Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Clutter Family Killings: Cold Blood


"Scarcely anything awakens attention like a tale of cruelty..."  — Samuel Johnson

Sheriff Robinson and Undersheriff Meier from Garden City arrived at the Clutter house a little before ten that morning. They met outside the house with Larry Hendricks, a 29-year-old English teacher who lived with the Kidwells, from whose house the policemen were summoned. Hendricks explained what the two girls had seen in Nancy's room - although their descriptions had been mostly vague. He also said he was Kenyon Clutter's teacher, and asked for permission to accompany the lawmen into the Clutter residence; he knew the Clutters and could possibly be of some assistance in the event of bad trouble, God forbid. The policemen agreed. Together, the trio went inside through the kitchen, Robinson and Hendricks straight upstairs to where the girls found Nancy Clutter, Meier onward into the lower floors. The teacher noticed that both lawmen gripped the butts of their service revolvers in their holsters, ready to draw. This unnerved him.

What they found inside was something that would haunt their dreams for years.

Upstairs, Robinson and Larry Hendricks found Nancy Clutter's room, its walls and furniture splattered with blood. Nancy lay on her bed, her face to the wall, the back of her head blown away. It looked like a shotgun blast at extremely close range. Her wrists were tied behind her and her ankles bound with what looked like cord from a Venetian blind. She was in a bathrobe, pajamas and slippers, appearing to have been killed before going to bed. Because she was fully dressed, there seemed to be no sign of sexual molestation.

Nauseated, heading back into the corridor, the men dreaded what probably awaited them in other rooms. They had the whole house before them and the devil knew what he held in store. The sheriff's hand trembled, his revolver in it now for reassurance.

The next room they came across was Kenyon's. His room was empty and in order, but there was no sign of Kenyon — only his eyeglasses resting on the covers, which were rumpled and semi-drawn as if he had slept in the bed at least a portion of the night.

At the end of the hall, the men found a door closed, but unlocked. Cautiously, they stepped in. On the bed across from the door was the corpse of Bonnie Clutter in white nightgown drenched with red. "She'd been tied, too," Hendricks explains. "But differently - with her hands in front of her, so that she looked as if she was praying...The cord around her wrists ran down to her ankles, which were bound together, then ran on down to the bottom of the bed, where it was tied to the footboard - a very complicated, artful piece of work...She'd been shot point-blank in the side of the head. Her eyes were open, wide open, as if she was still looking at the killer. Because she must have had to watch him do it - aim the gun."

Meanwhile the undersheriff had found the bodies of Kenyon and Mr. Clutter in the basement. Kenyon, in blue jeans and T-shirt, had been tied in the same intricate pattern as was his mother, then roped like a captive steer to a davenport on which he lay. His face had been erased by a shotgun.

But, Herb Clutter, discovered dead in his pajamas in the furnace room, seemed to have suffered the most. By appearances, it looked like he had been tortured. Says Hendricks, "I took one look at Mr. Clutter and it was hard to look again. I knew plain shooting couldn't account for that much blood...He'd been shot all right, the same as Kenyon - with the gun held right in front of his face (but) his throat had been cut, too. His mouth was taped; the tape was wound plumb around his head...He was sprawled in front of the furnace. On a big cardboard box that looked like it had been laid there specifically...A thing I can't get out of my mind. There was a steampipe overhead, and knotted to it, dangling from it, was a piece of cord. Obviously, at some point, Mr. Cutter had been tied there, strung up by his hands..."

Grim scene outside the Clutter house, Nov. 15, 1959 (Garden City Telegram)
Grim scene outside the
Clutter house, Nov. 15, 1959
(Garden City Telegram)

The sheriff radioed in an APB and soon the house filled with more police, ambulances, doctors, the local minister, newspaper reporters and photographers. To one side, the police had drawn Mr. Stoecklein, the groundskeeper, who related how he had talked to the Clutter kids only yesterday afternoon, how he had seen no strangers on the premises, and how he had heard nothing out of the ordinary overnight. The filled silos that stand between his house and the Clutters soak up a lot of noise, he explained, although he himself was surprised that he nor any member of his family had not heard four roars of a shotgun. A radio broadcaster from station KIUL, airing live through a Garden City transmitter, was calling the event "a tragedy unbelievable and shocking beyond words...and without apparent motive."

* * * * *

To one man in particular there were no words strong enough to describe what happened to the Herbert William Clutter family. Officially, for want of a better description, Alvin Adams Dewey of the Kansas City Bureau of Investigation (KBI) said, "I've seen some bad things, I sure as hell have. But nothing so vicious as this."

