Episode 383:

Why Pigeons?

Cleveland’s 1986 Balloonfest


The Secret Life of William Leslie Arnold


Episode 383: Why Pigeons?

On today’s episode, Karen tells the legendary story of Cleveland’s 1986 Balloonfest and Georgia covers the secret life of William Leslie Arnold.

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Cleveland’s 1986 Balloonfest

Cleveland’s 1986 Balloonfest Notes:

Header Image Source: Photo by Edi Libedinsky on Unsplash

Other Images:

1. Cleveland's 1986 Balloonfest (Bettman / Getty)


"It was supposed to improve Cleveland’s image and show the world a city on the rise. But 35 years ago today, a monumental event quickly turned disastrous; causing multiple accidents and hampering the search for two missing fishermen in Lake Erie.

“It was like almost a volcano when it went off,” said FOX 8’s Neil Zurcher who covered the event,  “Just about everything in the world that could go wrong went wrong that weekend.”

On Sept. 27. 1986, more than 100,000 people filled Public Square in downtown Cleveland for the charitable event.

Balloonfest ’86 was a fundraising event sponsored by the United Way and included legendary balloon artist Treb Heining from California.

“The United Way and they’re going to put Cleveland back on the map. They’re gonna have a giant balloon launch,” said FOX 8’s David Moss, who also covered the event.

It took months of planning and thousands of volunteers to inflate the 1.5 million balloons that were to be released. They were held in place by a specially constructed netting structure.

At that time, the thinking about environmental impact was different, and people thought the balloons would reach an altitude where they popped and disintegrated. The year before, in 1985, Disneyland had launched one million balloons to honor Walt Disney on what would’ve been his 84th birthday.

In 1986, Cleveland was a city on the rebound. It had just landed the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and wanted Balloonfest to take the city to new and greater heights.

“They wanted to put Cleveland into the Guinness Book of World Records, they wanted to do something bigger and better than anybody else,” said John Grabowski, chief historian at the Western Reserve Historical Society and Case Western Reserve University history professor.

But almost immediately there was trouble. Strong storms moved through Northeast Ohio the night before causing some of the balloons to release on their own and more inclement weather was heading that way on launch day.

Rather than cancel the event, organizers decided to launch the balloons earlier than planned, just before 2 p.m. At first, the launch seemed successful, said John Rinaldi, who was broadcasting live at the event for the Big Chuck and Lil John Show. 

“It was unbelievable. It was a great sight, people were cheering, everybody was happy,” Rinaldi said. But then things began to suddenly change..."

Source: “Balloonfest ’86: 35 years since downtown Cleveland event turned disastrous” by Suzanne Stratford (Fox 8) 2021

The Secret Life of William Leslie Arnold

The Secret Life of William Leslie Arnold Notes:

Other Images:

1. Mugshot of William Leslie Arnold


"When asked about his origin story, John Damon always told his family he was an orphan from Chicago. Which was true, in a way.

In 1958, the 16-year-old Omaha boy indeed became an orphan — when he shot his parents to death.

And nine years later, after he sawed through prison bars and escaped the Nebraska State Penitentiary, the fugitive did flee to Chicago to launch his new life.

But back in those days, Damon was known by a different name: William Leslie Arnold.

After more than half a century, the mystery of Leslie Arnold has been solved.

U.S. marshals in Omaha recently through DNA evidence determined a career salesman under the alias John Damon who died in Australia in 2010 was actually Arnold, the long-lost convicted killer who escaped the state penitentiary in 1967 and vanished without a trace.

The 67-year-old Arnold left behind a wife and two children in Australia — as well as three surviving stepdaughters from a previous marriage here in the United States — all of whom were oblivious to his dark, secretive past.

“It’s a total shock,” said Arnold's stepdaughter Kelly, who like her sisters requested that her last name not be used, citing privacy concerns. “Mind blowing.”

The jaw-dropping revelation has his family rethinking the entirety of the life of the man they thought they knew. Where they previously saw a loner who didn’t keep a lot of friends and valued his privacy, they now see a man who, of necessity, mostly kept a low profile.

In fact, Arnold, who was known as a talented saxophone player both at Omaha’s Central High School and in prison, went so far to hide his true identity late in life that even after his own son took up the instrument, the father never once touched it.

“That’s part of the mystery of my dad,” his son said. “As a function of his past, he had to live his life in a certain way.”

