A Debt Unpaid: The Murder of John David

 

It was cold that early February morning as the men set out for work. Many of them were originally from Armenia, a small county in Eastern Europe. Like so many had before them, these men were either running from something bad in the old county, looking to capture a piece of the prosperity and peace that America had to offer, or both.

They had come, either directly or indirectly, to Bettendorf, Iowa. These men had found work in various positions within the Bettendorf Company, the economic powerhouse that served as the driving force for many things within the various communities of the city.

Although normally peaceful men who went to the shops, worked hard, and then returned home after a long day, this morning the men were angry, incensed over a scene they had watched play out before their very eyes in front of the local boarding house. The workers had determined they were going to put an end to the grisly happenings going on there, and they began to make their way toward the perpetrator of the crime.

The man standing in the yard turned, faced them, and raised his pistol toward them. He warned the workers not to come any closer. Cautious of the weapon, they stopped, watching the armed man wearily. Without knowing, the group of Armenian men had inadvertently stumbled upon what was to become one of the most sensational crimes of 1921.

 

When William Bettendorf had decided to settle in the rural town of Gilbert in 1902, he was looking for a fresh start

When he was in his early twenties, he had worked in a plow company in Peru, Illinois. A natural inventor, his keen mind had perceived a need amongst farmers. In the plows being manufactured at the plant, farmers, plowing a furrow across their farm field, would have to stop at the end the row and physically lift the plow blade out of the row. Then, they would have to turn the plow around and lower the blade again in order to start the next row. Needless to say, this was very physically intensive and time consuming.

William designed and built a new plow that, by pulling a lever that activated a series of gears, would mechanically lift the plow out of the furrow. The farmer would then turn the plow around, pull the lever again, and begin the next row, all without having to get off the plow. It saved a great deal of time and energy by taking the old design and making it more efficient for the end user.

William Bettendorf

The Peru Plow Company, the firm that William worked for, agreed to manufacture his new plow design. William held on to the patent, and his new invention became extremely popular around the country.

The next thing that William did was, putting it simply, redesign the wheel. The standard metal wheel of that era had several metal spokes that connected the metal rim to the hub of the wheel. The wire was simply welded into place on the surface of those areas. Unfortunately, this caused the welds to break and the spokes to fall out. Eventually, this would render the wheel useless.

Bettendorf decided that by drilling holes in the hub and then attaching the spokes inside, it would make the wheel stronger. He was right. Once again, the firm he worked for agreed to manufacture it. It was even more popular than his plow had been. The Bettendorf Metal Wheel, as it came to be known, sold so well that the company changed its name to the Peru Plow and Wheel Company.

However, William and the company began to disagree on how the wheel should be manufactured and on how to best meet the increasing demand for it. The two parties were unable to resolve their differences, and so William set out on his own.

He came to Davenport, Iowa with his younger brother, Joseph, and founded the Bettendorf Metal Wheel Company, close to the riverfront of the Mississippi River. The fledgling operation not only survived in the competitive industrial world, but thrived. It was tremendously successful, and the factory itself grew until it became the largest in the entire city.

But in early 1902, tragedy struck. The factory suffered two devastating fires only a few months apart. Production was halted and the future of the company was called into question. If the company was going to continue, which William was determined it would, he would have to relocat

Before the fires, William had received offers to relocate to the nearby city of East Moline, Illinois. And there was always the option of clearing out all the rubble and rebuilding directly in Davenport. While he was pondering the issue, William was approached by a friend, C.A. Ficke, who offered another opt

Ficke, a former Davenport mayor, owned some land in a small town just east of Davenport by the name of Gilbert. It was near the riverfront, and offered a lot of room to expand. It was a great place for a fresh start. William and Ficke approached the town, who were excited about the idea of having such a large factory located right in town. A short time later, William started construction of his new Bettendorf Company plant there.

As he grew the factory, William made sure to grow the town, as well. He put significant funds into developing local businesses and building new houses. He also built a hotel where travelling workers could stay until a house of their own could be built for them. As the citizens had taken care of him, William took care of them in turn.

The town, in gratitude, renamed their booming town Bettendorf, after their benefactor.

