I don’t often post two guests back-to-back, but Kim McGath‘s post makes the perfect Segway into my next post about serial killer couples/partners. Plus, she’s a retired homicide detective and cold case expert (and one of my closest friends) and she’s fascinating. Long time readers of the blog might remember she cracked the Zodiac case. You can find that post here: Who Is The Zodiac killer? Her theory will blow you away. Today, she’s here to discuss another widely publicized case, The In Cold Blood Murders. All yours, Kim!
Two picturesque, quaint towns interlocked in tragedy — forever linked in cold blood. The hardworking men worked the land, the modest women tended to their homes, and their children walked to nearby schools that are now silent reminders of a simpler time. Few can grasp the devastation caused by two men — a fear so deeply instilled, it would ripple through the generations.
Most people are familiar with the Clutter case, regardless of age. The tragic events left an imprint on the souls of those living at the time , just as the events of JFK’s assassination or 9/11 impacted so many. Even millennials are also acquainted, as Truman Capote’s work is part of the curriculum for most pre-graduate literature courses.
I was introduced to the miscreants in a far different way — a manner most intimate. The night I graduated from the police academy, a dear friend, who happened to be a captain, gave me a most precious gift.
Excerpt from Infallible Witness, book two of Rewritten In Cold Blood.
So intrigued by the snapshots of moonshiners and lawmen, I forgot about the verbal foreplay. A turn of the page revealed a picture of an old house laying still against its surroundings, like a mouse playing dead. Similar to Lucy’s journey into Lewis’ wardrobe, it was a portal to another place, a time of generations past. Eerie.
The title read, The Infamous Walker Case — all murdered in their own home… not even the baby was spared. Heart-wrenching. A crime scene photograph was on display for all to see. Why? My muscles tensed and the facial heat rose, as the blood raced to its desired height.
The lights flickered while the faint rumbles in the distance announced an approaching squall. An energy surge passed through me — a familiar childhood sensation. An overwhelming presence of a life extinguished so long ago, yet there she was… Christine Walker. The bond was instant; strong.
Shaking Quinn’s shoulders, I was eager to share this with him, as I was with anything of impact. The words blurted out, “Honey, you have to see this!” Like most of our conversations, the minutes quickly turned into hours.
“We’d better get some sleep.”
Looking at him, I could tell that rest wasn’t really on his mind. Kissing me tenderly on the neck was a sly move. Who was I to say no?
“I know this sounds crazy, but I’m gonna solve this case someday, baby.”
“I know you will,” he said with sincerity as he turned out the lights.
The Book of the Dead was finally opened.
While most people immediately recognize the Clutter homicides, in large part due to Capote’s novel, many outside of our local jurisdiction, before 2012, were unfamiliar with the Walker homicides.
Excerpt from Akin to Murder, book one of Rewritten In Cold Blood
Evil arrived here many years ago, silencing four souls and leaving a community forever shaken. It happened in Osprey, a small fishing town, situated on the intracoastal, a tranquil route, and a flowing invitation to the Gulf of Mexico. An abundant bounty of Spanish Mackerel, Gray Snapper, Blue Crab, and Striped Mullet awaited all who settled there. The lure of overflowing nets and limitless sunshine drew fishermen from all over. It was not as envisioned though, and it became a hard life for those who chose it, unlike the lifestyles of their affluent neighbors, artsy types who lived on the various seclusive keys.
John Ringling brought the circus to Sarasota and Bertha Palmer her wealth, but none of it infiltrated down to the indefatigable townsfolk of Osprey.
Most of the men spoke in the harsh Florida cracker dialect, brought down from migrating Southerners, mainly Alabama and Georgia. Those that didn’t fish for a living, worked the cattle and the land. Clad in Wranglers and cowboy hats, they lived on the fringe. Worn by the sun and tattered by the incessant work, the residents aged faster than their prosperous neighbors.
While Capote introduced much of the world to the infamous killers, Richard Hickock and Perry Smith, surprisingly, most critics consider his work to be an investigative source without error. Here is an excerpt from Crossing Capote, book III of the trilogy:
It is important to keep in mind that Capote was an author, a writer, not an experienced detective or interviewer. Capote would have been painfully ill-equipped to properly interview either Hickock or Smith, and probably did not possess the skills to detect deceit.
According to various sources, Capote was eager for Hickock and Smith to hang at the gallows on April 14, 1965, so he could finish his beloved masterpiece. If there is any truth to the matter, one could safely assume a prolonged investigation into these convicts’ connection to the Walker murders would not have served Capote’s needs.
Over the years, there have been many insinuations that Truman Capote had an inappropriate relationship with convicted killer Perry Smith. Either way, it is not my
place to judge Capote; but such relationships between interviewers and inmates exist and are not uncommon, particularly if there is prolonged contact. Traumatic bonds are known to occur, even between victims and their captors, such as in Stockholm Syndrome.
