A Valley Woman Who Nearly Died at the Hands of the Oldest Death-Row Inmate in the U.S. Believes His Maker's Dealing with Him Harshly
For the phrase "natural causes" to have been in the same headline as the name Viva Leroy Nash is purely ironic.
Nash, who died Friday, February 12, at age 94 — he was the oldest person on death row in the United States — escaped legal execution by the state of Arizona for more than a quarter of a century.
Instead, he died of what corrections officials said were "natural causes," which sounds like a serene departure from this life — like going to sleep and just not awakening.
Viva Leroy Nash
Nash, with whom New Times corresponded on and off for two decades ("Between the Devil and the D.O.C.," Paul Rubin, December 2, 2008), was an expert at keeping others from dying so benignly:
NBA Preseason Basketball: Phoenix Suns v. Utah Jazz
TicketsWed., Oct. 5, 7:00pm
Arizona Coyotes vs. San Jose Sharks
TicketsFri., Oct. 7, 7:00pm
TicketsSat., Oct. 8, 7:00pm
NBA Preseason Basketball: Phoenix Suns v. Dallas Mavericks
TicketsFri., Oct. 14, 7:00pm
Nash was a murderer who mercilessly stole the lives of at least two people during armed robberies and injured countless others during a life of crime that spanned nearly 75 years and several states.
Leroy Nash died at a state prison in Florence, about an hour's drive from the site of a west Phoenix coin shop where he committed his last violent crimes, in 1982. That November 3, Nash shot store employee Greg West to death and, but for a remarkable turn of events, also would have killed owner Susan McCullough.
Nash was 67 at the time and recently had escaped from the Utah State Prison, where he was serving a sentence of five-to-life for murdering a postal worker during another robbery.
McCullough, a sweet-natured grandmother who lives in Gilbert, spoke with New Times for 2008's profile on Nash, the first time she'd commented publicly about the case since the killer was sentenced to death, in 1983.
In a memorable interview, McCullough described how Nash had fired several shots into West's body, even after the bleeding young man begged for his life, and then pointed the weapon at her and fired.
But the gun failed to discharge, and McCullough ducked beneath a counter as Nash fled (the owner of an adjacent business and a passerby caught the aged murderer outside the shop within seconds).
"To be spared like I was, I just knew — and know — that God has something special in store for me," she said, "but I still haven't figured out exactly what that is. That guy hurt so many people, besides being a murderer of an innocent kid. What happened just spread out like a tentacle or a spider web of hurt. You know, there is good and evil in this world."
At the time, Greg West's wife of less than a year, Cindy, was working next door. Moments after Nash left, McCullough ran to get Cindy, who tried to aid her dying husband until paramedics arrived.
McCullough told New Times that she's not in favor of the death penalty but wanted it known that she never, ever wanted Leroy Nash released from custody.
"Even if he's 100 years old, I know he'd try to find a way to hurt someone. He just would."
Nash didn't make it to the century mark, though he told New Times in 2008 that he was going to try.
"Those bastards who call themselves 'lawmen,' the cops and the prosecutors and their judges and all of them, they think they have the right to [execute] people. If I die tomorrow, they are all off the hook because they won't have to deal with me anymore. Maybe the courts will let them kill me on my 100th birthday."
Nash was a prolific letter writer, a natural storyteller (perhaps some of his yarns were even true), and an engaging guy with the instincts of a desert reptile and the soul of a psychopath.
Like many criminals, however, he wasn't quite as cunning as he may have believed. His explanation for killing Greg West at the Moon Valley Coin and Stamp store was incredible:
"I tried in an inept manner to survive in a world I didn't understand. [The] coin shop clerk tried to bushwhack me during an attempted robbery. I am not sure what happened after he shot at me, but unfortunately and to my surprise, he was killed. The whole thing was idiotic and should not have happened."
For the record, the defense presented no evidence that Greg West fired a weapon at Nash.
Nash told a pre-sentencing investigator in 1983 that he was "unable to function in normal society."
Born in 1915, Nash's first brushes with the law came in his native Utah before his 16th birthday. He would spend about 75 years — add it up — of his 94 years behind bars.
In his correspondence with this paper, Nash waxed about the state of the death penalty and where he fit into the mix (being on death row for more than a quarter-century gave him a certain expertise).
"Any youngster 12 years old or above who deliberately goes on a deliberate killing spree should never be jailed, but should be gently put to sleep without delay. Newsmen and ministers [ought] not to be observers or present."
Nash endlessly claimed that he didn't fit into the category of "deliberate killing spree," though the evidence in the Arizona and Utah murder cases showed otherwise.
"At times, I have and do regret many negative instances or happenings in my life, and later really regretted it," he wrote in October 2008. "But it is far better that one, if he can't turn it positive, will be better off if he sincerely does 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!"
Nash's appellate attorneys portrayed him in recent years as mentally incompetent (and seriously mentally ill), physically crumbling, and generally unable to assist in his never-ending defense. (Nash, however, usually stayed on track in his letters, responding specifically and at length to questions about his points of view.)
Whatever the truth of Nash's various "conditions," it has to be considered a win for the defense that authorities never were allowed to execute him. (Phoenix attorneys Tom Phelan and Paula Harms were two of his most recent lawyers.)
But all that matters little, if at all, to Susan McCullough, who came face to face with evil so long ago, and somehow survived.
She contacted New Times shortly after learning of Leroy Nash's death Friday and had but one comment.
It was not about that awful November day when Nash ended a young man's life in cold blood, nor about what she has had to endure in her own head since then.
Instead, she expressed what she believes is in store for the late Viva Leroy Nash.
"He will have to face his ultimate judge today — God," McCullough wrote in an e-mail. "Not a jury, not me, not any person on Earth. And I feel that today, justice will be served."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.