By 1905, business was positively booming for the Bettendorf Company. After the invention of the Bettendorf Truck, a newly-designed railroad car truck invented by William, industry demands for it allowed William to focus solely on railroad car parts and stop manufacturing wagon pieces, including his famous metal whee

William died suddenly in 1910, and his younger brother Joseph took over. The factory continued on, growing in wealth and prosperity

In 1914, a young man named David Macias came to Bettendorf from Mexico. He had arrived on official business for the company he worked for, but liked America so much that he decided to stay. He immediately found work at the Bettendorf Company, and became its first Mexican worker. But he was not going to be its last.

About three years later, with World War I raging overseas, many of the workers at the family had gone to fight alongside their countrymen on the battlefields of Europe.  Joseph needed workers, and he turned to David for help. He asked the man to return to Mexico and recruit replacement men.

The younger man agreed, and he travelled to Juarez, Mexico to find as many men as he could. He eventually returned, bringing with him dozens of eager workers. Mexicans, however, were not the only immigrants who found work at the Bettendorf Company.

Armenians had started to travel to the United States several years earlier, mostly due to the continuing hostilities between the countries of Armenia and Turkey. Problems continued within the region, and many grew tired of having to deal with it. So, like so many western Europeans had before them, they packed their belongings, gathered their families, and made the trip to America. One of those was a man named John David.

John David had left Armenia in 1901 to flee the Turks. He had eventually settled in Bettendorf, becoming one of the very first Armenians in the area. Over the next several years, John built trust in the surrounding community, especially with the work leadership of the Bettendorf Company. He helped bring other Armenians into the region, and found them jobs working there.

Around 1911, John was able to bring over his wife. Together, they opened a boarding house at 418 East State Street, and it quickly became a popular place for Armenians to stay. The boarding house was only a relatively short distance away from the Bettendorf Company, putting the men within easy walking distance.

John David’s Boarding House. Courtesy of the Davenport Democrat and Leader.

But more than that, the Armenians were staying with their fellow countryman. They remembered the old country, and understood the customs and traditions of their culture. It was a good place to be comfortable and make a new home, far from Turkish persecution.

John David became a respected leader within the community, earning him the affectionate nickname “King David.” He loved his community and looked after them, and the Armenian community loved and respected him in return.

In 1913, an Armenian by the name of Arvid Helloian came to Bettendorf and began staying at the boarding house. Arvid changed his name somewhat, going by “Arvid Helloya” around town. When he began working at the Bettendorf Company with his fellow Armenians.

Arvid was friendly enough, and got along well with everyone around him. He stayed out of trouble, and worked hard.

One day, in 1919, Arvid’s friend and landlord, John David, approached him about a personal matter. John had run low on money, and he wanted to buy a cow and some bread to help feed his children. He did not want to see them starve, and so came to ask Arvid for a personal loan of $400.

David was a trusted friend, and upstanding member of the community. He had helped Arvid get work in this new country right away, and provided a place for him to stay. How could he possibly refuse? Arvid agreed to the loan with little hesitation.

David was elated. Now he could feed his children! He thanked Arvid profusely for his generosity, slapping him on the back and giving him a broad smile. David told his friend that he would pay him back the entire sum the following week. Arvid probably felt pretty good about himself right then. He had helped a friend who had helped so many.

The next week, David did not pay. Arvid, confident that his friend would follow through on his promise of repayment, casually asked him about the situation. David gave a quick apology, and said that it would have to wait until the following week.

On and on this went. Arvid asked, John David responded that payment would come next week. Two years later, in 1921, he had still not repaid his debt.

Arvid, for the most part, let the matter slide. Sure, he was irritated about it, because $400 was a lot of money. It had not been a casual loan, and while it may not have been enough to buy one of those fancy homes on the bluff overlooking the Mississippi River, it was still a significant sum to him. He would not simply let the matter slide away and be forgotten.

Arvid Helloian. Courtesy of the Davenport Democrat and Leader.

Yet still, he did not need the money that badly. He liked David well enough, and he could stand to wait. Arvid would play this cute, yet annoying, little game for a while. There was no need to rush. But all that changed when Halloian began to receive letters from his uncle in Armenia.

