This article first ran in the Idaho Statesman on Oct. 15, 1995.
Scandal cost Frank Jones a West Point degree. His story is a cautionary tale for the gay rights debate.
He appeared to be everything that America treasured in the strait-laced ’50s: a clean-cut boy, smart, devoted to family, God and country.
“This is a good world,” classmates wrote beside his photo in the Boise High yearbook that spring.
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It seemed a fitting send-off for the handsome, 17-year-old son of one of Boise’s most influential politicians, now bound for a coveted spot as a West Point cadet. With a U.S. Military Academy commission in hand, his future would be golden, a friend recalled wistfully. “You get to say, ‘I’m an academy graduate, ‘ and that in itself opens hundreds of thousands of doors.”
But one rainy night nearly 30 years later, everything came crashing down.
At the reception desk of a no-frills Boise motel, he handed over $33 in cash, then staggered through the lobby to Room 119, and into oblivion. Reeling with an overdose of pills and booze, the now-suicidal man stood at the foot of his bed in that velvet-black room, then pitched over backward and died.
His name was Frank Anton Jones, and he was one of the “Boys of Boise” victims of what’s regarded as one of the nation’s most infamous homosexual witch hunts, a scandal that began 40 years ago this month.
How he wound up in that motel room is a cautionary tale for a time when sides are being drawn again in the battle over gay rights in Idaho. It speaks of the damage done to innocent people in a climate of mob rule and fear. And it illustrates a moment in history when a small Western city passed out of innocence.
The scandal began simply enough in the fall of 1955 amid complaints that adult men were propositioning teen-age boys at the YMCA. Egged on by inflammatory editorials in The Idaho Statesman one called homosexual men a “cancerous growth” and public pressure in the hysteria that followed, the case quickly escalated into something akin to an inquisition.
Nearly 1,500 people were interrogated, often without legal representation. Sixteen men were arrested some for having consensual sex with other adult males and nine were imprisoned for up to life. Some of Boise’s most influential, Old Guard families were devastated overnight, and the event generated national publicity.
“It reminded me of McCarthyism,” recalled Carolyn Terteling, a classmate of Frank’s, and now a Boise city councilwoman. “It was bloodletting.”
The scandal, and Frank’s involvement, is a story that many people including his own family don’t want told.
“I think it’s very foolish to bring it up again,” snapped former Third District Judge Merlin S. Young, who handled the case in which Jones became entangled.
Family and friends of other victims are equally adamant, citing the anger and shame such conversations revive. “It was hideous,” said the sister of one defendant, her voice fairly shaking. “It was just hideous.”
But others see a value in examining the abuses of 1955-56 as a way of preventing a reoccurrence. “We’re living in a time when there certainly are right-wing elements who would like to lead new witch hunts,” said Jonathan Katz, a New York historian who studied the Boise case.
Gene Thomas who at the time was Ada County deputy prosecuting attorney, and later prosecuting attorney says the incident has been mischaracterized over the years, however. It was, plain and simple, an orderly investigation of men having sex with boys less than 16 years old a felony.
“That chapter in Boise’s history,” Thomas said recently, “is a proud chapter no matter what the homosexual community has to say.”
Among those who drew Frank into the scandal, two people stand out.
One was the man who implicated him directly. The other, ironically, was Frank’s own father, “Buck” Jones.
Born Harold T. Jones in Beverly, N.J., Buck moved to Idaho in 1924, when he was 21. He worked as a wool buyer, trading with the area’s Basque sheepherders and marrying a member of one of that community’s better-known families, the Urangas.
In the late ’30s and early ’40s, Buck and his wife Juanita lived in Rexburg, where Frank was born Oct. 13, 1937. The Joneses had one more child, a daughter, then returned to Boise, where Buck ran a men’s clothing store and entered politics. He was elected to the Boise City Council in 1951, the start of nearly 20 years served a record for any member. His name would appear on City Hall, public swimming pools and other buildings.
The man who eventually helped implicate Frank Melvin W. Dir was a brash member of the gay community, “gay as pink ink,” recalled one acquaintance. The son of a well digger, Dir was born in Boise in 1926. He graduated from Boise High and after a couple years in college, then two Navy hitches, returned to Boise in 1952.
One hot summer night a year later, Dir would climb into his car and go for a ride around town. His life, and that of the Jones family, would never be the same again.
