ARCADIA — Pat Myers sat on the bed of his brother’s pickup truck at a central Florida cemetery this week, as detectives, forensic archaeologists and the medical examiner swarmed around his sister’s gravesite.
Black plastic sheets, strung between tall wooden posts, kept Myers from seeing cemetery workers lift the lid off the concrete vault where Christine Walker had been buried for 64 years.
The mother of two had been raped, beaten and killed on Dec. 19, 1959, by bullets from two handguns inside her wood-frame house in Osprey, a small town 11 miles south of Sarasota. Her husband, ranch hand Cliff Walker, had also been shot beneath the eye so cleanly that his cowboy hat remained on when he fell. Their 3-year-old son, Jimmie, had three bullet holes in his head. Debbie, 23 months old, had also been shot in the head and drowned face down in a bathtub.
A six-decade investigation had stumped a dozen detectives and amassed some 600 suspects. Among them: Perry Smith and Richard Hickock, who’d killed another family of four on a Kansas farm a month before in November 1959. They had become the subjects of Truman Capote’s true-crime classic, “In Cold Blood.” The Tampa Bay Times wrote in January about the possible connections linking the infamous killers to the unsolved Sarasota County case.
Detectives there had traveled to Kansas in 2012 to exhume the remains of Hickock and Smith, to compare their DNA with sperm found in Christine’s underwear.
But the results of those tests had so far failed to connect the Walker murders to the Kansas killers. Instead, they had exposed contamination and bungling at state labs in Kansas and Florida and revealed that investigators didn’t actually have a true copy of Christine or Cliff Walker’s DNA.
Myers, 72, a retired barbecue restaurant owner, had been calling for his sister’s exhumation ever since. Anything to move the investigation along, even as his health faltered and doctors implanted two dozen stents in his heart and legs to keep his blood moving.
Now, sporting a white gauze bandage that covered 16 stitches on his nose from a recent surgery to remove melanoma, he said he felt relief that this was finally happening.
From behind the shrouded gravesite, Detective Brandon Clark emerged, sweat pooling on his forehead. He’d been on the case since 2019 and had organized the exhumation.
He explained that when they’d lifted Christine’s metal casket out of the vault, the waterlogged bottom had split off.
“Everything is intact though,” he said, quickly. “There are skeletal remains.”
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On their last day alive, the Walkers had left their small, white, wood-frame house on the southern tip of the 14,000-acre Palmer cattle ranch and drove north to Sarasota, a blossoming waterfront town and the winter headquarters of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. They test-drove several cars before picking up feed for the ranch. Then Christine headed home in their Plymouth while Cliff followed with the kids in his work Jeep.
One of Cliff’s co-workers, who came to pick him up to go hog hunting, found them the next morning.
In the months that followed, everyone became a suspect: a neighbor, a cousin, a gas station attendant, Cliff’s fellow ranch hand, even a prison inmate in California who confessed. Dozens of residents handed over their guns so investigators could see if the firing pin left the same marks on the shell casings as those found at the crime scene. Hundreds of others took unreliable lie detector tests or submitted fingerprints.
In a place where people waved to each other on the two-lane roads as they passed, neighbors became suspects and some of Christine and Cliff’s relatives accused each other.
Hickock and Smith emerged as suspects within two weeks of the murders. The pair were petty thieves doing time at the Kansas State Penitentiary when they heard about a farmer who had a safe full of cash.
Upon release from prison, the two men had headed to Holcomb, Kansas, where they killed Herb Clutter, his wife and their two teens with shotgun blasts to the head. They never did find the rumored money.
Over the next six weeks, the killers traveled 10,000 miles from California to Mexico, spending time in Florida around the time of the Walker murders.
They were arrested in Las Vegas and hanged for killing the Clutters in 1965. They denied killing the Walkers.
But a number of residents, including a saleswoman at a department store in Sarasota, said they’d seen them in the days surrounding the Walker killings. Sarasota County Sheriff Ross E. Boyer, who handled the case personally in the early years, was not convinced it was them.
