The bare facts of the case cast American teenager William Leslie Arnold as a murderous villain who shot his parents because they refused to let him take their car to a drive-in in 1958.
Then just 16 years old, Arnold buried their bodies in the backyard of the family’s home in Omaha, Nebraska, and went about life as normal for two weeks, until he was confronted and confessed to a crime that saw him sentenced to life in prison.
From there, Arnold’s story could have followed the familiar path of a lifer – decades of incarceration before a death noted by some and mourned by few.
But Arnold’s escape from prison, while still a young man in 1967, led to a totally different outcome that ended incongruously in Australia, and the death of a man by a different name, who was known as a loving father to a family who had no idea about his secret life.
Black and white press images from the 1950s show a slight boy being led into the garden of his home, surrounded by police officers as he pointed to where he buried his parents.
Geoff Britton, chief of the Office of Law Enforcement Support in California, recalls details of the case with the vivid recollection of someone who has spent years poring over the files.
The night of the murders, Arnold shot his parents before taking the car and watching a double feature with his high school girlfriend before telling everyone – even family members – that his parents had taken a trip.
“He had killed his parents. And he was going to bury them in the yard later that night and he’s at the drive-in seeing ‘The Undead,’” said Britton, who worked on the case for nine years from 2004 to 2013 at the State of Nebraska Department of Correctional Services.
“To kill your parents over the use of 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 on the case, Arnold had been on the run for more than three decades.
In 1967, after serving just eight years of his life sentence, Arnold and a fellow inmate, James Harding, communicated with someone on the outside, through newspaper advertisements placed in local newspaper, the Lincoln Journal Star, Britton said.
“I was able to identify the person that helped them get the equipment to get out of prison – it was a former parolee,” said Britton, explaining that the parolee obtained masks the prisoners used to fool guards who conducted daily head counts at the prison.
“Similar to the movie ‘Escape from Alcatraz’ with Clint Eastwood,” Britton added.
Newspaper reports at the time documented their daring escape over a 12-foot high wire fence in the low-security area of the prison, using a T-shirt to cover the barbed wire.
A ground and air search extended across four states with helicopters, fixed-wing aircraft, patrol troopers, sheriff’s deputies and police officers, according to an article in the Lincoln Journal Star dated July 15, 1967. Three months later, the Omaha World-Herald quoted a prison warden as saying theirs was the “cleanest” escape in his experience.
Britton said investigators later discovered the escapees made it to Omaha, then caught a bus to Chicago, where they parted ways, according to Harding, who was captured within one year.
Arnold appeared to have vanished.
Over the years, investigators followed numerous leads, including hearsay that he had fled to South America, though they found no proof that he was ever there.
Britton became so obsessed with the case, he continued investigating it even when he moved away from Nebraska – and he was later put in touch with Matthew Westover, a deputy United States Marshal in Nebraska, who told CNN he took over the file in 2020.
“One of the guys left the office, and (when you leave) you have to hand over your cases. So one of my buddies gave me this case, as kind of a joke, you know, like ‘you’re never going to find this guy,’” Westover said.
Westover read stories in the Omaha World-Herald by reporter Henry J. Cordes, who covered the case extensively in a series titled “The Mystery of Leslie Arnold.”
Through numerous interviews, Cordes found a more complicated story than some had been led to believe. In the series, he portrayed Arnold as a good student who had a difficult relationship with his parents. The shooting, wrote Cordes, came after a heated argument between Arnold and his mother, who disapproved of his girlfriend.
In prison, Arnold followed the rules and could have qualified for early release, Cordes wrote. He was a dedicated musician and the prison music room where he spent much of his time literally became his window of escape.
Along with the masks, the parolee threw hacksaws over the fence, which Arnold and Harding used to cut through the bars on the window before scaling the fence, according to Cordes.
The more Westover read, the more convinced he became that he was the man to find Arnold.
“From day one, I was hooked,” he said.
How the law closed in on Arnold
By the time the case had landed on Westover’s desk the world had changed.
Arnold may have used classified ads to arrange his escape from prison, but decades on, crimes were no longer solved by poring over old newspapers.
