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State of Kansas, detective’s son at odds over ‘In Cold Blood’ artifacts

  • The Kansas City Star
  • Published Friday, Sep. 28, 2012, at 11:50 p.m.
  • Updated Tuesday, June 4, 2013, at 9:35 a.m.

Photos

Midway through Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood,” the author describes investigator Harold Nye’s fateful visit to the Johnson County farmhouse of Walter and Eunice Hickock. Their son was among two ex-convicts sought for questioning in the 1959 murders at the Clutter home in Holcomb, Kan.:

Nye shut his notebook and put his pen in his pocket, and both his hands as well, for his hands were shaking with excitement.

A similar excitement spread this summer among collectors of literary and true-crime memorabilia. An online auction site opened the bidding on material related to the murder investigation and stored away in boxes by the late Nye, a special agent who rose to the directorship of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation.

The stash — originally set for a minimum bid of $20,000 — included his notebooks, copies of investigative files from the Clutter case, crime scene photographs, hand-penned letters from Capote and an autographed first edition of “In Cold Blood” given to Nye by the author.

Then the Kansas attorney general’s office barged in.

Most of the items, officials argued, belonged to the state. Return at once.

So began a furious back-and-forth involving a Seattle-based literary dealer, state attorneys representing the KBI and, in Oklahoma City, Nye’s son Ron.

After his father’s death in 2003, Ron Nye rescued the collectibles from a certain fate with the garbage truck outside his mother’s home.

Enter, as well, relatives of the family of Herbert and Bonnie Clutter, the couple bound in their home and shot to death on Nov. 15, 1959, along with their two teenage children, Bonnie and Kenyon. Two older daughters who had moved from the house before the killings still live in Kansas, quietly avoiding the spotlight.

A cousin to the younger Clutters, Topeka lawyer Michael Clutter, last month wrote a letter to Vintage Memorabilia, the online auction site. He asked that the site take into account “the pain and anguish it would cause the family if these items were actually allowed to become public,” according to an account in the Wall Street Journal.

So Vintage Memorabilia and Ron Nye reconsidered.

Recognizing the sensitivities of surviving relatives, they agreed to remove from the auction and return to the KBI copies of photos taken in the Clutters’ bloody home.

The bundled package of collectibles has been broken up, and the bidding ends Sunday on uncontested items being sold separately.

Kansas is not challenging the right of the Nye family to sell the most valuable item — Capote’s gift of “In Cold Blood.” The book became the basis of at least three feature films and a TV miniseries.

Bidding began at $5,000 for Harold Nye’s copy of the 1965 classic, which is inscribed, “For Harold, with my admiration and much gratitude. Truman.” The KBI agent got others to sign the book, too. Signatures include three fellow agents on the Clutter case, then-KBI director Logan Sanford and actor Robert Blake, who portrayed condemned killer Perry Smith in the 1967 movie version.

Still in dispute are the ownership rights to Harold Nye’s steno notebooks, which son Ron described as “personal journals” he never intended to turn over to the state.

Ron has taken the notebooks off the auction block.

The Kansas attorney general’s office contends the notebooks were used in the elder Nye’s official work for the KBI. In letters to Vintage Memorabilia, the state has demanded the “immediate return” of all investigative documents, plus “plans, memoranda … or other data (and) information … bearing upon the activities and functions of the KBI. …

“To be clear, that includes his personal steno notebooks,” one letter stated.

Ron Nye, 62, said he suspected the quarrel over his dad’s personal writings centered on a coveted salutation scribbled inside one of the steno pads:

“For Harold Nye — In affectionate admiration. Nelle Harper Lee.”

Lee, who helped her friend Capote with his research in Kansas, dated the inscription Jan. 15, 1960 — less than six months before the release of her only novel, the masterpiece “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

“It’s probably the first signature Harper Lee’s given anyone,” said Gary McAvoy, owner of Vintage Memorabilia. “It’s obviously of great value.”

Ron Nye: “I think the state’s just looking for a trophy.”

The KBI and attorney general’s office, which have not filed court records on the matter, also have not returned calls and emails from reporters seeking comment.

But state officials hardly hide their own interests in artifacts from one of the most storied murder sagas of the 20th century.

A display case at KBI headquarters in Topeka features a variety of Clutter memorabilia: A coil of rope used to tie up family members. The boot of Perry Smith, which left a bloody print on the floor.

Even the 12-gauge shotgun belonging to Smith’s partner in crime, Richard Hickock, is mounted to the wall.

Harold Nye spotted the murder weapon in the Hickock house that day he came visiting.

