Police think crime similar to the one made famous in Truman Capote’s novel may have been committed by the same duo
Two men hanged almost five decades ago for a murder that inspired one of the greatest true-crime novels of all time could soon be unmasked as the perpetrators of another violent slaying in Florida, cold-case detectives believe.
Perry Smith and Richard “Dick” Hickock were featured in Truman Capote‘s sixties classic In Cold Blood that chronicled the brutal murder of a young Kansas couple and two of their four children at a remote farmhouse six years earlier. The two were convicted and hanged in 1965.
Now, a judge will rule whether their bodies can be exhumed to try to match them to a similar 1959 killing in Osprey, Florida, in which another young family was shot to death, a crime that shocked the small rural community.
Kim McGath, a detective with the Sarasota County sheriff’s office who has been working the cold case for four years, believes DNA evidence might show that the pair was responsible for the deaths of Cliff and Christine Walker and their children Jimmie, 3, and Debbie, 2.
In what McGath calls “the most plausible theory”, Smith and Hickock, who had been on the run from authorities in Kansas for a month, and who were seen in Florida hustling for odd jobs in the week leading up to the 19 December murders, attacked the Walkers in their home after setting up a bogus deal to sell them a new car.
They were already suspects in the 15 November murders in Holcomb, Kansas, in which Smith slit farmer Herbert Clutter’s throat then shot his wife, Bonnie, daughter, Nancy, 16, and son, Kenyon, 15, with a shotgun.
“The case remains unsolved and we have no way of knowing how long this process will take, but we hope to get to a point where we can compare evidence and arrive at a conclusion where we have sufficient evidence to say they did it, or clear them,” Captain Jeff Bell of the sheriff’s office told the Guardian.
“We never close any unsolved homicide, especially one as traumatic as this was for the family and for the community.”
Smith, who was 31 at the time, and Hickock, 28, were named as possible suspects in the Walker murders in January 1960 by the then-Sarasota County sheriff Ross Boyer. He told the Sarasota-Herald Tribune newspaper that there were “a lot of unanswered questions” about their involvement.
But there is no record of his detectives ever travelling to Nevada to interview them following their capture in Las Vegas, and the pair was cleared when they passed since-discredited lie detector tests.
In an interview for Capote’s book, Smith claimed that he first read about the Walker case in a newspaper and found it “amazing”. He reportedly told Hickock: “Know what? I wouldn’t be surprised if this wasn’t done by a lunatic, some nut that read about what happened out in Kansas.”
Detective McGath said that the suspects could not be pinned to the crime back then because of the more primitive forensic procedures of the era, and because investigators allowed the crime scene to be contaminated. For example, press photographers were let into the home where Mrs Walker was raped and all four victims were shot, and a police vehicle drove over tyre tracks outside.
However, advances in DNA testing mean that semen samples and a previously unidentified hair found on Mrs Walker’s body and elsewhere in the house, and a bloody cowboy hat discovered at the scene, can now be analysed and possibly matched to the dead men.
Captain Bell said that even if the request for exhumation was approved it was not certain that the condition of the bodies would yield credible samples. “Fifty years on, we don’t know what we will find,” he said. “I’ve been with the sheriff’s office for 30 years and none of us has much experience of doing this.”
Detective McGath, Bell said, had spent many hours, often in her own time, sifting diligently through “volumes and volumes” of paperwork and talking with surviving relatives of the Walkers, in Florida and elsewhere.
“We don’t have any way of knowing if this will solve the case but she has put us in the best position to do so and hopefully bring closure to the family and the community,” he added.
Libby Webster, 57, a former neighbour of the Walkers who said she used to play with the children, said the crime left a lasting imprint on the residents of Osprey for years afterwards.
“We did not lock our doors ever until this happened. I remember feeling afraid for the first time in my young life then. I sensed the fear in my parents, and they had never shown any fear before that happened,” she said in a Facebook message.
“It is so sad. I hope and pray they find who [did] this horrible crime. It is too bad the evil ones are already dead. I can only hope and pray that God will serve justice for the Walker family.”
Dance hall described in Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (Flickr user Eli Nixon)