The letters explained that Turks had been raiding the town where Arvid had grown up. Both of his parents were killed, and his two younger brothers were kidnapped and taken back to Turkey. Later, Russians came and took the boys from their original Turkish captors and, instead of setting them free, had kept them imprisoned. The uncle begged Arvid to come back home and rescue his lost siblings.

How could Arvid refuse? He liked his new life, and was happy here. But family was still family. There was no question in his mind – he had to go back to Armenia.

As quickly as he could, Arvid began to make preparations to return. He was able to take care of many things almost straight away, including withdrawing all of money from the bank. However, there remained one major task to be completed. It was time to call in his debt. The game the he and John David had been playing for so long had to end.

Arvid went to his friend and, as he had so many times before, asked for his $400. Predictably, David replied that he would pay him later. The old frustrations set in. While before he could push it off to a corner of his mind, Arvid now had a reason to have that money back. He explained the situation to David, but it did not matter. The answer was the same.

Over the next several days, this same routine was played out, with the only difference being Arvid’s rising frustrations. He had to get back to Armenia. He had to take care of his family. John David was being stubborn, and it needed to stop.

Unbeknownst to Arvid, John had already begun to take steps to repay his debt. He did understand that his friend needed to leave. But John did not have $400 lying around, otherwise he might have simply paid the debt and been done with the entire situation. But running a boarding house and having four mouths to feed is not always cheap. But a debt is still there, no matter how long you put off paying it.

David went to his attorney, William Scott, about the issue. John’s goal was not to get out of the debt, but rather to seek the lawyer’s assistance in selling some of his property in Bettendorf. He told Scott that he was going to use the proceeds of the sale to pay off his debt and settle with Arvid.

On the morning of February 2, 1921, Arvid awoke, stretched, and went to wash his hands. As he approached the sink, he overheard David talking with another boarder, Mike Astorian, in the kitchen. They were talking about him. David was explaining to Mike that he was not going to pay the debt he owed, not one red cent.

Arvid could not believe it. He had given that money on good faith, and had waited for two years to receive payment from his friend. He had been patient, and forgiving. He had been a good friend! But now, when Arvid needed it the most, David was not going to pay it back? How could he do that?

All of the frustration that had built up in him over the years began to curdle within his soul. The frustration turned bitter, and started an angry fire within him. Arvid began to walk back to his room, and as he did, the fire grew, turning into a white-hot rage. How could John David not pay him back?

Arvid opened the door to his room, seething. He crossed over to his old trunk and opened the lid. With one hand, he began to search around the inside until he found what he was looking for – an automatic pistol. Arvid took it out, put it in his pocket, and started to walk back toward the kitchen. On the outside he was calm, but he was furious inside. Arvid Helloian was going to have his repayment, one way or another.

Before he knew it, he was standing in the doorway to the kitchen. The only thing that he cared about in that moment was John David. His vision narrowed, focusing until John was his entire world. He could feel the anger swell inside of him. The cold steel of his automatic pistol felt good against the flesh of his hand.

One last time, Arvid asked John David if he was going to repay the loan.

As he prepared his breakfast, John David knew nothing of the gun in Arvid’s pocket. He understood that Arvid wanted to get back home, and he was finally taking steps toward paying the man back, even going so far as to sell property to get the money. But he told Helloian none of this. Maybe he was just tired of the constant, unrelenting badgering about paying the money back. Like so many people who are pestered by creditors, perhaps John had just reached the point that he did not care anymore, and in his own frustration had carelessly said that he was never going to pay the loan, even though he had every intention of doing so.

But no matter what his intentions were, in that moment he made the fateful decision to tell Arvid Helloian that he was never going to pay back that $400.

A slap across the face could not have hit Arvid harder than those words. In that moment, the frustration and rage that had been burning inside of him exploded like a bomb. Jerking the pistol out of his pocket, Arvid pointed his gun at John and fired.

The bullet struck the older man in the arm. Without hesitation, John David started across the room in an attempt to close the distance between himself and his attacker. As he reached for the gun, Arvid fired again, this time hitting David in the neck. The older man stopped, grabbing at the wound, blood flowing from it freely like a red river. The wound on his arm was bleeding, too, soaking his shirt.

