We live in a day and age where the internet connects us all. Injustice in many forms is often publicly revealed through social media and activist groups. False and coerced confessions from accused criminals are exposed because information from all over the globe is constantly at our fingertips. Unfortunately for a man named Joe Arridy, this was not the case in the 1930s.
Joe Arridy was born in Pueblo, Colorado in 1915 to Syrian immigrant parents. When he was only in his teens, Arridy’s parents put him into the Colorado State Home for Mental Defectives in Grand Junction. Arridy had an IQ of only 46. He was an easy target at the State Home and was regularly beaten and abused by older boys.
In August 1936, at the age of 21, Arridy and a few other young men escaped the facility in Grand Junction and hopped on a passing freight train. Their destination was Pueblo, Arridy’s hometown. That same week, a brutal attack occurred in Pueblo that outraged the town. Two sisters, 15-year-old Dorothy Drain and 12-year-old Barbara Drain, were viciously assaulted in their home. Dorothy had been raped and killed with an axe. Barbara was seriously injured but survived the attack.
The young men who escaped Grand Junction with Arridy decided to return to the institution, but Arridy chose to wander and hop trains. He ended up in Cheyenne, Wyoming and was arrested there on August 26, 1936 after being found in a train yard. Arridy told the Sheriff, George Carroll, that he had been through Pueblo during his railway travels. Carroll knew about the murder of Dorothy Drain and immediately linked Arridy to the unsolved crime. Sheriff Carroll interrogated Joe Arridy for hours, and Arridy ultimately confessed to the slaying.
When Carroll told Pueblo Police Chief Arthur Grady that he had Dorothy Drain’s murderer in custody, Grady was dumbfounded – he had already pinned the crime on Frank Aguilar, a man who had recently been fired from his job by Dorothy Drain’s father. Police had also found a hatchet matching the Drain girls’ wounds in Aguilar’s home.
Carroll argued that Joe Arridy had met Frank Aguilar on the street in Pueblo and that the two decided to attack the Drain girls. But Arridy’s “confession” didn’t quite match up with the facts of the case. Arridy told Sheriff Carroll that a club, not an axe, was used in the attack, and Frank Aguilar said that he had never met Arridy before. Nevertheless, Sheriff Carroll pushed forward with his assertion that both Aguilar and Arridy were guilty. Three state psychiatrists examined Arridy, and all agreed that he had the mental capacity of a 6-year-old and that he was “incapable of distinguishing between right and wrong, and therefore…unable to perform any action with a criminal intent.”
Even the superintendent of the State Home where Arridy had lived for years testified that the inmate would routinely confess to things he hadn’t done, and that he was easily influenced and extremely vulnerable. But the wealth of claims in Arridy’s defense fell on deaf ears.
Despite the outcry, Frank Aguilar and Joe Arridy were both charged with the murder of Dorothy Drain. When a reporter asked if he wanted to go home to Grand Junction, Arridy replied,“No, I want to get a life sentence and stay here with Warden Best. At the home the kids used to beat me…. I never get in trouble here.” After their trials, both men were sentenced to death. Arridy spent his time on Colorado’s death row playing with toy trains. Warden Roy Best famously called him “the happiest prisoner on death row.”
Frank Aguilar was put to death by the state of Colorado in 1937, and in 1939 it was Joe Arridy’s turn to have his date with the gas chamber. Arridy requested ice cream for his last meal. Warden Best recalled that Arridy did not fully comprehend that he was going to be executed. Nevertheless, Joe Arridy was put to death on January 6, 1939 at the age of 23.
It wasn’t until 2011, 72 years after Arridy’s execution, that the condemned man received a full pardon from Colorado Governor Bill Ritter. The Governor’s office said, “An overwhelming body of evidence indicates that the 23-year-old Arridy was innocent, including false and coerced records, the likelihood that Arridy was not in Pueblo at the time, and the admission of guilt by someone else.”
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