Five decades after escaping from the Nebraska State Penitentiary, Leslie Arnold remains at large. His partner in the breakout wasn’t so lucky. And it’s because Jim Harding had the misfortune of looking a little like James Earl Ray.
By May of 1968 — more than nine months after getting away — Harding had made his way to Los Angeles. A nationwide manhunt was on for Ray, who weeks earlier had assassinated the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
A woman saw Harding in a bar and thought he matched images of Ray she’d seen in the media. When police nabbed him, they found the man wasn’t the killer of a revered civil rights leader, but was a fugitive nonetheless.
Despite that strange turn, Harding over time came to believe he — not Arnold — was actually the lucky one.
Harding returned to the Nebraska pen and spent another eight years behind bars. But the convicted killer then saw his life term commuted by the state and was released on parole. He was free to spend the rest of his days without the fear of being caught.
“It drove me nuts those nine months, looking over your shoulder all the time,” Harding said in an interview. “I feel for Les, if he’s still alive.”
Just what became of Arnold — and whether he is indeed alive today at age 75 — remains a mystery.
But the boy who in 1958 killed his parents and buried them in the backyard remains a wanted man. He’s still listed by the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services as an inmate on escaped status — the last man to successfully escape from the penitentiary. If ever caught, he could very well be returned to Nebraska to complete his life sentence.
Arnold has certainly defied the odds. The vast majority of prison escapees are recaptured, most within hours or days. A California study recently reported that since 1977, nearly 99 percent of inmates who escaped or walked away from facilities in that state were ultimately caught. It’s rare for a fugitive to remain on the lam and successfully blend back into society.
Early on, it’s possible Arnold was nearly caught on a couple of occasions.
Woody Dillman, a former neighbor of the Arnold family, related a story he heard decades ago: that an FBI agent informed a neighbor that Arnold had been arrested during the clashes between police and protesters outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. But before authorities figured out who he was, he had already been released.
That story might seem implausible — except Chicago is where Harding and Arnold initially fled 13 months before the convention.
Omaha police reported in 1976 that a couple of years earlier the department received a teletype from an agency in Oregon asking whether William L. Arnold was still wanted. But before they could respond, that man had likewise been released.
After all these years, neither the local FBI office nor Omaha police has any records that confirm those stories.
Others interviewed by The World-Herald over the years have suggested possible Arnold sightings.
The late father of Arnold’s girlfriend said Arnold actually tried to stop at his home about a year after the 1967 escape, fleeing when a neighbor saw and recognized him. Dillman said his mother was sure she saw Arnold during the 1970s in a north Omaha restaurant and reported it to the FBI.
For his part, Harding said he never saw Arnold again after they parted ways in Chicago days after the escape.
Following his 1976 parole at age 41, Harding would go on to live a quiet and normal life. He worked for decades on the setup crew at Omaha’s Civic Auditorium. He married and loved to golf and watch Cornhusker football games. He retired in 1997 and later moved to Oregon, where he died of cancer in 2008.
During his 2001 interview with The World-Herald, Harding had his own theory on where Arnold landed.
“My best guess is he’s in South America,” he said. “He showed me a book once that showed if you impregnate a Brazilian citizen, they won’t bring you back for anything.”
Over the years, Jim Harding certainly hasn’t been the only one to ponder what came of Arnold.
'I JUST LET IT GO.'
The little white house sits at 66th and Poppleton today looking much as it did in 1958.
The door at the bottom of the stairs that Leslie used to shut when he talked on the phone with his girl is still there. To look from the dining room through the kitchen doorway — the place Opal Arnold stood as her son shot her — is to peer back in time, the kitchen counters and cabinets virtually unchanged from then.
You can still walk the same grim path Leslie Arnold took to bury his parents’ bodies: down the basement stairs, up through the garage, around the front, through the side gate, and all the way to the far back corner of the yard, next to the same aged but sturdy chain-link fence. The lilac bush is gone, supplanted by an overgrown mulberry tree.
PART ONE: THE CRIME
Leslie Arnold murdered his parents inside their home on Sept. 27, 1958. Under the questioning of Detective John Barnes, Leslie confessed to the crimes. Then, just after noon, handcuffed to a detective at each arm, Leslie led a grim procession to a corner of his backyard where the bodies were buried. By then a crowd was gathering, including neighbors and a reporter and photographer from The World-Herald. Read the full story
Martin Schmitz and his wife purchased the house not long after the murders, and he’s been there ever since. He knew its history and wasn’t bothered by it. And during the early years, neighbors told him all the stories.
