The Clutter Family Murders

My true crime "obsession" is not limited to watching documentaries on television.  I read as many books as I can on the subject also.  You cannot truly call yourself a true crime fanatic and not know that the book "In Cold Blood" is often considered to be the first true crime book written.  In fact when Truman Capote published it (first through articles in the New Yorker magazine) he touted it as being a new genre in books. There are just several problems with this.  Despite Capote using the actual names of the perpetrators and the victims, as well as places and telling some of the story, he did not stay with the facts and even invented some characters. To be fair it is labeled as a "nonfiction novel" which in my experience the word novel itself does indicate fiction.  However, it is a good starting point.  In the same respect I liken it to what Hollywood has done to movies over the years based on true stories and it is a huge pet peeve of mine.  Few people take the time to search a story after watching a movie (or even a documentary about a case) based on a true story and just accept the story as it is told on the screen.  Although Capote's book was a best seller the most criticism came from the people who knew and were closest to the Clutter family in Holcomb Kansas.  Considering the fact that the crime from this story took place in 1959 and In Cold Blood was published in 1966 and has gone down as factual it is a bit difficult to sometimes weed through the facts and the fiction but I will do my best to do just that.

On Sunday November 15, 1959 no one had seen the Clutter family and that was unusual.  Things seemed a bit odd at the home so the police were called.  The Clutter family consisted of Herbert Clutter (48), his wife, Bonnie (45) and their two teenage children, daughter, Nancy (15) and son, Kenyon (14).  They had two older daughter, Beverly and Eveanna who had already moved out of the farm house they owned along with about 7 acres just outside the town of Holcomb Kansas.  Holcomb Kansas is located in Finney County and by all accounts I could find is a small area just outside the small town of Garden City Kansas.  In fact, when the police were called to the home it was Garden City in which who responded.  It was the police who entered the home that found the bodies of the four Clutter family members while searching the ransacked home. Herbert and his son were found in the basement.  Herbert had his throat cut and also had a gun shot wound to his head, as did Kenyon.  Upstairs in their respective bedrooms officers found the bodies of Bonnie and Nancy who also both had gunshot wounds to their heads.  All of the victims were bound by their hands and all but Nancy were gagged or had tape on their mouth.  

Forensics were pretty unheard of beyond fingerprints but the assistant chief Ritch Rohleder had begun working on taking crime scene photos.  Although not available to the naked eye there was a bloody shoe print left at the scene and Rohleder took pictures of tire tracks that had left the scene. But the leads as they were ended there.  The massacre made national news fairly quickly and rewards were offered.  When prison inmate, Floyd Wells heard about the murders he set up a meeting with the prison warden to tell him what he knew. Wells had worked on Herb Clutter's farm at one time and then later had been a prison cellmate of Richard Hickock.  Wells told the warden that he is sure it was Hickock who had committed the murders and that it was probably because of information he had given Hickock about the Clutters.  Wells admitted to telling Hickock that Herb Clutter had a safe in his home in which he kept up to $10,000 (or more) in because he did not trust banks.  Hickock seemed to be obsessed with this so this is why he was sure that he was involved.  In the end Wells was correct and for his cooperation he received a $1,000 reward and an early release from prison.  Many say that karma eventually got Wells because he was later convicted of armed robbery and received a 30 year sentence and was subsequently killed in a Mississippi prison break.

Wells' information gave the investigation their first real lead.  By now the KBI (Kansas Bureau of Investigations) was on the case.  It was later pieced together that Richard Hickock had in fact been obsessed with the information Wells gave him and had enlisted the help of Perry Smith, another person he had met while serving time that had been released from jail.  KBI agent Alvin Dewey immediately began to try tracking down the duo but of course they had a head start.  

In the meantime Hickock and Smith had headed to Kansas City where apparently Hickock had passed some bad checks (uncertain on who's account this was from) and when things became heated a few days later they headed to Mexico.  It was here that they pawned  pair of binoculars they had stolen from the Clutter home  from there they began hitchhiking back through California, made a stop through Nebraska and then on to Iowa.  It was in Iowa that they stole a car and headed to Florida.  It has been said that during the time they were in Florida another family murder occurred.  I will go into that more later but on for now I will just give you the quick view.  On December 19, 1959 the bodies of Cliff Walker, his wife Christine and their two toddler children were found in their home.  Hickock and Smith remain suspects in the case in 2016 although officially it is unsolved.  After leaving Florida the two men headed to Nevada with the KBI what it seems always just  step behind.  Finally on December 31, 1959 they were caught in Nevada, still driving the car they had stolen in Iowa.

It seems the two readily confessed to the murders of the Clutters and eventually were sent back to Kansas to face trial. They admitted that they entered the Clutter home looking for the safe they had heard about.  They had gone inside in the middle of the night and after not being able to find the safe where they were told it would be they went and woke up Herb Clutter who confirmed that there was no safe.  They eventually would bound and murder the four family members in the home. Hickock would say that Perry had stopped him from sexually assaulting Nancy Clutter. They had left the home with less than $50, a pair of binoculars and a transistor radio.  Hickock and Perry were convicted and sentenced to death on March 29, 1960. After all of their appeals had failed they faced the hangman's noose on April 14, 1965.  Hickock was pronounced dead at 12:41 am and Smith quickly followed at 1:19.  They had been brought out together and Smith would be present and see as Hickock's sentence was carried out. 