The resolution of the case comes five years after The World-Herald published “The Mystery of Leslie Arnold,” a series of stories detailing the captivating Arnold saga.

The smart but troubled teen shocked Omaha in 1958 by killing his mother and father in their Aksarben-area home, burying the bodies in the backyard, and then continuing to attend school for two weeks before his grim crimes were discovered.

Sentenced to life in prison, the boy served for almost a decade as a model prisoner. Prison officials felt he was likely within just a few years of an official pardon for his youthful crimes and ultimate release.

But in July 1967, the enigmatic Arnold shocked everyone again. The then 24-year-old pulled off an escape worthy of a movie script and disappeared. He’s still the last man to successfully escape the penitentiary.

Now the final chapters of Arnold's astounding story can be written..."

Source: “Leslie Arnold mystery solved: Man who died in Australia was enigmatic Nebraska fugitive” by Henry J. Cordes (Omaha World-Herald)

Karen's Episode Sources

  1. “Balloonfest ’86: 35 years since downtown Cleveland event turned disastrous” by Suzanne Stratford (Fox 8) 2021
  2. “The Aftermath: Balloonfest ‘86” (The Alarmist podcast) April 2022
  3. “The Balloonfest That Went Horribly Wrong” by Nathan Truesdell (The Atlantic) 2018
  4. “Cleveland Summertime Memories: A Warm Look Back” (Gail Ghetia Bellamy)
  5. “25 years ago, thousands watched a balloon launch on Public Square” by Michael O’Malley (The Plain Dealer) 2011
  6. “Claim to world record for 'Balloonfest '86' is not all hot air: Michael K. McIntyre's Tipoff” by Michael McIntyre (The Plain Dealer) 2011
  7. “Balloonfest gets carried away” by Associated Press (Wilmington News-Journal) 1986 
  8. “Cleveland in the 1970s: A gritty city survives turbulent times (photos)” by John Petkovic (The Plain Dealer) 2015
  9. “Cleveland in the 1980s – Mike Roberts” (Teaching Cleveland Digital)
  10. “Rock and Roll Hall of Fame” (Wikipedia)
  11. “Balloonfest ‘86” (Wikipedia)
  12. “Balloonfest 1986, the spectacle that became a debacle: Cleveland Remembers (video)” by John Kroll (Cleveland.com/The Plain Dealer) 2011
  13. “The Balloon Fest’86: When Cleveland’s Spectacle Became a Tragedy” by The Mystery Writer (Medium) 2022
  14. “Balloon promotion closes airport” (Associated Press) September 29, 1986
  15. “Search for fishermen called off” (Associated Press) September 29, 1986
  16. “How Releasing 1,500,000 Balloons Went Horribly Wrong – Balloonfest” (Be Amazed) 2021
  17. “A Decade of Excess And Escape” by Dennis Lythgoe (Deseret News) 1989
  18. “Grand Opening: Hollywood, Fine” by Tony Kornheiser (Washington Post) 1984
  19. “A Disneyland Balloon Boy, the Treb Heining Story” (Magic Made by Disney) 2020
  20. “Inside Cleveland's plan to become an 18-hour city” by Troy Smith (Axios Cleveland) 2023
  21. “Mission Possible: The future of Downtown Cleveland is strong due to demand of living” by Jeff Reidel (WKYC3)
  22. “Hands Across America” (Wikipedia)
  23. “Live Aid concert raises $127 million for famine relief in Africa” (History)

Georgia's Episode Sources

  1. “Leslie Arnold mystery solved: Man who died in Australia was enigmatic Nebraska fugitive” by Henry J. Cordes (Omaha World-Herald)
  2. “Same DNA technique that reeled in Golden State Killer solved Leslie Arnold mystery” by Henry J. Cordes (Omaha World-Herald)
  3. “Timeline: Leslie Arnold’s Life” by Henry J. Cordes (Omaha World-Herald)
  4. “In Australia, He Was a ‘Great Father.’ Secretly, He Was an Escaped Convict” by Jesus Jiménez (NYT)
  5. “DNA evidence reveals family man in Australia was teenage killer who escaped Nebraska jail” by Edward Helmore (The Guardian)
  6. “Loving father exposed as a convicted killer who lived life on the run” by Hilary Whiteman (CNN)
  7. “DNA Evidence Reveals That ‘Great Father’ From Australia Was Actually An Escaped Killer From The U.S.” by Kaleena Fraga (All That’s Interesting)