The old warden lay dying when word came about “Slick” Lilly.
By DONALD BRADLEY
The Kansas City Star
Now there’s a name a warden or any jailer has to love. The man’s real name was Dennis Schley Lilly. He arrived at the Missouri State Penitentiary in 1981, shortly after a shootout with police following an escape from a Kansas prison.
Robbery, burglary, car theft, assault — his long rap sheet touched lots of cold concrete. But he never stayed locked up long. No bars, whether county lockup or big house, seemed to hold this guy.
Sure enough, on Dec. 13, 1986, Lilly escaped from “The Walls” in Jefferson City. He apparently managed to get a guard’s uniform and walk out during shift change. Not exactly spectacular, but it did give him the notoriety of becoming the last inmate ever to break out of the famous prison, parts of which dated to before the Civil War.
Over decades to follow, Lilly’s case was featured twice on TV’s “America’s Most Wanted,” and his mug shot hung in post offices across the country, even way up in little Monroe, Wash. But his photo was all over that place anyway.
Every Christmas for years, Lilly — who apparently settled in the area after his escape — put on a Santa Claus suit and had his picture taken with nearly every kid in Monroe.
“Yeah, he’d stand out on the street in a Santa suit and wave at cars,” said Mitch Ruth, whose real estate office was next door to a mail service run by Lilly, whom Ruth knew as Larry Murray. “He was a real outgoing guy, hardworking, polite — very community-minded.”
That’s not exactly how he’s remembered in Missouri. One day in late January, a longtime friend and colleague went to visit the man who had been warden when Lilly slipped away from the state pen.
Bill Armontrout, 82, lay in bed, on oxygen, living out the final days of mesothelioma at his home in Rocky Mount, Mo.
Former deputy warden Mark Schreiber leaned over and asked Armontrout if he remembered Lilly.
“I knew he did,” Schreiber said. “You don’t forget somebody like that.”
Lilly, from Ohio, escaped several times from county jails and state prisons in at least three states. After the Kansas break, he shot at officers as they closed in.
Schreiber told Armontrout that Lilly had finally wound up in a place he couldn’t break out of: a makeshift grave under a woodshed on a dead-end street in Gold Bar, Wash.
“He was weak, but he looked up and smiled,” Schreiber said last week. “He’d always told me he thought he was somewhere out West. I think he took some satisfaction in learning he was right.”
Authorities are still waiting for autopsy results, but indications strongly point to the remains being those of the Missouri fugitive more than 25 years on the lam.
Armontrout died Monday, a few days after hearing the news.
One little mistake — that’s all it takes to trip up a fugitive, no matter how beautifully he played it up to then.
Of course, that might have absolutely no bearing on the undoing of Slick Lilly because he’d likely been dead a year or more when cops found him under that woodshed.
But the woman who took up with him after his 1986 escape and lived as his wife for years? Maybe not so slick.
Last fall, according to court documents, a Gold Bar woman named Amanda Murray filed an online application for a brokerage account. But the Social Security number and date of birth did not match her name. The discrepancy triggered a routine fraud investigation.
The “identifiers” eventually traced to Mary Reidy, a woman who had struck up a prison romance with Dennis Lilly when he was in the Missouri State Penitentiary. She disappeared about six months after his escape.
An FBI agent with a white-collar crime squad in Chicago soon contacted the FBI in Kansas City.
While investigators quietly looked into the life of Amanda Murray and her husband, Larry Murray, an agent told retired FBI agent Bill Burton there might be something new in the case.
Burton, who lives in Jefferson City, was assigned to the case in January 1987 when the Missouri Department of Corrections sought a federal warrant for Lilly. The first thing Burton did back then was compile names of close friends and relatives. Topping the list: Mary Reidy.
“She seemed cooperative,” Burton said. “She said she’d had no contact with him since he got out.”
Later that summer, Reidy disappeared.
“There was never any good leads after that,” said Burton, who retired in 1989. “Every now and then I’d think about Lilly, and every time I’d run into somebody with the department I’d ask about him.”
