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THE MYSTERY OF LESLIE ARNOLD: PART ONE

He killed his parents in Omaha at age 16 and escaped from prison nearly a decade later. Then he simply vanished

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The boyish-faced 16-year-old betrayed little emotion as he led Omaha police officers into his backyard. It was a crisp October day in 1958 in what was then Omaha’s western suburbs — a neighborhood near 66th and Pacific Streets.

With a handcuffed arm, the boy pointed to a spot beneath a lilac bush. That’s where he told them to dig.

A uniformed cop had turned up only a few shovelfuls of black dirt before he unearthed the first sign of the truth: a human hand. And with each subsequent turn of the spade, a grim and shocking crime was revealed.

“Oh, Leslie, how could you do it?” exclaimed a neighbor looking on.

Indeed. How could he?

Booking mug

Booking shot of Leslie Arnold on Oct. 11, 1958.

How could William Leslie Arnold shoot both his mother and father dead right in the dining room of their home? What inside the head of a boy could drive him to lash out so violently after his mom had refused to let him take his girl to the drive-in?

And how could Arnold proceed to take her to the movie that night after all? And then to go on living his life the next two weeks as if nothing had happened — going to school, attending church, even showing up to open his dad’s business — until his web of lies finally unraveled?

The saga of Leslie Arnold would be an astonishing story even if that was all there was to tell. But what started off as a true crime drama would ultimately turn into a deeper mystery — one that still has authorities baffled today.

Sent to the Nebraska State Penitentiary in Lincoln three months before his 17th birthday, Arnold for nearly a decade lived the life of a model prisoner. He seemed well on his way to the ultimate fate of many killers during that more merciful time — a state pardon and release.

But 50 years ago, Leslie Arnold shocked everyone again.

He slipped through sawed-off bars, scaled a 12-foot fence topped with barbed wire and vanished into the sticky July air.

A half century later, Arnold officially remains at large. And he holds another distinction: He’s the last man to successfully escape from the Nebraska State Penitentiary.

Again the question has to be asked: Leslie, how could you do it?

How could Arnold come to see escape as his only hope? How could he get away so cleanly? And how could he avoid detection and recapture for all the ensuing years?

Despite the sensational way in which Leslie Arnold’s story came to the public consciousness, it’s largely a forgotten tale in his hometown today.

In his old Ak-Sar-Ben neighborhood — on a hill overlooking what then was one of the Midwest’s largest horse-racing tracks but which today is a blooming college campus — most everyone who knew Arnold is dead or gone.

Map

The Omaha police detectives who teased out his confession, the prosecutor who sent him to prison with encouraging words, and the warden who watched over the boy-inmate all have long since retired and died.

But in recent years, there have been some for whom the memory of Leslie Arnold has lived on.

Jim Harding never forgot Arnold. Harding went over the fence with Arnold that July night in 1967. Even though Harding was recaptured within a year, he always felt that he was the lucky one.

Frank Spenceri hasn’t forgotten Arnold. Having grown up next door to the Arnolds, he knew well the smart but troubled boy who others failed to understand.

Jim Child hasn’t forgotten Arnold. He now admits to aiding his childhood friend’s escape, putting him on a bus bound for Chicago that night. Talk to the retired minister today and he has a surprising answer as to whether he regrets that sin.

Jim Arnold hasn’t forgotten Leslie, his older brother. To this day, Jim Arnold remains bitter over the crime that left him an orphan and turned his life upside down. He only in recent years got beyond the nightmares and feelings of shame, anger and guilt that tormented him for decades.

Geoff Britton hasn’t forgotten Leslie Arnold. Decades after the escape, the State Corrections Department investigator spent countless hours trying to pick up Arnold’s trail. He believes that Arnold — who would have turned 75 years old last week — could very well still be alive. In fact, Britton has a hunch he knows where Arnold has been.

Over the next three days, The World-Herald will also remember Leslie Arnold.

Drawn from a transcript of Arnold’s confession, untapped psychological profiles that dug deeply into Arnold’s troubled relationship with his mother, an exclusive interview with the inmate he escaped with, and other historical records and interviews collected over nearly 25 years, we bring one of Omaha’s most intriguing crime tales back to life.

And we shed new light on an old question: Leslie, how could you do it?


'LES' TEMPER HAD NO STOPPER ONCE IT EXPLODED.'


