EDITOR’S NOTE: content warning and trigger warning for discussion of sexual assault and murder.
The Murder of the Walker Family
If you are interested in true crime, one feeling you have to get used to is the frustrating presence of the unknowable. As much as we like to believe that if a violent crime happens the truth can be proven definitively, it is not always that simple. Time is a major factor. As years pass, people die, evidence erodes or is lost, and the truth becomes more elusive.
In 2012, the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office decided to re-investigate Dick Hickock and Perry Smith for the unsolved 1959 murders of the Walker family in Osprey, Florida.
Hickock and Smith met in the mid-1950s while serving time at the Kansas State Penitentiary. Hickock was in for passing bad cheques, while Smith had been shipped back to Kansas after he was involved in a robbery, escaped custody, and stole a car. After his parole, Smith moved to Tacoma, Washington. Hickock was released in 1959 and wrote to his former cellmate, saying he should come to Kansas City to help him with a “cinch” of a job. Smith arrived in Kansas on November 11, and four days later he and Hickock murdered four members of the Clutter family for $50, binoculars, and a transistor radio.
The murderers fled to Florida, where they were seen by several witnesses between Tallahassee and Miami. Hickock and Smith checked out of a Miami Beach motel on the morning of December 19, and later that evening witnesses place them at a department store and a gas station in Sarasota, only miles from the Walker’s home. Hickock’s face was covered in scratches.
Christine Walker, 24, arrived home from running errands around 4pm on December 19, 1959. Her husband, Clifford, 25, was out with their two children, 3-year-old Jimmy and 1-year-old Debbie. The family lived in a sparsely furnished house on a cattle ranch in Osprey, where Clifford was working as a farmhand. Sometime after putting away the groceries, Christine was attacked. She fought hard for her life — bloodstains on her high heeled shoe indicated she had used it as a weapon. Christine was overpowered, beaten, raped, and shot in the head with a .22 caliber gun.
When Clifford returned home with the kids, he was ambushed and shot in the head. Jimmy and his sister were also shot, but the wound did not kill Debbie instantly. The killer(s) drowned the injured baby girl in the bathtub. The only items taken from the house were a carton of cigarettes and Clifford’s pocket knife. The family’s festively wrapped presents were still under the Christmas tree.
The grisly scene was discovered the next morning when another farmhand showed up to collect Clifford Walker for a hunting trip. The crime scene was mishandled — police parked in the driveway, running over any tiremarks left by the culprit(s), one officer stepped in blood leaving a boot print that had investigators mistakenly thinking the killer had been wearing cowboy boots. Sarasota police did not have a camera, so the crime scene photos were taken by a reporter.
Due to the lack of motive and the fact only small personal items were taken, police thought the crime was likely committed by someone known to the Walkers. This is exactly what the investigators in the Clutter case had thought.
Hickock and Smith were suspects in the Walker murders as early as 1960. They were interviewed by police and given polygraph tests. The convicted killers passed the polygraphs, but in the 1960s the technology was not reliable. Truman Capote also asked Smith about the Walker crime while he was researching In Cold Blood. Smith told him that he had read about the murders in the newspaper while he and Hickock were in Miami, and they confirmed with each other that they had an alibi, having been in Tallahassee on the day. It is known that Hickock and Smith left Miami the morning of the murders, so this account does not line up with the facts.
The 2012 detectives exhumed the bodies of Hickock and Smith to test their DNA against the semen found on Christine’s underwear, but the samples were so degraded the tests were inconclusive. They are looking into the possibility that familial DNA might provide better results.
I’m going to get speculative now, and share what I think is the most likely scenario if Hickock and Smith were responsible for these murders, based on what we know of the Walkers and what we know of Hickock and Smith.
Friends of the Walkers told police the couple were interested in buying a 1956 Chevrolet Bel Air; the same car Hickock and Smith were driving. I think the Walkers spotted the car in Sarasota while they were running errands, and approached Hickock and Smith to inquire about it. They may have arranged a meeting to discuss a sale and given the killers their address, or sensing an opportunity the fugitives followed Christine home after she and Clifford separated.
Like in the Clutter crime, the men entered the house through an unlocked door, surprising Christine. Hickock beat and raped Christine, then either he or Smith shot her in the head. Another reason police suspected a personal motive to the crime was the fact Christine’s face had been covered by a blanket after death, indicating remorse. I think there is another explanation for this — during their previous murders, Smith had prevented Hickock from raping 16-year-old Nancy Clutter, but he may not have objected as strongly to his partner’s designs on the adult Mrs. Walker. Smith may have covered Christine’s face because he was ashamed of allowing Hickock to rape her. I think it is most likely Smith who killed Clifford and the two children.
If the passage of time were not a factor in the re-investigation, there are a few questions I would ask as an investigator:
Where did they get the gun? We know the shotgun used to murder the Clutters was purchased on credit from a pawn shop. Did Hickock and Smith trade the binoculars and radio taken from the Clutter house for a .22 somewhere between Kansas and Florida?
What happened to the gun and Mr. Walker’s pocketknife? Hickock left the Clutter murder weapon in the closet of his parent’s house before going on the run, so I doubt they would have tossed the gun after the Walker crime. Were these items pawned somewhere between Florida and Nevada?
Hickock and Smith were hanged in 1965, so even if investigators find evidence conclusively linking the killers to the Walker crime, they will never stand trial. We will never get to know for sure why the family were murdered. The Walker family murders case remains open.