December 20, 1959, was seemingly an ordinary morning in Osprey, Florida. The town is small, comprising just a few thousand people, and residents enjoyed the relative peace that comes alongside that. Daniel McLeod rose at his ranch and began to set about his day. It was cold, but not expressly so, and he was headed to meet his friend and co-worker Cliff Walker to go hog hunting. He hooked up his horse trailer, loaded his horse, and set off in good spirits for the day ahead. Parking his truck outside the Walker family home on the 100,000 acres Palmer Ranch, McLeod will have noticed the darkness emanating from the house. It was quiet, which was odd as the family was known to rise early.
McLeod knocked at the front door, getting increasingly louder as he became more alarmed at the lack of response. He had initially believed the family had simply slept in, amused as his friend was also known to be a habitual early riser. After calling out and making further attempts to ascertain the problem, Daniel looked further around the property. He noted the family car was not in its usual position, and there were both a cut log and Christmas gifts laying on the porch. Peering through the windows, there was a very dim light on inside. Somebody was inside but ignoring his calls. He realized something must be wrong in the house and took the decision to enter, cutting through the screen door. Even the worst fears of his imagination couldn’t have prepared him for the carnage that greeted him. The entire Walker family was dead, all murdered, including the children. There were still gifts underneath the Christmas tree.
Cliff, 25, lived with his wife Christine, 24, and their two young children, Jimmie, 3, and Debbie 1. The family was young and growing and look set to be pillars of the community for many years to come. However, now Christine lay in a pool of blood at the entrance to the living room. Cliff and Jimmie were slumped in the corner, and upstairs, Debbie lay in a blood-filled bath. McLeod hastily ran from the house and called the police.
Working at the scene, police began to search the home for evidence and soon discovered that items were missing; some of them seem quite bizarre. Christine’s high school majorette uniform was gone, as was Cliff’s pocketknife. However, most unusually, the couple’s marriage license had been stolen, leading some to suspect that perhaps an old fame of Christine’s had come to carry out an act of terrible revenge on the young husband and wife. Alongside the items missing, there was also a significant amount of evidence left at the scene by the culprit. There was a bloody and discarded cowboy boot, a cellophane strip from a cigarette wrapper, and a fingerprint on the bathtub faucet.
Reconstructing events, police ascertained that the family had been out running errands and believe that Christine arrived home first, around 4pm on Saturday, December 19. Entering, she wasn’t attacked straight away and had enough time to store the groceries before she was ambushed by the assailant or assailants. Whether they were already in the house or Christine let them in is unknown for sure, but it seems likely the reason the family car was in a different location is that somebody else had parked in the family spot. This didn’t alarm Christine, and logically, the occupant of that car was then known to her, letting them in before being attacked.
She fought viciously, using her high-heeled shoes and staining them with blood, even making it out of the house before being dragged back inside. Then she was taken to Jimmie’s bedroom and raped on the bed before being shot with a .22 firearm. Christine was likely still struggling at this point as the first bullet barely grazed her. The second one didn’t miss. Not long afterward, Cliff also returned home with Jimmie and Debbie.
Cliff was shot in the face immediately, followed by Jimmie, the young boy eating a lollipop he’d been bought as a treat. But Jimmie didn’t die. Mortally wounded, he crawled to his dead father, seeking his protection. The killer put two more bullets in the back of the child’s skull. Now the killer turned to Debbie and shot her too. It seems likely that Debbie also somehow survived. Out of ammunition, the killer took the baby to the bathroom and drowned her in the bathtub. Whether the one-year-old’s death came from the bullet wound or the water was never ascertained.
It seems almost sure that there was more than one attacker, with forensic evidence discovering a dark-colored hair in the bathroom and a long blonde hair inside Christine Walker’s dress.
Initial suspects in the case included Daniel McLeod himself, a local by the name of Wilbur Tooker, and a cousin of Cliff by the name of Elbert Walker. McLeod passed a polygraph and was quickly eliminated in any case. Meanwhile, Tooker was seen as a local pervert, having tried to kiss Christine in the past, and regularly making indecent propositions. Cliff had threatened to kill him but he had a watertight alibi for the time of the murders. Elbert, on the other hand, would be on the police radar for some time. Described as “wild,” he was violent and boisterous when drunk, many believing him to be mentally unwell. Elbert had also previously made advances toward Christine, and family members thought the grief shown was fake, the suspect fainting twice at the funeral. He passed a polygraph, and even though there is significant controversy over the validity of early tests, in 2006, Elbert was eliminated through DNA.
However, the best suspect at the time was possibly Curtis McCall, a man described as a troublemaker with a history of violence. Local gossip was that McCall was engaged in an affair with Christine Walker, and he was known to own a .22-caliber gun. Brought in for questioning, McCall denied having any romantic interest in Christine and evasively said he had sold the weapon not long ago. McCall underwent three separate polygraph tests, and during each one, the suspect was so nervous that they all ended inconclusively. Yet, the test showed that he was highly likely lying when asked if he’d withheld information.
Just a few months after the massacre, bloody clothing from the Walker home was uncovered in a shed not far away. The items, including shirts, a blouse, and pants, belonged to Cliff and Christine and were all soaked. Police theorized that they had been grabbed and used to wipe the blood off the killer or killers. The discovery was interesting as it would be unlikely that a stranger to the area would know the shed.
In all, hundreds of suspects were interviewed and given polygraphs. The leads went nowhere, and the case was soon going cold until police believed they had a break in 1962 when serial killer Emmett Monroe Spencer claimed responsibility. Yet, Spencer was a known pathological liar, and his claims were soon dismissed as a false confession by Sarasota County Sheriff Ross Boyer.
