Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Clutter Family Killings: Cold Blood


"Be sure your sin will find you out."  — The Bible

Las Vegas was its usual Eden-like self, tropic breezes even on December 30 and the setting desert sun massaging the skin with a toasty irridescence. Dick Hickock waited outside the city post office in the two-toned black-and-white 1956 Chevy they had recently stolen on their way back west. Inside the building, at General Delivery, Perry was claiming a large cardboard box they had shipped insured to the States before leaving Mexico - it contained clothes and an assortment of personal belongings that they didn't want to contend with while shuffling from one stolen car to another.

Inside the box, among the potpourri, were two pairs of boots - one with heels bearing a diamond-shaped pattern, the other whose heels were made by Cat's Paw.

Having driven from Miami Beach in five days, the two boys were planning to roost a while here in Vegas in a traveler's motel that Dick knew about, where he had slept off many a binge, a cheap line of cabins set back behind the Strip of casinos and eateries.

Parked a few spaces from the Chevy was a police squad. Officers Ocie Pigford and Francis Macauley had spotted the auto with the out of state license - number Jo 16212 — and, as was customary when a cruiser behaved suspiciously at dusk, checked the plates with Headquarters Central. The number matched with a printout of cars stolen in Johnson County, Kansas. Now, the two cops waited, watched, holding back until the squat, dark-haired little man limped forth from the post office with his package.

When he did so, the prowl car swung into action, drawing alongside the black-and-white Chevy. Perry and Dick had not seen the policemen until the barrels of their revolvers poked their cheekbones through the rolled-down windows.

* * * * *

Alvin Dewey was bathing before dinner at his home in Garden City when his wife summoned him to the phone. "It's headquarters," she told him. "Say it's urgent." He reached for the nearest towel, wrapped himself into it, and sprinted to the phone stand. Wife Marie nonchalantly returned to her task of setting the dinner table, but jolted when she heard her husband yelp out behind her. She wheeled around to see him dancing, phone in hand, yodeling a chorus louder than the Mormon Tabernacle Choir's rendition of Handel's "Messiah" last week on TV.

Hugging her, yanking her into a confounded dance around the front room, looking every bit the fool in a slipping wet towel but not giving a damn who might see him through the opened bay window, he repeated over and over in singing refrain, "They got'em in Vegas! They got'em in Vegas!"

It took Marie only seconds to realize that her husband had not gone crazy. In fact, he was back to normal.

* * * * *

Hickock and Smith were interrogated separately, but at the same time, at 2 p.m. on January 2, 1960, at the Detective Bureau of Las Vegas. Both interrogation rooms, down the hall from each other, were sterile white, celotex lined and fluorescent lit, containing a metal table without drawers, a few metal fold-out chairs, a hidden microphone and tape recorder, and a one-way mirror/window that allowed inspectors to view the actions and visages of the prisoner from the adjoining hallway.

Perry Smith in custody between agents Duntz (left) and Dewey (Garden City Telegram)
Perry Smith in custody between agents
Duntz (left) and Dewey
(Garden City Telegram)

Interrogations were conducted by members of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation. Agents Harold Nye and Roy Church interviewed Hickock, Chief Dewey and agent Clarence Duntz grilled Perry Smith. It was Dewey's strategy that the respective probings open with questions simply about the passing of bad-checks, a concentration that, he believed, the pair of culprits were expecting. In fact, they had probably schooled themselves in advance to match their answers. Dewey figured that Smith and Hickock were at ease about their suspicion in the Holcomb, Kansas murders. But, he told his agents, when you have them relaxed, when you have them thinking that they could easily do a five-year forgery stretch on their hands, drop the name Clutter - and take note of their expressions.

It was the oldest trick in the book, Dewey admitted. And it worked every time.

* * * * *

Hickock seemed at ease, bearing his jaunty smile, when he sat down to face Church and Nye, the latter who was most verbal and who commenced the interview. "We want to ask you, Dick, about your activities since your parole. We understand you've been doing some shopping in Kansas City."