David, badly hurt, turned from Arvid and ran into the next room. Arvid pointed the gun at the fleeing man and pulled the trigger again, but nothing happened. With a snarl, he tried again, but still nothing.

Arvid looked at the gun and realized that it was jammed. He took a moment, cleared it, and then started after John David again. Before he got too far, he felt someone grab his arm. Arvid turned to see another boarder, Kachig Moses, attempting to restrain him.

Arvid raised his gun and pointed it at the man, saying that if Moses did not let him go, then Arvid would shoot him dead. Moses relaxed his grip a bit, and Arvid tore free from his grasp.

He ran out of the back door, unfazed by the cold winter morning. He knew that the only way John could go was through the front door, so Arvid went around the house and into the front yard.

Just about then, the front door opened. There was John David, still clutching at his neck, desperately trying to stop the blood oozing from his wound. He stumbled forward into the snow, delirious with pain and blood loss. Arvid raised his pistol again, this time taking careful aim at the man he had once called his friend.

He fired once more, and this time shot David directly though the eye. John stopped moving then and stood stock still. Without a sound, he fell straight onto the frozen ground.

Arvid must have known that John David was done for, but it was as if he could not stop himself. The anger and frustration that he carried with him were still howling in his soul, and the engine of destruction that it now powered could not fully stop until it had completely burned out.

Crossing to David’s corpse, Arvid emptied his gun into the man’s body.  But for him, even that was not enough. Out of ammunition, he began to savagely and repeatedly kick John David’s prostrate form. Then Arvid knelt down and began to smash him in the face with the butt of his gun, over and over again.

He was taking out his fury then, giving those feeling full vent. Arvid’s sole focus at that moment was to destroy John David.

As focused as he was, Arvid was completely unaware of the group of Armenian men who were now walking past the house on their way to work at the Bettendorf Company. They stared at Arvid, a man that they worked with and lived alongside, horrified by what he was doing.

Just then, Arvid started to come back to himself. He looked up and saw the group of men and the stunned looks on their faces. A few of them had started moving toward him in order to halt his attack on John David.

Thinking quickly, Arvid pointed the gun at them, ordering the men to stay back. The workmen did as they were told. The gun in Arvid’s hand was empty, but they did not know that. And why take chances with someone who had apparently already killed one person?

Arvid backed away slowly from the crowd. Step after careful step, he moved backwards, until his heel clicked against the wooden threshold of the front door. He took a chance and turned his back to the crowd. For a split second, he expected to be grabbed or hit from behind, but it never happened. Arvid went into the house and quickly locked the door.

He made his way to his room, where he put his automatic weapon in his trunk, then grabbed another gun that he owned, a revolver. Just as he had before, he put the gun in his pocket and went back downstairs.

Meanwhile, the crowd of Armenian workmen had called the authorities as soon as they were able. The first to arrive was Bettendorf Marshall John Kracht. Someone told him that Arvid Helloian had killed John David and then had locked himself inside the house. Kracht quickly positioned men all around the outside of the boarding house, blocking all exits. Arvid was now trapped, and had nowhere to run.

Soon enough, other members of law enforcement also began to arrive at the scene. Knowing that Arvid was still in the house, two Davenport policemen went inside, where they began to search for him. They found Arvid preparing to escape, but quickly stopped him and placed him under arrest. Helloian did not complain or resist.

He was taken to the Davenport police station, where he was questioned about the murder. Arvid readily confessed to the murder, telling the police every detail as he recalled it. He was their man, and was not ashamed of what he had done. After answering all questions posed to him, Arvid was led back to his cell to await the coroner’s inquest.

Back at the boarding house, John David’s family was left to pick up the pieces. His wife had been left a widow with three young children to raise by herself. She had seen what had happened to her husband with her own eyes that morning. She had been woken up by gunshots and had made her way outside just in time to watch Helloian kill her beloved husband.

