Home News The teenage killer who escaped from prison lived under a different name

The teenage killer who escaped from prison lived under a different name

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The simple facts of the case described American teenager William Leslie Arnold as a murderous villain who shot his parents because they refused to let him take their car to the drive-in in 1958.

He was only 16, and Arnold buried their bodies in the backyard of the family home in Omaha, Nebraska, and continued to live as usual for two weeks, until he was confronted and confessed to a crime for which he was convicted. life imprisonment.

From there, Arnold’s story could have followed the familiar prisoner’s path—decades of confinement before a death witnessed by some and mourned by some.

But Arnold’s escape from prison, while still a young man in 1967, led to a very different outcome that ended inappropriately in Australia, and the death of a man of a different surname, who was known as the loving father of a family that had no family. Evidence of his secret life.


Black and white newspaper photos from the 1950s show a light-hearted boy being led through his garden, surrounded by police as he points to where his parents are buried.

Jeff Britton, head of the California Law Enforcement Support Office, recounts the case with a vivid reminder of someone who spent years digging through the records.

On the night of the murder, Arnold shot his parents before getting in the car and watching a double feature with his high school girlfriend before telling everyone — even family members — that his parents had a trip.

said Britton, who worked the case for nine years from 2004 to 2013 for the Nebraska Department of Corrections.

“Your parents were killed for using the car to go to the movies — that’s not normal. It made me wonder if something else was going on,” he told CNN.

By the time Britton started the case, Arnold had been on the run for more than three decades.

In 1967, after serving just eight years of a life sentence, Arnold and co-worker James Harding contacted someone on the outside, through ads in a local newspaper, the Lincoln Journal Star, Britton said.

“I was able to identify the person who helped them get the equipment out of the prison – he was an ex-liberal,” Britton said, explaining that the parolee was given masks that prisoners use to deceive the prisoners. The guards who carried it out daily counted in the prison. prison. prison.

“Similar to Escape from Alcatraz starring Clint Eastwood,” Britton added.

News reports at the time documented their daring escape through a 12-foot-high fence in a low-security area of ​​the prison, using a T-shirt to cover the barbed wire.

The ground and air search was extended to four states using helicopters, fixed-wing aircraft, patrol forces, sheriff’s deputies and police officers, according to a July 15, 1967 Lincoln Journal Star article. Three months later, the Omaha World-Herald quoted the director as saying their escape was a “cleaner” attempt.

Investigators later found that the fugitives arrived in Omaha and then boarded a bus to Chicago, where they got separated, according to Harding, who was caught within a year.

Arnold seems to have disappeared.

Over the years, investigators have pursued many leads, including rumors that he fled to South America, though they have found no evidence he was ever there.

Britton became obsessed with the case, continuing to investigate even as he moved away from Nebraska — and then contacted Matthew Westover, Deputy US Marshal for Nebraska, who told CNN he took the case in 2020.

“One of the guys left the office and[when you leave]you have to put your bags back. So one of my guys gave me this bag, kind of like a joke, you know, like, ‘You won’t find it,'” Westover said.

Westover read stories in the Omaha World-Herald reporter Henry J. Cordes, who covered the case in detail in a series titled “The Leslie Arnold Mystery”. »

Through numerous interviews, Cordes has revealed a more complex story than some realize. In the series, Arnold is portrayed as a good student who has a difficult relationship with his parents. Cordes writes that the shooting followed a heated argument between Arnold and his mother, who rejected his girlfriend.

Cordes writes that Arnold would have followed the rules in prison and would have been eligible for early release. He was a dedicated musician, and the prison music room where he spent most of his time became his escape window.

In addition to masks, the parolee threw chainsaws at the fence, which Arnold and Harding used to cut through window bars before climbing the fence, according to Cordes.

The more Westover reads, the more convinced he was that he was the man who found Arnold.

“From day one, I was hooked,” he said.

How close is the law to arnold

By the time the case reached Westover’s desk, the world had changed.

Arnold may have used the classifieds to stage his prison break, but decades later, crimes are no longer solved in old newspaper promos.

By 2020 DNA testing had become commonplace, so Westover got in the car and drove five hours across the border to find James Arnold, the little brother of William Leslie Arnold.