By now, Frank was 17 and had every reason to be on top of the world.
He’d been accepted by the nation’s premier military academy, West Point, surviving a grueling application process requiring congressional nomination, and open to only the top 5 percent of U.S. high school grads. Perched high on a hill above the Hudson River 50 miles north of New York City, the 150-year-old institution counted among its alumni Ulysses S. Grant, Douglas MacArthur, and George S. Patton Jr.
Fellow Boise High classmates were enormously proud. “It was just one of those neat things at graduation time,” recalled Richard Crettol. “’We have someone going to West Point.’ I mean, wow, wow, wow.”
At Boise High, Frank joined the concert and pep bands, the French Club and the drill team. And he was an officer in the school’s ROTC program an elite group who wore their uniforms to school every Friday. “It was an honor; it was a prestige-type thing,” said Crettol, who was also an officer in Frank’s battalion.
In a photograph taken during his senior year, a uniformed Frank beams at the camera, looking for all the world like he just stepped out of a bandbox. He has large, expressive eyes. His hair and complexion are dark, reflecting his Basque heritage, and he has a stocky build, perhaps from his father’s side.
“He was just a marvelous guy,” recalled Terteling, the City Council member.
Frank had a seemingly inexhaustable sense of humor a trait he kept throughout most of his adult life, friends said. And he liked to be at the center of the action. “He kind of made things happen,” Crettol said.
Frank left for West Point around June 1955, shortly after graduation.
He wouldn’t be there long, however.
Not unlike today, Boise in the ’50s was a homogeneous, insular community a state capital with just 34,000 residents, many working for government or in the service industry.
Alice Dieter arrived in 1955 with her husband, after friends in De nver sang the city’s praises. The Dieters were among two dozen families transferred by Mountain Bell Telephone Co. So unusual was that sort of influx that The Statesman devoted an entire page, with photographs, to the event.
“That was a big deal,” she said.
People lived mostly north of the Boise River, in and around the North and East ends. The movers and shakers worked downtown, lunched at the Arid Club, and returned in the evening to their hostess wives in Tudor and Georgian-style mansions set on broad green lawns along Harrison Boulevard and what was simply called “The Avenue” “you didn’t even have to say ‘Warm Springs,”’ recalled one woman.
Downtown was still the city’s commercial heart in the fall of ’55. Fireplace screens were on sale at C.C. Anderson’s Department Store. Disney’s “Music Land” was playing at the Egyptian on Main. Rock ‘n’ roll hadn’t conquered the airwaves yet; the McGuire Sisters’ “Sincerely” was near the top of the charts. Dwight and Mamie were in the White House.
“I don’t think it ever was just a small Western town in that sense of the word,” Dieter said. “It was comfortable with itself and its mores and its structure. There was that kind of smugness about it.”
This was a time when no one talked about sex, much less homosexuality, said the woman whose brother was arrested. “If anyone had said the word ‘penis, ‘ 15 women would have fainted.”
And it was just that atmosphere that left so many unprepared for the gathering storm. “It was really a remarkable shocker,” said Wally Pond, one of Frank’s classmates.
The scandal began in earnest late on Halloween Night with the arrest s of three men: a 29-year-old dock worker, a 33-year-old shoe store employee, and a 51-year-old clothing store clerk. Two were charged with lewd and lascivious conduct with children under 16, the third with infamous crimes against nature.
The arrests, disclosed on the front page of The Statesman, said the three had given tape-recorded confessions to “immoral acts” with at least 10 teen-age boys. Even more alarming, the newspaper said a partial investigation showed several other adults and about 100 boys were involved in other, similar activities, and more arrests were expected.
An editorial under the headline “Crush the Monster” demanded action: “Disclosure that the evils of moral perversion prevail in Boise on an extensive scale must come as a distinct and intensely disagreeable shock to most Boiseans.”
Time magazine picked up the story, as did newspapers all along the West Coast, and the impression developed quickly that Boise harbored a vast underground network of wealthy businessmen corrupting boys by paying them for sex.
Under such pressure, and continuing news coverage of every arrest, Ada County Prosecutor Blaine F. Evans pushed ahead.
