By Stephen Lemons
By Weston Phippen
By New Times Staff
By Stephen Lemons
By Kathleen Vanesian
By Stephen Lemons
By New Times Staff
By Stephen Lemons
A few weeks ago, an elderly gentleman named Viva Leroy Nash wrote to New Times about the death penalty.
"Now that our stubborn President Bush is about to leave office," Nash wrote in a shaky hand, "it appears that our overly tenacious state prosecutors won't be so brazen as to actually push Congress around in order to demonstrate their egregious power."
He went on, "There are obviously many weird people in our world, with twisted minds, that have a tendency to not only kill helpless people, but often do it in a despicable manner. Often, psychos turn into insane serial killers who should be promptly eliminated, not tortured to suicide, as I've seen happen.
"Genuine serial killers should be eliminated by execution quickly, but not by prison guards or their contemporaries. Same for adults or homos who kill children. Or Mormons who habitually force children into marriage."
Nash wasn't specific on how these murderers (and Mormons) might be "eliminated," though he said that "no elected person or any of his cohorts should have that power or authority. Especially if he or she is a religious nut and refuses to listen to the common sense of the majority, who aren't really in support of the death penalty from what I've read."
(To the contrary, a Gallup poll last month said 64 percent of Americans favor execution in special circumstances. However, that's down from two decades ago, when about 75 percent of those polled said they were pro-death penalty.)
Leroy Nash framed his thoughts about capital punishment from a unique perspective and location.
At 93 years old, he is the oldest person currently on death row in the United States.
Nash resides inside the Browning Unit at the Arizona State Prison Complex-Eyman, a "super-max" facility in Florence.
Nash's attorneys long have claimed that senility and serious mental illness have morphed him into a "fossil" legally incompetent to be executed.
But Nash's many missives to this paper, in which he has answered questions carefully and usually cogently, suggest otherwise.
For example, he wrote last May in response to a question about any remorse he might have:
"I have and do regret many negative instances or happenings in my life, instances when I committed a negative wrongfully, and later really regretted it at length. But it is far better that one, if he can't turn it into a positive, do what he can to push it out of his memory, so as to eliminate as much damage as possible. I do not like to hurt people!"
Maybe he doesn't, but he sure has.
Nash has been convicted of murdering two people, one in Utah in 1977, the other at the Moon Valley Coin and Stamp store in 1982. He also tried to kill a Connecticut police officer in 1947.
Nash gives profound meaning to the phrase "career criminal."
But his first murder conviction had to wait until 1977 — a few years after he'd been paroled after serving 25 years for the attempted cop-murder. It was then that the 67-year-old outlaw was convicted of shooting to death a Salt Lake City mail carrier.
The victim had happened to enter a jewelry store Nash and a partner were robbing.
Five years after that, Nash walked away from a work detail outside the walls of the Utah State Prison. How he got trusty status while serving two life sentences, and after three escapes from other prisons, is uncertain.
Nash killed again just three weeks after escaping from Utah. How he executed 23-year-old coin store employee West on November 3, 1982, defines that "despicable manner" he damned (referring to others) in his recent letter to this paper.
Court documents and the woman whose life miraculously was spared during the Phoenix robbery-murder describe in chilling detail how Nash shot West three times, twice after the younger man begged for mercy.
Store owner Susan McCullough recently spoke to New Times, the first time she'd discussed the murder publicly since testifying before Nash was sentenced on June 27, 1983.
"The gun was pointed right at me, and I knew I was going to die," the diminutive Gilbert grandmother said, hands trembling.
"This was after Mr. Nash shot Greg the first time. I was looking at the barrel of the gun and, for some reason, I flashed on my daughter, who was around 9 at the time.
"He pulled the trigger, but it didn't fire, and I dropped down under the table. I still don't understand why Nash didn't come around and kill me.
"Greg was on the floor there bleeding. He was saying, 'Please, God. Please, God, don't shoot me.' I was trying to stay still. Then Nash fired into Greg twice more. I watched him die. He was like a brother to me and to my husband."
That Leroy Nash is the subject of a story at this late date is astonishing.
In 2005, fellow death row inmate Richard Rossi wrote an article for a criminology journal titled, "Too Old to Kill," about the specter of Nash's possible execution.
