Duane West never goes too long without phone calls and visits from reporters wanting to know his version of the story.
It has been nearly six decades since four murders on a family farm — which became the basis for the novel “In Cold Blood” — shook this part of the world. He still doesn’t like to talk about it much.
West is one of the last key figures from the case who is still living. He was a 27-year-old lead prosecuting attorney in the trial of Perry Smith and Dick Hickock, the men convicted of killing Herb, Bonnie, Nancy and Kenyon Clutter.
West, 85, still has definitive views on the murderers, the famed author who chronicled the slayings and the events that transpired after the Clutters were killed.
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“I had no idea when I went to law school and decided to be a lawyer that my life and family’s life would be so forever affected by two guys,” West said recently of Hickock and Smith, who were executed for their crimes.
He said he has never read Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood,” even though Capote sent him an autographed first edition copy.
The book was an instant phenomenon when it was published in 1965, earning $2 million in its first year in print. It led to a movie two years later.
“Capote was a tragic little figure as far as I was concerned,” West said. “If you don’t get the hero right in the book, what good is it?
“People say this is a great piece of literature, calling it ‘reportage’ and that it was something new. I said, ‘Garbage.’
“Harper Lee took all the notes. She was there all the time taking notes. When she died, they found a whole bunch of notes in her collection. I knew that was the case.”
West credits a Garden City police detective with solving the crime.
But Capote gave most of the credit to Al Dewey, a lead investigator for the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, and Logan Green, another attorney whom West appointed to help with the case.
“He’s not a good author as far as I am concerned but a good salesman,” West said. “I give him credit for that.
“It’s a book that has sold all over the world.”
Murderers and writers
On Nov. 15, 1959, a Sunday morning, Herb and Bonnie Clutter and their children Nancy, 16, and Kenyon, 15, were found dead in their farmhouse near Holcomb.
West and his wife were visiting her parents in Hugoton, about 70 miles away, when the sheriff called.
“I got her out of church, and that was the fastest I’d ever driven,” West said.
Capote and Lee did not arrive in Garden City until after Hickock and Smith were captured following a six-week manhunt, West said.
Capote, a flamboyantly gay man from New York City, invited Lee, a friend from Alabama, to Kansas to help him connect with Midwest Christian farm people.
Where Capote sometimes was blocked from talking with key individuals in the case, Lee was able to break down barriers. She would later be known for her own bestseller, “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
When they arrived, Capote had a couple of things going for him.
For one, he already had a contract with Random House to tell the story.
Second, he became friends with Dewey of the KBI.
Capote also had two women on his side: Lee and Marie Dewey, Al Dewey’s wife.
West said he didn’t spend much time with Capote or Lee because he was too busy.
“I was the chief prosecutor, and I prepared all the trial documents, trial brief and arguments,” West said. “I really worried that we might find these guys, and we wouldn’t have enough evidence to convict them.”
West said fear initially took over the community following the murders.
“It was a frightening thing,” he said. “We had no idea what had happened.”
It was famously reported that local hardware stores quickly sold out of locks. But West said he didn’t worry about that — he and his wife had locked their doors at night for years.
“My rationale was that if it was a grudge thing, they weren’t after any of us, particularly,” West said. “So, we didn’t have any problems.”
The Finney County attorney’s position then was part time, West said. But it soon became all-consuming.
To West, the main hero and the person who provided enough evidence to convict the killers was Garden City Assistant Police Chief Richard Rohleder, who photographed the crime scene and discovered two footprints — one dusty, another bloody. He told officers to look for more than one killer.
A former cellmate of Hickock’s, Floyd Wells, told authorities he was the person who told Hickock about Herb Clutter and what a wealthy farmer he was.
Six weeks later, Hickock and Smith were caught in Nevada. The boots the men had with them matched the footprints left at the Clutter house.
“I remember sitting in my office in the evening working and receiving the telephone call that they had been arrested,” West said. “It was literally like somebody had lifted a 200-pound sack of grain off my shoulder.”
The evening the two killers were brought back into town, West recalled, more than 1,000 people gathered around the Finney County Courthouse to watch as law enforcement officers booked them into jail.
But before they were brought into town, West said, the two had already confessed to the crimes. They led law enforcement officers into the country about 20 miles from Garden City and showed them where they had buried the tape they used to cover the victims’ mouths and the rope they used to tie them with.
The jury convicted the killers, who were tried together, in one hour and 40 minutes.
West refuses to talk about any more details of the trial.
“I am not interested in discussing it at all,” he said. “It is over and done with.
“I think people that are still so obsessed with it should go on and do something else.”
Smith and Hickock were executed by hanging on April 14, 1965.
“I would have gone and sprung the lever myself,” West said. “I am the one who made the decision to ask the jury for the death penalty. That was the decision I had to work with.
“It was something I had not anticipated having to do, but it was one of the decisions I would make.
“It was right. It still is.”
Did he ever feel pressure to win the case? Ever think he might lose?
“No, never. There was no question about their guilt, whatsoever,” he said. “Their attorneys didn’t make an effort to deny their guilt. Their confessions were open confessions and done on their own free will. We had all this evidence.
