Monday, January 22, 1996
Murder news hits hard in a close town

The Cincinnati Enquirer

WEST UNION - Night falls with a deceptive calm over rural Adams County. The setting sun sends peaceful rays across high rolling hills and flat fertile farms.

A week ago Sunday, on a dank winter's night, the peace was shattered by gunfire, bloodshed and death.

Three baby-faced 18-year-olds from good families allegedly participated in a drug-related robbery that ended with two men being killed in cold blood.

Pals for years, the three teens hopped into a truck on that chilly Sunday night and took the main drag out of town. They turned onto a hilly gravel road and stopped by a tin-roofed shack.

Police and prosecutors say the crime unfolded like this:

While Dennie Dryden waited in the getaway truck, Brian Rothwell and Jamie Young - wearing ski masks and armed with a pump-action shotgun and an automatic rifle - kicked open the door. Five surprised people were inside. A struggle ensued. Guns went off.

The fatal shots put into Richard Lee Arden - a twice-convicted drug dealer - and his friend, Mitchell Lesperance, have sent this county seat of 3,096 people into shock.

West Union is one of those small country towns city folk hear about but rarely visit. The heart of town is presided over by a handsomely remodeled 19th-century courthouse. Two cannons guard the entrance. In back sits the jail where the three teens are being held.

Overhead, the courthouse's four-faced clock keeps time in a copper-topped tower. On the hour, a bell tolls. You can set your watch by it. Everyone does in this town where everybody knows everybody else.

''We are a small town,'' grocer Chase Prather proudly declares. He sits with his son, Jay, in the elevated office just inside their West Union IGA.

''If we aren't related,'' the elder Prather adds, ''we at least know who you are.''

True enough. The customer up the road in Soupbone Davis' barbershop is the cousin of one of the three suspects. The waitress at the 125 Grill across from the courthouse is related to one of the victims and ''went to high school with those three boys they've got in jail over there.''

Rumors move quickly through a small town, too. You hear them whispered in store aisles. Tales abound in this case about devil worship, dope smoking, drug dealing and beer drinking in this dry county. 'You hear everything,'' Chase Prather says. ''But, you believe nothing.''

Except this simple truth.

''When something happens like this in a small town,'' says Jay Prather, waving and calling customers by name as they stroll past his office, ''it's like a death in the family. Like when you are grieving, you just can't believe it happened.''

''Double homicides,'' assistant county prosecutor C. David Kelley, dryly intones, ''don't happen out here every day.'' Adams County averages one murder every two years.

The people of West Union still can't believe who was behind the wheel of the getaway truck.

In a town where everyone knows everybody, everybody knows Dennie Dryden even better. His dad teaches history at the local high school. His mom is universally described as ''a true Christian lady.'' She works - just across the street from the courthouse that's holding her son - at the corner drug store where fountain Cokes still cost a nickel.

After school, Dennie Dryden worked as a bag boy at Prather's IGA. On the night before the shooting, he clocked out at his usual time, 5:59 p.m..

The Prathers, father and son, did not notice anything unusual about the bagger whom the younger grocer's mother-in-law describes as ''the bag boy with the sweet smile.''

Danny Land knew something was up with his friend. Dennie was depressed. He had ''broken up with his girlfriend and fallen in with Brian and Jamie. They were into drugs and drinking.''

Danny and Dennie are schoolmates. Dennie's a senior at West Union High. Danny's a junior. They bag groceries side-by-side at Prather's.

''We were pals,'' Danny says. ''Still are.''

Dennie has called him from jail.

''He cries a lot,'' Danny says. ''He wishes he could go back to Sunday night. He wishes none of this ever happened.''

He's not the only one. In West Union, an entire town wishes it could turn back the hands on the courthouse clock.

Cliff Radel's column appears in The Enquirer Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Call 768-8379 or fax at 768-8340.