The Happiest Inmate on Death Row (Part One of Two)

It was a shocking and senseless crime.

On April 18, 1936, an unidentified intruder (referred to as a "degenerate" in newspaper coverage of the crime) entered a home in Pueblo, Colorado through an unlocked door.   The owners of the house were not present but their two daughters, fifteen-year-old Dorothy and twelve-year-old Barbara, were asleep in their beds.  After clubbing Dorothy to death with a blunt hatchet he had been carrying, the intruder then clubbed Barbara over the head as well.  Barbara was left unconscious and the killer fled the scene.    Their parents discovered them both the next morning. After Barbara was rushed to hospital,  police determined that Dorothy had been sexually assaulted before her death.  Tracking dogs were used at the Drain house but no trail was found.

The rape and murder of Dorothy Drain and the attempted murder of her sister was apparently linked to other crimes that had occurred in the Pueblo area over the previous few weeks.   Another murder had taken place on August 2 with a woman being bludgeoned to death while her sleeping niece had her skull fractured though it wasn't clear whether the killings had been committed by the same person.   Another girl reported being molested near the Drain home though she managed to get away from her assailant.  

Police began questioning potential suspects and even offered a $500 reward for information leading to an arrest.   Acting on a hunch, the Pueblo sheriff placed men among the mourners at Dorothy Drain's funeral.   Among the mourners was Frank Aguilar who was employed on one of the local Works Progress Administration projects supervised by Dorothy's father.  Aguilar raised suspicions  funeral by his odd behaviour and unusual questions about the Drain investigation.   Though he was known to be married with three children, he was taken in for questioning.   An axe was found at his home which was seized because it resembled the one used at the Drain home.  

Another break in the case came later in August when police in Cheyenne, Wyoming picked up 21-year-old Joe Arridy for vagrancy and linked him to the murder of Dorothy Drain.  Arridy was the son of two Syrian immigrants who had immigrated to the United States and settled in Pueblo.   Born and raised in Pueblo,  he was an outcast for most of his life due to his intellectual deficits.    He had been an inmate of the Home for Mental Defectives in Grand Junction, Colorado until his escape on August 2.   Aside from being a fugitive and a known resident of Pueblo, the evidence linking Arridy to the Drain murder was purely circumstantial.  Still, police were able to extract a confession from him after three hours of interrogation.  

In the verbal confession he provided, Arridy reportedly stated that he had entered the Drain home after seeing the parents leave the house at 11:00 PM on the evening of April 16.   After finding a light switch, he then proceeded to the bedroom the two girls were sleeping in and "criminally assaulted" Dorothy Drain before clubbing her to death with a hatchet he had been carrying.   He then clubbed Barbara as well and believed that he had killed both of them.   When asked why he had committed the crime, Arridy is said to have replied, "Just for meanness."  

After leaving the Drain home, his mother supposedly hid him for a week before he hopped on a train and fled to Cheyenne.   Police also took in members of Arridy's family for questioning.   Though they insisted that they hadn't seen Joe in years,  their houses were searched and two axes were seized as possible murder weapons.   As for Arridy himself, he was kept in custody in Cheyenne due to fears that a mob might lynch him if he were returned to Pueblo.   Much of the anger directed against the prisoner could be traced to the inflammatory news coverage of the case, all of which proclaimed the crime as being "solved" despite Arridy not even standing trial yet.   Most newspapers provided full details of his confession along with any other details of the investigation they could find.  There was no mention of Frank Aguilar at first since police were still trying to link the two men.   

While Arridy was quietly transferred to the Colorado state penitentiary for safe keeping, police worked to build a case against him.   Though one witness was able to verify that Arridy had been in the area of the Drain home about the time of the murder, no other physical evidence could be found.   There was no trace of the axe that he had allegedly used and Barbara Drain was unable to describe her assailant when she woke from her coma.   The superintendent of the institution that Arridy escaped from came to Pueblo along with police from Cheyenne to aid in the investigation. Interestingly enough, there was no attempt at linking Dorothy Drain's murder to the previous axe murder that had taken place in Pueblo.   Since Arridy had an ironclad alibi for the earlier killing, police ignored a possible link.  

Along with public outrage over the Drain murder, there was political pressure over how Arridy had managed to escape from the asylum where he had been kept.   Colorado's governor ordered all violent inmates from the asylum to be transferred to the penitentiary (regardless of whether they had been charged with anything).  

Unfortunately, problems with Arridy's testimony began almost immediately.   Described by police as having "the mind of a child", Arridy's confession yielded numerous contradictory details.  For example, he had originally said that he had struck the fatal blow with a club though this was later changed to an axe under further questioning.   He also mentioned being with a "man named Frank" and was "persuaded" to implicate Aguilar.   Not surprisingly, Frank Aguilar denied any involvement in the murders.

More holes in the case began to emerge as some of the other inmates who had escaped  with Joe Arridy were recaptured and questioned about what happened after they left the asylum.  Val Higgins, chairman of the state board of control (which managed the asylum) went on record in saying that he doubted Arridy was guilty and that even other officers were uncertain whether his confession was true.   

Then came a new development on September 3.   Frank Aguilar confessed to the murder of Dorothy Drain following nine hours of intense questioning by a tag team of interrogators including prosecutors and prison warden Roy Best.   In this new confession, Aguilar and Arridy had carried out the killing together.   Any doubts over Joe Arridy''s confession were set aside and the Pueblo district attorney announced that the case was "completely solved."   

The trial of Frank Aguilar and Joe Arridy turned into a media spectacle.  Since both men faced the gas chamber if convicted, potential jurors were carefully questioned over whether they had any reluctance over imposing the death (one juror changed his mind in mid-trial).   Along with Aguilar's attorney, his mother, wife, and three children were also in attendance.  The defense focused on whether the confession was obtained through "merciless grilling" leading to a false confession.   Since Aguilar was also "feeble-minded", newspapers began calling for more rigid laws to ensure that similarly "feeble-minded" individuals could be properly incarcerated where they couldn't do any harm.

After an eight-day trial, Frank Aguilar was sentenced to death for the rape and murder of Dorothy Drain.  The trial had come to an abrupt close after Aguilar's defense attorney told the court that his client had confessed to him.  Though he tried to change his client's plea to guilty by reason of insanity, this was denied and the death sentence was handed down instead.

As for Joe Arridy, his trial would wait until the following January.

To be continued




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