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DNA Matches Dead Australian to Nebraska Prisoner Who Escaped 56 Years Ago

After his death in 2010 at age 69, John Vincent Damon’s family members would occasionally walk through Tamborine Mountain Cemetery in Queensland, Australia, just to stand at his grave. He left behind a wife and two adult children in Australia, plus three stepdaughters from an earlier marriage in the U.S. Everyone who knew him respected him. His children referred to him as a great father.

But behind the eyes of a family man was the level gaze of a killer. In 1958, Damon was 16-year-old William Leslie Arnold, whose parents denied him use of the family car for a date – so he murdered them. Handed two life sentences, he became a model prisoner at Nebraska State Penitentiary, playing saxophone in the prison band.

Then in 1967, he and fellow prisoner James Harding sawed through the bars on the music room window, using hacksaws obtained from a parolee they contacted via classified ads, who also provided masks that tricked guards conducting headcount. Scaling a twelve-foot fence using tee-shirts to protect themselves from barbed wire, the pair made what the prison warden at the time called one of the “cleanest” escapes he had ever seen.

After they split up in Chicago, Harding was captured within a year. But Arnold assumed the Damon name and married. He and his wife moved to Miami and California, where he divorced and remarried. Arnold then moved to New Zealand in 1978 and finally to Australia, where he finished his career as a salesman, retired and eventually died.

Meanwhile, back in Nebraska, the case remained unsolved until a state Department of Correctional Services (DCS) employee, Geoff Britton, became intrigued in 2003. He continued working on it even after moving to California in 2013 to become Chief of the state Office of Law Enforcement Support.

In 2020, Britton connected with Deputy U.S. Marshal Mathew Westover back in Nebraska about the case. It was Westover who found Arnold’s brother and obtained a DNA sample, which eventually led to “Damon’s” son, through a commercial genealogical database.

Westover said that telling the Damon family the truth about their loving father “was a really hard conversation to have.”

“Their family didn’t know any of this stuff,” he said, “and so it’s hard not to feel bad for them.”

Proving that prisoners need not be defined by their crimes, the son whose DNA led Westover to break the long-cold case said, “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.”  

Sources: KCCI, Omaha World Herald

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