Trail heats up in Sarasota killings linked to 'Cold Blood' case

OSPREY — One Saturday a week before Christmas 1959, a young ranch hand, his wife and their children spent the day running errands.

They picked up cigarettes, Cokes and penny candy at the hardware store and stopped at the ranch for cattle feed.

The ranch hand's wife, an attractive woman with a figure like Marilyn Monroe, headed home that afternoon in the family's 1952 Plymouth.

"I'll be right on," her cowboy husband told her. He headed home a half hour later in his Jeep with their two children.

A friend found them the next morning. Cliff Walker, 25, his wife, Christine, 24, Jimmie, 3, and Debbie, 23 months — all had been shot in the head.

The Sarasota County Sheriff's Office, undermanned and underfunded at the time, mishandled the crime scene. Investigators clung to a belief, based on circumstantial evidence, that whoever did it was a local. They never did arrest anyone.

Now, 54 years later, a detective says she has evidence that points to two outsiders who were briefly considered and rejected. Last December, she persuaded a judge in Kansas to exhume the remains of Richard Hickock and Perry Smith, murderers made notorious in Truman Capote's nonfiction classic, In Cold Blood.

DNA results from a Kansas crime lab are expected any day and may finally bring peace to the Walkers' surviving relatives, as well as vindication to a handful of old-timers who have lived half a century under a cloud of suspicion.

"People still think I did it," said Donald McLeod, 83, recently at his home behind a white picket fence in Sarasota. "I told 'em everything I know. I told 'em 1,000 times. If they could just solve it, I could go ahead and die."

• • •

It was dark, in the 40s, when McLeod drove his truck and horse trailer to Cliff Walker's house about 5:30 a.m. on Dec. 20, 1959. The men had planned to go hog hunting.

Walker and McLeod lived and worked as cow handlers on opposite ends of what was then the 14,000-acre Potter Palmer Ranch. For three years, Christine and Cliff had lived in the white woodframe house at the end of a shell road, their nearest neighbors a mile away.

Christine, outgoing and flirty with curly light brown hair, had been a drum majorette at Arcadia High School, where she met Cliff. He was quiet, a wiry cowboy who smoked Kools but didn't drink much. He could kill a gator and skin it with his pocketknife to make a few extra bucks. The Walkers spent many of their weekends at the rodeo where Cliff competed in calf-roping.

Standing outside their darkened house that morning, McLeod could see Cliff's Jeep, the feed he'd picked up the day before still in the back.

McLeod beat on the back door. He knocked on the window. No one answered. He pulled out his pocketknife, cut the screen door, unhooked the latch. He turned on the fluorescent light in the kitchen.

He could see Christine's feet. She was barefoot and her dress was pulled up around her waist. He could see Cliff on his back just beyond her in the living room, still wearing his cowboy hat, blood trickling from his right eye.

Curled up next to his father on the floor, "the itty bitty boy — he called me Uncle Don — was shot." He never saw the little girl face down in the tub.

Panicked, McLeod leaped out the back door, jumping into Cliff's Jeep. He headed for a pay phone at the grocery store in Osprey a mile away.

"Some people's been hurt," he told police.

• • •

Police from several counties swarmed the property like bees. They came from DeSoto County and Lee County and the Florida Sheriff's Bureau, predecessor of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. They brought bloodhounds and fingerprint and ballistic experts. Sarasota didn't even have a decent camera, so they allowed a news photographer to take crime scene pictures.

Some deputies pulled their cars up close to the property, possibly destroying tire tread evidence. Another walked in a pool of blood, leaving a print that for years would lead investigators to believe that "the killer wore cowboy boots."

Sarasota Sheriff Ross Boyer called it "the worst scene I ever walked into."

From the start, investigators suspected Christine knew her attacker. She had not parked in her normal spot in the driveway, suggesting someone had taken it. And how had the killer, or killers, gotten by the family's three hounds?

Christine had taken the time to hang up her purse in the kitchen, put away her groceries and place a Christmas card from the McLeods on top of the fridge.

It appeared Christine had put up a fight. The high heels of her pumps, found in different rooms, had blood on them where she'd used them as a weapon. Detectives surmised that Cliff and the children had been ambushed.