For someone looking on from the outside in 1958, the Arnold family of 6477 Poppleton Ave. in Omaha might have seemed the very picture of America’s post-World War II prosperity.

Bill Arnold owned the Omaha regional office of Watkins Products, a direct-sales company whose “Watkins men” peddled spices, cleaning supplies and other household goods door to door. It wasn’t a bad business to be in during the 1950s, a time when American families and household consumerism boomed.

Like most women of her day, Arnold’s wife, Opal, was a stay-at-home mom. She kept a tidy house and watched over the couple’s two sons: 16-year-old William, who went by his middle name, Leslie, and 13-year-old Jim.

Family

Opal and Bill Arnold with younger son, Jimmy, date unknown.

The Arnolds’ hilltop home was so close to the Ak-Sar-Ben track’s barns that you could hear the horses whinny. The Arnolds drove two cars, including a stylish new 1957 Mercury, and had a black-and-white TV.

It seemed a setting right out of “Leave It to Beaver,” the sitcom of the day that featured an idealized suburban family and two happy but mischievous boys. But the Arnolds were not the Cleavers. It would soon become clear that something wasn’t quite right inside the cozy white house on Poppleton Avenue.

Leslie had always been a high-strung kid. Those who grew up with him playing ball, building forts and sneaking under the racetrack fence recalled he could flash a fiery temper.

“He was wound a little tighter than the average, but he was more intelligent than the average person, and very talented,’’ recalled Spenceri, 74, a friend who grew up across the back fence from Arnold.

In grade school, Arnold proved a rambunctious boy, constantly getting into trouble. But he’d eventually learn to control his emotions in the classroom.

Entering his junior year at Omaha’s Central High School, Arnold was a solid B student who was liked by his teachers — his only write-up for failing one day to wear a belt. He was in Central’s ROTC corps and participated on its track, wrestling and baseball teams.

Dance band

Leslie, front left in the photo with Central High School musicians, idolized Elvis Presley and wore his hair slicked back.

But Leslie’s biggest passion was music. He played the tenor saxophone in Central’s marching band, in an ROTC band and in the combo that performed at school dances. He was a fanatic for Elvis. Leslie even wore his thick and wavy hair slicked back and high much like his idol.

But at home, Arnold’s temper still burned hot.

Little frustrations seemed to set him off. He would smash his model airplanes if they weren’t coming together just right. Once angry that the wax wasn’t taking to the family car, he slammed the roof with his fist, denting it.

His brother, Jim, would recall frequent physical abuse at the hands of his brother, Leslie adept at putting socks on his hands so he wouldn’t leave a mark.

“Les’ temper had no stopper once it exploded,” Jim would recall years later. “I always had the feeling he didn’t understand why mom and dad had me when they had him already.”

Indeed, Leslie Arnold carried into those high school years some deep anger and resentment, much of those feelings revolving around his 40-year-old mother.

While there are conflicting accounts regarding the temperament of Opal Arnold, no one disputes this: She called the shots in the Arnold household. Leslie Arnold would later tell psychiatrists who examined him that his mother ruled in a domineering and arbitrary fashion — and that he was often the victim of her controlling ways.

Cadets

Leslie was in Central’s ROTC corps (second row from the bottom, ninth from the left) and participated on its track, wrestling and baseball teams.

He said she once forced him to cut the grass three times, until it was even enough for her liking. She made fun of his interest in music and showed no interest in his sports, never coming to his games. He perceived her as showing favoritism toward Jim. Neighbors noted some of these things, too.

“Jimmy was treated like an only child,” recalled former neighbor Woody Dillman.

“It seemed to me (Leslie’s) mother was excessively and compulsively hard on him,” said Child, a friend of Leslie’s who lived down the street. “And Les would become extremely agitated, beyond normal.”

Once Leslie reached high school, there were frequent clashes over use of the family cars, particularly the new one. Leslie claimed his mother would sometimes tell him he could use the car but then change her mind at the last minute.

A big source of recent conflict had been Leslie’s girlfriend, a North High student named Crystal.

Leslie had been “going steady” with Crys for months and was crazy about her. But his mother was against the relationship. She called the girl’s family “trash,” Leslie believing she felt that way because Crys’ father was a truck driver.

Mother and son had repeated and heated arguments over Crys, and recently those conflicts had escalated.

Leslie claimed his mother had on three occasions kicked him out of the house. The boy slept in the Ak-Sar-Ben stables and briefly took a job as a live-in caretaker in an apartment building.

