August 13, 2013

DNA testing of ‘In Cold Blood’ killers can’t link them to Florida murders

Authorities in Sarasota County, Fla., said Kansas killers Perry Smith and Richard Hickock could not be connected to the 1959 slaying of a Florida family. Investigators, working with evidence too old and degraded, could not positively match the pair’s DNA samples to Christine Walker, who was slain with her husband and two children about a month after the Kansas killings.

Some cold cases are just too cold for science to solve.

Authorities in Sarasota County, Fla., said Tuesday that DNA testing could not link Kansas killers Perry Smith and Richard Hickock, of “In Cold Blood” notoriety, to the 1959 slaying of a Florida family.

The tests did not clear the men who murdered the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kan., from committing a crime just as grisly while on the lam in the Sunshine State.

But investigators, working with evidence too old and degraded, could not positively match the pair’s DNA samples to Christine Walker, who was slain with her husband and two children about a month after the Kansas killings.

“We still regard Smith and Hickock as the most viable suspects at this time,” said Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Wendy Rose. “There’s just not conclusive evidence.”

The two drifters were hanged for their Kansas crimes in 1965. Their bodies lay side-by-side and undisturbed at a Lansing cemetery until last December.

That’s when their remains were exhumed at the request of Florida authorities. A Kansas Bureau of Investigation laboratory in Great Bend analyzed the DNA samples before turning them over to a private lab, Paternity Testing Corp., for further testing.

“I don’t know if there was real confidence” in arriving at a positive DNA match to a crime that happened more than a half-century ago, said Kyle Smith, deputy director of the KBI. “But it was a good exercise to see what the scientific limits are.”

Capt. Jeff Bell of the Sarasota sheriff’s office told The Associated Press that only “partial profiles” of the suspects’ DNA could be taken and the Walker crime scene samples were too degraded. No more tests were scheduled.

“We’re not closing the case” in Florida, Bell said. “It remains an unsolved murder. The mystery continues and we’ll look for other opportunities. We’ve reached a point where we don’t believe we’re going to accomplish that through DNA testing.”

Hickock and Smith have long been suspects, and police still believe they were likely involved.

The pair fled to Florida after killing prominent Kansas farmer Herb Clutter, his wife and two of their children. The Clutter murders were chronicled in Truman Capote’s book, which gripped readers with its vivid narrative of the Clutter family life and the tormented inner workings of the killers’ minds.

“In Cold Blood” mentions the Walker killings, but Capote incorrectly states that the slayings occurred near Tallahassee, Fla., about five hours north of the actual scene.

He also relates a conversation between Hickock and Smith on a beach in Miami, and has Smith speculating that “a lunatic” copied the Kansas killings. The book says that in reply, Hickock “shrugged and grinned and trotted down to the ocean’s edge.”

The exhumation of the killers’ bodies prompted literary buffs worldwide to wonder whether Capote had been duped into trusting their accounts. The author had interviewed Smith and Hickock at length during their incarceration.

His masterpiece, which at times cast Smith in a sensitive light, devoted just a few cursory paragraphs to the Walker killings.

The two men were eventually captured in Las Vegas. A polygraph test cleared them of the Walker murders. But in 1987, a polygraph expert said those tests in the early 1960s were worthless.

In 2007, Sarasota Detective Kimberly McGath took a fresh look at the Walker murders. McGath knew she had DNA from semen found on Walker’s underwear and wanted to compare it to the killers’ DNA.

After Smith and Hickock slaughtered the Clutter family on Nov. 15, 1959, they fled to Florida in a stolen car. They were spotted at least a dozen times from Tallahassee to Miami and points in between.

On Dec. 18, the two men checked into a Miami Beach motel and checked out the next day. The Walker family was killed on that day at their home on a ranch in the small community of Osprey, about four hours northwest of Miami.

Cliff Walker was shot to death and his wife was beaten, raped and shot. Three-year-old Jimmie was shot to death and his 2-year-old sister was shot and drowned in a bathtub. News stories at the time noted that gifts were around the Christmas tree.

McGath said the Walkers had been thinking of buying a 1956 Chevy Bel Air, which was the kind of car Smith and Hickock had stolen and were driving through Florida. McGath thinks that somehow, the Walkers and the killers met because of the car.

The detective found witness statements — and talked to people who are still alive — who said they saw Smith and Hickock in the Sarasota area around the time of the Walker murders. One witness said the taller of the two men, presumably Hickock, had a scratched-up face.

The inconclusive DNA tests may have thwarted the best chance police had to solve the Florida case. But Capote’s book is spared from the chiding that would’ve come from leaving out a whopping chapter.

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