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How DNA identified Australian family man as escaped US fugitive who murdered his parents

Leslie Arnold broke out of the Nebraska Penitentiary in 1967 and carved out a new life under the alias John Damon

By Rebecca Rosenberg | Fox News

New DNA evidence has revealed that a Nebraska teenager, who fatally shot his parents in the 1950s then escaped from prison, lived out his life in Australia as a successful businessman, devoted husband and doting father whose family only learned of his dark past after his death.

Leslie Arnold, then 16, killed his parents after a dispute over the use of the family car, then buried their bodies in the backyard of their Omaha home. He attended school for more than a week as though nothing had happened.

However, suspicions soon mounted, and he confessed to the grisly double murder before being sentenced to life in prison.

Less than a decade later, he broke out of the Nebraska State Penitentiary. With baffled law enforcement officials on his trail, he surreptitiously carved out a new life as John Damon.

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A family portrait of the Arnolds and William Leslie Arnold's booking photo for his parent's murder.

Leslie Arnold, right, was convicted of murdering his mother and father, Opal and Bill Arnold, in Omaha, Nebraska. The parents are pictured with their youngest son, James Arnold. (U.S. Marshals/Nebraska State Penitentiary)

In 2022, more than a decade after his death, his son submitted his DNA to a public database and learned the staggering truth.

“It was just absolutely shocking,” said Arnold’s son, who asked Fox News Digital to withhold his name. “It still doesn’t feel real.”

The murders

After Arnold’s mother, Opal Arnold, rescinded an offer to let him take his girlfriend, Crystal, in the family’s new Mercury sedan to a drive-in movie, he became enraged. 

Tensions had been simmering over his relationship with the girl who his mother called “White trash,” said Matthew Westover, the deputy U.S. marshal who cracked the case more than 50 years after Arnold’s daring prison escape.

A white home with a green lawn.

A recent photo of the home in Omaha, Nebraska, where Leslie Arnold fatally shot his parents, Opal and Bill Arnold. (Google Maps)

Arnold retrieved a rifle from his parents’ room on Sept 27, 1958, and confronted his mother. “What are you going to do, shoot me?” she laughed.

The teenager answered with six pulls of the trigger.

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Minutes later his dad, Bill Arnold, walked in with bags of groceries tucked under his arms. The two struggled, and Arnold gunned him down.

Westover said the mother had favored her youngest son, James, then 13, and was often severe with Arnold. There were also reports that she suffered from mental illness. 

After the bloodbath, Arnold took his girlfriend to the movies, where they watched the horror flick “The Undead.” 

Booking photo of William Leslie Arnold face first and in profile.

Leslie Arnold’s booking photo after he was sentenced to life in prison at the Nebraska State Penitentiary. (Nebraska State Penitentiary)

He later left his brother at a neighbor’s house, claiming his parents had to go on an emergency trip to help his grandparents. 

The next night, Arnold buried his parents’ bodies in a shallow grave under a lilac bush in the dead of night. However, the horror soon came to light when his grandparents showed up looking for Opal and Bill, and he confessed to their murders.

Arnold, a talented saxophonist and accomplished student, was known as a respectable child in his rural Midwestern town, which made the heinous killings all the more shocking among locals.

Before Arnold pleaded guilty, he sent a letter of apology to his neighbor. “[My parents] were wonderful people. This I learned too late, and I am sorry,” he wrote, according to the Omaha World-Herald. “How I ever went so wrong, I’ll never know.”

The escape

After serving just eight years behind bars, Arnold and fellow inmate James Harding hatched a scheme to break out with the help of a recent parolee who tossed saw blades and rubber masks into the prison yard.

The men sawed off the bars of a window in the facility’s music room then used chewing gum to hold them in place until they made a run for it. They attached the rubber masks to their pillows to fool prison guards.

William Leslie Arnold wearing a red shirt.

An undated photo of Leslie Arnold when he was living in Australia as John Damon. (U.S. Marshals)

On July 14, 1967, the pair slipped through the window and scaled a 12-foot, barbed wire fence. 

They were halfway to Chicago before they were discovered missing, said Geoff Britton, a retired criminal investigator with the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services, who spent years investigating the case.

