LANSING — The keeper of Mount Muncie Cemetery wondered whether someone was pulling a cold-blooded prank.
The cemetery’s most infamous occupants, killers Perry E. Smith and Richard E. Hickock, had been resting for nearly half a century when officers appeared Dec. 18 and presented a search warrant to Gene Kirby.
Kirby, the Mount Muncie manager, directed investigators to the side-by-side graves of the executed murderers, who were immortalized in Truman Capote’s 1966 masterwork “In Cold Blood.”
Police manned entrances to keep gawkers away. In just a few hours, both graves were exhumed and bone fragments bagged for DNA testing.
The corpses never left the cemetery. And yet the pair’s heinous legacy — the Clutter-family slayings in Holcomb in November 1959 — had again made news.
This time the unspeakable is set 1,200 miles from Holcomb, in Sarasota County, Fla. There, authorities are calling Smith and Hickock “prime suspects” in the December 1959 home invasion and murders of another rural family, the Walkers.
Should Florida officials connect the two men to an unsolved case perhaps even colder and bloodier than what Capote depicted, their burial sites in Lansing could draw new flocks of true-crime tourists.
“If you can pin those guys to Florida … ?” Kirby said. “The curiosity seekers will be here all over again.”
The Sarasota family of four included two toddlers. The slaughter occurred as Smith and Hickock drifted through the Sunshine State, one of their stops in a cross-country effort to avoid capture for their Kansas crimes.
Kansas agents finally tracked the pair to Las Vegas. Both were charged, convicted and executed in the shotgun slayings of Herbert and Bonnie Clutter and two of their children.
Capote, in gripping detail, would chronicle the Clutter tragedy and the lives of the killers, who confessed to that crime.
But the author devoted only a few pages of his bestseller to their travels in Florida. While he referenced the Walker slayings, Capote and law enforcement agents seemed to dismiss suspicions that Smith and Hickock may have been involved.
Both passed lie-detector tests when questioned about the Walkers. Experts today note, however, that circa-1960 technology for gauging suspects’ truthfulness was primitive and unreliable.
In Florida, the murders remained a notorious mystery.
A detective for the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Department, Kimberly McGath, spent the last four years revisiting the cold case before filing the affidavit to exhume Smith and Hickock. That affidavit remains sealed by the Leavenworth County Attorney’s office, but authorities say evidence contained in the file reflects more than a hunch.
“A lot of information led us to this,” said Wendy Rose, a sheriff’s spokeswomen in Sarasota County. “It’s not like, ‘Gee, we think maybe they (Smith and Hickock) could’ve been involved.’ We have a lot of evidence.”
A Kansas Bureau of Investigation forensics team in Great Bend will attempt to compare DNA samples from the killers’ remains to semen and hair strands in the Walker residence. Testing could take months and may not succeed at all.
If a conclusive link to the Walkers is made, future generations of literary buffs are apt to regard “In Cold Blood” as a riveting tale fraught with holes — despite Capote spending long hours interviewing the condemned in their Kansas prison cells.
Even before the release of Capote’s “nonfiction novel” and subsequent motion picture, “he began telling everybody he was writing something that was 100 percent accurate,” said Ralph F. Voss, who in 2011 wrote “Truman Capote and the Legacy of ‘In Cold Blood.’ ”Should the Florida connection be confirmed, Voss said, “there’s going to be a whole lot of reason to write articles about how Smith and Hickock conned Capote.”
“This could taint ‘In Cold Blood’ in ways it’s never been tainted before.”
On the lam
Christmas 1959: There in Miami lounged Perry Smith, 31, on the lam and reading a newspaper beneath a beach umbrella.
Partner Dick Hickock — 28 and raised in Kansas City, Kan. — performed handstands in the sand.
An article caught Smith’s eye. By Capote’s telling: It concerned murder, the slaying of a Florida family…
Each of the victims, though not bound or gagged, had been shot through the head with a .22 weapon. The crime, clueless and apparently motiveless, had taken place Saturday night, December 19, at the Walker home…
“Amazing!” Perry glanced through the article again. “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.”
It’s an innocuous, reconstructed scene of two losers passing time. The pair had spent at least a week up and down Florida in a ’56 Bel Air they had stolen from Iowa. The car had bogus plates snatched in Johnson County, where Hickock’s parents lived.
Sarasota County officials reportedly have learned that Clifford and Christine Walker were shopping for a Bel Air. Perhaps they encountered the killers in the course of a transaction?
A 2005 series in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune described the murders as beginning with mother Christine: She is raped and dragged into the living room to be shot.
Her husband arrives at the house with both kids — son Jimmie, 3, and daughter Debbie, 2 — in tow. A single shot drops Dad in the doorway. The killer, or killers, then fire at both children and finish off the wounded little girl by drowning her in a bathtub.
As in Holcomb, a bloody boot print was found on the floor.
Overwhelmed deputies sullied much of the crime-scene evidence, allowing newspaper photographers to traipse through snapping pictures.
Over the years the list of potential suspects would swell past 800 — including relatives of the Walkers, a meter reader and some confessors who sought the notoriety of being linked to crimes they never committed.
Some investigators long assumed the killer had carried a torch for Christine because of two items missing from the Walker ranch house: A framed marriage certificate and her drill-team uniform from high school.
In Capote’s brief references to the Florida killings, he reported that results of polygraph examinations of Smith and Hickock “were decisively negative.”
But in recent years, authorities have cited evidence and witnesses that place the pair in and around Sarasota the day of the killings. At a local department store, Hickock was seen with scratches on his face.
And when picked up in Las Vegas, Hickock carried a pocketknife similar to one missing from the Walker home.
When news spread across the globe of Smith and Hickock being exhumed, a woman named Lilly emailed the Lansing cemetery.
“I know you must be very tired of people asking about Perry Smith and Richard Hickock,” wrote Lilly to cemetery manager Kirby.
She said she lived in Moscow. Sometime soon she may be traveling to America to visit friends, Lilly wrote, and she hoped to stop by Mount Muncie to visit the graves.
“I would never visit without bringing flowers,” her e-mail said. “(But in Kansas) I would probably get punched in the face. Is it so?”
In Finney County, where the Clutter house still stands, visitors stop by the sheriff’s office to view scrapbooks of newspaper articles about the murders.
“Here, the interest is ongoing,” said Sheriff Kevin Bascue. “It’s not just something that comes up every several years,” when another movie or book comes out.
At the Great Bend forensics lab, Florida’s cold case will not take priority over pending Kansas cases, said Kyle Smith of the KBI.
He noted: “If it turns out the DNA does not match, it’s conceivable they still have a murderer out there,” though an elderly one by now.
And should the DNA match?
“Maybe I’ll see a woman at my door,” said Kirby, who resides at the cemetery.
“She’ll say, ‘Hey, Gene. It’s Lilly — from Russia!’”