Dewey at 47 years old was tall, good looking and more brilliant than he had ever been; his years as a law enforcer, which included terms as Finney County's sheriff and as a special agent for the Federal Bureau of Investigation in New Orleans, San Antonio, Denver, Miami and San Francisco, sharpened his skills. The place he loved best was Kansas. The KBI, headquartered in Topeka, had made him head of operations in the southwestern sector of the state, where he worked out of Garden City. Housed in the second story of the old courthouse building, he wasn't one to hide behind a mahogany desk and reams of authoritarian paperwork. He made it his business to know the people around him, to familiarize himself with the personalities of the people in the state. And one of the ones he truly appreciated - in fact, he had become one of his best friends - was Herbert Clutter.

"But," he made it a point to stress, "even if I hadn't known the family, I wouldn't feel any different about this crime. However long it takes, it may be the rest of my life, I'm going to know what happened in that house: the why and the who."

Dewey had been working on a case in Wichita when he received the news about the Clutters. At first he didn't believe it, as he tells us in a special edition of The Garden City Telegram, published 25 years later. "(After an all-night stakeout) I was asleep at the Commodore Hotel when the phone woke me a little after 10 a.m. (November 15). It was my wife, Marie. A policeman called her out of Sunday school to find out where I was, she said. He told her that the Clutter family had been shot to death (and) wanted me at the scene of the crime immediately...Bonnie and Herb Clutter? They were right there in Sunday school, weren't they? Hadn't she seen the Clutter children when she left ours in the classrooms? 'Alvin,' Marie said shakily, 'they are all dead. Shot.' That did it. I was awake."

At a press conference on Monday, November 16, Dewey announced that the county sheriff's department had asked the KBI to intervene and that he himself was heading up the case. Eighteen men under him would work night and day until the killers were brought to justice. The facts to date were that the killers slew the family between 11 p.m. Saturday and 2 a.m. Sunday. These times were the coroner's estimation.

Investigation principals: (l. to r.) KBI Supervisor Alvin Dewey, County Attorney Duane West, Sheriff Earl Robinson and KBI Agent Clarence Duntz (Garden City Telegram)
Investigation principals: (l. to r.)
KBI Supervisor Alvin Dewey,
County Attorney Duane West,
Sheriff Earl Robinson and
KBI Agent Clarence Duntz
(Garden City Telegram)

"We don't know which of the four (victims) was the main target, the primary victim," he told reporters. "It could have been Nancy or Kenyon, or either of the parents. Some people say, "Well it must have been Mr. Clutter. Because his throat was cut, he was the most abused. But that's theory, not fact. It would help if we knew in what order the family died, but the coroner can't determine that."

Dewey alluded to a "second-killer concept". His friend Herb Clutter had been no shrinking violet; he said, but had been the kind of guy who fought for his rights and would have fought like a Hottentot for his family. He had been in top physical condition and would have given hell to anyone attempting to physically subdue him. The fellow he knew never would have allowed himself to be manhandled and bound - unless he had no choice, unless the manhandler and the binder had an accomplice who pointed a shotgun to his temple.

But, one question remained. He admitted: "How could two individuals reach the same amount of rage at the same time, the kind of psychopathic rage it took to commit such a crime?" The concept was frightening.

Unanswered questions aside, Dewey closed the conference with a harsh statement. "All I know is that somebody better watch out." The threat sounded personal. He meant it to sound that way.

Dewey's team of investigators covered the countryside to talk to anyone who might know anything, who might provide a clue, a motive. They talked to Herb Clutter's business associates, even to the tradesmen who had worked for the family - plumbers, painters, carpenters, landscapers. They spoke with Nancy's and Kenyon's friends at Holcomb High School, with teachers, with janitors, with tutors. They addressed Bonnie's doctors, civic leaders who knew the Clutters, fellow 4-H associates, neighbors. And they asked the two remaining Clutter daughters if they might have even a far-fetched notion of a cause of crime. Like all the others interviewed, Eveanna nor Beverly could see absolutely no reason in heaven or hell why anyone would want to hurt any member of the brood on River Valley Farm.

When his associates assembled in Dewey's office to discuss their findings to date, one of them, Harold Nye, summed up what the others had discovered: "Of all the people in the world, the Clutters were the least likely to be murdered."