While investigating the Zodiac killer, I found evidence of such an odd bond between the suspect and one of his interviewers. Even trained professionals can place an unusual amount of trust into the veracity of criminal’s statements. So when Truman Capote wrote “facts” about the whereabouts of Hickock and Smith, the reader is essentially depending upon the trustworthiness of a convicted family killer, more so than Capote himself.
Serial Mass Murderers
Richard Hickock and Perry Smith are by the FBI’s definition mass murderers, as they killed four people at one time. The notorious duo are also serial killers in that they allegedly killed a family of four twice, with a brief “cooling-off” period. Does this make them unique?
So why did Hickock and Smith select another family as their victims? Most likely the men themselves did not realize it consciously. There is a psychological occurrence in which a subject repeats an act over and over again, particularly in traumatic situations. Generally, this occurs subconsciously. The acts are replicated, perhaps in an effort to repair the damage caused from the initial act. Freud thought that the purpose of this compulsion was to obtain mastery. If the renowned psychoanalyst was correct, perhaps these disturbing killers were viscerally trying to master their craft. So… when Hickock and Smith were murdering the Walkers, they were in a sense re-enacting the Clutter murders. So much so in fact, they murdered the family members in the same order at both scenes: Father, son, daughter, mother.
Identification with the Aggressor
Another glimpse into Perry Smith’s psyche can be found inside the Walker crime scene. The youngest victim, just a toddler, was found in the bathtub. All of the family members were shot, but early investigators were puzzled as to why this particular victim was drowned. One theory was that the killer ran out of ammunition. Whilst this is a possible explanation, there is evidence to contradict this finding. Delving into Perry Smith’s background, it soon became apparent why this happened.
Perry Smith was held under icy water as a child by caretakers in a foster home in which he lived. This sadistic maltreatment occurred frequently. Some abused children can take on some characteristics of their assailants, and when replicating the injury, can play the role of victim or abuser. It is clear in this circumstance, Smith took on the role of his malefactors and re-enacted this injury to someone else, and sadly, on an innocent baby.
Partners in Crime
Richard Hickock and Perry Smith committed heinous acts together, they may have never perpetrated alone. Pioneers in the field of criminal psychology have conducted some fascinating research into “couples” who commit murder, and I would offer that some of these concepts apply to these male killers. Hickock may have selected, solicited, and even “groomed” Smith as an accomplice. Being the more dominant personality, Hickock most likely had more control over Smith than vice-versa, and had further say into what transpired.
Killers who act in pairs can share delusions or even a psychosis if you will. Often, the domineering person will manipulate, coach, and even challenge the weaker to perform acts that are either uncomfortable or too difficult to do themselves.
Analyzing a crime scene can be especially challenging if there is more than one killer, particularly if this is unknown at the time. Even a murderer who acts alone can exhibit signs of disorganized and organized thinking. Certainly though, when two offenders are involved, there is more of a chance of having a “mixed” scene evidenced by conflicting behaviors, revealing two distinct personalities.
With serial killers there are often changes in behavior, sometimes subtle, from one crime scene to another. This is because offenders learn from their mistakes and may alter certain methods. In contrast, they can become more careless as they are emboldened by getting away with their initial murders. Take for example the Clutter crime scene — investigators found very distinct boot prints left in blood. While on the run, Perry Smith followed the media both on the radio and via the newspapers. Hickock and Smith may have been nervous about this foolish error which was reportedly widely in the papers. In the Walker crime scene, one of the offenders wiped the floor with the baby victim’s blanket — this is an example of a more organized behavior in a second scene.
While there was some effort to clean up the floor at the Walker home, a closer inspection of crime scene images revealed partial boot prints consistent with the patterns found on Hickock and Smith’s boots.
There is a defense mechanism in which certain offenders “undo” or engage in contrasting behavior to “erase” a horrific or unacceptable one. In both crime scenes, there is no doubt in my mind who engaged in this type of behavior — Perry Smith. Smith placed a pillow under one of the male victim’s head to make him more “comfortable.” In the Walker crime scene a hat was placed over the baby’s face before she was shot, and the bed was “made” in the bedroom. Whilst these behaviors seem bizarre and difficult to comprehend, it is likely Smith himself was unaware of what was driving him to perform these behaviors.
It is very possible that Hickock and Smith would not have carried out these gruesome murders alone. While they were connected before and during the acts themselves, the duo was linked “on the run” as well. Persons who commit crimes together are often “stuck” with each other, even when tensions begin to mount. Smith disclosed to Capote that he and Hickock began to argue, and this is not at all surprising.
We have a saying in law enforcement — there are no such things as coincidences. While the DNA testing could not prove Hickock and Smith murdered the Walkers, there was never any DNA evidence in the Clutter case either. When collecting, handling, and testing fifty-year-old DNA not only can there be corruption, it is actually to be expected. In this case, there was actually evidence of the faulty results. Whilst it can be frustrating to not have that degree of certainty, the overwhelming circumstantial case remains extremely strong.