His favorite came from the guy across the street who even the kids in the neighborhood knew was a bookie. When all those cops converged on Poppleton that October day to dig up the bodies, the bookie was sure he was being busted.
“Oh, they got me again,” said Schmitz, repeating the neighbor’s story. “When they all went over across the street, I could breathe again.”
Today, the 84-year-old Schmitz seems to be about the only one in the Ak-Sar-Ben neighborhood holding on to such stories. The old families — the Turkels, the Dillmans, the Vacantis and the Sanderses — have long since moved on.
But some of the kids who grew up with Leslie Arnold can still be found around Omaha. They say Leslie’s story is one they could never forget.
“Wow, that’s definitely Leslie,’’ said 74-year-old Frank Spenceri during a recent interview.
He was looking at the picture of Leslie pointing to the spot where he buried the bodies — a photo shot from Spenceri’s backyard. Spenceri recalled how he’d returned from football practice that day and learned the true reason Leslie had recently come over to borrow that shovel.
Woody Dillman, now 70, didn’t pass up a recent chance to give a reporter a tour of his old neighborhood. He likewise remembered the shock of learning that the kid down the street who once split Dillman’s forehead open with a rubber toy knife had shot and killed his parents.
For both Spenceri and Dillman, returning to the old neighborhood always brings back the memories — nearly all of them good. Dillman looks for the spot in the fence where kids snuck into Ak-Sar-Ben. Spenceri chooses to remember the fun times with Leslie Arnold, like playing basketball in the alley and ushering at the rodeo.
“It happened. It shouldn’t have happened,” Spenceri said. “I just let it go.”
After all these years, both often wonder what became of Arnold. Neither would be surprised if he figured out a way to create a new identity and start a new life.
“I know he was smart,” Spenceri said. “Who knows?”
'LES ARNOLD WAS NOT A PSYCHOPATH.'
Jim Child has long since retired from his career as a Presbyterian minister, one in which he heard from many a repentant sinner.
But for decades Child kept secret one of his own sins: the time he helped childhood friend Leslie Arnold escape by taking him to the bus station.
Ask him today, and the 79-year-old will tell you he feels not an ounce of guilt.
“I have some ambiguity about it, but nothing that approaches guilt,” said Child, now living in Lansing, Michigan.
Child for years told virtually no one what he’d done — not even his wife. But in 2005 he called a reporter who he’d learned was collecting information on Arnold and told his story.
Though he admitted he committed a crime in abetting Arnold’s escape after the fact, he noted that the statute of limitations had long since expired. “If they want to come after me, they’re welcome to,” he said.
Child was willing to help Arnold that day because he believed that the friend he built model airplanes and played football with was a good person who just got caught up in a bad situation. Child had no fear Arnold would ever commit such a crime again.
“Les Arnold was not a psychopath,” Child said.
Child never saw nor heard from Arnold again after watching him board that Greyhound for Chicago.
There was a time Child resented a little that Arnold never got in contact with him again. But today he wishes him only the best. He hopes he got married, had a family and lived a good life.
“I’ve never heard a word from him, and I don’t expect to,” he said. “I do wonder what happened to him.
“I hope he’s in Argentina or Canada. Somewhere they can’t ever get him.”
'I HAVE FORGIVEN HIM. BUT I DON'T WANT HIM TO SHOW UP.'
Decades later, Jim Arnold retains a vivid memory of the phone call that changed everything.
The 13-year-old was at his great-uncle Ben’s house. That’s where the Arnold family had taken up while police questioned Leslie, Jim’s older brother, about the disappearance of their parents. The phone rang. Uncle Ben picked it up and listened intently before hanging up.
“Bill and Opal are gone,” he somberly announced. “Leslie did it.”
With those words, Jim learned he was now an orphan. And his only sibling was bound for prison.
Soon after, Jim left his entire life behind, packing up his belongings and moving to live near Kansas City with an aunt and uncle that he barely knew.
The principal at his Omaha grade school told him he shouldn’t tell anyone in his new home about what happened.
The boy took that advice. For years, he kept his secret past locked inside. He became very good at dropping hints his parents had died in a car wreck.
He largely erased his brother from his life, too, only once visiting Leslie in prison.
Jim grew up, got married, had two kids of his own and went on to a career as a small-town music teacher in Missouri. One thing he and Leslie did have in common was a love for music.
But as the years went by, the events of 1958 were something Jim could not shake. He said he came to resemble Jacob Marley in Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” staggering under chains of shame, anger, fear and guilt.