Rossi described how, as a clerk at the prison library, he had read some of Nash's numerous self-composed legal pleadings.
"I always wondered how his case seemed to linger in the courts and lacked any progress," Rossi wrote, "when numerous other men who arrived here years later were already executed as their appeals were exhausted."
Sent to death row in 1984 after his conviction for murdering a Phoenix man over the price of a typewriter, Rossi said he'd come to realize that "behind the scenes, a concentrated effort was secretly under way to delay the exhaustion of this octogenarian's appeals. Could you imagine what a spectacle and horror show it would be for the state of Arizona to execute the oldest person on death row in America?"
From Rossi's point of view, "sooner or later, the execution of older prisoners will reveal the cruel and unusual punishment the death penalty is, along with the fact that it was purely senseless murder."
Of the 23 Arizona inmates put to death since the state again began to execute killers in 1992 after a hiatus of nearly three decades, eight were sentenced to the row after Nash.
However, seven of the 119 men and two women on Arizona's death row have resided there even longer than Nash, including the longest in tenure, Joe C. Smith, there since 1977.
Leroy Nash is, by far, the oldest.
By way of comparison, Leroy Nash has spent well more than 67 years of his life behind bars.
As for killer-turned-writer Richard Rossi, he died of natural causes in May 2006 at the age of 58.
But Nash and his endless case live on and on and on.
It's not that Nash's attorneys ever have argued for his innocence, primarily because he was guilty as sin in the coin shop killing.
"I feel like a dirty skunk," Nash told a Phoenix police detective shortly after he murdered Greg West. "This is worse than terrible. It's horrible. I deserve to be executed . . . I'm old and useless. They ought to put people to sleep like dogs. God, I hated to see him die."
Since his conviction and death sentence, Nash and his myriad attorneys continually have lost appeals in state and federal courtrooms.
Their main point over the years has been how poorly trial attorney Arthur Hazelton Jr. prepared and performed on Nash's behalf back in 1983.
It doesn't matter to them that even Clarence Darrow probably couldn't have kept Leroy Nash off death row under the circumstances — it was Hazelton's job to have tried.
Court records do strongly suggest that Hazelton did little to even try to win a life sentence by presenting mitigating evidence: mental illness, extreme childhood issues.
More recently, the thrust of Nash's arguments has shifted to his alleged incompetence to be executed.
The U.S. Supreme Court has said it is improper for states to execute the mentally retarded and also those inmates who can't appreciate the meaning or purpose of their impending execution and lack the capacity to make rational decisions about pursuing post-conviction appeals.
But the high court never has halted an execution strictly because of a condemned inmate's advanced age. Leroy Nash is asking the federal courts to consider the constitutionality of executing elderly inmates with dementia or, like him, with other serious age-related maladies.
Nash's legal team — which currently includes Phoenix attorney Tom Phalen and a lawyer from the federal Public Defender's Capital Habeas Unit — claims he is unfit to be executed.
Oral argument is slated for December 9 at the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.
Officially, the state of Arizona still wants to put Leroy Nash to death.
But the odds of Nash actually ever being executed seem to be less than slim.
"We are not opposed to moving forward with the execution of someone who is on death row and happens to be elderly," explains Kent Cattani, chief counsel of the capital litigation section at the Arizona Attorney General's Office.
"But by the time the Ninth Circuit decides whether Mr. Nash is competent to be executed or not, he may actually be incompetent. That's life, isn't it?"
So to speak.
These days, it seems a given that Leroy Nash is destined to die of old age (will he make it to 100?) rather than by a fatal injection of state-administered poison.
That end to a violent, crime-ridden life would suit his attorney just fine.
"I'm obviously not excusing the murders he committed, as they were horribly tragic," says Tom Phalen, who continues to toil for Nash at a price to taxpayers of $170 an hour — just one of many expenses that come with keeping someone on death row.
"But I also do have compassionate concern for this doddering old man, who can't hear, can't see, can't walk, and is very, very loony. Sometimes, he goes way off into his delusional world when he's talking to me. He also has a fixed set of false beliefs about the procedural history of his case, and he is impervious to persuasion to the contrary. Everyone knows this is a waste of time."