The detectives paused their search long enough to attend services, which were held mid-week for the Clutters at Phillips' Funeral Home in Garden City. Truman Capote calls the event "disquieting." Within their coffins, the heads of each victim, because of the severity of facial damage, were encased in a kind of cocoon-like cotton shading the physical appearances of each face. Susan Kidwell couldn't stand it; she raced to the parking lot and wept. That red velveteen dress on her friend Nancy Clutter - there it had been, on that still, lifeless form without a face. She had helped Nancy pick out the material for that dress a few weeks ago. It seemed like yesterday.

Services for the four slain Clutters <br />(Garden City Telegram)
Services for the four slain Clutters
(Garden City Telegram)

Six hundred people, including the children's classmates, turned out at Valley View Cemetery the day of the interment. Reverend Leonard Cowan of the First Methodist Church asked the crowd to swallow their bitterness: "God offers us courage, love and hope even though we walk through the shadows of the valley of death..."

* * * * *

Developments in the case were slow in coming, but they were coming. Under ultraviolet light, Dewey noticed two surprising - rather, alarming — objects of evidence in the crime scene photo negatives. There was a pair of boot prints left behind on the cardboard box that had served as Mr. Clutter's slab. Unseen by the naked eye, the impressions were there in and around the bloodstains nonetheless. Men's boots. One heel bore a diamond-shaped pattern, the other the familiar Cat's Paw insignia. Since both Herb and Kenyon were bare-footed at the time of their deaths, it seemed credible that these prints belonged to the killers.

Dewey hid this information from the press; he didn't want the murderers changing their boots. He figured, they may be literally walking about on their own ultimate undoing. In the meantime, he studied the police photos for other evidence, asking himself, "How many animals can I find in these photos?"

Unless and until this footwear could be matched to some nasty Cinderellas with a shotgun, the prints were not a lot to go on. Nevertheless, Dewey was delighted to encounter them, considering the killers had been very careful in cleaning up after themselves, even to the point of gathering all four ejected cartridge shells from their weapon.

Now, what of a motive? A neighbor's jealousy? A business associate's disgruntlement over a deal? There was evidence of none of that. Of robbery, the most practical, even that seemed hard to establish. The Clutter homestead hadn't appeared ransacked. The only hints of theft were in the facts that Nancy's purse lay opened in the kitchen, seemingly rummaged through, and, as the police had recorded that day, the contents of Mr. Clutter's billfold were found scattered in his bedroom. But, nothing of any value seemed to be missing from the house. Bonnie Clutter, when found dead, still wore an expensive bracelet. Nancy's jewelry was intact.

Mrs. Helm, escorted by a detective, had gone from room to room, but observed nothing missing - not chinaware, no silverware, none of the furniture, no linens, no knick-knacks, nothing — except, oddly, a small gray Zenith transistor radio from Kenyon's room. "The boy loved that thing," she told the plainclothesman beside her. "He wouldn't go anywhere without it, and always put it back there, on his desk, at the end of each night."

Still, like the boot prints, an absent transistor radio was no neon signpost leading the way in any direction. Had drugs been taken, the police might look for a drug addict; had vast amounts of cash been gone, the police might watch for a suspect who suddenly drove a brand-new auto; had jewelry or even household items disappeared, the police could smother every pawnshop broker from here to hell. But...a transistor radio?

Al Dewey, a quarter century later (Garden City Telegram)
Al Dewey, a quarter
century later
(Garden City Telegram)

Alvin Dewey spun, bewildered. The Clutter case had become his obsession, to the extent that it was interfering with his being a husband to Marie and a dad to his two sons. With Christmas around the corner, he had been the absolute Scrooge and the farthest thing from a Father Christmas. He smoked three packs of Lucky Strikes a day, gulped meals without a thought and hadn't stopped to consider the time and effort invested in him by his wife, whom he had been probably pulling through his own wringer of emotions. He festered with discontentment, like a spoiled little boy who didn't get what he really wanted under the Christmas tree.

Every time the phone jingled, he leaped off the sofa, out of bed, out of the tub, away from the backyard basketball game with his kids. He clambered for it, hoping to hear Santa's voice at the other end, "Hi, little Alvin, it's me! I forgot to drop off a very wonderful present for you, something I know you've wanted. Well, it's on its way, special delivery, just for you! It's gift wrapped, too — the names of the killers." the carolers sang outside his door one night, and he wasn't in a particularly joyous frame of mind, the phone jingled. And this time it was Santa - well, close enough - it was Logan Sanford, the KBI's director in Topeka.

"Merry Christmas, Alv, we have us a witness. An inmate from Lansing Prison. He believes he knows who the killers are, two of'em, ex-cellmates. I'm sending the info so you'll have it first thing in the morning - special delivery.

"For the time being, write these names down: Richard Hickock and Perry Smith."


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