Longform

Joe Arridy Was the Happiest Man on Death Row

Joe Arridy Was the Happiest Man on Death Row
Jay Vollmar

Page 7 of 9

"[Arridy] did not at any time give you a narrative story of what happened, did he?" Neary asked.

"Not very much," Carroll replied.

"You had to, what we commonly say, 'pry' everything out of him?"

"To a certain extent, yes, sir."

Carroll was practically the whole case. Police had failed to match the fingerprints found in the home to Arridy. The women grabbed on the street that night failed to identify him as their attacker. Aguilar's disputed confession implicating Arridy was never introduced. There was a grimy shirt found in the Cheyenne train yards that might have had blood on it and apparently had been worn by Arridy at some point, but the stains were never tested.

The only physical evidence linking him to the crime scene was a single dark hair recovered from the girls' bedding, part of a bloody mass of hairs and fibers collected several days after the murder, stuffed in an envelope and sent to toxicologist Frances McConnell in Denver. McConnell testified that the hair was "identical" to hairs taken from Arridy, that only two people in 500 would have hairs that appeared that similar under a microscope. Yet McConnell also said that the hair's owner was someone of "American Indian" extraction — an assertion that gives some idea of how haphazard the state of forensic hair analysis was in the 1930s, prior to the use of DNA.

A Pueblo pawnbroker testified that he'd sold a gun to Arridy the day of the Drain murder, placing him in town that day. But the man had originally claimed the purchase happened the day before the murder (when Arridy was supposedly still in Grand Junction), and the gun was never found. Like the hair, it was another loose end, something for the jury to puzzle over. Why would the pawnbroker lie? But then, why would a simpleton be buying a gun? How would a recent escapee from an institution get the money for such a purchase?

When it was the defense's turn, Barnard brought in a procession of headshrinkers to testify that Arridy was legally insane. Superintendent Jefferson described Arridy as a chronic masturbator, but one who seemed to have no sexual interest in women and was easily led by others. He classified the boy as a "primary ament," the product of a "diseased germ plasma that never was allowed to unfold" — in short, someone who wasn't nearly as responsible for his actions as, say, a high moron.

The prosecution presented no experts to argue that Arridy was sane. Instead, various police officers were asked their opinion of the accused. They all agreed that he had a lower-than-average intellect but was of sane mind. Sheriff Carroll, who'd told reporters after the arrest that Arridy was "unquestionably insane," now said there was no doubt in his mind that the man knew the difference between good and evil.

The jury found the cops more convincing than the eggheads. An experienced lawman like George Carroll surely knew a bad apple when he saw one. The panel retired for three hours and came back with a sentence of death.

The Pueblo Chieftain reported that Arridy took the news "unflinchingly."

Or maybe he didn't take it in at all.

click to enlarge Author Robert Perske (left) and attorney David Martinez, who won a posthumous pardon for Arridy in 2011, visit his grave on Woodpecker Hill outside Can?on City. - HISTORICAL IMAGE FROM 2012 PRINT EDITION OF WESTWORD.
Author Robert Perske (left) and attorney David Martinez, who won a posthumous pardon for Arridy in 2011, visit his grave on Woodpecker Hill outside Can?on City.
Historical image from 2012 print edition of Westword.


First to trial, first to be convicted of the Drain murder, Aguilar also got the gas first. He did not go gently.

On his last day — August 13, 1937, an unlucky Friday — he had a hell of a row with his wife in his cell. His octogenarian mother collapsed and was taken to the prison hospital. He was hauled to the death house "whimpering and cringing," the Denver Post gleefully reported.

It was one of the most heavily attended executions in state history. Riley Drain had a front-row seat as Aguilar bucked, strained against the straps and fought the cyanide gas for almost a full minute. One of the spectators, a Missouri Pacific railroad conductor, dropped dead of a heart attack just as Aguilar expired.

Reporters made much of the fact that Aguilar's henchman, Joe Arridy, did not bid him farewell during his march from death row. But then, Arridy had told the men in court that he didn't know Frank Aguilar.

That same day, Sheriff Carroll and the two railroad employees who nabbed Arridy collected a $1,000 reward for solving the case.

********

Like Sheriff Carroll, the warden of the Colorado State Penitentiary was a tough lawman who knew his bad apples. But Roy Best could see a world of difference between the likes of Frank Aguilar and little Joe Arridy.

A former state patrolman and driver for the governor, Best had been one of the troops called out to put down a bloody riot that all but gutted the pen in '29. In the shakeup that followed, he became, at 31, one of the youngest wardens in state history. He would stay on the job for twenty years.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
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