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DNA no match, but some still link 'In Cold Blood' killers to Osprey slayings

DNA has failed to connect two men featured in Truman Capote's In Cold Blood to the 1959 murders of a family of four in Osprey, but relatives still think all the evidence points to notorious killers Perry Smith and Richard Hickock.

"I'm still 99 percent sure they done it," said Pat Myers, half-brother of Christine Walker, who was raped and killed at the ranch house where she lived with her husband and two young children. "Just because DNA doesn't show they done it, there's too much other evidence."

Christine, her ranch hand husband, Cliff, and their two children, Jimmie, 3, and Debbie, 23 months, were all shot in the head a week before Christmas in 1959.

A month earlier, Hickock, 28, and Smith, 31, shot and killed a Kansas farmer, Herb Clutter, and his family in a similar manner. The two men were captured in Las Vegas, Nev., weeks after the Walkers were murdered.

Last December, their remains were exhumed from graves in Kansas to see if DNA would provide a match to semen found in Christine's underwear. The results were initially inconclusive but this week, the Sheriff's Office confirmed that the tests of the samples had not provided a match.

"At this point, these testing results do not provide us with the ability to close the case," said Capt. Jeff Bell of the Sarasota County Sheriff's Office, "but we still consider them the most viable suspects."

Smith, a car painter from Nevada, and Hickock, a car mechanic from Kansas, were petty thieves who met in prison.

Ross Boyer, the Sarasota sheriff at the time, immediately considered them suspects in the Walker case. Both families lived in rural communities. All had been shot in the head. Hickock and Smith admitted they were in Miami at the time, but they checked out of their Miami hotel the morning the Walkers were killed.

Also, witnesses told the Sarasota County Sheriff's Office they had seen them in and near Sarasota around the time of the Walker murders. A saleswoman had noticed "the tall one following the short one" at Grant's department store in Sarasota the day of the Walker murders. A man said they came by his house and asked to fix his fender. A gas station owner said they asked about auto paint shops. Several people around Nocatee said they'd seen two men, one dark-haired and one light-haired with scratches on his face, seeking directions.

On Christmas Eve, Hickock and Smith turned up in Louisiana, where they sold two dolls wrapped in Christmas paper to a minister for $1.50. The Walkers had Christmas presents beneath their tree the day they were murdered.

But the two men passed lie detector tests, now considered unreliable, and were eliminated as suspects. Three months after they were arrested, Hickock and Smith were convicted of the Clutter murders. In 1965 they were hanged.

In 2007, Sarasota Detective Kimberly McGath took another look at the Walker murders and began focusing on Hickock and Smith as suspects. She learned the Walkers were looking to buy a car very similar to the one Hickock and Smith were driving — a 1956 Chevy Bel Air.

"The fact that in that era and time frame, they would have been connected to both locations, I think is a substantial indication that would cause us to strongly suspect them being responsible," Bell said.

Myers, Christine's half-brother, said he feels there is enough evidence to connect them.

"I know DNA would really put the topping on it, but with all this other evidence, why not go ahead and go with it," he said.

The Walker case has haunted the Sarasota community for decades. For years, police thought whoever committed it lived in the community. They gave lie detector tests to more than 100 people.

Donald McLeod, 83, a suspect in the case for decades until DNA excluded him several years ago, said he was disappointed the tests had not solved the case. Cliff Walker was a good friend. They worked together as ranch hands, and McLeod discovered the bodies of the family.

"As far as I'm concerned," he said, "it ain't solved."

Times staff writer Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at lapeter@tampabay.com or 727-893-8640.

DNA no match, but some still link 'In Cold Blood' killers to Osprey slayings 08/16/13 [Last modified: Friday, August 16, 2013 10:32pm]
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