She had been beside herself with grief. Even though her children tried to comfort her the best way that they knew how, John’s wife finally had to be sedated by a doctor. Later, she received another blow

Some relatives had begun to look into John David’s monetary situation. They discovered that he did not have much money at all, despite having the boarding house and owning property in Bettendorf. It became a definite concern as to whether or not his estate could actually pay for his funeral.

Her fears were short-lived, however. The money was found for a funeral, and John David was laid to rest in Oakdale Cemetery in Davenport.

The coroner’s inquest was held on February 3, 1921, at the Bettendorf town hall. The room was packed with members of the Armenian community. The proceedings began when a manacled Arvid Helloian made his way through a crowd of nearly one hundred people. The police were afraid that the assembled Armenians, who thought so much of John David, would hurt or even kill his murderer. But the Armenians kept their peace and held their tongues.

Just as J.D. Cantwell, the Scott County Coroner was about to have his first witness of the evening stand and deliver their testimony, Arvid suddenly asked if he could make a statement. Cantwell immediately cautioned him that he did not have to say anything that he did not want to, giving Arvid one last chance to sit back down and stay quiet.

But Arvid was eager to share his side of what had happened. After being sworn in as an official witness, Helloian was allowed to begin his story. He recalled how he had given the loan to John David, and how repayment was always put off. Arvid explained that he wanted to return to Armenia and visit his family there. Then, in front of nearly one-hundred other Armenians, not to mention the Scott County Sheriff and Coroner, Arvid freely admitted that he had murdered John David.

When he had finished speaking his peace, he simply resumed his seat next to the sheriff and quietly observed the rest of the proceedings. Arvid was returned to the Scott County Jail after the inquest to await trial.

John Weir, the Scott County Attorney, filed a charge of first-degree murder. Arvid, in turn, entered a plea of “not guilty.”

To pass the time between the preliminary hearing and the trail itself, Arvid sang in the jail. Much of what he sang was Armenian folk tunes and lullabies. He would sit, smiling, and sing, tapping his foot to the rhythm. Not once did Arvid express regret for his crime, neither to his jailers or his fellow inmates. While he sang in the jailhouse, his lawyers worked to build a defense for him.

In early May of 1921, Arvid Helloian was placed on trial for the murder of John David. While his defense attorneys did their work, John Weir sought to the convict Arvid  not only of first-degree murder, but also to convince the jury to give him the death penalty.

Along with several other witnesses, Helloian himself was asked to take the witness stand. Through expert questioning by his defense attorneys, Arvid explained how he had given John David the $400 loan, and how he wanted it repaid after his uncle began to urge him to return home for the sake of his brothers. And, once again, he freely and openly confessed that he had killed David.

Finally, after all of the witnesses had given their testimony and evidence considered, the defense attorneys and the county prosecutor gave their closing arguments. The judge explained to the twelve jurors assembled that morning the various verdict selections that they could vote on, ranging from full acquittal to the death penalty. The judge also explained what each choice meant. They were excused from the courtroom and their decision-making process began.

The jury wrestled with their decision for nine hours, considered the evidence and the various testimonies. At about 9 o’clock that night, they gave their decision – manslaughter. Helloian’s story of his dead parents and needing to return to Armenia to rescue his brothers in prison had helped sway them

John Weir was shocked. He openly stated that, given the strong case and evidence presented, that Arvid Helloian should have at least been sent to prison for second-degree murder.

But his opinion no longer mattered. The jury had decided, and their verdict was upheld. Helloian was sentenced to serve eight years at the state penitentiary in Fort Madison, Iowa. He was also ordered to pay a fine of $1000, which would either be paid in cash or in time served, even if he had to stay in prison longer than the allotted eight years.

In the end, it no mattered what everyone thought of the verdict of the case. John David was still dead. Helloian, wanting so desperately to get his money back from his friend so that he could return to Armenia and take care of his brothers, got neither. Instead, he was going to spend the next several years in prison and pay more money back to the state than the $400 that he had killed for.

In the end, everyone had lost the moment a heated conversation turned into murder on a snowy February morning in 1921.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3 thoughts on “A Debt Unpaid: The Murder of John David”

  1. Thank you for posting your podcasts in text format. I enjoy these stories and prefer to read rather than listen to them. There are very few crime podcasts that I can do this with.

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