Nash surely has flung some wacky legal theories at the courts over the years, including a pleading in the 1980s claiming that Arizona "discriminates against indigent out-of-state Caucasians" accused of committing crimes.
For the record, Nash himself is an out-of-state Caucasian.
"He's had a broken hip, a massive heart attack, and many other medical issues," Phalen continues. "Leroy would be a PR nightmare of the first order for the state of Arizona if they actually strapped him on the gurney and stuck a needle in him."
To Phalen, Nash now is incapable of inflicting any more violence, even if authorities were to wheel the old fellow out of prison and send him on his way.
Suffice it to say, that's not about to happen in Leroy Nash's lifetime.
Viva Leroy Nash was born in Utah in 1915, when the United States was still two years from sending soldiers to Europe to fight in World War I.
He writes that his mother gave him the ironic first name of Viva — it's a form of the verb "to live" in Spanish — after an ancestor.
Nash's accounts of his life have varied over time.
He has said his father, who owned a car-repair shop, often beat him as a child, tied him to a tree on occasion, and that his mother was just as violent.
In 1988, Nash responded to New Times for a story about the death penalty in Arizona with an hour-long audiotape.
Sounding like a grizzled old coot from a Western movie, Nash claimed to love "almost everybody. I'm a great-grandfather. I have three granddaughters who are married, and they're so beautiful they look like they belong on the cover of Playboy. I don't tell anybody who they are or where they live. I got into trouble — they didn't."
Earlier, he had told a probation officer that none of his three siblings "had any bad illegal habits. I'm the black sheep, and nobody seems to know why. I do not seem to be able to function in normal society."
Nash described himself in one letter as a rough-and-tumble country kid who grew up on Salt Lake City's then-rural south side.
Earliest available records show that he was caught stealing potato chips at the age of 7, and got busted in his early teens for lifting a cornet from a high school.
The seventh-grade dropout with bright-blue eyes and prematurely white hair was a wild child who roamed outside of Utah as soon as he could.
By the time Nash was 17, he already had been sentenced to a year and a day at an industrial school for juveniles in Ohio after his conviction in Illinois for transporting stolen cars.
He escaped from the school, was caught, and got sentenced to 30 months at the adult U.S. Penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas.
Paroled in 1934, Nash fathered a son with his then-wife Beth. (The son, who apparently was Nash's only child, died in 1989.)
Nash immediately resumed a life of crime, committing robberies in Utah, Georgia, Alabama, and parts unknown.
Authorities returned him to prison in 1936 after his arrest in a bungled Salt Lake City armed robbery with younger brother Lewis.
After finishing that prison stint, Nash again hit the road, committing an untold number of crimes until Mobile, Alabama police arrested him in late 1946 after a lucrative check-kiting scheme came to light.
He again escaped from jail and claims to have fled to Mexico with a large sum of money he stole from a Wall Street bond courier.
After returning to the States in 1947, Nash quickly found new trouble in Connecticut.
Yellowed police reports show that employees at a hat store in Danbury came upon a black satchel that Nash, a customer, had left behind. They called police after finding road maps, blank checks, ammunition, and a gun in the satchel.
A state police captain soon pulled Nash over, and was taking him to the station for questioning when the 32-year-old pulled a loaded revolver out of a pants pocket.
He shot the officer twice, but the cop survived.
Nash fled and found his way to Dallas, where he was arrested within days.
Ever cunning, Nash almost succeeded in smuggling a little two-shot Derringer into jail, as well as two hacksaw blades sewn into a belt.
He confessed to shooting the state cop, and was convicted of attempted murder.
A judge sentenced Nash to 25 to 30 years in the Connecticut State Prison, of which he served 25 years.
Intelligent and well read, Nash became a consummate jailhouse lawyer during that extended prison stay.
He frequently filed legal pleadings, and in the early 1960s, won certain procedural safeguards for inmates in a ruling that ended one step short of the U.S. Supreme Court (though he lost his own appeal for redress).
Freed in the early 1970s, Nash predictably returned to the only life he'd really ever known — robberies, burglaries, and, if it happened to come up, murder.
At the age of 63, in May 1977, he and an accomplice targeted a jewelry store in downtown Salt Lake City.
