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Deputy U.S. Marshal Matthew Westover took it the case in August 2020 "basically as a joke." But it piqued his interest. Image Credit: Pexels

Unaware of their father's secret, the children of John Vincent Damon knew him as a successful businessman and a loving parent - a quiet, reserved loner who once told his daughter that he ached to reveal so much more about his life.

He never did. Damon died in 2010 in his adopted homeland of Australia, taking his secret to the grave.

Last week, the U.S. Marshals Service resurrected it, announcing that investigators had discovered that Damon wasn't really Damon at all, but William Leslie Arnold, a prisoner who'd escaped the Nebraska State Penitentiary in 1967 while serving a double life sentence for murdering his parents when he was 16. For more than a half-century, Arnold eluded authorities, including for over a decade after his death, the Marshals said in a news release. As Damon, he built a new life, marrying twice, fathering two children and eventually moving halfway around the world to Australia, where he became a successful salesman. He died in 2010 at the age of 67.

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But after investigators struck out on finding Arnold for more than 50 years, a deputy U.S. Marshal in Omaha, armed with DNA from Arnold's brother, turned to genetic genealogy. The relatively new technology was made famous in 2018 when it was used to find and arrest Joseph James DeAngelo Jr., dubbed the Golden State Killer.

Matthew Westover, the deputy U.S. Marshal who inherited the cold case in 2020, didn't immediately get any useful hits on people possibly related to Arnold. And so he waited, hoping one of Arnold's descendants would get curious about their ancestry, submit their DNA to a public genealogy database and pop up on his radar.

Two life sentences

In 1958, at the age of 16, Arnold shot his parents in their dining room because they'd refused to let him take a girl to the drive-in, the Omaha World-Herald reported. After burying them in the backyard, he lived in his family home for the next two weeks as if nothing had happened, attending school, going to church and even opening his father's business, staving off questions by telling people his parents had left town to visit his grandparents, Westover said.

Then, his charade collapsed when the grandparents came to town looking for Arnold's mother and father, he added. When police eventually came to the house, Arnold pointed out to officers where he had buried his parents, and they soon dug up the bodies, according to the World-Herald. The following year, he pleaded guilty to the murders and was given two life sentences, the U.S. Marshals said in the release.

For the next eight years, Arnold was a "model prisoner," according to the release. But on July 14, 1967, he and another inmate escaped, fleeing to Chicago, where they went their separate ways. While the other fugitive was captured, Arnold eluded the manhunt. And he continued to do so as days turned to weeks, months and then years. The FBI worked the case into the 1990s before handing it back to Nebraska prison officials, who eventually relayed it to the U.S. Marshals.

An orphan from Chicago

The case stalled and was passed down as people retired or left for other jobs. Westover, who joined the Marshals in 2015, took it over in August 2020 "basically as a joke." But it piqued his interest.

Westover started Googling and came across the World-Herald's 2017 series about the Arnold case. He spent the next hour devouring it and then poring over fringe theories internet sleuths had cooked up about Arnold's whereabouts.

"I just kind of became hooked," he said.

Identifying genetic genealogy as the most promising investigative tool, Westover and another deputy traveled to Missouri to collect a DNA sample from Arnold's brother and got his permission to submit it to a genetic genealogy service. Westover did that in late 2020, making himself the point of contact for anyone seeking more information about the brother's DNA. There were immediate hits, but they were known relatives that Westover had investigated already.

And so he waited while pursuing other leads, none of which panned out.

Then, on Aug. 9, 2022, he received an update. There was a new hit.

Westover checked it out and said he was ecstatic. Judging by how much DNA this person shared with Arnold, Westover figured he had found Arnold's son. The person who had uploaded his DNA into the registry also sent messages to Westover, thinking he was the source of the DNA and possible a relative. The man told Westover he was trying to find out more about his father, who was an orphan originally from Chicago.

One word stuck out: orphan.

"I was like, 'Game, set, match.' I knew 100 percent this was going to be our guy," Westover said.

Secret revealed

Over the next couple of weeks, Westover, who still hadn't revealed himself as a law enforcement officer, played coy. He wanted to confirm that the beloved father known as John Damon was, in fact, Arnold. He also wanted to secure proof that Arnold was dead before revealing himself as a U.S. Marshal and possibly giving Arnold a chance to bolt.

Eventually, Westover got official records confirming that Damon was dead. On Aug. 24, Westover got on a video call with Arnold's son and his wife to break the news: He was a federal law enforcement officer hunting his father, who had murdered his parents and spent more than 40 years on the lam.

The son took it hard.

"It was difficult for me as well just seeing the pure emotion and seeing this guy be told basically his dad is a murderer that escaped prison," Westover said. "I can't imagine how tough that would have been."

Westover learned that Arnold became Damon almost immediately after his escape. As Damon, he married a single mother with four daughters in Chicago. The couple eventually became estranged. Damon moved to California, divorced his wife, remarried and had two children before moving abroad with his new family in the early 1990s, first to New Zealand and then to Australia.

Over the next 15 years or so, Arnold built a new life as Damon. He became a successful salesman, traveling often for work. He raised his two children and stayed with his second wife until he died.

In March, Westover flew to Australia to meet with Arnold's son. He visited Damon's grave in Queensland, where he took a photograph of the headstone, bookending it with his U.S. Marshal's badge on one side and Arnold's wanted poster on the other.

He also got an official sample of the son's DNA, which, when compared to Arnold's brother's, would prove that Damon was Arnold.

With that, Westover closed the case.