Truman Capote’s “nonfiction novel” In Cold Blood, published in 1966, told the story of Perry Smith and Dick Hickock, two murderous drifters who, in the course of a pathetically nonlucrative robbery, killed Herbert and Bonnie Clutter and two of their children on the family’s Kansas farm. The crime confounded investigators, both for its senselessness and viciousness. But they eventually linked the Clutter murders to Smith and Hickock, the latter of whom had heard from a prison acquaintance that Herbert had $10,000 in a safe in his office. The men were arrested at the tail end of 1959 and executed in 1965.
Now, the Guardian reports that authorities in Florida’s Sarasota County suspect Smith and Hickock may be guilty of another famous unsolved crime:
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.
For decades, investigators believed the Walkers were killed by somebody who knew the family. There were only four items stolen from their house—a carton of cigarettes, a pocketknife, Cliff and Christine’s marriage certificate, and Christine’s high-school majorette uniform. To investigators, this seemed to indicate the culprit was fixated on Christine Walker and was perhaps even a secret lover. It would be a shocking twist if Smith and Hickock were the killers all along, one sure to delight true crime fans and Hollywood executives. (Coming to theaters in 2014: In Cold Blood 2: Colder and Bloodier.)
Certainly, the Walker case bears a few similarities to the Clutter murders. Both were families of four, two parents and two children. All eight victims were shot to death. Christine Walker was raped before she was shot; in In Cold Blood, Capote writes that Hickock attempted to rape 16-year-old Nancy Clutter before being stopped by Smith. When he was arrested, Hickock was carrying a knife resembling the one that had been stolen from Cliff Walker. Though polygraph tests cleared Smith and Hickock of the Walker murders at the time, those tests were later deemed unreliable.
Matthew Doig wrote a comprehensive series about the Walker case for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune in 2005 and has maintained an interest in the story. “This is one of those cases that gets under your skin,” he told me. Doig finds it plausible that Hickock and Smith were the culprits, citing witnesses who placed the two in the area at the time and numerous police errors that prematurely removed them from suspicion. “Basically, they were ruled out over faulty fingerprinting and a faulty lie-detector test,” he says.
Even so, the In Cold Blood connection is not entirely convincing. Yes, Cliff Walker had wanted to buy a car similar to the one Hickock and Smith had been driving. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that Walker had actually tried to buy Hickock and Smith’s car. Two hairs found at the crime scene match Smith and Hickock’s hair colors, but they also match millions of other people who have black and blond hair. Hickock and Smith were seen the day after the Walker murders with scratches and welts on their faces. But those marks prove nothing—they could have come from a different crime, or a fight, or a shaving accident.
McGath’s theory will ultimately be proved right or wrong based on the DNA evidence she gathers. She’s preparing a brief that, she hopes, will allow her to exhume the suspects’ bodies. But it’s unclear whether technicians would even be able to extract any usable DNA from Smith and Hickock’s long-decayed corpses. DNA begins to degrade right around the moment of death, though the rate of decomposition can vary depending on lots of factors, including the location where the body is buried. Shannon McFarland of the Herald-Tribune writes that “viable DNA tends to last longer in bodies buried in arid areas with higher elevations, like Kansas.” But the manager of the cemetery in which the bodies are buried told the AP that “it’s likely that only bones remain in the Kansas coffins.”
“There are so many reasons [why the DNA might not be extractable], and there is a possibility that we may not have a match,” McGath told the Herald-Tribune. But no matter what science says, there’s some literary evidence that Smith and Hickock claimed responsibility for the crime, if only indirectly. In In Cold Blood, Capote writes about Smith reading a newspaper story about the Walker murders while he and Hickock were on the run. “Amazing!” Smith said to 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.”