They'd tied up an employee and were loading merchandise into bags when a mail carrier unluckily walked in. Nash shot him to death.
Police nabbed the killer after someone jotted down the getaway car's license plate number.
Nash pleaded guilty, and a Utah judge sentenced him to two life terms for the robbery-murder.
A prison psychologist said of Nash in March 1978, "While he can at times be quite convincing and manipulative, he more generally fails to maintain good interpersonal relations and . . . is not a good candidate for psychotherapy or counseling."
The psychologist added a cautionary note: "He should be considered a high escape risk and is also likely to try and manipulate himself out of the institution."
Someone should have listened.
In October 1982, the 67-year-old escaped from custody while working as a trusty on a prison forestry crew.
It's uncertain how Nash got to Phoenix within days after fleeing Utah, but he did — and with a plan.
He checked into a motel on East Van Buren Street, scanned the newspaper classifieds, and phoned a Phoenix man who had a blue-steel .357 Magnum for sale.
Nash went to the gun seller's apartment after expressing interest in buying the weapon.
He was carrying a handful of bullets in his pocket.
Nash quickly loaded the gun inside the apartment when the other man went to find a cleaning kit, held the guy up, and fled.
He bided his time for the next several days, securing a senior citizen's bus pass in Phoenix, and scoping out potential locations for his next heist.
The day after Nash murdered Greg West, police found paperwork inside his motel room with the name of and directions to the Moon Valley Coin and Stamp shop.
Nash reminded himself in a note left in his motel room not to allow the coin shop employee to "put hands in vault or on any lock near his desk in back room."
He may have targeted the mom-and-pop store on West Thunderbird because of its proximity to busy Interstate 17, half a mile to the west.
An hour or so later, he stole a white Ford van from a Phoenix delivery service company and headed to 1930 West Thunderbird Avenue.
He parked a few yards from the coin shop, kept the motor running, and walked with purpose toward the front door.
He was about one minute away from committing another murder and five minutes away from losing his freedom for the last time.
Leroy Nash had been on the loose for 20 days.
These days, Susan McCullough is a doting grandmother, a deeply spiritual woman who lives in Gilbert with her husband of 40 years, Garry.
In November 1982, she was a 32-year-old mother of a 9-year-old daughter who spent her weekdays at the coin shop that she owned with Garry.
She did the books at the store, and employee Greg West provided customer service.
The McCulloughs had hired West more than a year earlier after, Susan says, he kept bugging them for a job.
West was a good-natured Phoenix native with a chubby face and a big head of hair who looked younger than his 23 years.
West's marriage was just nine months old (they had wed on Valentine's Day) and going strong.
The couple bought a cute home in north Phoenix — they had a dog and a parrot — and he seemed to truly enjoy his job at the coin shop and his life, in general.
"He and Cindy were so sweet together," Susan McCullough says. "She was so self-assured, and he was a little shy."
Susan McCullough says she and Greg West sometimes discussed spiritual matters at work, especially after he'd embraced Christianity about six months before his death.
"Greg loved to joke about things, but he also had this mature and serious side," McCullough says. "He was very much into reading and thinking about the meaning of life and what happens after we leave this Earth."
McCullough says she had a migraine headache on that November morning in 1982, but she went to work anyway after dropping off her daughter at school.
West already was on the job, setting up the display cases for the day ahead, cheerful as usual.
Minutes after West unlocked the front door at 10 a.m., an elderly man came in.
West was sitting in a chair on the other side of the counter, and McCullough took note from her desk a few feet away when the customer expressed an interest in buying some gold and silver.
"I'll take it all," the man said.
"You can have it all," West replied, to the best of McCullough's recollection.
This is how Leroy Nash described what happened next, in a legal document he composed from prison in 1984:
"The conversation ended with Nash requesting the valuables in a display case and drawing a gun. Next, a gunfight occurred with Nash firing 3 shots and West firing at least one.
"There is some discrepancy about who discharged the weapon first. Whatever the matter, West reached for a gun at approximately the same time and fired the weapon. Two more shots were then fired by Nash. West subsequently died. Nash shot West because West drew a gun on him."
(Nash put it more colloquially in a recent letter to New Times: "Poor guy bushwhacked me and an unfortunate thing happened. Wish it hadn't happened.")
