The card appears to have faded with time since being issued in Brazil nearly a half century ago. But there’s no question as to the identity of the American citizen who in December 1968 was registering with the Brazilian government as a resident alien. The name is typed on the document in all capital letters: WILLIAM LESLIE ARNOLD.
Fifty years after he escaped from the Nebraska State Penitentiary, a piece of the mystery of Leslie Arnold has now been solved.
A Brazilian immigration document that surfaced last week represents proof that the Omaha boy given a life sentence for killing his parents fled to Brazil within 17 months of his 1967 prison escape.
“I can’t believe what you’re telling me,” said Geoff Britton, a former investigator with the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services who spent years tracking Arnold.
Brazil was exactly where Britton and other investigators who have probed Arnold’s disappearance over the years had surmised he fled, primarily based on the account of the fellow inmate he escaped with. Now there’s no question that’s just what Arnold did.
The card, written in Portuguese and until recently buried in a government archive in Sao Paulo, in itself doesn’t get anyone much closer to knowing whether Arnold is still in that country 49 years later or is still alive today at age 75. And in some ways, it raises new questions.
A typed notation on the back of the card suggests Interpol, the international police agency, noted this new immigrant was wanted by the FBI, requesting more information on him. A subsequent entry, depending on how it’s read, could mean Brazilian authorities tried to capture Arnold but failed, did not want him captured initially, or perhaps didn’t want him caught at all.
It’s unknown whether the FBI was made aware of Arnold’s international flight. FBI officials in Washington said Friday a search of headquarters files found no reference to the Arnold case at all. The local Omaha office of the FBI did not immediately respond to a request seeking information.
Whether Arnold ultimately left Brazil, blended in under a new identity or found some other way to avoid capture over the years also remains a mystery.
The World-Herald last week published a three-part series on “The Mystery of Leslie Arnold,” detailing the saga of the troubled 16-year-old Omaha boy who in 1958 killed both of his parents. The boy subsequently spent nine years behind bars before working with another inmate to saw through bars, go over the penitentiary fence and flee to Chicago. Arnold was never seen again.
The story had concluded that Arnold likely fled to Brazil. Jim Harding, the inmate who escaped with Arnold and was recaptured within a year, said Arnold had told him that he believed if he fathered a child in Brazil he would never be extradited back to the States.
Britton had uncovered his own evidence leading him to believe Arnold fled to South America. At one point someone in South America looked up Arnold on the Corrections Department’s website, not by his name, but by his inmate number — something few people besides Arnold would have known.
The World-Herald series generated tremendous reader response and interest. Among those piqued was David Finney, an Omaha genealogy buff. As Finney searched for Arnold on the genealogy website FamilySearch last week, the immigration card popped up on his screen.
According to FamilySearch, the immigration cards in its database were issued by the Office of Public Safety to foreign citizens given permanent residency. The records were housed for decades in a public archives building in Sao Paulo before FamilySearch in recent years digitized them and put them online to assist in family history research.
What’s most striking about the card, issued on Dec. 7, 1968, is that Arnold used his real name, birth date and even place of birth: Omaha, Nebraska.
It’s unclear what type of documentation Arnold would have needed to provide at the time to gain entry into the country. It’s also possible Arnold believed he was more likely to be extradited if he entered his new home under false pretenses.
While the card doesn’t say how and where Arnold entered Brazil, its storage in Sao Paulo suggests he likely arrived in that city. Sao Paulo is the largest city in South America — even bigger than New York City — and is a major landing spot for travelers coming by both air and sea.
Providing further intrigue are the two typed messages on the back of the card.
The first, which appears to be dated 1968, suggests Arnold’s entry was immediately flagged by Interpol, which asked for more information on him. It said the FBI was looking for the man who, it noted, may also go by the name “Les Arnold.”
The second entry, which appears to be dated 1971, is more difficult to decipher, featuring bureaucratic language and several abbreviations. But it ends with the phrase “without capture.” That reference could be interpreted several ways: that Brazilian authorities tried to capture him and failed, that they wanted him located but not immediately captured, or that they didn’t want him captured at all.
There’s no question that Brazil has a historical reputation for being reluctant to extradite its citizens.
However, the protections against extradition that the Brazilian constitution provides the country’s natural-born citizens today do not apply to naturalized citizens who committed their crimes before becoming citizens. It’s unclear what the state of extradition law was at the time Arnold entered in 1968. Even if he ultimately gained Brazilian citizenship, it’s possible Interpol’s inquiry put Arnold in jeopardy of capture.
How hard the government worked to find Arnold is also unknown. At the time, the country was ruled by a strict military dictatorship that had seized power after a 1964 coup.
Calls to the Brazilian Embassy in Washington and the U.S. Embassy in Brazil seeking more information also weren’t immediately returned.
Once in Brazil, it’s conceivable Arnold at some point changed his name to better blend into the vast country, which geographically is larger than the continental United States and today boasts a population of more than 200 million.
A cursory check last week of the country’s taxpayer database found no one by the name William Arnold or Leslie Arnold. Britton, whose search for Arnold ended when he left the Corrections Department in 2013, said he doubts the fugitive could have kept his real name all these years without becoming known.
One of the biggest questions remains what the FBI knew about Arnold’s flight to Brazil. Neither Britton nor other Nebraska law enforcement officers who have been quoted on the Arnold case over the years ever mentioned being told by the FBI he landed in Brazil.
Jim Arnold, Leslie’s younger brother, said the FBI has never said anything to him about it.
Jim Arnold’s first reaction to learning that Leslie fled to Brazil reflected the bitterness he still feels for his brother’s crimes, which left him orphaned at age 13: “If that’s what he wanted to do, fine. As long as he stays away from me.”
A cousin of Arnold’s had a different reaction.
Paul Wisner of Kansas City, Missouri, said he believes Arnold’s crimes were rooted in a troubled relationship with his mother. If Arnold fled to Brazil and “kept his nose clean” all these years, Wisner hopes his cousin won’t ever be captured.
“I think everyone would be better off if he’s not found,” he said. “I’d like to think he had gone beyond what he was at the time, didn’t hurt anyone else or didn’t do anything he shouldn’t have. I’d like to know he has done OK by the world.”