Crime

Old notebooks and new information from ‘In Cold Blood’ murders will lead to book

The 1959 murders of the Clutter family members, who lie in the northwest corner of a Garden City, Kan., cemetery, are still getting plenty of attention. A book based on a detective’s notes from the case promises new information.
The 1959 murders of the Clutter family members, who lie in the northwest corner of a Garden City, Kan., cemetery, are still getting plenty of attention. A book based on a detective’s notes from the case promises new information. The Wichita Eagle

The Kansas court case grabbing headlines this week started with two tattered notebooks, small and spiral, belonging to a state detective who looked into the 1959 killings at the Clutter home outside Garden City.

Gary McAvoy, an online dealer in literary artifacts, in 2012 acquired the steno pads and other documents related to the Clutter case from the detective’s son.

McAvoy thought at the time that what he called “worthless” notebooks might be auctioned for $20,000 when packaged with other memorabilia from the late Kansas Bureau of Investigation agent Harold Nye.

Now, he said, Nye’s notations are key to forthcoming revelations about the killings, which were the subject of Truman Capote’s bestseller “In Cold Blood.”

In a Shawnee County District Court ruling made public Monday, Judge Larry Hendricks reversed an earlier decision that had temporarily blocked publication of Nye’s notes and copies of criminal investigative files.

McAvoy admits the publicity and intrigue will help sales of a future book.

What might be in those notes, which triggered a two-year fight with the state over ownership?

What new facts, 55 years after the murders, would now compel McAvoy and Nye’s son to prepare the book, which they promise will contradict Capote’s classic telling of the horror that struck Herbert Clutter’s farm family.

McAvoy and Ronald Nye, whose father died in 2003, aren’t divulging many details. But they’re not shy about hyping their e-book in the works as containing “shocking” information that “proposes a new theory” about the crimes.

But in a phone interview Tuesday from his home in Oklahoma City, Ronald Nye did disclose this much:

“They arrested the right murderers and executed them for the right reasons.”

A few years ago, McAvoy planned to auction the records, which included crime-scene photographs and a copy of Capote’s masterpiece signed by the author as a gift to Harold Nye.

One page in the notebooks included an autograph of Harper Lee, the budding author who traveled to Kansas with Capote to help him gather string for the book. Lee wrote a fond note to Harold Nye.

But surviving relatives of the Clutters objected to Kansas officials, and the state attorney general’s office went to court to claim ownership of the records and demand they be sent to the KBI.

McAvoy, who runs his literary auction site from Washington state, called off the sale of the photos and returned them to the state along with copies of investigative files and electronic images of the pages in the Nye notebooks.

But the state pressed ahead with a lawsuit, claiming the records had been stolen from the KBI — which Ronald Nye denies — and trying to prevent publication of information contained in them.

“All that came out of left field,” McAvoy said Tuesday. The state permitted him to auction off the signed Capote book, but it fetched few bidders because “nobody knew what the state was going to want to grab next,” he said.

As for those two little notebooks, Ronald Nye prefers to call them his dad’s journals. Nye said notations on the investigation were interspersed with personal reminders of birthdays and things Harold Nye needed to pick up at the hardware store.

Calls Tuesday to the office of Attorney General Derek Schmidt were not returned. Hendricks said in his ruling that he had made an error in previously blocking Ronald Nye and McAvoy from turning the material into a book.

Their First Amendment rights to publish outweighed the government’s interest in maintaining the confidentiality of its investigative records, Hendricks ruled.

The legal fight drew worldwide attention, which McAvoy said helped him gather new leads about the Clutter killings from outside sources — information that he said was verified in Harold Nye’s notes and other public records.

In a press release issued Monday from McAvoy’s company, Vintage Memorabilia, the literary dealer said that had the state not initiated legal action, “we might never have discovered sensational details that time and opportunity revealed as we prepared our defense.”

But nobody’s saying what those “sensational details” are.

“The KBI may not even know,” McAvoy told The Star. “Truman Capote likely never knew.”

It might seem that little hasn’t been written about the shotgun slayings of Herbert and Bonnie Clutter and two of their children.

Last year, the tragedy gained fresh interest after authorities in Florida ordered the exhumation of convicted killers Richard Hickock and Perry Smith from a Lansing cemetery. Sarasota County law enforcement officials had linked the two to a couple’s murder there in late 1959, while Hickock and Smith were on the run. But their DNA samples could not be conclusively matched with evidence from the Florida crime scene.

Likewise, Ronald Nye’s quest to shed light on his father’s role in the Clutter investigation has a long history of twists and unexpected turns.

Harold Nye’s widow had thrown out 15 boxes of her husband’s copies of criminal case files. But the son discovered a private stash of Clutter files, including the two notebooks, in a home office after his father’s death.

He said this week that Harold Nye never liked Capote’s account of the murders and investigation.

After reading about 115 pages of “In Cold Blood,” “Dad threw the book across the living room” and to Ronald’s knowledge, never reopened it.

Ronald Nye, a retired Oklahoma state employee, said he hoped the forthcoming book will be out by September, 50 years after Hickock and Smith were hanged.

He said the book will fill in gaps replete through Capote’s storytelling in which the author “used his literary license and just made up things.”

But Ronald Nye teased that something will be revealed beyond fibs and omissions in Capote’s self-described “nonfiction novel.”

Something significant, he said, about the reasons the Clutters were bound with rope and killed at all. “It’ll bring you to develop a whole new theory as to what happened in that house.”

His co-author groaned. Too much information. Just wait for the book, said McAvoy, who acknowledged with a chuckle that the suspense could draw customers.

“I can’t say anything more.”

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

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