Then and now, Susan McCullough's account is vastly different from Nash's.
She tells New Times that Nash shot West in the chest without notice right after saying he'd take it all:
"As Greg was falling off his chair after Nash shot him, he grabbed for the little gun he had below the counter, and shot it once. For the rest of my life, I'll feel that he was trying to save me. But the bullet just went up in the air.
"We always had told him that if someone holds him up, just give them what they want without a fuss. Greg would have done that if Nash had let him. But he just had to kill him."
McCullough was just a few feet away when Leroy Nash shot the helpless and prone West twice more. She had slipped under the counter when that second bullet (the one apparently meant for her) failed to discharge.
Nash soon stuffed about $600 in cash and merchandise into a bag and made his getaway.
McCullough waited a bit after she heard the door close, then crawled over to West, who was unconscious and bleeding profusely.
"He was so pale and so hurt," she says.
Next door to the coin shop, bicycle store owner Jack Owen had heard the shots and screams.
Though only 43, Owen had a serious heart condition that would end his own life just six years later.
But he had promised Susan McCullough he'd come to her aid if something happened next door, and he did — a true hero.
Owen grabbed his own pistol and ran out of his shop just as Nash was exiting the coin shop.
"Jack tackled that a-hole," says his widow, Joanne, of the extraordinary moment.
"They literally came face to face and got entangled. Jack pinned Nash face down until this Explorer scout [Douglas Lee Clark], came by and helped hold him down. Jack ran back in and called the police. He didn't realize he'd been shot until later."
Susan McCullough heard another gunshot outside and figured the killer was firing at more people. Actually, Jack Owen's weapon had discharged by accident and he'd shot himself in the hand, but he wasn't seriously injured.
McCullough summoned the courage to peek outside.
"Greg was fading, and I just had to get [West's wife] Cindy, who was two doors down," she says. "My legs were like rubber. Everything was moving slow for me. Nash was still at the scene, lots of commotion going on out front — the cops hadn't arrived yet."
Cindy West ran over to the coin shop with McCullough. She tried to stick the corner of a paperback into her husband's mouth to keep him from swallowing his tongue.
The situation was dire.
"I wanted to go in the ambulance with Greg," McCullough says, but she was told she'd have to wait to be interviewed by a detective.
Greg West died within minutes, as Phoenix police prepared to interrogate his killer.
Leroy Nash had already spent a lifetime of dancing around with police investigators after committing crimes.
In the West killing, he at first gave them a wrong name, saying he was Paul Henderson and never had been in trouble with the law before. He said he had no idea who owned the van still running in the parking lot.
But he confessed within a few hours, telling Detective Jim Thomas he felt sorry "for that poor bastard. He shot at me. I wish he would have killed me."
Gregg Thurston, then a deputy county attorney, came by the station and heard Nash say, "I went up to rob the place to get some money to survive. The guy pulled a gun on me and shot at me. I didn't mean to kill him. I guess I was shook up. Everything went so fast."
A grand jury indicted Nash on murder, robbery, and other charges.
Greg West was buried in the West Valley after a beautiful and packed church service. Susan McCullough's husband, Garry, one of the pallbearers, collapsed with grief at the hearse, though he was able to carry on with his grim task.
Prosecutor Thurston later announced his intention to seek the death penalty against Leroy Nash.
"Nash wanted to plead guilty to all charges in return for life," recalls Thurston, who now is in private practice. "But I wouldn't have felt good if he'd escaped again and killed someone else. I remember him quite well. His self-defense argument was ridiculous.
"I personally never cared if he got executed or not, as long as he never got to hurt another person. If they want to do away with the death penalty, fine. But my job was to try to get a conviction and a death-penalty sentence in this case, and I got it."
Thurston got it after Nash's attorney, Hazelton, unusually agreed to submit the case to Superior Court Judge Rufus Coulter Jr. on the sole basis of the grand-jury testimony.
On May 25, 1983, the judge convicted Nash of all charges and scheduled sentencing for a month later.
These days, the "sentencing phase" is what defense attorneys representing the clearly guilty emphasize, trying to find reasons why their clients shouldn't be sent to death row.