Leslie said his mother sometimes locked his mild-mannered dad out of the house, too. Leslie said his father told him they needed to tolerate such behavior — the price they paid to keep the family together.

Leslie Arnold would later tell his psychological evaluators there may have been other underlying reasons for his mother’s behavior. He was told by family members his mother was twice hospitalized after “nervous breakdowns” — the common term at the time for episodes of mental illness.

Mental illness in those days was even more stigmatized and less understood than it is today, a taboo subject for families to even talk about. Jim Arnold decades later said he had vague memories of his mom “being ill,” but it was never explained to him.

Jim Arnold, though, also said much of what Leslie told the psychologists seemed slanted in his favor. At least one instance where Leslie was “locked out” by his mom, Jim said, was actually a case of him running away to spend time with Crys rather than accompany the family on a weekend trip. The punishments Leslie complained about were most often brought on by his misbehavior and tantrums.

Regardless of who was to blame, there seems little doubt the relationship between Leslie and Opal Arnold had become extremely antagonistic, dysfunctional and volatile.

As one psychiatrist who examined Arnold would later put it, the feelings inside the young Arnold “could be classified as a smoldering volcano.”


'WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO? SHOOT ME?'


Leslie Arnold had much to look forward to as he sat at home the morning of Saturday, Sept. 27, 1958. He had plans to take Crys to the drive-in that night, and his parents had said he could take the new Mercury.

Around 11, he was on the phone with Crys. And as he often did, he stretched the long phone cord under the door at the bottom of the stairs to his bedroom and closed the door behind him. He’d sit on the stairs, getting a little privacy as he talked to his girl.

Opal Arnold pulled the door open and scolded her son. Anything said behind closed doors is not worth saying, she told him. Leslie would also later say his mother then called Crys “no good’’ — words he was concerned Crys had heard.

That set off another bitter row. Leslie told his mother she would be sorry if she continued to treat Crys that way. His mother said she’d hit her limit, too.

“You are not going to the drive-in tonight,’’ he recalled her saying.

Leslie angrily punched a wall, and his mother sent him to his room.

Upstairs, Leslie took refuge in his records, listening and sulking and thinking about what he could do to get his mother to reconsider.

He came downstairs and again argued with her. She told him to go out and cool off. He did walk around outside for a while before returning to his room.

That’s when, he would later tell detectives, “I got a crazy idea in my head.”

Outside

Police watch over the Arnold residence on Oct. 11, 1958.

At about 2:30 p.m., he went to his parents’ bedroom closet. There he found the 22-caliber semiautomatic Remington rifle he used to hunt rabbits.

Moments later, standing in the dining room and holding the rifle, Leslie again confronted his mother.

He later said he had no intention to shoot but wanted to show her he was serious about going out with Crys that night.

Arnold said his mother stood in the doorway to the kitchen and laughed. “What are you going to do, shoot me?’’

Leslie raised the gun and pulled the trigger.

Opal Arnold fell to the floor, screaming in pain.

Leslie later told a psychologist he didn’t want to hurt his mother anymore. But inside, he could still hear her laughing at him.

Standing over her, he aimed at her chest and pulled the trigger again. And again. And again. And again. In all, he fired six bullets, all into his mother’s chest.

“I can’t explain it, she seemed in pain, and I didn’t want to hurt her anymore, but I just kept shooting,” he’d later say.

Leslie could see his mother was dying. He tried to talk to her, to tell her he was sorry.

Dining room

The dining room where Leslie fired six bullets into Opal and then, after Bill came upon the scene, six bullets into him.

It was right at that moment that his father came through the front door, bags of groceries under his arms. Bill Arnold saw his wife on the floor and his son with the gun.

“What have you done?!’’

Bill Arnold ran at Leslie and swung wildly, missing. He again looked in disbelief at Opal Arnold’s body, and then again went after Leslie.

Leslie raised the rifle and pulled the trigger.

Leslie’s father fell to the floor. Leslie stood over him and again kept firing. Bill Arnold was also shot six times, dying on the dining room floor near his wife.

Leslie dropped the gun and ran to the living room, the realization of his horrific act now setting in. What have I done?

He curled up on the couch and cried. He tried to think of what to do. He later said he thought he should tell someone. But how could they understand? How could they know what he had been through? In his distress and anxiety, his shirt became soaked with sweat.