When Detective Kimberly McGath began investigating in 2007, she again looked at Hickock and Smith. Cliff and Christine had been searching for a car similar to the stolen 1956 Chevy Bel Air that Hickock and Smith were driving. Maybe they had made arrangements to buy it.
But a lot of evidence had been misplaced or destroyed. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement lost a semen sample from Christine’s underwear. The FBI destroyed Hickock and Smith’s palm prints, especially problematic after a fingerprint examiner revealed that what was thought to be a fingerprint used to exonerate the men, which was found on a bathroom tub faucet, was actually a partial palm print.
McGath initiated the exhumation of the Kansas killers in 2012. But when the results on the killers’ bones came back, Smith’s tooth returned a profile for the examiner who had analyzed the bones. His femur produced another unknown female profile. The Kansas lab did capture partial DNA for both men and the DNA found in Christine’s underwear was not theirs, a Kansas report concluded.
McGath scanned thousands of pages, looking for the original DNA test of Christine’s underwear that had uncovered a male suspect. That’s when she realized that the DNA profile they’d been using to compare their suspects all these years was likely Christine’s DNA.
A Florida Department of Law Enforcement serology supervisor confirmed the news, explaining that what was thought to be sperm from a suspect was more likely Christine’s blood or skin cells.
When Detective Clark arrived on the case in 2019, he again submitted Christine’s underwear to the lab for DNA testing. It produced two people’s DNA, one female and another male, but the results were too mixed to identify anyone.
Clark had developed a theory that a neighbor, William Tooker, might be the killer. Another neighbor observed him in the area the afternoon of the murders, and he had a crush on Christine. And Tooker — whose descendants had provided swabs — could not be discounted as a contributor to the DNA mixture.
Myers and his brother went to visit their parents, buried in another part of the Arcadia cemetery. They passed a clearing with 23 Royal Air Force cadets from the United Kingdom, who had died while training at a nearby airfield during World War II. They passed the grave of a 13-year-old girl buried in 1910.
“I think it’s right there,” Myers said, pointing to two flat headstones shaded by a small oak tree dripping with Spanish moss.
Terry pulled out a few weeds, and Pat limped over and looked down. The murders of Christine and her family had destroyed his family. None of them had ever been the same. He knew that solving the case was a long shot, but he’d promised his family he’d stay on it until it was solved, and there was finally some momentum.
“This wouldn’t be happening if it weren’t meant to be,” Terry said to his brother.
By the time they got back to the Walker gravesite, Christine’s bones had been loaded into one of the medical examiner’s vans, her finger still holding her gold wedding and diamond engagement bands.
Cliff’s vault had a crack in the lid, so his casket was floating in water. They pumped out the liquid and removed his bones, one by one.
As the van with his remains left the cemetery and workers placed the lid back on Cliff Walker’s vault, District 12 Medical Examiner Russell Vega came over to talk to the brothers. They were leaving so Myers could make another doctor’s appointment.
“I know you guys have been waiting a long time for this,” Vega said.
The exhumation had been successful, he said, and the Walkers would likely be the first to be run through the office’s new CT scanner. It creates a three-dimensional reconstruction of the body’s skeleton and will give investigators a better picture of their injuries.
Clark said their bones would also be sent to a private lab to identify and remove Christine’s and Cliff’s DNA from the mixture found in 2019 in Christine’s underwear. That would allow scientists to tease out the genetic code of the sperm cell so it could be uploaded to common ancestry websites to find relatives. In 2021, detectives in Montana identified the killer of a teenage couple in 1956 with genetic genealogy and a single sperm cell. So it was not inconceivable.
Clark said the DNA tests performed by the Kansas Bureau of Investigation have excluded Hickock and Smith in his mind, and he does not expect the new tests to show anything different. But McGath isn’t so sure. She has doubts about all of the Kansas City testing based on the contamination found in the earlier examinations. She’s not ready to rule out the “In Cold Blood” killers.
Clark doesn’t know how long it will take for the latest results, or even if they will produce answers. But he sounded confident.
“That’s how we’re going to solve this,” Clark said. “It’s probably our best shot.”