Defense attorney Hazelton, who now works for the Maricopa County Attorney's Office, argued in one pleading how Thurston's position that West had "begged for his life and [Nash] shot him unnecessarily" was an exaggeration.
"There was very little time for the victim to experience the stress, fear, and mental pain that preceded the death," Hazelton wrote, an absurd stretch of the facts.
A clinical psychologist hired by the defense wrote, "Nash has regular conversations in his own spirit world. He does not function according to our mode of behavior, but rather lives by natural laws."
The psychologist, Dr. Donald Tatro, concluded that Nash suffered from a paranoid disorder and was an "antisocial person whose behavior goes largely unchecked by considerations of conscience . . . a dangerous person who, in my opinion, is incapable of living successfully outside of institutional walls."
Nash told Dr. Tatro, "When I am broke and hungry, I am related to a tiger in a jungle, and when I go hunting, I don't think anyone has the right to stop me, or I will test them just like a tiger would test another animal."
Greg West apparently had been that other "animal" and had gotten his comeuppance with three shots to the chest.
At Nash's sentencing hearing, Susan McCullough told Judge Coulter what had happened at the shop.
By that time, about seven months after the fact, she was having repeated nightmares.
McCullough also had become claustrophobic — she still is — and was trying to cope with the loss of her friend and employee.
She and Garry shuttered their coin shop after the murder, and never reopened it.
"I would wake up screaming at the top of my lungs, and it would scare my husband about half to death," she tells New Times. "It was classic. Someone was trying to murder me in my dreams. I didn't need an expert to tell me what was going on.
"When I went to court that day, I looked right at Nash, and he stared back at me. I was shaking through the whole thing. But I told the judge exactly what had happened."
Surprising no one, Coulter ordered Nash to death row.
Leroy Nash and his appellate attorney soon began intense efforts to win a new trial or a re-sentencing.
None of the angles worked.
But Nash would become storied in penal circles, mainly because he had reached death row already a senior citizen and got older and older.
In October 2005, the journal The New Criminologist published a piece about Nash that praised him as "a living legend."
The story quoted infamous British prisoner Charles Bronson as calling Nash "an example to us all. A total, heroic superstar, I love the guy. Even if they gas him, inject him, or fry him, they can't kill the man."
The journal spoke fondly of Nash's schoolboy gang back in Utah in the 1920s, claiming its members had robbed and thieved "so their impoverished mothers and sisters wouldn't have to turn to prostitution . . . He is most certainly not one of those spineless thugs who gun down people for a handful of loose change or a mobile phone."
No, Nash is a fellow who gunned people down for a handful of coins or jewels and maybe a few bucks.
The writer's version of Greg West's cold-blooded murder was more fantastic even than Nash's own self-serving account:
"The desk clerk bravely opened fire, and in the ensuing gun battle, Nash shot the man, killing him."
As years passed, Leroy Nash added many pen pals to the long list of people intrigued by him and his never-ending story.
The list includes an Arizona State University professor who calls Nash his friend, numerous females, and news reporters.
Meanwhile, life on the outside has gone on for those directly touched by Nash's malevolence.
Cindy West remarried, had two sons — now teenagers — and moved out of the Valley, fearing that if Nash escaped yet again, he would track her down and kill her, too.
Jack Owen, the Good Samaritan with the bum heart who kept Leroy Nash from fleeing in the van right after murdering Greg West, died in 1988 while riding his bicycle.
As for Susan McCullough, who so nearly became a murder victim herself, well, she deserves the last word in this story, not Viva Leroy Nash.
"To be spared like I was, I just knew and know that God has something special in store for me," she says, "but I still haven't figured out exactly what that is. You don't ever have closure until you're gone. There's no getting set free."
McCullough says she honestly hasn't given much thought to whether Nash should have been executed long ago.
"I'm not a big fan of the death penalty, but if it's the law, it's the law," she says. "I just never want him to get out of custody, even if he's 100 years old. I know he'd try to find a way to hurt someone — he just would."
McCullough pauses for a moment to consider a final thought, folds her hands on the kitchen table and goes on, her voice strong now.
"This guy hurt so many people, besides being a murderer of an innocent kid [West]," she says. "What happened just spread out like a tentacle or a spider web of hurt. You know, there is good and evil in this world."
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