On Jan. 6, 1939, Joe Arridy played with his toy train on Colorado's death row.
Having finished his last meal ice cream Arridy, a man with the mind of a child, listened as Warden Roy Best read his death warrant. He gave his toy to an inmate he had befriended and left his cell.
Best, who had bought the train for Arridy as his last Christmas present, wept as gas was released into the chamber. He wept for a man convicted of a Pueblo ax murder and rape that sent shockwaves across Colorado.
Last Saturday, more than 50 people who don't believe the almost-forgotten Arridy should have been executed cried fresh tears for him, atop Woodpecker Hill in Cañon City's Greenwood Cemetery. The old state penitentiary today a state prison where Arridy was put to death sat mute in the background. A gentle breeze blew tall grass and wildflowers amid the cacti.
The attendees were there to dedicate a new tombstone that includes a photo of Arridy and his train over the words, "In Loving Memory." Gone is the small, rusted tin plate that for nearly seven decades marked Arridy's grave and misspelled his name.
"The warden said, "This was the happiest man who ever lived on death row,'" Robert Perske told the gathering. "This was a soft little man who didn't have a mean bone in his body, and yet they chose because of the politicized way they did things, they snuffed him out."
Perske, a Denver native who now lives in Connecticut, began investigating Arridy's death about 15 years ago. In 1995, he published Deadly Innocence?, which re-examined the story.
But it had taken until Saturday for Arridy's growing legion of supporters to finally unite around the grave, where song and verse aimed to right an unthinkable wrong.
A Trinidad screenwriter came with a major film producer announcing plans to tell Arridy's story in a drama highlighting the tenacious, but vain fight of a Denver lawyer to spare Arridy.
And Arridy's advocates say it's time to petition Gov. Bill Ritter to pardon the Pueblo-born son of Syrian-American parents who dropped out of elementary school and then was sent to the state Home and Training School for Mental Defectives in Grand Junction. There, staff measured his IQ at 46.
Arridy, who had run away from the institute and then took to hopping boxcars and riding the tracks, fell into the hands of authorities on Aug. 26, 1936.
His crime was vagrancy in a Wyoming railyard, and he was taken to Cheyenne Sheriff George Carroll for questioning. Carroll was aiding in a massive dragnet for suspects in the death of Dorothy Drain, 15, of Pueblo, and was curious about Arridy.
Drain had been sexually assaulted and then killed, less than two weeks prior to Arridy's arrest. Her younger sister, Barbara Drain, 12, was also brutalized but somehow survived.
Arridy confessed to the murder, according to Carroll, who informed Pueblo's police chief, Arthur Grady, of the catch. Yet Pueblo police had already arrested Frank Aguilar, of Mexico, a man fired from a job by the Drain girls' father.
An ax head was recovered from Aguilar's home.
But Carroll, who repeatedly questioned Arridy, insisted Arridy admitted he was with a "man named Frank" at the murder scene in Pueblo.
Arridy faced a sanity trial, and psychiatrists testified that he had the mind of a child of about 6 years old. Yet he was found sane. During his trial the defense failed attempts to argue Arridy was insane.
Arridy, like Aguilar, was sent to death row.
While Aguilar was put to death within one year of the crime (his grave is just steps away from Arridy's), Arridy's case dragged on.
Supporters like Best, a man known for his tough edge, but who softened to Arridy, battled to save him.
Arridy's biggest champion became Denver lawyer Gail Ireland, later Colorado's attorney general. Ireland pushed to have Arridy spared, arguing that Arridy wasn't able to understand what execution was.
"Believe me when I say that if he is gassed, it will take a long time for the state of Colorado to live down the disgrace," Ireland argued to the state Supreme Court.
Perske, who sifted through countless magazines, news clippings, documents and photos even a governor's telegraphs uncovered Arridy's story.
A critical record was the first he encountered a 1944 poem called "The Clinic" that made him want to know more.
It was contained in an out-of-print book that Richard Voorhees, a community college sociologist in Minnesota, stumbled upon in 1992 while perusing prose in New York City.
The short poem was read graveside Saturday by Colorado Springs poet Joseph Forbeck. One verse recalls a warden's "sorry letter."
"The man you kill tonight is six years old,
He has no idea why he dies,'
Yet he must die in the room the state has walled
Transparent to its glassy eyes.
The poem didn't name anyone.