The suspect didn't flinch. He named the stores they deceived, listing them in order, and maintained that he was sorry about having done what he'd one. His attitude was one of repentance and his tone one of you've-got-me-over-a-barrel. But, he expressed, he wouldn't have had been in this situation now if Perry Smith's sister, the one who owed him money, would have come through with her obligation.

"Ya' see," he told the policemen, "all Perry and I wanted to do with that money was to buy a fishing boat and hire it out for deep-sea fishing off the coast of Mexico; woulda made a lot of money doing that...woulda paid them stores back every cent. Listen to me now, hear what I'm telling ya' — that's the truth. That was our plan."

"Tell us about Perry's sister," Nye advised.

"I'm getting to that," responded Hickock. "Ya' see, Perry wrote me a letter telling me has a sister in Ft. Scott, and she was holding some heavy change for him. Several thousand bucks. Money his dad owed from the sale of some property in Alaska. He said he was coming to Kansas to get the dough."


"Perry came to Olathe a month later, and I met him at the bus station. Then—"

"What date was that? The day of the week." Nye interrupted.


"And when did you leave for Ft. Scott?" Nye's questions were rapid fire.


"November 14?"

Hickock thought a minute. "Er...yes."

"So you arrived late Saturday afternoon?"


"All right, now you're in Ft. Scott going to Perry's sister's house. Then what?"

"Perry lost his sister's address, see?"

"I see. Then what? You tried to phone her?"

" She doesn't have a phone."

"Then how did you expect to find her?"

"By asking at the post office."

"Did you do that? Did you go to the post office?"

"Perry did." Hickock was aggravated by this gunfire questioning. "The people at the post office checked and said she moved outta town. Oregon, I think."

"And she left no forwarding address?"

"No, sir."

"So you went on a check spree then for money?"

"Yes, sir."

Nye than asked him where else he and Smith had been over the six weeks between the disappointing trip to Ft. Scott and the time he was arrested. "'Wow!' he said, and then summoning his talent, for something like total recall, he began an account of the long ride — the approximately ten-thousand miles he and Smith had covered — (naming) a chorus of entwining names," writes author Truman Capote. "Apache, El Paso, Corpus Christ, Santillo, San Luis Potosi, Acapulco, San Diego, Dallas, Omaha, Sweetwater, Stillman, Tenville Junction, Tallahassee...And when he finished he sat with folded arms and a pleased smile, as though waiting to be commended for the humor, the clarity, and the candor of his traveler's tail."

But, the detectives remained dry.

"Have you ever heard of the Clutter murders?" asked agent Church directly and out of the blue. The spontaneity changed Hickock's face (as the interrogators expected) a sullen gray, and, for the first time (as the interrogators again expected), wiped that smile off the suspect's face.

"Whoa, Nellie Bell! I'm no damn murderer!" Hickock squealed.

"You left a witness, Dick," Nye added, "a living witness who'll testify in court and tell a jury how you and Perry slaughtered four helpless people the night of November14."

"Wait a minute, I-"

"You say you drove to Ft. Scott?"


"And when you got there you say you went to the post office?"


"To obtain the address of Perry Smith's sister?"

"YES! Damnit, how many times do I hafta-"

"Dick, listen!" Nye stopped him short. He leaned closer to him, meeting his eyeballs, his suddenly frightened eyeballs, with his own. "Perry Smith's sister never lived in Ft. Scott. And on Saturday, the post office closes at noon."

* * * *

Alvin Dewey, down the hall, flipped through the notes he had been taking from Perry Smith's dialogue. Above him, bluish cigarette smoke swirled around the bare light bulb that generated a cold, unpleasant series of shadows across each of their faces.

"After your parole from Lansing, you were forbidden by the courts to return to Kansas. Again, tell me why you returned?"

Smith had grown weary with the gab gab gab, hour after hour, and wanted out. The clock crawled. He was hungry, his legs ached, and he needed an aspirin. "Again, as I told you how many damn times, to see my sister, get that money she was keeping."

At the long end of the table, agent Duntz was voiceless, letting his boss, Dewey, hammer away at the boy. He admired the stealth; Perry was cracking; the chips, rather the chunks, were falling; and he measured the barometer of emotion building; he mentally paced, ready to step in at the precise moment. He would know when that moment came by the look in Alvin Dewey's eyes.