But what about motive? The Walkers were poor. Cliff earned $55 a week. His pocketknife was missing, as was a fresh carton of Kool cigarettes. But Christmas presents addressed to the kids still sat under the Christmas tree on the porch.

Waiting outside in his windbreaker and a hat with ear flaps that day, McLeod could feel police suspicion falling on him. The state attorney showed up and the men sat in a police car to talk.

"When did you last see Cliff?" he asked McLeod.

Later, he was strapped to a lie detector. "Did you shoot the Walker family?"

"Nope," he replied.

Elbert Walker, one of Cliff's cousins, showed up that morning too. He had known Cliff since they were boys, playing in the woods. He'd stayed with him and Christine for a month after getting out of the Army.

"You can't go in there," the deputy said. "They're all dead."

Elbert collapsed. He cried. He wailed. Later, at the funeral, he fainted and had to be carried out. Some people thought his behavior was strange.

Within two weeks of the murders though, two other suspects, charged with the murders of another family 1,000 miles away, emerged.

• • •

Hickock, 28, and Smith, 31, were petty thieves who met in prison. Smith, a car painter from Nevada, was short and swarthy, the son of rodeo performers. Hickock, a father of three from Kansas, was blond and ruddy, a car mechanic whose face had been disfigured in a car accident.

Both were prisoners in the Kansas State Penitentiary in 1959 when they heard from Hickock's cellmate about a farmer named Herb Clutter who kept lots of cash in a safe.

Once out of prison, Hickock and Smith hatched a plan. On Nov. 15, 1959, they slipped into the Clutter house after the family had gone to bed.

The bounty of cash was not found. But Hickock and Smith decided to eliminate witnesses. With shotgun blasts to the head, they killed Clutter, his wife and their two teenage children.

The inmate who had told Hickock and Smith about the Clutters tipped investigators. Six weeks after the Kansas murders, Hickock and Smith were captured in Las Vegas.

Sarasota Sheriff Ross Boyer considered them suspects in the Walker murders. Both families lived in rural communities. All had been shot in the head. No one had been spared. And the Walkers were murdered exactly a month after the Clutters, at a time when Hickock and Smith were passing through Florida.

Hickock and Smith denied it, saying they'd never come through Sarasota.

On Jan. 24, 1960, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune ran pictures of Hickock and Smith under the headline "Have you seen them?"

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 Hickock's and Smith 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.

Kansas sent Florida copies of Hickock and Smith's fingerprints. But a bloody print found on the bathtub faucet did not belong to either man. They passed lie detector tests.

With key evidence appearing to eliminate Smith and Hickock, Boyer's deputies turned their focus back to local residents.

They gave lie detector tests to more than 100 people. Hundreds of fingerprints were compared. And just about everyone in town with a .22 caliber gun brought it in for testing, to see if the firing pin left the same distinctive mark on the shell casing.

In a place where folks waved as they passed on the two-lane roads, the focus on a local culprit turned the community against itself. Neighbors accused neighbors. Wives wondered about husbands. Some of Cliff and Christine's relatives suspected each other.

In addition to McLeod, who found the bodies, and Elbert Walker, whose odd behavior made him a suspect, family and friends told police of several men who had made inappropriate advances on Christine: a neighbor, a friend, a gas station owner.

Christine had complained the neighbor came over when her husband was away and had tried to kiss her.

Investigators even compiled a list of "negroes" who fished in a creek near the Walker home and ran down a tip from a wife who speculated that her sex-crazed husband might have done it.

• • •

Three months after they were arrested, Hickock and Smith were convicted of the Clutter murders. In 1965 they were hanged at the prison in Lansing, Kansas.

Before they died, Capote, a New York author who had written mostly novels, including Breakfast at Tiffany's, spent hours interviewing them for his experiment in literary nonfiction. In Cold Blood was hailed as Capote's best work. But Capote drew criticism, too, for perceived errors and fabrications, including details about the Walker murders.

Capote had written that on Christmas Day the pair relaxed under an umbrella behind the Somerset Hotel in Miami Beach. Hickock, in bathing trunks, started doing headstands on the beach, while Smith read about the Walker murders in the Miami Herald.