For years he had a recurring nightmare, one where he entered an old house and fearfully walked dark, mysterious corridors. He’d awaken from those dreams with his sheets soaked in sweat.
He also suffered from other personal problems he doesn’t care to talk about.
After struggling for decades, Jim in the late 1990s finally sought therapy.
One of his counselors told him he was only as sick as his secrets. So he let them out. For the first time, he told his own kids — by that time in their 30s — the truth about his family.
He let go of any guilt. If he had been at home that day instead of ushering at the rodeo, he couldn’t have stopped anything, he decided. He’d probably be dead, too.
Then, nine years ago, a decade into his emotional recovery, Jim felt a sudden compulsion.
On Sept. 27, 2008 — 50 years from the day Leslie killed their parents — Jim and his wife traveled to Omaha.
For the first time since he left in 1958, he visited his childhood home on Poppleton.
He took pictures outside and was invited inside by owner Schmitz. Memories flooded Jim’s brain — both the good and bad.
Come back again next time you’re in town, Schmitz told him as he left.
I won’t be back, Arnold replied. He hasn’t been.
Now 71 years old, Jim Arnold said he’s mostly shaken the bad memories. The nightmares are long gone, too. But his relationship with his brother remains a complicated one.
He said he hopes people don’t try to romanticize Leslie’s prison escape or make his brother out to be some kind of hero. When asked his current feelings about his brother, Jim took a long, deep breath before responding.
During therapy, Jim had convinced himself Leslie was dead. It was easier to deal with him that way, he explained.
Jim Arnold would just as soon his brother forever stay in the past.
“I think about the whole situation almost every day,” he said. “I have forgiven him. But I don’t want him to show up.”
'HOW MANY PEOPLE KNOW AN INMATE'S NUMBER, OTHER THAN THE INMATE?'
As an investigator for the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services, Geoff Britton just over a decade ago started poking into some old escape cases, to see if any could be cleared after all these years. Once Britton stumbled upon the amazing case of Leslie Arnold, he was hooked.
“Arnold became my hobby case,” Britton said. “My daughter can tell you the whole case, and she’s 12.”
The investigator dug in. He subpoenaed phone records and checked fingerprint databases. He commissioned an updated image of what the fugitive might look like today. He tracked down and interviewed Leslie’s brother, his old girlfriend and many others. And since he couldn’t interview the now-deceased Harding, he found the reporter who had.
Based on Harding’s story, Britton was even able to figure out who the ex-con was who drove the getaway car that night. The former Nebraska inmate, in poor health and living in California, admitted he had “helped those boys escape.”
As Britton got deeper into the case, he at times wrestled internally with what he would do if he found Arnold.
By law, Arnold still owes Nebraska time. But given the young age at which he killed, the fact he was a model inmate likely getting close to release, and the passage of so much time, Britton also came to wonder whether returning him to prison would be the best outcome for society. At times he thought if he did find Arnold, perhaps he’d just have a conversation with him and walk away.
“The police officer in me says he needs to come back,” Britton said. “But I don’t know if justice would have been served by bringing him back.”
Britton never had to face such a dilemma. He left the Corrections Department in 2013 to return to his native California, where today he’s a university law enforcement officer in Sacramento. But on his desk, he still has a shrine to his perpetual Arnold obsession, including Arnold’s prison photo and a license plate bearing Arnold’s name. Such plates, after all, are manufactured in the pen.
Though Britton never found Arnold, the 45-year-old has a hunch where he is.
At a law enforcement conference about six years ago, Britton learned of a method for investigators to see whether anyone has ever searched for their names online. He found someone had recently searched for “Nebraska investigator Geoff Britton.”
Though Britton couldn’t find the exact location of the computer where the search originated, he did learn the location of the Internet service provider, and it intrigued him: South America.
Then, around that same time, Britton discovered that someone had looked up Arnold on the Corrections Department’s online inmate database. Deepening the mystery, whoever looked up Arnold hadn’t done so by his name, but rather by his number: 20841.
“How many people know an inmate’s number,” Britton asked, “other than the inmate?”
As before, Britton could not find the exact location of the computer. But that search also had originated in South America.
Britton has decided that maybe Harding had it right. Perhaps Arnold is in Brazil, a nation that indeed has a history of reluctance to extradite its citizens.
Britton lets his imagination wander. He sees Leslie Arnold putting his musical talents to use, perhaps playing in a Brazilian samba band.
He imagines the escapee enjoying a long and productive life — a life worlds away from the little house on Poppleton Avenue where in 1958 a troubled boy gunned down his parents.
“It would fit,” Britton said of the vision. “In my eyes, he’s still alive.”