By 2020, DNA testing had become commonplace, so Westover got in the car and drove five hours across the border to find James Arnold, William Leslie Arnold’s young brother.
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 the US Marshal uploaded to an ancestry site. It didn’t return anything useful.
Undeterred, Westover sought out old FBI files and used Britton’s earlier research to try to piece together Arnold’s movements.
As Westover dug deeper, the DNA sample he’d uploaded in 2020 finally hit a match. In 2022, Westover received an alert that James Arnold’s DNA had matched with another sample with enough similarities to be a close relative.
“I noticed right away that I had a match that was way higher than anything I’d had before. It was basically exactly what I was looking for,” said Westover, who immediately reported the finding to Britton.
Westover said he also received an email from the man who had uploaded it. “It said, ‘Hey, I’m trying to find out more information about my father. He was an orphan from Chicago.’”
“So I pass that on to Geoff and I was like, ‘this is the guy. There’s no way this isn’t the guy.”
The man behind the email
The man that sent the email was Arnold’s son, whose identity both Westover and Britton are careful to protect.
Westover said the son didn’t know he’d emailed a US Marshal who’d been tasked with tracking down his father. Westover said the son assumed he was a family member, as he’d used James Arnolds’ name to upload the DNA.
The son said he wanted to know more about his father, who he knew as John Damon, who died in 2010.
Westover said he engaged in very cautious correspondence, so as not to potentially alert Arnold that the law was closing in – if he was, in fact, still alive.
“If he’s this smart, and he was able to elude police for 50 years, who’s to say he didn’t fake his death and all the photos?” Westover asked.
Westover said he was finally convinced that Arnold was dead when local officials confirmed a death certificate – and that’s when Westover knew he had to tell Arnold’s son the details of his father’s darkest secret.
“I felt guilty. I mean, he’s giving me all this information. And here I am holding the key to what he needed,” said Westover.
“And at the same time, I’m also kind of pressed against the clock because he’s telling me that he’s reaching out to all these other family members as well that he doesn’t know.”
Westover said he wanted to be the one to tell him about his father, and he arranged a video call with the man and his wife. “I just wanted to make sure that he wasn’t alone because, I mean, there’s a lot to take on,” he said.
Westover said he made the call from his car, as he sat in his driveway, via a cellphone propped up on the dashboard.
“I showed him who I was… then he asked me what (his father) did to be in prison. So I had to tell him,” he said. “I told him, ‘Well, he was an orphan. He didn’t lie about that, but he killed his parents, that’s why he was an orphan.’”
William Leslie Arnold – aka John Damon – died age 69 and was laid to rest in Australia, thousands of miles from the fortified walls of Nebraska State Penitentiary, where he might otherwise have ended his days.
Now that they know his alias, US officials are piecing 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 in a restaurant, where he met his first wife and became a father to her four children.
Investigators say they then moved to Cincinnati, Miami and Los Angeles before divorcing in 1978. Records show that Arnold moved to New Zealand in the 1990s, then Australia later the same decade, Westover said.
Britton said his family, including his second wife, had no knowledge of his former life.
“My heart goes out to that entire family,” he said.
Westover says in some ways, he’s relieved Arnold is dead – after meeting his family, he would not want to have sought his arrest and deportation to the United States.
Britton feels the same.
“The police officer in me always wanted to arrest him and bring him in. But you know, that wasn’t the outcome,” he said.
“But I gotta tell you, I have spoken to his family several times now. They are an incredible family. And I won’t say much about them out of privacy concerns, but what I will say is this …
“I think ultimately he became the parent who he wanted to be, or the one he wished he had.
“Because from everything I’ve noticed, it seems like he was a good provider and a good father. He raised some pretty great kids.”
Arnold’s son, who asked not to be identified to protect his family’s privacy, declined to be interviewed for this piece, but provided CNN with a statement that reads:
“There’s no warning label on the DNA test kit telling you that you might not like what you find,” he said. “But I don’t regret doing it, and I’m glad I now know the truth about my dad.
“Although it’s shocking to know that his life began with a terrible crime, his legacy is so much more than that.
“I want him to be remembered for being a good father and provider to us, and instilling in me a passion for music, and a drive to always be the best person I can be.”