"Amazing!" Smith says to Hickock in the book. "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."

But investigators in Sarasota and Miami had learned the pair were long gone from Florida by Dec. 25, 1959. According to reports released in recent years, on Christmas Eve, Hickock and Smith were in Louisiana, where they sold two dolls wrapped in Christmas paper to a minister for $1.50.

By 1972, Boyer was retiring. He expressed regret that his department hadn't solved the murders. It would be another decade before someone took an active interest in the case again.

• • •

In 1981, Ron Albritton followed an evidence clerk to a dark room in the Sarasota courthouse basement. She pulled down a large box from the top shelf. She set it on a table in the middle of the room.

Albritton was a distant cousin of Cliff Walker. He'd heard about the Walker murders since he was a boy. In 1977, he'd became a Sarasota deputy patrolman and a few years later, a detective.

He reached into the cardboard box and pulled out a bag with Cliff's straw cowboy hat, the brim spotted in blood. Another bag held Christine's red and white dress, also splotched with blood. He found Jimmie's cowboy boots and Debbie's tiny blue dress.

Albritton spoke with two of the original investigators, who had retired. Like Boyer, they thought it was someone local. They told Albritton that Sheriff Boyer had interviewed Hickock and Smith, though there is no evidence that interview happened.

"They told me the sheriff . . . sat across from these two guys face-to-face and the sheriff came back and said 'They didn't kill the Walkers,' " Albritton said recently. "I put a lot of faith in that. I always looked at the Walker case as 'Keep looking,' because it's not Hickock and Smith."

At the time, the most likely suspect on their list was Albritton's distant cousin, Elbert Walker. In addition to what many thought was an overreaction at the funeral, some people thought he loved Christine. Even some of his own family members suspected him.

Albritton and other detectives pecked away at the case over the years when they had free time. In 1987, two Sarasota investigators interviewed Elbert again. Elbert's memory was foggy. He denied any sort of relationship with Christine. Cliff and he had grown up like brothers, he told them. He'd been devastated by his death.

Elbert said he took another polygraph test that day. It said he'd been truthful.

In 2004, Albritton was just three years away from retirement when he sent a semen sample from Christine's underwear to be tested for DNA. It had been tested before, but he wanted to compare it to the surviving suspects.

One test cleared McLeod. One cleared Elbert Walker. Another 20 were cleared as well.

Recently, Walker, a short man with pale blue eyes, sat in a recliner next to an oxygen tank. Now 75, he and his wife live with his daughter in Avon Park.

"For all those that accuse me of it," he said, "I forgive them."

• • •

Pat Myers, Christine's half-brother, was on the phone with sheriff's Detective Kim McGath, the investigator who began pursuing the case four years ago. He sat inside his barbecue restaurant in Lake Placid after closing.

"I hope you got some good news for me," Myers said.

Not yet, McGath told him.

Myers and his sister, Novella Cascarella, who now lives in Idaho, are getting impatient.

Myers says the detective has shared with him details that lead her to believe Hickock and Smith are the killers.

He declined to reveal what she has told him. But before she stopped granting interviews, McGath mentioned some of the reasons herself. Cliff and Christine were looking for a car similar to the one Hickock and Smith drove and may have made arrangements to buy it. The polygraph given to Hickock and Smith in the 1960s would not have been reliable. The print on the tub faucet was likely a palm print, not a fingerprint. When Hickock and Smith were arrested in Las Vegas, one of them had a pocketknife identical to Cliff's. Had the wrapped dolls sold to the minister in Louisiana come from beneath Christine's Christmas tree? Myers wondered.

For years, Myers and his family thought the murderer was McLeod, the man who found the bodies. "My daddy went to his grave thinking that," he said. When told by a reporter that DNA had cleared McLeod about eight years ago, Myers' eyes grew wide. He said he felt bad. He said he owed him an apology.

Times staffers Natalie Watson and Cherie Diez contributed to this report.

Trail heats up in Sarasota killings linked to 'Cold Blood' case 05/17/13 [Last modified: Saturday, May 18, 2013 11:08pm]

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