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Inmate number 19845 has officially served his sentence: The Story of Joe Arridy

Joe Arridy (Design PULP / Photo Denver

A mentally challenged Pueblo man gets tried and convicted for a murder under suspicious circumstances and his name isn’t cleared until 72 years after his execution.

In Cañon City, Colorado, just beyond the rows of generic metal plate markers on Woodpecker Hill in the Greenwood Cemetery sits only one large headstone adorned with the picture of a grown man playing with a toy train. There are plastic flowers stuck into the ground around the base that don’t seem dusty enough to have been exposed to the elements for long and toy trains sit on the ledge.

Joe Arridy, left, listens to warden Roy Best read his death sentence. (Denver Public Library / Western History Collection.)

While it is not necessarily unusual for gravestones to display personal portraits or to be decorated by regular visitors, this particular stretch of graves just happens to be the final resting place for convicts.

Joe Arridy was born in Pueblo, Colorado to Henry and Mary Arridy. Shortly after starting school, it was decided that he could not learn and that it would not be necessary or desired for him to attend with the other children. He would eventually be sent to the State Home and Training School for Mental Defectives in Grand Junction with an IQ of 46. At that time it was a score that would get him classified as an “imbecile” by the professional community.

He spent the majority of his life at the state home where he was described as a quiet boy who could only be assigned simple chores, having to be closely supervised to be kept on task. Often bullied by the other children, he tended to prefer his own company, uninteresting in forming close friends.

Arridy’s father was able to petition for his release for a brief span somewhere between his tenth to fourteenth years which enabled him to stay at his family home in Pueblo, where he could often be found walking aimlessly around town. It didn’t take long before it would be determined that he was to return to the institutional setting where he would remain until 1936.

Back in Grand Junction, Arridy was known to occasionally leave the state home where he had often observed people riding on the tops of trains. He always seemed to make his way back to the institution until the evening of August 13, 1936 when he and at least one other resident had decided to catch a train of their own.

Gifts and mementos adorn Joe Arridy’s gravesite still today. (Photo C.D. Prescott)

In Pueblo, the small, yellow house is still standing where on August 15, 1936, the Drain sisters Dorothy, 15, and her sister Barbara, 12, were fast asleep in the bed they shared when sometime between ten and midnight, an intruder entered their room and violently bludgeoned the girls, sexually assaulting Dorothy and leaving them for dead.

Dorothy did not survive the attack, but Barbara managed to recover and would later identify Frank Aguilar as the perpetrator. Barbara’s father had previously been Aguilar’s supervisor when he had been employed with Works Progress Administration (WPA) designed to employ mostly unskilled men to work on public projects. They were also able to find an axe that belonged to Aguilar with blade irregularities that were concluded to match the wounds on the girls.

Eleven days after the murder Arridy was found in the rail yards in Cheyenne, Wyoming where he would be arrested for vagrancy. When Sheriff George Carroll (who had gained some notoriety from his dealings with the Ma Barker Gang) heard that Arridy was from Pueblo, he came to the conclusion that this, in fact, might be the man responsible for the vicious attack on the Drain sisters. After interviewing Arridy and calling the press, Carroll contacted Pueblo police stating that he had caught the true killer, possessing a full confession of how Arridy had bludgeoned the girls with a club.

Officials were more than a little surprised given that Frank Aguilar was already in custody for the murder, not to mention a completely different weapon was already in evidence.

With this discovery, Carroll claimed that Arridy had actually said that he had been with Frank on the night of the murder and the club suddenly became an axe. After personally delivering Arridy to Pueblo authorities, Carroll also managed to find time in his busy schedule to attempt to acquire another confession and to be in attendance as Arridy was to reenact the crime at the scene for police.

Both men would be tried for the murder separately and Barbara Drain would attend only Aguilar’s trial to point him out as the man that had attacked her and her sister.

There was another murder that Aguilar had been implicated in but never charged with committing. R.O. McMurtree (48) had identified Frank Aguilar as the man who entered her home two weeks prior to the Drain tragedy, only a few blocks from the Drain residence. McMurtree and her visiting Aunt Sally Crumply (72) had also been bludgeoned with an axe. Crumply did not survive the attack. Aguilar also fit the description of a man who had reportedly attempted to grab another woman off the street. For the Drain murder however, Aguilar was found guilty and sentenced to death.

Arridy’s trial went a little differently. Carroll testified to an extremely detailed confession that he claimed to have gotten from Arridy without ever referencing notes of any kind. It was never explained how a man with such a limited vocabulary and documented perception errors could so accurately describe a scene and readily admit guilt. Arridy had problems differentiating certain colors and could rarely repeat more than four numbers in a sequence.

It was also never explained how Aguilar would meet a mentally challenged man getting off of the top of a train and within just a few days develop a trust that would result in Arridy accompanying him in a complicated and risky crime.

Arridy would also be found guilty and sentenced to death with a defense mounted entirely on mental capacity rather than the likelihood that he wasn’t even in town on that night and that Barbara Drain had never implicated him in the attack.

Joe Arridy would spend the rest of his short life on death row. Warden Roy Best, who was known to prefer the physical punishment of paddling over solitary confinement and for requiring inmates to cross their arms when they moved from one place to another within the prison, developed an almost paternal relationship with Arridy even gifting him the toy train that would become his favorite pastime.

Frank Aguilar was put to death in the gas chamber in 1937 and after exhausting all of his appeals; Arridy would follow him on January 6, 1939.

Before his death, Arridy had often responded to questions from the press about his pending execution by looking confused or denying that he would die. After ice cream and posing in oddly staged looking photos for articles of the paper, (awkwardly hugging his mother goodbye and giving his toy train to another inmate), a smiling Arridy would be led to his final destination. There would be no call from the governor to stay his execution.

Arridy would be strapped into one of the chairs of gas chamber that was the preferred method of satisfying death sentences at that time. Cyanide pellets were then dropped into an acid creating a toxic gas that would fill the airtight tank. After only a few breaths he went still. A doctor would declare Arridy dead and it was over.  Inmate number 19845 had officially served his sentence.

Since the execution a quiet swell rose to defend a man wronged and at least for posterity correct a false and careless conviction of the Colorado legal system. A group called Friends of Joe Arridy managed to get the funds to purchase the large headstone. When the stone was first erected, the group was not allowed to inscribe it with any declarative statements.

In 2011, after years of hard work by volunteers and Denver attorney David Martinez, Colorado Governor Bill Ritter issued an unconditional pardon for Arridy 72 years after his death.

Now, to the left of Joe’s grave stands a framed copy of his posthumous pardon tasked with etching in history the very words carved into his tombstone. “Here lies an innocent man.”

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