her bedroom the night she and her sister were attacked. She didn't say anything about a second man.

That night, Aguilar apparently admitted his guilt to his attorney. The next day, Seavy tried to change his client's plea from not guilty to "not guilty by reason of insanity." The judge refused. The jury took all of 28 minutes to return with the death penalty.

Months later, Aguilar admitted to killing Sally Crumpley, too. By some accounts, police also had a strong case against him for the ax slaying of another Pueblo woman that occurred two years before the Crumpley and Drain murders, in the same neighborhood. He never went to trial in the earlier cases, probably because he was already facing death for what he did to Dorothy Drain. Yet none of these revelations, indicative of a serial killer who worked alone, could derail the prosecution of Joe Arridy.

It was an express, bound for death row.

At Arridy's sanity hearing, a battery of doctors testified about his mental incapacity. Some hedged, though, on whether that meant he couldn't tell right from wrong; the reasoning seemed to be that you need to have a fully functioning brain to become deranged, so an imbecile can't really go nuts. Of greater weight, perhaps, was the testimony of Sheriff Carroll, who claimed that Arridy "shed copious tears" of remorse while confessing to the murder, like a child who knew he'd done wrong. The jury found him sane.

Despite that setback, Arridy attorney Fred Barnard was determined to pursue an insanity defense at trial. He didn't attack the evidence. He didn't call Barbara Drain to testify that she hadn't seen Joe Arridy in her bedroom that night. And, even though Barnard described his client as a "confession maniac" who would admit to anything, the defense lawyer didn't go after Sheriff Carroll, who took the stand five times and demonstrated amazing recall of a confession that was never written down. Carroll's most intriguing admissions came at the prompting of prosecutor Neary, not the defense.

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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