During all of this time Truman Capote had become fascinated with the case and had begun writing what started out as articles but would turn into his book "In Cold Blood." Helping him with research was his friend and fellow writer, Harper Lee who would become famous for her book "To Kill a Mockingbird."  "To Kill a Mockingbird" was published in 1960 and it was the following year that Capote began his research. It was also in 1961 that Lee won the Pulitzer Prize for her book. To be a bit fair to Capote, I believe some of the animosity towards him not only had to do with the fact that he was from New York and he was "invading" a small farming community in the mid-west, but also because he was openly homosexual in a time where homosexuality was still a taboo, especially in a small town in the mid-west.  Many have complained that Capote's story was wholly inaccurate, and as I said earlier, he even invented characters.  There are also rumors that have persisted that Capote became especially close to Perry Smith and so his portrayal of him in particular was not as accurate as it could have been.  Family members apparently have at least a few major criticisms about the book and of Capote himself.  They insist that Capote over exaggerated the wealth in which the Clutter family had.  It is true that Herb Clutter was becoming a leader in the agriculture world and was in fact on a few committees on the subject for Washington D.C. but that they did struggle financially and were no where near as wealthy as Capote indicated.  They also criticize him for his take on Bonnie Clutter.  While I did not necessarily address the issue here because for me it matters not the character of Bonnie to tell the story of her death but it does matter to those who knew her.  Capote portrayed Bonnie Clutter in a way in which many believe she was mentally unstable who had all but withdrew from society.  While family members agree apparently that Bonnie did suffer some from depression they maintain it never stopped her from being a loving wife and mother to her family or being active in her church.  She was apparently on medication and had spent some time off and on in the hospital but those closest to Bonnie say that Capote basically took that and ran with it, indicating as if she was all but an invalid and unable to function properly.  All close friends and family insist this is not true.  The two older Clutter daughters, who were already out of the home by 1959, rarely give interviews but in one they maintained that part of their issues with Capote surrounded the fact that he did not adequately interview those closest with the family and had promised that before any article would be published they would be able to review it and he had not fulfilled that promise. Many believe, and maybe rightfully so, that Capote was cashing in on a tragedy in their town because of the media sensation.  "In Cold Blood" would be Capote's last full length novel and it was said that after it was published in January of 1966 Capote himself fell into depression and alcoholism.  He would die in 1984 of liver cancer.  It was also said that after the publication his friendship with Harper Lee also waned.  They had been friends since they were young children, and in fact one of the characters in her book was based on Capote.  I could find nothing that could pinpoint exactly what happened to their friendship, only that after this case and story they became increasingly distant.  

The story of the Clutter's, nor of Hickock and Smith, ends here however.  If you do a search on this case you will continue to find articles written on the Clutters and the impact they, this crime, the book, and subsequent movies have had on them.  The home in which the Clutter's lived, and Herb Clutter had build in 1948, was sold in 1964 to a man named Bob Byrd.  He apparently did not live there much and traveled a lot for his job.  He would later rent the home out so that the movie, based on Capote's book, could be filmed in the actual Clutter home.  All I could really find on Byrd was that after owning the home for about 20 years he had committed suicide (it was pointed out that it did not happen in the home) but I could find nothing on the possible reasoning.  In 1990 a local couple, Leonard and Donna Mader bought the home.  It was said that they were increasingly frustrated at the fact of all of the traffic that the home brought.  It seems tourists were constantly flocking to the home to see where the Clutter family had died some 30+ years prior.  Finally the Mader's decided to open the home for tours and began charging $5.00.  It did not last long however due to the criticism they received as well as it was claimed they were tired of keeping a museum looking home.  It was said they had began them in the first place thinking they could at least gain some monetary compensation for the other frustrations they had since apparently the "Private Property" and "No Trespassing" signs did not work.   My research indicated that in 2006 the property was up for auction but did not sell and it was assumed that the Mader's still own the home but was uncertain if this was true.

Then there was still the Walker case in Florida to look into.  If you do a search about the Clutters which will obviously involve talk of Richard Hickock and Perry Smith you will find information about the Walker case, or at the very least a reference.  Authorities know that at some point, at least close to that time, the duo was in that area of Florida.  Hickock would maintain that on that day (December 19th) they were already gone, but no one knows for sure.  Before their executions the pair were questioned and even given polygraph tests about the Walker case.  According to information at the time it was maintained that they passed the polygraph's but over time and through modern science evolving most agree that the method's used are not reliable.  So in 2012 it was decided to see if they could test DNA from the men against the Walker case.  The bodies of Hickock and Smith were exhumed and DNA was obtained.  However, it seems that the samples saved from the crime scene were not well preserved and degraded and only a partial profile could be obtained.  It was said that although the two men were not excluded from being suspects but it could not be conclusively proven either.  Considering that there seems to have been no other real evidence found at the scene and what was found was not obviously preserved well it is unlikely that the crime of the Walker family will ever be solved.


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