A private investigator who rooted out gays in the U.S. State Department during the McCarthy era was hired. Working out of a rented home in the North End, he began compiling lists of suspected homosexuals, then interrogated them one at a time, asking for other names. At one point, Mayor Russell E. Edlefsen said 1,472 people had been interviewed.
By December six months after Frank had gone to West Point, and unaware of what was about to happen to his own son Buck and the three other City Council members called for special meas ures to deal with “the homosexual problem,” including a separate prison or jailhouse so that those arrested could receive psychiatric treatment.
They were especially critical of the job law enforcement had been doing up to that point an assertion that came back to haunt Buck in ways he could never have imagined.
As word spread of the growing scandal and the first round of sentences, gay men Mel Dir estimated hundreds began to flee the area in droves.
Dir went to San Francisco, where he worked as a food checker at the Mark Hopkins Hotel. “I didn’t try to hide where I’d gone,” he told Katz, the historian, in 1973. “I was writing to people, and talking to people from Boise, and keeping track of what was going on. It was in every paper on the Coast; you could see it on the front page wherever you went.”
Someone apparently one of the men previously convicted ratted on Dir. On the last day of 1955, he was charged with the infamous crime against nature a felony and specifically for performing oral sex on another male. His name: Frank Jones.
Days later, Ada County Sheriff C.L. “Doc” House and his wife drove to San Francisco to present Dir with the charge. The three of them returned to Boise, where Frank’s fate was soon sealed.
At the North End house, the investigators played a tape recording apparently made at West Point in which Frank said Dir had forced him to have sex at gun point.
Dir denied Frank’s allegations and, in a hand-written statement, told his version of what happened that hot July evening more than two years before.
At the time, the summer of 1953, Frank was nearly 16, and about to enter his junior year at Boise High. Dir was nearly 27.
He claimed he first met Frank with a group of his friends, boys and girls, and offered them all a ride home. Frank didn’t want to go right away, however,”because he seldom got a chance to stay out late,” Dir said.
The two drove down Warm Springs Avenue, eventually parking at the site of the old Natatorium swimming park. The conversation got around to a man named Benny Cassel who eventually would be sentenced to 10 years in prison during the investigations and Frank said he understood that Dir knew him.
“I said ‘yes,”’ Dir replied. “He said ‘How well?’ I said, ‘well enough.’ He said, well you must like to have sex then if you know Benny, so we had a mutual oral copulation.”
Afterward, they talked about sexual liaisons Frank had had with a high school classmate and with a cousin both of whom Frank identified by name, according to Dir. And he spoke of homosexual activities that had taken place at Boy Scout camp ironically, Buck’s favorite youth cause.
Dir said he and Frank met, by chance, twice again after that night, and both times engaged in sex.
Finally, so there’d be no doubt about who Frank was, Dir told the investigators: “I wish to state he is the son of Harold T. ‘Buck’ Jones.”
Frank was summarily thrown out of West Point, apparently that spring.
Sheriff House had traveled to the academy and told the boy about what the authorities knew, tipping off school administrators in the process. Frank was told he’d have to come back to Boise to testify at Dir’s trial. Author John Gerassi, who wrote about the scandal in his 1966 book “The Boys of Boise,” said it was a calculated move to embarrass Buck paying him back for criticizing the cops.
Dir was never tried, however, so Frank wasn’t able to confirm or deny his account in court. Dir pled guilty, throwing himself on Judge Young’s mercy. He had reason to worry; Young had sentenced one of the earlier defendants to life in prison.
But Young sentenced Dir to a five-year, withheld sentence, put him on probation, and ordered him to spend six months in the county jail.
Buck and Juanita were stunned at Frank’s involvement, and the consequences, recalled family friend John Corlett. “They were deeply, deeply upset. They just had no idea about Frank ... and they did not believe it.”
In the only known interview Buck gave on the subject with Gerassi, albeit one in which his identity was disguised the councilman was nearly in tears.
“‘It was a political witch hunt,”’ Buck was quoted as saying. “‘What they did to my kid was disgusting. They didn’t tell me a thing. He was in West Point and in their investigation they found out that he had had a homosexual experience four years (actually three) earlier. They could have told me about it, and I would have had him brought home on an emergency leave and then we could have gone into the whole thing.”
Buck wouldn’t say why he and the council pushed so hard for the investigations in the first place. “‘My son has made another career,”’ Buck said. “‘He’s all right now. Let’s leave him alone.”’