Investigators acting on the latest tip examined Amanda Murray’s Facebook page. Her husband’s too. According to those, Larry died sometime in 2012. That’s when Larry’s postings stopped and condolences to Amanda began.
Amanda’s page included a family photo.
“In the picture, Larry is fully bearded and resembled Dennis, while Amanda appeared identical to Mary Reidy, albeit age progressed,” documents say. “Both obtained Washington state identifications under these aliases, allowing Dennis to successfully avoid arrest for 26 years.”
On Jan. 14, FBI agents entered The Mail Station, the business the couple ran in Monroe, and quickly identified a female employee. One called her Mary.
The woman froze. “I haven’t been called that name in years,” she told the agent.
The woman known by the town as Amanda Murray grew emotional, especially when the agents started asking about Lilly, documents say. At first, she said she thought he was dead. Then she said she didn’t want to get in trouble.
The woman eventually told the agents she and Lilly had separated for a while, but he had returned four years earlier saying he had terminal pancreatic cancer and wanted to die with family.
At the end, she said, Lilly told her he didn’t want her to get in trouble or for law enforcement to ever know what happened to him. So when he died, reportedly at 64 and sometime in June 2012, Reidy dug a hole under the woodshed and buried him there.
She told people around town he’d been cremated. She also showed the agents a photo of a man lying in bed.
“The male in the photo appears to be ill or deceased,” an agent wrote in the court document.
Reidy then stopped talking and asked for a lawyer.
Mark Schreiber, the former deputy warden, can talk for hours about famous inmates at the old state pen. And he does in tours he gives at the prison, which closed in 2004.
Pretty Boy Floyd, Sonny Liston, James Earl Ray, on and on.
But they hold no intrigue. Everyone knows what happened to them. Pretty Boy died in a shootout with FBI agents in a cornfield in Ohio. Sonny Liston did his time, got out and then knocked out Floyd Patterson to become heavyweight champ of the world.
James Earl Ray escaped and later assassinated Martin Luther King Jr.
And then there was Slick Lilly. No headlines for him.
“The only mention he maybe got was that he was last to escape from the penitentiary,” Schreiber said.
But the old prison guys talked about him because he was a mystery: How did he get out? Where did he go?
“We knew he didn’t breach the wall,” Schreiber said. “We decided he managed to get a guard uniform and walk out during a shift change.”
He said he never liked the idea of having inmates make guard uniforms. It was never proved that’s how Lilly got out, but that was the theory.
“The one thing we did wonder about was the role of that woman,” Schreiber said.
According to the FBI report, “there is no evidence to support that Reidy benefited financially or changed her identity for the purpose of financial gain. Rather, the evidence strongly supports the belief that she changed her identity to further enable Dennis’ escape and avoid law enforcement’s effort to locate him.”
Authorities think she committed the following crimes: unlawful disposal of remains, first- and second-degree rendering criminal assistance, identity theft.
Snohomish County authorities said last week that Reidy has not been charged. They are awaiting a medical examiner’s report on the remains.
Reidy declined comment for this story and directed questions to her attorney, who did not return a phone call.
Ruth said Reidy is still showing up for work at The Mail Station every day.
“This is a small town and we’re all trying to get our minds around what we are hearing about them,” Ruth said. “The stories just don’t fit the couple we knew. How could this man change so much?”
“I don’t know how to answer that — maybe I don’t know what that word really means,” Ruth said. “But I do think people can change. I know he was not the person he used to be.”
Schreiber has his own take on Slick Lilly and that small town in Washington on the Skykomish River.
“He was the face of the great impostor,” he said Thursday during a break from writing the eulogy he delivered Friday at Armontrout’s funeral.
It could be said that Lilly got away with it. But Armontrout, warden from 1984 to 1990, didn’t gloat over news of the fugitive’s demise.
“He wasn’t the kind to do that about anybody’s death,” Schreiber said of his friend.
“But he was a lawman.”