"Perry, how far is Ft. Scott from Olathe?" Dewey continued.

"I have no idea, no idea whatsoever," Smith answered laconically.

" One hour? Four hours? More hours?"

"I don't 'member."

"Of course you don't remember because you were never in Ft. Scott."

Duntz saw that go-get-em-Clarence look in his boss' eyes and lunged, vocally. A new voice, a new blame, a new spark to stun their prey. "Perry, admit it, you were in Holcomb, Kansas, not Ft. Scott. You weren't waiting for your sister. You were killing the Clutters."

Perry's elbows, which had been resting on the desktop, wobbled from under him. "I never..."

...But he couldn't continue his sentence, choking on his own breath. When he finally caught the air he needed to breathe again, he didn't bother to resume. Only sat there and stared at his throbbing kneecaps. Really hurting now.

"Never what, Perry?"

"I need an aspirin - please."

* * * * *

Undersheriff Wendell Meier (left) leads Hickock out of his hearing <br />(Garden City Telegram)
Undersheriff Wendell Meier (left) leads
Hickock out of his hearing
(Garden City Telegram)

Daylight rolled around and the detectives let the boys rest. Only a while. Then the heat began again with no degree cooler than where it had paused. It was January 3, 1960, and Dewey wanted to break this case today. How poignant it would be. Today would have been Nancy Clutter's seventeenth birthday.

But, it soon became apparent to him that Hickock, not his charge Perry, would snap first. Perry Smith, that midget-sized barrel-keg of hate, was holding. The flame wouldn't penetrate deep enough to ignite the gunpowder. Its surface had petrified. Dewey had never encountered any fiber like Perry's.

At best, he admitted that the Ft. Scott fiasco was a fairy-tale, but only to cover their real escapade of staying out and drinking all night. Mr. and Mrs. Hickock, the Christians they were, would not have approved. But, the rock would roll no further than that. Drinking, not killing. Drinking and, all right if ya' must know, laying a couple prostitutes whose names he couldn't remember. At what motel he couldn't remember. On what highway he couldn't remember. In what town he couldn't remember. But, he killed no one. He only drank. And whored.

And lived in pain till he numbed. The pain he had endured those many months after that motorcycle accident and the humiliation he suffered shuffling around on crooked stubs had toughened him. And he created an invisible crutch under him that a hurricane couldn't loosen. Nothing could loosen. Even Mr. Clutter's best friend, Alvin Dewey.

* * * * *

Hickock's hide wasn't nearly as thick. Three hours of repetitive banter, responding to the same questions he had answered yesterday over and over again, rambling while for some reason the dicks kept letting him ramble, had given him the queen mother of headaches. He hinted for an aspirin, but Nye wouldn't budge.

"Dick, I can see it in your face, we're right and you know we're right. Don't do this to yourself."

Nye wasn't sure, but it looked like tears began to swell in Hickock's eyes.

"Dick, the killers of the Clutter family committed an almost perfect murder, but like I said yesterday, they left behind a witness. Actually, there are three witnesses. One who will speak in court and two that, by their mute presence, will do equal if not more damage. Foot prints, Dick. Foot prints."

Capote pens, "Rising, (Nye) retrieved from a corner a box and a briefcase, both of which he brought into the room at the start of the interview. Out of the briefcase came a large photograph. 'This,' he said, leaving it on the table, 'is a one-to-one reproduction of certain footprints found near Mr. Clutter's body. And here-' he opened the box - 'are the boots that made them. Your boots, Dick.' Hickock looked, and looked away. He rested his elbows on his knees and cradled his head in his hands. 'Smith,' said Nye, 'was even more careless. We have his boots, too, and they exactly fit another set of prints. Bloody ones.'"

Agent Church started up with further accusations, but Dick held up a hand to beg, "Please!" He inhaled deeply, then gurgled out what he couldn't keep in any longer; it was useless. "Perry Smith did all the killing, I swear. I was there, but I couldn't stop him. He killed all the Clutters, all four."

Nye turned to Church. "Get Dick an aspirin for his headache, and then he can tell us the rest."


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