It wasn’t entirely clear, however, that Frank was all right.
In 1957, Frank married Sharon Bidiman, who had been one year behind him at Boise High, and at some point they adopted two children.
They eventually relocated to Portland, where Frank worked in sales for Pennsalt Corp., a chemicals concern. It was the start of a nearly 20-year exodus from Boise.
Frank earned his bachelor’s in science from Portland State University, a small institution that was a far cry from West Point. He seemed to take the changed circumstances in stride, however. “I never knew Frank to cry over spilled milk,” Crettol said.
Friends don’t remember Frank ever referring to West Point or the events of 1955-56; most were surprised to hear about them. “Frank didn’t have those tendencies,” Crettol said, sounding uncomfortable with the topic of his former buddy’s sexuality.
Frank worked for Pennsalt for about 15 years, in Portland and then Philadelphia, eventually getting promoted to brand manager. “He was a consummate salesman, wheeler-dealer type,” recalled a co-worker. “He really liked to be where there was lots and lots of action.”
By all accounts, he seemed happy “always moving around, always laughing, always joking.” That outwardly jovial nature left friends jolted by his suicide. “It was just hard to believe,” said one.
By 1979, and living in St. Louis, Frank and Sharon’s marriage was in trouble. Sharon filed for divorce, although her petition was dropped by the court when she didn’t pursue it. They relocated to Boise later that year, but separated soon after.
Frank suffered from depression, and family members told the police he was an alcoholic, and indicated he was under a doctor’s care. The once-handsome boy was 70 pounds overweight, balding, and wore glasses and a beard.
In November 1981, he took an overdose of pills in an unsuccessful suicide attempt. On Feb. 15, 1982 a rainy Monday at about 9 p.m., and dressed in a blue windbreaker and carrying a brief case he eased his aging Ford sedan into the parking lot of the Rodeway Inn, less than a mile from his West Boise apartment. An hour later, he was dead, at 44.
When the dust settled at the end of the yearlong Boys of Boise inquiry, the city concluded it didn’t have a disproportionate number of gay men after all. A handful of men had indeed been having sex with boys, but some of the kids had criminal backgrounds including one who murdered his father midway through the investigations. And there’d never been an organized homosexual ring.
Dir eventually served 18 months at the old State Penitentiary, for having consensual sex with fellow inmates at the county jail while serving time for the case in which Frank was involved. Dir, who turned 69 last month, declined to be interviewed, citing concerns about his safety.
Both Thomas and his predecessor, Evans, still practice law. Thomas eventually was elected president of the American Bar Association, a position he held in 1986-87. Evans declined an interview request.
Young became a U.S. bankruptcy judge, then retired in 1984, when he was 65.
Buck died of heart failure at 86, on the eighth anniversary of Frank’s suicide. Juanita died three years later, at 84.
Frank lies at Morris Hill Cemetery, within the cool shadow of a large oak tree. Buck’s cremated remains were buried on his grave for a time, briefly uniting father and son after so much turmoil. But Buck’s ashes were later removed and reburied on the other side of the cemetery, beside Juanita’s.
Frank is alone again.
Why Frank killed himself may never be answered. He didn’t leave a suicide note, and those presumably closest to him at the end his sister, widow and children declined to be interviewed.
What killed Frank is a more complex question, taking in possibilities that go far beyond the strictly medical means employed by a coroner. Was it the long arm of a community’s fear? Revenge? Shame?
Without a doubt, Frank’s life changed dramatically when scandal cost him his West Point degree, sending his life skittering in a far different direction.
And how did the city fare?
“It probably brought Boise into the current times faster than a small community might have otherwise been brought up to speed on,” said Wayne Kidwell, a former Ada County prosecuting attorney critical of the investigations.
“It’s a better place,” said Thomas, “by virtue of the fact that law enforcement responded in its highest tradition, and did it effectively. It’s a worse place in that this awful pattern of crime against children had become part of Boise.”
The former prosecutor said every effort was made to protect Frank and the other juveniles. Inevitably, however, some were hurt, Thomas said. “You know as well as I do that, practically, life is cruel at times.”
Frank and his family were among those hurt.
“It’s awesome to me to think that the repercussions to that occurrence are still being felt,” Councilwoman Terteling said. “Like a rock in a pond; the ripples go on and on.”