But after a half hour, Leslie somehow composed himself. Somehow he steeled himself. He pulled himself up. He’d hatched a plan.

As his first grisly task, he dragged the bodies of his mother and father through the kitchen and down the basement stairs. He rolled up the bloodied dining room rug and took it out to the garage.

Then he called a family friend, former neighbor Rose Grossman, and related a big story he’d made up.

His grandparents had been traveling by train to California when his senile grandfather got off in Wyoming and wandered away. His mom and dad had hopped a train that day to help look for him.

Grossman agreed to take care of Jim until his parents came back. After Jim got home from ushering at the matinee performance of the Ak-Sar-Ben rodeo, Leslie ran out to meet him and soon after took him to the Grossmans. Jim never suspected a thing.

All that done, Leslie returned to the house where his parents’ bodies lay. He needed to clean himself up. After all, he had a date that night.

Behind the wheel of the Arnolds’ new car, Leslie picked up Crys and her brother and headed for the 84th and Center Drive-In. It was a double feature, the comedy “No Time for Sergeants” and a horror film, “The Undead.”

Afterward, they went to Tiner’s, the drive-in burger and malt shop at 44th and Dodge that in its day was the place to be seen for high school kids. Then they went to Crys’ house.

Leslie watched Crys put her hair up for the night. He felt good. When he was with her, he didn’t think about his parents.

But soon it was time to head home and again face the reality of what he’d done.

Arnold was spooked at the thought of spending the night with his parents’ bodies. He tried sleeping in the car but was too cold. He instead went to his room, turned the radio up and closed the door.

He woke early and went to church alone. As it happened, the sermon was about crime, and Arnold suddenly had the feeling the whole thing was directed at him. The tears returned. He got up and left.

That afternoon, he went to his back-fence neighbor, Spenceri, and asked to borrow a shovel.

Then after spending most of the day with Crys and her family, he grabbed the shovel. He went to the southeast corner of his fenced backyard, back under the lilac bush. And in the cover of darkness, he started digging.

It took hours, the boy collapsing exhausted under an apple tree when he was done. Then after summoning his courage, he went down to the basement.

He removed his father’s belt and strung it around the ankles of the body. That enabled the 5-foot-8, 127-pound Arnold to pull the 155-pound body up a short flight of stairs into the garage. In the open, he dragged the body out the garage door, around the front yard, through the side gate and back to the hole.

He pulled his mother’s body out the same way, dumping it on top.

Then after saying a brief prayer over the crude grave, he covered the bodies with dirt.

Arnold took the bloodied rug to 80th and F Streets, where he dumped it off the bridge into the Big Papillion Creek.

Around midnight, he knocked at Rose Grossman’s door. He said he was too scared to sleep alone and wanted to be with Jim. As Grossman let him in, she noticed that both of the boy’s palms were lined by broken blisters.

On Monday morning, Arnold had one last task to complete his cover-up. He drove to his dad’s office at 19th and Jones downtown and opened up for business. Leslie told the story of his parents’ sudden departure and asked one of his dad’s assistants to take over for a while. Then he drove to school.

Arnold soon settled into a daily routine. After about five days he and Jimmy moved back home, Jimmy still totally oblivious to what had happened. In fact, Leslie would claim he confided in no one.

If anyone asked about his parents, Leslie told them they were away.

It all happened kind of suddenly, he’d say.


'OH LESLIE, HOW COULD YOU DO IT?'


On Sunday, Oct. 5 — eight days after the killings — Arnold arrived home and was suddenly panic-stricken.

His grandmother and grandfather were there — the same grandfather he’d been telling everyone his parents were off looking for.

The elder Arnolds had traveled from their home in North Loup, Nebraska, concerned that no one seemed to know where Leslie’s parents were. Leslie offered them more evasive answers.

In an effort to figure out what was going on, Leslie’s grandmother on Tuesday called Rose Grossman to see whether Opal Arnold had left any instructions before leaving town. Mrs. Grossman asked her about the lost grandfather. Grossman could tell from the sound of the grandmother’s voice she had no idea what Grossman was talking about.

Grossman had her suspicions before, but now she knew things didn’t add up. She did some detective work of her own, learning there was no train at the time Leslie said his parents had left. She also learned from a friend a few doors down from the Arnolds about the recent violent arguments between Opal and Leslie.

Buried

From left: Police work to recover the bodies of Leslie Arnold's parents in their backyard on Oct. 11, 1958; Leslie points to the lilac bush that marked where the bodies were; police recovering the bodies.