However, it’s possible that the police already had the killers in custody.
In the early hours of November 15, 1959, Perry Smith and Richard Hickock entered the Clutter family home in Holcomb, Kansas. Smith and Hickock had recently been released from the Kansas State Penitentiary. Hickock’s former cellmate had worked for the Clutters, telling him that the father, Herb Clutter, kept a large amount of cash on the premises. Hickock soon concocted a plan to rob the family’s safe and flee to Mexico, enlisting Smith, who had also once been his cellmate.
The duo entered the home through an unlocked back door and searched for the safe, the family remaining asleep. They didn’t find it; Herb, in reality, did all his business by check and there was no safe. Angered, the two robbers woke the family: Herb, 48; his wife, Bonnie, 45; and their two teenage children Nancy, 16, and Kenyon, 15. All four were bound and gagged as the search continued. They found nothing. Determined not to leave any witnesses, Smith cut Herb Clutter’s throat and then shot him. One by one, Kenyon, Nancy, and Bonnie were executed with a shotgun blast to the head. Smith stopped his friend from raping Nancy first but was likely responsible for pulling the trigger on all four killings. The pair got away with a radio, a set of binoculars, and less than $50.
“I didn’t want to harm the man. I thought he was a very nice gentleman. Soft-spoken. I thought so right up to the moment I cut his throat.” — Perry Smith.
While the killers were still at large, legendary writer Truman Capote learned of the killings and decided to write about the slaughter, traveling to Kansas alongside childhood friend Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mocking Bird. Together, they interviewed hundreds of locals and the investigators working on the case. The notes for the planned book ran to 8,000 pages. The culprits were eventually arrested six weeks after the killings in Las Vegas and ultimately executed by hanging on April 14, 1965. The year afterward, Capote published the book. It would be arguably the most significant true-crime work of all time, In Cold Blood.
However, while both Smith and Hickock would be dead and buried by the time Capote released his pioneering book, they were still very much at large on December 19, 1959. Indeed, the Walker family killings are given several pages in In Cold Blood, the author dismissing any connection. However, in 2012, the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office once again began to look into a possible link, having originally considered them suspects as early as 1960 around the time of their arrest. The pair were among the many suspects given a polygraph which they both passed, being dismissed from the inquiry.
Capote had insisted that the pair had an alibi for the time of the killings. Still, Kansas and Florida investigators have contended that there are flaws in the account, with some witnesses standing against the alibi. After the slaughter at the Clutter family farm, the duo had stolen a car and began to make their way to Florida, headed for Miami. They were seen a dozen times on the way. Arriving in Miami Beach, the pair was located just four hours away from the Walker family home and checked out of their motel the morning of the killings. When they were arrested, they had a pocket knife similar to the one described as missing from Cliff Walker’s body.
At the time of the murders, the Walkers had been thinking about buying a 1956 Chevrolet Bel Air, and this was the same car that Smith and Hickock had stolen back in Kansas, using it during their flight across the country. Knowing they were seen throughout the state looking for work, investigators have theorized that the duo bumped into the Walker family and got talking or simply contacted them, either way under the pretense that they were planning on selling the vehicle. Arriving at the house when Christine was alone, she wouldn’t have suspected their real intention. The same day, they were positively identified at a department store just a few miles away. One of them had a scratched face.
There have been minor developments in the case in the years since the scent went cold. For example, in 1994, a woman called the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office and claimed to be a bartender in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania. She said one of her regular customers had got drunk at the bar one night and began crying, saying that he had “killed some people in Osprey, Florida,” when he was a young man and mentioned the name “Walker.” She believed he did occasional work about town and was a gun enthusiast. The bartender never called again. In December of 2012, it was announced that Smith and Hickock’s bodies would be exhumed to match their DNA to semen samples taken from Christine back in 1959. The case wasn’t a priority, and it would be August of 2013 before the results came in. They were inconclusive. Only partial DNA had been retrieved, and any conclusions were therefore uncertain.
There is ample circumstantial evidence to suggest that Smith and Hickock may have been responsible for the Walker family murders. They were in the area at the time and had already committed one atrocity. Both killings involved a home invasion, and both involved the occupants being executed with a firearm. Both had relatively minor items stolen. However, the Clutter family killing resulted from false information, with the home deliberately targeted in the belief it contained significant cash. That motive has to be discounted in the Walker family case. Equally, Smith prevented Hickock from carrying out a rape at the Clutter Farm, whereas Christine was assaulted before her execution. A blonde hair was found in Christine’s dress, and neither Smith nor Hickock were blonde. Smith and Hickock took cash at the first crime scene and two easy to carry and simple to pawn items in a radio and binoculars. At the second, the killers took personal things related to Christine, namely her high school majorette uniform and marriage license.
The taking of these items from the crime scene is suggestive that the killing was directly targeting Christine and the family rather than the tragic results of a home invasion. While police officially believe that Smith and Hickock remain the best suspects in the cold case, it’s worth noting that the marriage license was eventually returned to the family when a relative included it in items that were given to Cliff Walker’s niece.
The Christmas tragedy that fell on Osprey in 1959 was an unimaginable horror and one that by all rights deserved justice. Sadly, it never came. Maybe the killer was a relative who bore some grudge against the Walkers or simply wished to engage in his carnal fantasies. Perhaps a secret lover had been spurned. Or maybe it was a home invasion that, for a second time, ended in slaughter. In any case, a family was wiped out in the most terrible circumstance, and the killings remain yet another dark and unsolved stain in Florida’s long and inglorious criminal history.
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