Freedom

Arnold soon settled in Chicago and married a divorcee with four daughters less than six months after his escape. The fugitive obtained phony identity papers, assumed the name of John Damon and became a salesman. 

The family relocated to Cincinnati and then to Miami to evade detection, Westover said. 

However, the marriage soon faltered, and Arnold cut off all ties with his stepdaughters after his divorce.

William Leslie Arnold's booking photos.

Age progression photos of Leslie Arnold printed on a Wanted Poster. (U.S. Marshals)

He met his second wife in Los Angeles, a foreign exchange student, with whom he had a son and daughter. 

The family moved to New Zealand in 1992 before settling in Australia in 1997. Arnold earned a respectable living and spared no expense for his children’s education, his son remarked.

“He was almost overly supportive,” he said. “He was so passionate and keen for my sister and I to have the best experiences, and the best opportunities possible.”

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Although Arnold was a skilled saxophonist, his son never heard him play an instrument. He told his family he was an orphan from Chicago and maintained a small circle of friends. “Everything he told us was always fragments of the truth,” recalled his son. 

Arnold died on Aug. 6, 2010, after battling a clotting condition for several years.

The investigation 

Britton obsessively pursued Arnold’s case from 2004 until 2013 when he left his department.

Despite his diligence, Britton’s probe yielded few results. His target’s escape occurred five years before Britton was born. “[Arnold] had a substantial head start,” Britton quipped.

He obtained DNA from Arnold’s brother around 2007 and submitted the profile to various criminal databases, but there were no hits to relatives. Public databases like 23andMe and Ancestry.com had not yet become popular.

Portraits of Geoff Britton and Matthew Westover.

Geoff Britton, retired criminal investigator with the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services, and Matthew Westover, deputy U.S. marshal. Britton and Westover joined forces to crack the Leslie Arnold case. (Courtesy of Geoff Britton and Matthew Westover)

The case landed on Westover’s desk in 2020. “It was kind of like a joke,” he said. “Here’s a cold case that’s never going to get solved. But the U.S. marshals, we don’t give up.”

Westover decided to upload a sample of James Arnold’s DNA, with his permission, to a public database in late 2020. However, there were no close matches.

That changed in August 2022 when Westover got a message that James’ DNA matched a nephew. It was Leslie Arnold’s son.

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“I couldn’t believe it. [The son] said his dad was an orphan from Chicago,” Westover recalled. They exchanged several messages before they met over Zoom and Westover came clean. He told Arnold’s son he was a U.S. marshal looking for his father, who was a fugitive.

“I said, ‘Well, he actually was an orphan. Your dad wasn’t lying about that. He was an orphan because he killed his parents,’” Westover told him. “It was pretty tough at that point. He was just blown away.”

Leslie Arnold wanted poster next to a photo of his grave marker.

Leslie Arnold’s Wanted Poster next to a photo of his grave with the name John Damon taken when U.S. Deputy Marshal Matthew Westover visited Australia. (U.S. Marshals)

Westover traveled to Australia to try to obtain a sample of Arnold’s DNA and took a picture of his grave.

Britton said this case has transformed his perspective on rehabilitation. “I am not minimizing his crime, but the view I once had of him has now changed,” he said. 

Coping with the truth

Arnold’s son, who had his first child four months ago, has had nearly a year to process the stunning revelations about his father.

“I don’t want to sugarcoat this story,” he said. “He was a great father, and I feel so fortunate about the life I’ve had, but I know other people suffered because of his actions.”

His uncle’s childhood was shattered after he abruptly lost both his parents and was raised by relatives he barely knew.

Leslie Arnold smiles slightly in a passport photo.

A 2007 passport photo of Leslie Arnold, who was living under the alias John Damon in Australia. (U.S. Marshals)

“I think about the situation almost every day,” James Arnold told the Omaha-Herald in 2017, adding that he spent decades crippled by shame, fear and guilt.

Arnold’s son said he believes his father, whom he described as very intelligent and driven, felt remorse for what he’d done and spent his life looking over his shoulder.

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After Arnold’s death, his son found his bible. “There were lots of highlighted lines about sin, guilt and forgiveness,” he said. “I think it weighed on his mind for the rest of his life.”

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