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Guest Post by the Author of The Vampire Next Door

Thawing a Cold Case: Did Truman Capote Tell Us the Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing But the Truth? 

Guest Post by JT Hunter

On December 15, 1959, a family of four was found murdered in their home in Osprey, Florida, about twenty minutes north of Sarasota. Cliff Walker, his wife Christine, and their two children had been shot to death with a .22 caliber rifle. Christine was brutally raped, then dragged into the living room and shot twice in the head. Cliff and the two children arrived home moments after Christine had been killed. They entered the house unaware that anything was wrong. As Cliff stepped into the living room, he was shot dead by a single bullet to the eye. He fell straight back, cowboy hat still in place on his head, as his two young children watched in horror. Three-year-old Jimmie was shot three times as he crawled to his father’s side, and died next to him on the living room floor. Two-year-old Debbie was shot once in the head and then taken to a bathroom where she was drowned face down in the shallow water a hastily filled bathtub.

In the over 50 years that passed since the quadruple murder, more than 500 suspects were considered or investigated, including Christine’s rumored lover, a lecherous neighbor who once made a pass at her, and a meter reader who regularly passed by the Walker home and admitted to having thoughts of killing his own wife and family. Despite more than half a century of investigation, the Walker family murder has never been solved.

Exactly one month prior to the Walker massacre, two men recently released from prison, broke into the Clutter family farmhouse in Holcomb, Kansas, in the mistaken belief that the Clutters kept a safe full of cash in their home. After binding and gagging Herb Clutter, his wife Bonnie, and their two teenaged children, Nancy and Kenyon, the two assailants shot the Clutters one-by-one. All were killed at close range by a shotgun blast to the head. After a jailhouse informant identified Dick Hickock and Perry Smith as the Clutter family killers, the two men were captured in Las Vegas on December 30, 1959. They confessed to the Clutter murders, were convicted of the crimes by a jury, and subsequently executed on April 14, 1965 by hanging.

Published in 1966, In Cold Blood, Truman Capote’s in-depth account of the Clutter family murder and its aftermath, helped pioneer a new literary form, the “nonfiction” novel. Capote’s novel has stood as a seminal true-crime work for nearly half a century. However, in 2012, a cold-case detective with the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office asserted a theory that raised substantial questions about the veracity of Capote’s true-crime story.

The Theory

Just as Capote had to reconstruct actual events based on witness interviews and other relevant documentary evidence, a homicide detective’s investigation involves spending day-after-day building a narrative, trying to piece together the true story of what happened.

Based on an extensive review of the evidence, the Sarasota County cold-case detective became convinced that the Walker family murders were committed by the same men who killed the Clutter family. The evidence supporting the theory included multiple reported sightings of Dick Hickcock and Perry Smith in the Sarasota area in the days leading up to the December 15, 1959 murders, including witness testimony that they were seen buying items in a Sarasota department store the day of the murders. (As Capote reported in his novel, Hickock and Smith stopped in a hardware store shortly before killing the Clutters). Witness interviews also established that, on the day of their murders, the Walker family had been car-shopping in Sarasota and had test driven the same make and model car that the cash-strapped Hickcock and Smith were seen driving in the area, a 1956 Chevy Bel Air. Other witnesses reported seeing Hickock and Smith check out of a Miami Beach motel on the morning of the Walker murders.

The detective theorized that Hickock and Smith and the Walker family crossed paths at some point that day, and that the Walkers might have expressed an interest in purchasing the cash-strapped Hickock and Smiths’ car. At that point, Christine Walker, an attractive young woman, could have been targeted by Hickock for rape. Hickock revealed his inclinations in this regard in the novel:

One thing I never told you about the Clutter deal is this. Before I ever went to their house I knew there would be a girl there. I think the main reason I went there was not to rob them but to rape the girl. Because I thought a lot about it. That is one reason why I never wanted to turn back when we started to. . . . I did make some advances toward the Clutter girl when I was there. But Perry never gave me chance (278).

And when Hickock and Smith came by the Walker’s house to consummate the sale, Hickock may have acted on his urges. When Christine put up a fight in self-defense, he killed her, and then killed the rest of the family when they returned home shortly thereafter. One witness who saw Hickock in the area reported that he had scratches on his face. Might they have been inflicted by Christine’s nails as she tried to resist her assailant?

Capote mentioned the Walker murders in his true-crime novel, and referred to the fact that Hickcock and Smith were briefly suspects in the Walker case, noting that Hickcock and Smith both took lie detector tests which were “decisively negative.” In Capote’s representation, while lounging on the beach at their Miami Beach motel on Ocean Drive, Perry Smith reads a Miami Herald newspaper article about the Walker murders, and discusses the article with Hickock, ultimately attributing them to a copy-cat killer.

Capote’s novel places Smith and Hickcock in Tallahassee on the evening of the Walker murders, nearly 300 miles away from the Osprey crime scene. Capote’s account also reports that Smith quickly killed the Clutters to spare Nancy Clutter from being raped by Hickock, who admitted to wanting to do so:

Several months after identifying Hickock and Smith as her prime suspects in the Walker family murder, the Sarasota detective read In Cold Blood, looking for any factual leads in the text that might need to be followed up in her investigation. Although she didn’t find any leads, she identified a considerable number of inconsistencies between Capote’s rendition of events and the witness testimony and documentary evidence gathered by the Sarasota Sheriff’s Office.

There were significant conflicts between where Hickock and Smith said they were during the December 1959 week in which the Walker family was killed and where witnesses and receipts placed the two men. Additionally, some statements or acts that the novel attributed to Hickcock appeared to be inaccurate in that they were actually said or done by Smith, and vice-versa. The detective also determined that the carefully detailed scene from Capote’s novel in which Perry reads about the Walker murders in a Miami Herald newspaper story could never have happened. Why not? Because the Miami Herald never published any stories about the Walker murders.

Smith and Hickcock denied any involvement in the Walker murders, and in April 1960, one month after being convicted in the Clutter family murders, both men agreed to take a polygraph examination about the Walkers. According to the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, the polygraph results indicated that the two men had “no knowledge of a quadruple slaying in Osprey, Florida.” Additionally, their fingerprints did not appear to match a partial print recovered at the Walker murder scene.

DNA Testing

On December 18, 2012, Sarasota investigators flew to Lansing, Kansas to attend the exhumation of the bodies of Hickcock and Smith to see if DNA samples taken from their remains could be matched to DNA from semen stains preserved from the Walker family crime scene. After a protracted nine-month testing process, the Sarasota Sheriff’s Office announced on August 14, 2013 that DNA testing from the Kansas Bureau of Investigation and a private DNA lab had failed to link Hickcock and Smith to the Walker homicides. Due to the age and condition of the source materials, only partial DNA profiles could be generated. In announcing the inconclusiveness of the DNA testing, the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office announced that it had “exhausted the extent of scientific testing available today.”

If the tests from the partial DNA profiles had been conclusive and placed Hickock and Perry at the Walker family murder scene, it is no exaggeration to say that the ramifications would have rocked the literary world. Despite the insufficient DNA evidence, the Sarasota detective’s theory pointing to Hickock and Perry as the Walker family killers remains an intriguing and viable explanation of the crime. 

For a more detailed look at the case in a quick-read format, check out my book: In Colder Blood.

Comments

  1. I read this book years ago and found this quite interesting.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I definitely want to read more work by this author! I really enjoyed A Monster of All Time.

    ReplyDelete

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