James Arnold wasn’t home when the murders were committed, but more than 60 years later he was happy to comply with a request from Westover for a DNA sample, which American Marshals uploaded to the Ancestry web site. It didn’t return anything useful.

Undeterred, Westover dug into old FBI files and used Britton’s previous research to try and piece together Arnold’s moves.

As Westover digs deeper, the DNA sample he uploaded in 2020 finally finds a match. In 2022, Westover receives an alert that James Arnold’s DNA matches another sample with enough similarities to be a relative.

“I immediately noticed that I had a higher level of gameplay than anything I had experienced before,” said Westover, who immediately reported the result to Britton.

Westover said he also received an email from the man who downloaded it. He said, “Hey, I’m trying to find more information on my dad.” He was an orphan from Chicago. »

So I passed that on to Jeff and I was like, ‘Here’s the guy.’ There’s no way he’s not the guy. ”

The man behind the email

The man who sent the email was the son of Arnold, whose anonymity Westover and Britton are very careful to protect.

Westover said the son did not know he had sent an email to a US Marshal tasked with finding his father. Westover said the son assumed he was a family member because he used the name James Arnolds to upload the DNA.

The son said he wanted to know more about his father, whom he knew as John Damon, who died in 2010.

He engaged in very delicate correspondence, Westover said, so as not to alert Arnold to the approaching law—if he was, in fact, still alive.

“If he was this smart and was able to evade the police for 50 years, who is to say he didn’t fake his death and all the photos?” Westover asked.

Westover said he was finally convinced of Arnold’s death when a death certificate was confirmed by local authorities – and that’s when Westover learned he had to tell Arnold’s son the details of his father’s darkest secrets.

“I felt guilty. I mean, he’s giving me all this information. And here I have the key to what he needs,” Westover said.

“In the meantime, I’m also stopping because he told me that he’s also calling all the other family members because he doesn’t know.”

Westover said he wanted to be the one to tell him about his father and set up a video call with the man and his wife. “I just wanted to make sure he wasn’t alone,” he said, “I mean, there’s a lot to do.”

Westover said he placed the call from his car, sitting in his driveway, via a mobile phone on the dashboard.

He said, “I showed him who I am…Then he asked me what (his father) did to keep him in prison. So I had to tell him. So I told him well he was an orphan. He didn’t lie about it, but he killed his parents, that’s why he was an orphan.”

William Leslie Arnold – aka John Damon – died at the age of 69 and was buried in Australia, thousands of miles from the dungeon walls of the Nebraska State Penitentiary, where he could have ended his days.

Now that they know his alias, US officials are scrambling to piece together Arnold’s life from his last known location in Chicago.

Westover says Arnold changed his name a few months after escaping from prison in 1967. Britton says he got a job at a restaurant, where he met his first wife and became a father to his four children.

They later moved to Cincinnati, Miami and Los Angeles, according to investigators, before divorcing in 1978. Records show that Arnold moved to New Zealand in the 1990s and then to Australia later in the same decade, according to Westover.

Britton said his family, including his second wife, were unaware of his previous life.

He said, “My heart goes out to this whole family.”

In some ways, Westover says, he’s relieved that Arnold is dead — after he met his family, he didn’t want to seek his arrest and extradition to the United States.

Britton feels the same.

“The cop in me always wanted to arrest him and let him in. But, you know, that wasn’t the result,” he said.

“But I have to tell you that I have spoken to his family several times now. They are an amazing family. I won’t say much about them for privacy reasons, but what I will say is this…

“I think he’s finally becoming the parent he wanted to be, or the person he wished he had.

“For from all that I have observed, he seems to have been a good provider and a good father.” He raised wonderful children.

Arnold’s son, who asked not to be identified to protect his family’s privacy, declined to be interviewed for this story but provided CNN with a statement that read:

“There is no warning label on a DNA test kit that tells you that you may not like what you find,” he said. “But I don’t regret doing it and I’m glad I know the truth about my father now.

While it is shocking to learn that his life began with a horrific crime, his legacy is much more than that.

“I want to be remembered for being a great father and provider to us, instilling a passion for music and a drive to always be the best person I can be.”

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