The Bad Alibi
Regardless of whether you believe in their guilt, a multitude of facts presented in Capote’s book are inaccurate. Hickock and Smith were not in Miami on December
24th, they were in Louisiana selling two baby dolls wrapped in Christmas paper to a reverend — intended presents for the Walker’s baby girl. Several eye witnesses placed the infamous duo in Sarasota on both the 17th and the 19th. On the day of the murders several persons testified they were at a mall attempting to cash a worthless check. (Hickock was known for writing bad checks.) Smith also admitted to reading about the Walker murders in the newspaper which was likely true because he followed the papers after they murdered the Clutters.
Early investigators surmised the murderer would have a scratched face, as Christine Walker used her shoe in self-defense. Three independent witnesses reported two men driving a black Chevrolet came into their gas stations in Nocatee, Florida located about 30 minutes northeast of the crime scene, the day after the murders. They were looking for directions to U.S. 27, the known path they took on their way to Miami. All the witnesses described the taller, blond one (Hickock) as having scratches and cuts on his face. These witnesses later identified Hickock and Smith via photographic lineups.
The Walker family was shopping for a 1956 two-tone Chevrolet, model 210 on the day of their murders. Hickock and Smith were driving a 1956 Chevy, 210.
A witness testified just two days before the murders, Hickock and Smith showed up at his house in Sarasota and offered to fix his car. This witness had been shopping for cars. Hickock and Smith were known to frequent car dealerships looking to make a quick buck. A greasy rag was found at the crime scene and greasy clothing was found in the stolen car the pair was driving upon their arrest. It is possible the men were working on this stolen car at the Walker home prior to Christine Walker coming home. Hickock had sold a car in Mexico and they may have been trying to sell this stolen car to the Walker family.
Items found in their car upon their arrest:
Greasy clothing (a greasy rag was found at the crime scene)
Cliff Walker’s pocketknife with fruit-tree design
A burlap bag
A pink ladies’ coat (Christine Walker was clad in a pink dress)
An army green gas can (Cliff Walker owned an army jeep), etc…
Leave No Witnesses
Experts and laypersons alike speculated early on in the Walker investigation that the killer must have known the family, and such was the reason the children were killed. There was also conjecture about a missing majorette costume, and that an obsessed suitor must have killed the family and took the sentimental item as a token. This item was later reported as found by the family.
The Walkers were low risk victims, just as the Clutters were…loving families that worked in rural communities with no ties to illicit activity. The Walkers were doing something out of their ordinary routine the day of their murders, shopping for cars. This unfortunate circumstance led them into contact with two monsters.
Both families of four
Members killed in the same order
Both murders occurred on a Saturday at a rural home
All members were shot in the head
Undoing behavior at both scenes, (making of beds, victims covered, etc.)
Boot prints left/wiped
Concocted false alibis
Rape interrupted/rape committed
Followed the news in both
Juvenile/petty items stolen
Jewelry not touched
Evidence buried in field
Why is this important?
Obtaining closure for cold case victims is a worthy cause. Even though the DNA testing in this case was disappointing, the facts were so strong, that at least the family was hopefully satisfied. Based on the headlines though, most people were probably left with the impression that since there was “no match,” the pair was ruled out. This is far from the truth, because the nature of the corrupt findings was palpable. Hickock and Smith were never excluded as suspects and a strong and compelling argument exists they committed this crime. There is even physical evidence linking the suspects to the scene. With the CSI effect though, the public nowadays demand DNA evidence to be convinced. Understandably though, it was deemed impractical to continue testing as resources are limited.
It is certainly not my place or even desire to attempt to convince anyone what to believe about this case or any other. People often rely on the media for the “scoop,” and such is not always reported accurately. Also, there is always information that is not released to the public for various reasons, so there is much that goes on “behind the scenes.”
Far more important now though is what can be learned from this examination. It has always been one of my convictions that detectives, investigators, and other
experts can learn valuable lessons from these types of probes. There will always be errors made at crime scenes, but such can be minimized by the diligent study of prior inquiries. From a profiling perspective, there is certainly a treasure-trove of psychological data that could be analyzed to prevent future murders.
Much insight can also be gleaned from scrutinizing how the media reported these murders, particularly early on. Often rape victims are portrayed in a less than favorable light, and unfortunately, this still occurs to this day. Also, the names of innocent people who were considered suspects, were often dragged through the mud.
Even the expediency at which agencies issue BOLOS for criminals once they have been identified can be improved. Had a bulletin been issued nationwide or sooner, Hickock and Smith may have been apprehended prior to December 19th and perhaps… the Walkers would still be alive today.
None of these observations should be construed as judgments. Technologies, methodologies, and such have improved vastly over the past fifty years. The continued study of cold cases though, can only continue to improve the manner in which criminals are apprehended and therefore, save lives.
Side note: I’m not sure at this point whether or not I will ever publish this trilogy. Originally, I wrote it more as a journal for cathartic purposes, due to my personal connection. As to whether my theories about this case or the Zodiac will ever be proven or disproven… only time will tell.
Disclaimer: All images were obtained from public sources, and no crime scene images were displayed out of respect for the families. Also, no “hold-back” information was provided to protect the integrity of the case.
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