On Jan. 7, 2011, Gov. Bill Ritter signed a posthumous pardon for a man executed for the rape and murder of a teen-age girl in Pueblo. That may sound outrageous if you don’t know the truth – truth is, it was the conviction that was outrageous.
On Jan. 6, 1938, Joe Arridy, 23, had a bowl of ice cream as his last meal. He gave his toy train to another prisoner on Colorado’s Death Row. And then Joe went quietly to the gas chamber with no more understanding of what was to happen than a 6-year-old boy.
He was “the happiest man on Death Row,” according to Roy Best, warden of the Colorado State Penitentiary in Canon City.
Best was the kind of prison overseer who defended the occasional flogging of convicts. But he took Joe home for Christmas and brought him toys. The other prisoners were also kind. Joe, son of poor immigrant Syrians, a runaway from the state home for “mental defectives” in Grand Junction, had rarely been so well treated.
According to modern researchers who studied the case, leading law investigators of the time worked together on the evidence that railroaded a mentally retarded hobo to his death in order to burnish their own reputations.
Frank Aguilar, who was previously fired from his job by the dead girl’s father, confessed to the killing of Dorothy Drain, and the brutal beating of her sister, Barbara. He was pressured to implicate Joe, a complete stranger, who was arrested eleven days after the murder in Cheyenne, Wyoming.
The Wyoming officers who turned in Joe as Aguilar’s accomplice shared a $1,000 reward. Frank Aguilar was executed in 1937.
Roy Best and appeals lawyer Gail Ireland worked to get nine stays of execution in one year, but they couldn’t save Joe in the end.
Joe is buried on Woodpecker Hill, the section of Canon City’s Greenwood Pioneer Cemetery reserved for dead inmates of the town’s several prisons. In later years, people who came to believe in Joe’s innocence replaced his generic burial marker with a granite headstone. It has a photo of Joe playing with his toy train.
It was here in 2008, while researching cemeteries for “Weird Colorado,” that I was told the story of Joe Arridy by one of the cemetery board’s members, Tom Monaco. Tom is a cemetery dowser, someone who can find graves the way that water dowsers can locate water.
Tom’s a busy man these days. The paranormal investigation group he belongs to, Canon Ghost Trackers (http://www.canon-ghost-trackers.com/), is experiencing increasing demand for its expertise. He’s not into it for personal thrills so much as feeling he’s been called to set things right, just as when he first learned how to dowse so that he could locate unmarked graves when a new Civil War memorial was to be installed at the cemetery.
“I’m gonna put a copy of the official pardon under Plexiglass at Joe’s grave,” Tom told me during a recent phone call.
Many people have come to the defense of Joe in recent years. Their efforts led to Gov. Ritter’s pardon. A film about Joe’s story called “The Woodpecker Waltz” is in the works. You can find out more at the Friends of Joe Arridy web site: http://www.friendsofjoearridy.com/
Note: in 2008, when I wrote about Joe’s case in the Cemetery Safari chapter I erroneously listed his execution as by electrocution. Joe actually suffocated to death as the result of inhaling cyanide gas.
The same gas chamber is on exhibit now at the Museum of Colorado Prisons in Canon City, covered in the chapter Roadside Attractions and Oddities: http://www.prisonmuseum.org/