Sunday, 3 June 2007

Tombstone for an ‘innocent’

June 3, 2007


Tombstone for an ‘innocent’

By KHARI JOHNSON, Colorado Springs Gazette

On a hill overlooking Cañon City and the oldest prison in Colorado, more
than 50 people gathered Saturday in Fremont Greenwood Cemetery to dedicate a
tombstone to Joseph “Joe” Arridy.

“They didn’t even spell his name right,” said Craig Severa, who organized
the event, referring to the original, rusted, license platelike placard
placed at Arridy’s grave.

Among the unkempt grass, lillies and cactus growing below the placards
marking prisoners’ graves, six plots away lie Frank Aguilar. Both men were
convicted and put to death for murdering a teenage girl, but advocates then
and now believe Arridy was innocent.

Saturday’s ceremony was the culmination of years of work by Severa, who paid
for the tombstone with donations from friends and organized the event with
the help of the Arc, an advocacy group for the mentally disabled who he
works for. The grounds around the new tombstone also served as a meeting
place for writers, lawyers, professionals and others touched by Arridy’s

Things began in 1936 when then-Pueblo Police Chief Arthur Grady received a
call from Cheyenne Sheriff George Carroll explaining that he had found his
killer. This confused Grady, who had already apprehended Aguilar and found
the murder weapon in his home. But Carroll was insistent. Carroll said
Arridy admitted that he was at the scene of the crime “with a man named

Arridy, mentally disabled and with the IQ of a child, was only 23 years old
when he was put to death. Those trying to clear his name believe he admitted
to the crime to appease the sheriff, unaware of what he was doing.

In an uncommon show of support, then-warden Roy Best and others in the legal
community who believed the man innocent fought all the way to the Colorado
Supreme Court to stay Arridy’s execution. However, they were unsuccessful
and on Jan. 6, 1939, Arridy was torn from his toys and brought to the gas

“Joe had a train and he would run it day and night ‘cause the lights were
always on,” said author and advocate Bob Perske. “He’d yell, ‘Train wreck!
Train wreck!’ and someone would have to reach through the bars and put it
back on track.”

Perske learned of Arridy’s story 15 years ago when a friend gave him a poem
making reference to Arridy. Since then the author, who lives in Connecticut
but was raised in Denver, has been “obsessed” with Arridy, visiting his
grave numerous times.

“If you’re going to kill someone you better make sure it’s the right
people,” said Dan Leonetti, who has written a screenplay about Arridy’s
life. “Joe was innocent. He was a man-child with no one to defend him and
the system swallowed him up.”

The movie will be called “The Woodpecker Waltz,” so-named for the hill he’s
buried on.

“We’ll find an unknown actor to play Joe. Someone with spirit and a good
soul to portray his innocence and purity,” said Micheline Keller, whose
Keller Entertainment Group will produce the movie. “He touched so many
people in his short life. Hardened death row inmates wept when he was taken

Warden Best, who Perske described as someone “you didn’t cross” and was
known to beat prisoners, grew close to Arridy. Best would bring Arridy toys
and on Christmas Eve in 1938, days before Arridy was put to death, brought
him home to play with his nephews.

Denver attorney David Hernandez also became interested in the case and is
seeking a posthumous pardon for Arridy.


Source : Colorado Springs Gazette

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