On Friday morning, Oct. 10, Grossman called the Omaha police and told them what she’d learned. She didn’t know it, but the extended Arnold family members had been debating similar action for days. They didn’t because Leslie’s grandmother had been adamant they shouldn’t be jumping to conclusions.

That night, Leslie took Crys to the Central-Tech football game, where they watched a talented Central sophomore running back named Gale Sayers tear up the field. While Leslie was away, the Arnolds made the decision: It’s time to go to the police.

Leslie’s great-uncle went downtown and officially reported the Arnolds missing. Like Grossman, he noted the last person who had seen the Arnolds was Leslie. By then, it was obvious to detectives who they needed to talk to next.

On Saturday morning, two detectives went to the Watkins office, picked up Leslie and took him to the police station.

Under the questioning of Detective John Barnes, the boy finally broke down. While Barnes clicked away at a typewriter, Leslie gave a statement about the planned date with his girlfriend, the argument with his mother, the Remington, the killings and how he concealed them.

“Are you willing to show us where your parents are buried?” a detective asked.

“If I have to, I will,’’ Leslie replied.

First look

Leslie Arnold leads authorities to the place in the family’s backyard where he had buried his parents after fatally shooting them.

Then, just after noon, handcuffed to a detective at each arm, Leslie led a grim procession to a corner of his backyard. By then a crowd was gathering, including neighbors and a reporter and photographer from The World-Herald.

The photographer clicked away as the boy pointed out the spot. With a nod from prosecutor John Hanley, Officer Paul Slinkard went to work with a shovel, turning up the loose soil.

It took little time for Slinkard to unearth a human hand adorned with a bracelet and watch.

“Oh, Leslie, how could you do it?’’ came the neighbor’s cry.

The boy looked at her and his lip trembled. But he said nothing.


'I'VE GOT A LOT OF MAKING UP TO DO.'


“Youth Kills Father, Mother to Get Own Way About Car.” That was the banner headline in The World-Herald the next morning.

That was also about as deep as the reporting of those days would ever get into the complex relationship between Leslie Arnold and his parents. If things had really been as simple as portrayed, there would have been parents dropping dead in Omaha on a weekly basis.

Still, the murders captivated the city. So many gawkers drove past the Arnold home on Sunday that police had to control traffic, and a neighbor joked of setting up a Kool-Aid stand.

Arnold was charged on Monday with two counts of first-degree murder, a crime that could bring him a death sentence.

It seems prosecutor Hanley suspected the boy had loaded the rifle — a sign the killings had been premeditated.

Trial

Left: The next day's World-Herald’s coverage. Right: Leslie Arnold, escorted by Detective Thomas Curran, is taken in for questioning on Oct. 11, 1958, after his parents had been missing nearly two weeks.

Arnold claimed the gun was already loaded when he retrieved it. However, workers at Ak-Sar-Ben days later found a box of .22 caliber bullets that Arnold had at some point tossed over the fence.

“Leslie, did you load the gun?” Hanley asked.

“No,” Arnold insisted.

Arnold would undergo a thorough psychiatric analysis, with all who examined him concluding he was sane.

“It is this examiner’s opinion that the mother’s behavior toward the youth certainly was a force in helping to precipitate his action,” one psychiatrist concluded.

Another examiner noted the boy did seem remorseful, shedding tears as he recounted his actions. As Arnold sat in jail awaiting trial, he expressed similar remorse in a letter of apology to the Grossmans.

“I have learned a great deal since I’ve been in here, and I wish I knew then what I know now,” he wrote. “(My parents) were wonderful people. This I learned too late, and I’m sorry.”

“How I ever went so wrong, I’ll never know,” he continued. “I’ve got a lot of making up to do.”

Arnold would have a lot of time to atone for a life gone astray. Because after pleading guilty to two reduced counts of second-degree murder on June 2, 1959, he was sentenced “to be imprisoned at hard labor for the remainder of his natural life.”

As sheriff’s deputies a week later drove the boy down to the Nebraska State Penitentiary in Lincoln, Leslie Arnold’s story was only just beginning.





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Reporter - Metro News

Henry is a general assignment reporter, but his specialty is deep dives into state issues and public policy. He's also into the numbers behind a story, yet to meet a spreadsheet he didn't like. Follow him on Twitter @HenryCordes. Phone: 402-444-1130.

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