“The innocence of those people was never in question. The only question was whether the jury was going to go ahead and execute them.”
Then came the book. And movie.
West still bristles about the movie.
“When they came in here to shoot the movie, it was right at the time the United Way was having their fall drive,” he said. “The county commission gave them a carte blanche right to film in the courthouse — they didn’t charge them a dime.
“It made me so angry. They could have written the county commission a check for $100,000 to the United Way fund.”
Crews filmed in the Clutter house and in the courtroom where the actual trial was held.
“I had to go to the courthouse to file some papers one afternoon while they were filming,” West said. “I was told ‘you can’t come in here, they are filming in the courtroom.’
“In all my life, 85-plus years, I have only lost my temper four times — and that was one of them. I never wanted to hit an officer, but I told him I was an officer of the court and I had papers to file that needed to be filed before 5 p.m. and that he had better get out of my way.
“He backed right off.”
Before ‘In Cold Blood’
West, the youngest of five children, grew up during the Great Depression in Deerfield, a small Kearny County town. His dad was a carpenter, his mom a homemaker.
When he was 9, the family moved to Garden City, where they lived in a Sears and Roebuck house on the west end of town and transformed their city block into a truck farm.
He grew up with a strong work ethic and a desire to get an education. As a child, West entertained the idea of becoming a minister or a lawyer.
He put himself through Garden City Community College and then Washburn Law School in Topeka, graduating in 1955 and moving back to Garden City. He married Orvileta, whom he met at Washburn, in 1956.
West saw himself as shy, but in 1957, he successfully ran for Finney County attorney.
On Sundays, the couple attended First United Methodist Church in Garden City, the same church Herb and Bonnie Clutter attended.
The Wests weren’t necessarily part of the Garden City crowd that would later embrace Capote and Lee. For one thing, they didn’t drink alcohol.
West appointed Logan Green to help with the Clutter murder case. Capote portrayed Green as the attorney responsible for winning the case.
“Mr. Green was an old Kentuckian who loved bourbon,” West said. “He and Truman would go out to the club and drink.”
After the book was published, Capote sent the Wests an autographed copy and told them if they were ever in New York to let him know.
The couple traveled to New York, and Capote got them tickets to “Hello, Dolly” and arranged for them to meet Carol Channing backstage.
Years later, West can still do a spot-on imitation of Channing’s legendary voice, and he giggles at the memory.
“She was a wonderful old gal,” West said of Channing, “and we enjoyed being able to thank her.”
Afterward, they met Charles Nelson Reilly, attended a “Tonight Show” taping and had dinner at Sardi’s.
Two months after the couple returned from the New York trip, West said, Clifford Hope — the local attorney for the Clutters — showed up at his office asking him to sign a release for Capote.
“He said I was to affirm I am not going to write anything,” West said. “I said, ‘Wait a minute. I am the guy who was the chief prosecutor. Why would I possibly sign a release, and what right does Truman Capote have for asking me for a release? I won’t sign it. It is not his business what I write. Now I know why we were treated so well in the city.’ ”
Hope told Capote about the conversation and soon, West said, he received a letter — a page torn from a yellow legal pad.
Sept. 24, 1964
If you do not care to sign the release, that is of course your privilege. But please do not think — as I am told that you do — that this matter of release was why I tried to be hospitable during your visit. Know my motive was much simpler, I liked and respected you and because you wrote to advise me of your impending trip — assuming you had some small regard for me.
Please remember me to Mrs. West.
The Wests have traveled throughout the world, including in Europe and Asia.
Almost always when people hear they are from Garden City, people will say the only thing they know about the town is the “In Cold Blood” case.
After he was county attorney, West served on the city council and was mayor for awhile.
“In a town this size, I just did anything,” he said. “I wouldn’t have been happy practicing law in a big firm where I did the same thing day over.
“I always told people it was exciting to me to see anybody come in the door. I had no idea what the problem was. Variety is the thing I like. I have a great curiosity about everything.”
He ran for Congress twice and lost, helped start the town’s Sister City program and Buffalo Dunes Golf Course, wrote two musicals — about C.J. “Buffalo” Jones, a Garden City buffalo hunter and promoter — and has been a relentless patron of the arts.
He has also opposed corporate hog farms, proposed a water pipeline from Canada and saved one of the oldest buildings in Garden City.
The couple donated $275,000 to the area Boy Scouts of America to purchase a building that will serve as a center for 19 counties in southwest Kansas.
Recently, after a thwarted bomb plot aimed at Somali immigrants in Garden City last year, West created a new club for residents: Circle of Friendship. The intent, he said, is “to personalize our day-to-day contacts with our fellow human beings.”
He said he sometimes thinks about what life might have been like if he had done something else before returning to Garden City.
“If the Peace Corps had been in existence when I got out of law school, I might have gone into that,” West says now. “But I was broke and needing money and had to try to start and earn a living.”
After the famed case, he could have gone anywhere and done anything.
“I laugh when people say, ‘Why don’t you leave town?’ ” he said. “I don’t have enough money to do it, and the people who want me to leave haven’t raised enough money to make it worth my while.”