A lingering grief

After nearly 53 years, the crimes and capital punishment that Capote chronicled in his “nonfiction novel” are read over and over in college courses for literature, journalism and criminal justice.

Grief still dwells in family members, said Michael Clutter.

“The book has really kept it alive,” he said. “Hundreds of other murder cases have come and gone … but this one never goes away.”

Another cousin of the young Clutter victims, Diana Selsor Edwards, said, “for more than 20 years, I couldn’t bring myself to pick up Capote’s book.”

When she did peruse some pages, the family she adored in her youth “came off as cardboard people to me,” said Edwards, who lives in New Mexico. “The Clutters were the kind of people Capote didn’t know. He was a very different person from a very different culture” who sought to portray life in Kansas as simple and desolate.

As for the auction of the Nye collection, she said the KBI agent “was working for the state. For most state employees, wouldn’t material you put together conducting state business belong to the state?” She said Nye’s son should not be allowed to profit.

“It’s a fascinating question: Who’s the rightful owner of this stuff?” said Andy Kahan, a victims’ rights advocate for the city of Houston, Texas, who has tracked the growing marketplace of so-called “murderabilia.”

“If Kansas decides to press that question,” he said, “it could lead to setting a precedent.”

Kahan noted that copies of public documents and evidence admitted in court are in the public domain and hold little monetary value.

Investigative notes usually remain confidential, he said, but they’re commonly relied upon when law enforcement agents decide to write true-crime books, often from their homes.

“I’m sure that probably happens,” said former KBI director Larry Welch, author of “Beyond Cold Blood,” which was just released by University of Kansas Press and chronicles the agency’s history. “I’ve never tried to auction off anything or sell anything. … I don’t remember possessing any property” of the KBI outside the office.

He said investigators have their own preferred ways of jotting and keeping notes from interviews, which typically aren’t turned over — or asked for — when agents file their reports.

Kansas archivist Matt Veatch would not comment on the merits of the state’s claims to Harold Nye’s notebooks. But he said a state law enacted in 1981, the Government Records Preservation Act, is “very encompassing” in identifying for safe storage all records, memos, charts, photos and investigative files, made or received by an agency, that have “enduring value to the state of Kansas.”

That includes 70 years’ worth of KBI files stored at the archives but, in many cases, restricted from public access.

Legal challenges

As a boy of 10 or so, Ron Nye remembers accompanying Dad on Sundays to the state Capitol, which would be closed. But Harold Nye had his own set of keys.

The Capitol at the time housed the KBI offices and files.

Ron would yell to hear his echo around the vacant rotunda, and he rode up and down the elevators while Dad ordered duplicates of papers and pictures from investigative files. The elder Nye placed his request forms on the chair of the director’s secretary, and copies of the material would be ready for him to pick up the next day.

By the late 1960s, when Sanford headed the agency, “we had hauled 15 boxes of closed case files to my parents’ place, and would haul them again every time we moved,” the son said.

“I knew over the years that he wanted to write his memoirs about all the different cases he handled,” and director Sanford was aware of his agent’s plans, said Ron Nye.

The memoirs never materialized, and shortly after Harold Nye died, his widow set out the 15 boxes on the driveway to be shredded and hauled away.

“You won’t have to worry about moving those again,” she told Ron when he learned what Mom had done.

Fortunately, Harold Nye’s journals and other artifacts of the Clutter case had earlier been removed from the rest of the files when he gave an interview about the murders in 2002.

The son found the notebooks, the signed copy of “In Cold Blood,” another book of selected Capote writings inscribed by the author, the personal letters and the well wishes of Harper Lee.

“Dear Harold — Remember me?” Capote wrote from Spain in May 1962. “Well, I’m still working on my book about the Clutter case. … I hope you will be pleased with what I have.”

In a subsequent letter that summer, Capote bemoaned the legal challenges that were delaying the execution of Smith and Hickock (and also the release of his book): “No, I’m not bloodthirsty either, but I do wish the whole damn thing would end.”

Ron Nye was hoping the entire collection, had it stayed in one valuable batch, would fetch many tens of thousands of dollars.

“Just to pay my attorney at this point probably has wiped out any profit I’ll make” off the auction, he said.

“I can’t match the resources of the state of Kansas. No, they’re just going to try to break me down until I turn (the notebooks) over. …

“This is an issue of might versus right,” Ron Nye said, “and I’m going to keep standing for what I think is right. I’m like my dad that way.”

To reach Rick Montgomery, call 816-234-4410 or email rmontgomery@kcstar.com.

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