Voorhees sent it to Perske, thinking of Perske's efforts to help crime suspects with mental disabilities.
"Bob and I have been buds for 50 years," Voorhees simply explained Saturday after the dedication on the hill.
Perske then reached the poem's author, Marguerite Young, perhaps best known for her 1965 novel Miss Macintosh, My Darling. Young, who passed away in 1995, told Perske she didn't remember for whom the poem was written, Perske said.
So he forwarded it to friend Watt Espy, a prominent death-penalty researcher who has files on thousands of ill-fated inmates, going back to colonial times.
"What he sent back to me was a bunch of dime-store detective magazines and news articles," Perske, 79, said in an interview Saturday. "The magazines portrayed Joe as the monster and the police as the pure types."
But Perske now had the name of the poem's subject Arridy, death row inmate No. 19845.
Perske was soon mired in research, aided by archivists and librarians, and fascinated as he uncovered details about the convict with the toy train.
"The book wrote itself," he said.
It tells the story of an apparently confused Arridy facing authorities that pinned him in a confession despite his obvious mental disability.
Craig Severa of The Arc of the Pikes Peak Region, an organization that helps the developmentally disabled, said as he drove to Woodpecker Hill Saturday morning that the case couldn't have gone forward today.
He cited a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in which justices, by a 6-3 vote, found that employing the death penalty against people with mental disabilities is "cruel and unusual" under the Constitution.
"People like Joe are the ones who often misinterpret social situations," said Severa, who advocates in courtrooms for mentally challenged people accused of committing crimes. "They are the people who are most vulnerable to exploitation."
The bad ol' days
But the 1930s were a time for fearing people with lower IQs, Perske said, rather than integrating them into society, as many communities do today.
Eugenics, the idea that there are bad traits to be bred out of the human race, collided with public policies and bias in the criminal-justice system, leaving the Joe Arridys of the world labeled feebleminded, even loathed.
"Scholars in those days were writing stuff saying the country is being dragged down by the not-so-good people," said Perske. "There was awful, awful prejudice against people with mental disabilities and their parents."
Even if Arridy had been involved in the murder, it is difficult to imagine him responsible for his actions. A newspaper article stated that on Nov. 19, 1937, when Arridy was on the brink of execution and received a last-minute reprieve, a "toy automobile provided more joy and amusement Friday for Joe Arridy than notification that a last-minute order of the Colorado Supreme Court had saved him from the state's lethal gas chamber, at least temporarily."
The state Supreme Court ultimately ruled Arridy should die. Gov. Teller Ammons then demanded justice through a quick completion of Arridy's sentence.
Sixty-eight years later, advocates will ask Ritter to grant a posthumous pardon of Arridy. A Denver lawyer is assembling the paperwork.
As that push emerges, Daniel Leonetti, a former Trinidad journalist inspired by Perske's book, is poised to see his screenplay about Arridy, The Woodpecker Waltz, turned into a multimillion-dollar film.
"I promised Joe on his grave that I'd tell his story to the world," Leonetti said with tears Saturday.
The script portrays Ireland as the hero.
"The story just made me weep," said Micheline Keller of the California-based Keller Entertainment Group. "Forget the mental disability. Joe Arridy was just innocent."
Actor Dennis Quaid, Keller said, has read the script and is interested in playing Ireland. She favors the idea of an unknown actor portraying Arridy.
Keller and Leonetti joined hands Saturday with Perske on the hill where Michael Radelet, a University of Colorado at Boulder professor and expert in the death penalty, was among those to speak.
Radelet pointed at some of the other rusted tin plates surrounding Arridy's grave and said other Colorado executions were questionable, too. For example, John Sullivan, put to death in 1943 after confessing to the murder of Carrie Winona Culbertson, faced mental challenges, an inspection of his El Paso County case revealed.
Antonio Sanchez, Leonetti's cousin, spied a lone hawk circling above the gathering, calling it a blessing in his Apache heritage.
"That was Joe's spirit giving us approval," Sanchez said, smiling.
Arridy's headstone is humble compared to many others in the regular cemetery downhill. Yet his headstone is now the largest and most inviting on Woodpecker Hill.
Severa, who previously had visited the cemetery with Perske and led the effort to raise $929 to pay for the gravestone, also spoke to the somber crowd Saturday.
He summed up what many came to say.