Tuesday, October 13, 2015

For Matthew Armer, the Prison Gate was a Revolving Door

MatthewArmer1951Delving deeply into the history of Clinton Prison in Dannemora for an upcoming book (already in progress before the recent escape) has led me to profile many criminals who have done time there. Not all of them will make the cut for the book, but what stands out across a wide range of criminals is recidivism. It was not unexpected — Clinton is, after all, New York’s principal home for repeat violent felons and incorrigibles — but it’s often surprising how many people among those who have options choose crime as a way of life.

From the Albany area was a young man who had options, but typified those who eschew a mainstream lifestyle for a darker path. In the end we’re left straining for a hint of any redeeming value.

In 1936, at age seventeen, Matthew Armer of East Greenbush was arrested for stealing a car. While being chased by police, he shoved a young girl from the car, and was later captured at gunpoint. A grand larceny conviction sent him to the New York State Vocational Institute at West Coxsackie, a prison with experimental programs aimed at putting troubled youths aged 16 to 19 on the straight and narrow.

But after attaining trusty status, he stole a car from the institution and left the state. After recapture and serving his time, Armer stole a new Ford truck in March 1938. An investigation revealed he was operating a stolen-car ring, which earned him five to ten years in Clinton Prison.

He seemed to learn nothing from incarceration. In 1946, a short time after release, he was again found guilty of auto theft (and possession of a gun). During questioning, he threw water in an officer’s face and ran, but was caught.

When he wasn’t locked up somewhere, Armer worked on the family farm, where he took over operations after release from his latest term at Clinton. This opened for him a new criminal endeavor — stealing cows to sell at cattle auctions. He was soon wanted in Pennsylvania on several charges related to stolen vehicles and cows, but also operated in New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts. It was later learned that during this brief period, he stole more than seventy cows.

In December 1950, Armer stole a truck in Newtown, Connecticut. Six months later, he used it to steal a cow, but was pulled over near Oneonta by State Police Corporal Arthur Diffendale, who may have noticed that the truck had mismatched front and rear license plates.

Moments later, as Diffendale approached on foot, Armer stepped out with a rifle at the ready, and before the officer could draw his gun, Armer shot him dead at close range. He then sped away from the scene, abandoning the truck on a dead-end road not far from where the shooting took place.

Evidence pointed towards Armer, who became the subject of a massive manhunt. Unique to his case was the use of television for the first time by New York State Police in tracking down a subject. Photographs of Armer and the truck were broadcast, with a request that the public provide any information about either.

On the eleventh day, intelligence placed him on the family farm. At about 6 am, nine cars carrying eighteen troopers were posted at discrete locations near Armer’s East Greenbush residence. The plan was to arrest him when he left, but Armer, with his mother in the car, drove past them and veered onto a back road.

Giving chase, police pulled up alongside him with guns drawn, and Armer, perhaps bowing to his mother’s advice, pulled over and surrendered. He and mom, said Armer, were on their way to church. Why the sudden turn onto a back road? He lacked a license, explained Armer, and didn’t want to risk a ticket. Police didn’t buy it. He was handcuffed and taken to jail despite claims of innocence.

In the days to follow, he steadfastly denied shooting Corporal Diffendale, insisting that on the day of the killing, he was at home fixing a chimney. But Armer eventually entered a plea of guilty to second-degree murder, and in September 1951 was sentenced to sixty years to life at Dannemora.

Parole remained a possibility, but killing a state trooper diminished its likelihood. Amer was transferred to less-stringent Green Haven Prison, a maximum-security facility, from which he and a partner escaped in late October 1974. They were captured before year’s end, earning additional time to their sentences.

Armer was paroled in January 1984, but was back in prison by mid-August for criminal possession of a forged instrument. After release in February 1988, he was returned to prison ten months later for criminal possession of a weapon and stealing a car.

In April 1992, at the age of seventy-three, he was released, with a stipulation that he report to a parole officer the next day, which — wasn’t it obvious? — didn’t happen and Amer was on the lam again, only two months after leaving prison.  He was hauled into court on charges of possession of stolen property, criminal mischief, and reckless endangerment.

His fate hinged on a state law requiring parole violators to serve up to the maximum of any previous sentence. Armer was found guilty in August, and on September 3, 1992, he was shipped off to Great Meadow for his seventh prison stint. There would be no further paroles or crimes, because he died there in October 2001, having spent roughly sixty-five of his eighty-two years in prison.

Photo: Matthew Armer from a 1951 photo published in the Binghamton Press.

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Lawrence Gooley, of Clinton County, is an award-winning author who has hiked, bushwhacked, climbed, bicycled, explored, and canoed in the Adirondack Mountains for 45 years. With a lifetime love of research, writing, and history, he has authored 22 books and more than 200 articles on the region's past, and in 2009 organized the North Country Authors in the Plattsburgh area.

His book Oliver’s War: An Adirondack Rebel Battles the Rockefeller Fortune won the Adirondack Literary Award for Best Book of Nonfiction in 2008. Another title, Terror in the Adirondacks: The True Story of Serial Killer Robert F. Garrow, was a regional best-seller for four years running.

With his partner, Jill Jones, Gooley founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004, which has published 83 titles to date. They also offer editing/proofreading services, web design, and a range of PowerPoint presentations based on Gooley's books.

Bloated Toe’s unusual business model was featured in Publishers Weekly in April 2011. The company also operates an online store to support the work of other regional folks. The North Country Store features more than 100 book titles and 60 CDs and DVDs, along with a variety of other area products.

4 Responses

  1. Brian Mann says:

    I love the story and look forward to the book, but I want to question the basic premise of your framing of the anecdote.

    My research into prisons in the US suggests that criminal behavior and policy decisions about who to target for incarceration overwhelmingly involves lower income individuals, usually from group that would generally be describe as a permanent underclass.

    What is surprising most be people, I think, in the current policy debate is realizing just how extreme that tilt has become. People with means generally resort far less often to activities which we have chosen to describe as criminal; when they do so, they are targeted far less often for prosecution; and when they are prosecuted, they are convicted far more rarely and serve far shorter sentences than their poorer counterparts.

    Obviously, people “with options” do engage in criminal behavior and often their stories spark our interest — it raises fascinating questions about character, psychology, etc. They also tend to be people we can relate to. But American prison history is overwhelmingly a history of poor people, people of color, people with mental illnesses, and people who are addicted to drugs or alcohol.

    -Brian Mann, NCPR

  2. Larry says:

    Good points, but they don’t apply to Armer’s case. The basic premise was that unlike people of color, the mentally ill, and the addicted, Armer had options before him, and should be held responsible for the choices he made rather than be perceived as a victim of policy or society.
    There’s no question about the tilt: prisons hold mainly poor people … whether they’re mentally ill or in any other category, poverty and a lack of education are the most common factors across the board. Those factors also make them the likeliest and easiest targets for abuse while in prison.
    I’m not sure that your phrase “policy decisions about who to target” applies to guys like Armer. We all like to think there’s good in everyone, but incorrigibles exist, and until and unless society defines the underlying causes and finds a fix, guys like Armer (not your average crook) are the type who need to be incarcerated. Given repeated opportunities, he immediately turned to crime, even in old age.

  3. John Warren says:

    If you haven’t seen “The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne”, you should see it (on Netflix now).

    It’s about a black woman who had some ideas about the life she was dealt and proceeded to spend her life – into her 80s – as a jewel thief.

    It raises all the issues that Larry and Brian are raising, in the words of the woman at the heart of the story.

  4. Amy Godine says:

    I love this article, and the subsequent debate. Larry, looking forward to this book! Thanks for another eye-opener.

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