Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Clutter Family Killings: Cold Blood


"There is nothing so powerful as truth — and often nothing as strange." — Daniel Webster

At first Perry Smith didn't believe Alvin Dewey when he told him his friend Hickock had just confessed. When the detective offered to play him the recorded conversation as proof, the other cooly responded with a shrug of the shoulders and asked for a cigarette. "I suppose ya' wanna hear it from me now?" he asked.

"Tell us on the way home," Dewey said. "We're taking you guys in separate vehicles back to the Garden City lockup." He paused, then added, "Perry, Hickock's confession implicates you directly to the murder, you realize that?"

Smith nodded. "Yeah, I suppose so. And I suppose it'll mean The Corner for us both."

Leading him out, Dewey agreed, but didn't say so. "The Corner" was the convicts' slang for the hangman's scaffold.

In the government car, on the road back through the open plain and tumbleweed of Kansas, Dewey goaded Smith into talking. Offering him one of his Lucky Strikes - he had to light it for him, since the prisoner was manacled — he replied, "Did you know your buddy's claimed you killed all of the Clutters? He's thrown the whole pan of hot stew on you, pal."

The ploy worked, and Smith started babbling.

"Well, then I think ya' should hear my version of it, Dewey." And he talked about how it began, this mess. Of how he was in Buhl, Idaho when he got Dick Hickock's letter urging him to join him on a "sure fire cinch". How he came to Olathe and Dick met him at the Greyhound bus depot; of how Dick's parents didn't like him ("I'm sensitive that way, I can usually tell what people are thinking"); of how he boarded in the town hotel; of how Dick visited him there and drew him a diagram of the Clutter house, recited from memory. "He knew where the doors were, the halls, where the stairs were going up and going down. He knew where Herb Clutter's office was, and where a safe was supposed to be."

He talked about their leaving Olathe and Dick storing his personal shotgun — a .12-guage Savage, Model 300 — in the trunk of his '49 Chevy. Of how they stopped in Emporia to buy rubber gloves (so they wouldn't leave fingerprints) and cord (to bind the victims). Then stopped again in Great Bend to buy duct tape.

Smith (right) handcuffed to Deputy Sheriff Mickey Hawkins (Garden City Telegram)
Smith (right) handcuffed to Deputy Sheriff
Mickey Hawkins
(Garden City Telegram)

"There we had dinner, a big dinner, and I fell asleep. When I woke, we were just entering Garden City. We stopped for gas at a filling station-"

"Which one?" asked Dewey. He was occasionally stopping his narrative to ask such questions.

"I think it was a Phillips 66."

"What time?"

"'Bout midnight. The attendant told us it was seven miles more to Holcomb. We followed the road about that distance and he was right - it was such a small town, Holcomb, if ya' blinked ya'd miss the consarned place. The car rattled over a railroad track and then Dick says suddenly, 'This hasta be it!' It was then I noticed he was turning the Chevy off onto a private road, lined with trees. We killed the lights. Besides, we didn't need'em to see anyway, the moon was that full and lalapalooza bright. And as we drove further up the path, we could see the barns and the silos and house against the moon. The yard keeper's house too. It was some layout! Dick whispered, 'Now don't tell me this guy Clutter ain't loaded!' And, not wanting to be seen, we stopped the car under the shadow of trees and turned off the engine."

They sat in the car a bit until they saw a light in farmhand Stoecklein's house diminish. After enjoying a mouthful each of liquor, Smith and Hickock donned the rubber gloves. They slid from the car, careful not to make any noise; they didn't slam the car doors. Smith carried the shotgun, Hickock a flashlight and a bowie knife.

From Hickock's diagram, they knew the location of the office entrance. Darting across the open yard, bathed in moonlight, they reached the appointed door, took a breath of fresh air to revive their nerve, then started picking at the lock. To their surprise, the door nudged inward, unclasped. They stepped over the threshold into the office and edged the door shut behind them.

"The one window in the room was curtained with Venetian blinds, but moonlight was peeping through. I closed the blinds and Dick opened his flashlight. We saw Mr. Clutter's desk, but sure as hell there was no safe behind it like there was supposed to be, just a paneled wall with bookcases and framed maps and pictures, stuff like that on the walls."

Unable to find the presupposed safe, Hickock decided to rouse the owner of the house and force him to lead them to it, open it, and relinquish what cash there was inside. "Hell, he didn't want to accept he'd driven four hundred miles for nothin'! We moved in darkness across the living room; our damned footsteps clumping so loud, the floorboards creaking with every movement we made. Dick hushed me, but I couldn't help it! Somehow we found the hallway we were looking for and, Dick leading the way, we came to what he figured was Mr. Clutter's bedroom. Dick shined his flashlight and turned the doorknob. We heard the squeak of bedsprings as Clutter sat up. We heard him through the beam of light saying, 'That you, honey?' Ya' see, he thought we were his wife. Haha! It was clear he'd been asleep 'cause he blinked in the beam of our flashlight. He was in pajamas and naturally seemed a little startled to see two strangers in his house around 12:30 in the morning. We forced him to his feet and made him move to his office. He stayed in his bare feet, Clutter did, Dick not even giving him time to put his slippers on."

Despite protests from his intruders, Clutter kept denying that he owned a safe. He offered whatever cash he might have in the house, but told them it wasn't very much. He was not in the habit of keeping loose change around since he did business by check only.

"And while Dick was shouting at him and telling him he was a liar and calling him a sonofabitch, all names 'neath the blue, I fixed the telephone in the room. I pulled the wires straight out. Later, I did the same to the kitchen one, too.

"It was 'round then I heard a creaking overhead. I crept from the office where Dick continued to knock Clutter around and peered up the stairs to the second floor. I could tell there was someone there, at the top landing I mean, silhouetted against a window. Then it moved away. In the meantime, Dick had collared Clutter and had paraded him back to his bedroom where I found the poor guy looking really nervous. Dick was going through his billfold; helped himself to some greenbacks from it, stuck them in his pocket, and flung the wallet and all the stuff from inside it to the carpet. Ya' could see Dick was real sore in not having found that safe.

"Grumbling, he asked Clutter if his wife had any money on her, but Mr. Clutter asked us please not to disturb her, saying that she was an invalid, been sick a very long time. Dick would hear none of that and insisted on going upstairs anyway. He made Clutter lead the way."

No one was in the hall when the three men reached it. All doors along it were closed and Herbert Clutter bypassed them all to open the door at the far-most end; Smith and Hickock followed him in. Lighting the lamp beside the bed, he stirred his wife awake. She saw the aliens, the rifle stick under Perry's arm, and gasped. "Don't worry, honey," he told her, "these men just want to know if we have any spare money. I told them they're welcome to anything we have in the house. They won't hurt us." The woman began to weep, but her husband patted her hand to calm her down. "No, sweetheart, it will be all right," he assured.

"We checked Mrs. Clutter's purse that was next to the nightstand; there was a little money in it, I think, cigarette dough, and again Dick grabbed it. Now it was time to check the other rooms, to see if the kids had some coinage, ya' know what I mean? But, we couldn't rightly leave the mom and dad alone to climb down the window or something, so we contrived the idea of locking them in the bathroom, which was down the hall between the other rooms. Noticing the lady was shaking like a leaf, I grabbed a chair from the hallway and brought it into the bathroom for her - the john was a pretty big one - and she sat in the chair, all the while sobbing away and entreating, and all the while Clutter reminding her we were there just for their money, that we wouldn't hurt them. And he was right - ya' see, up to that point we still had no intention of harming no one.

"Next, we fetched the boy - I think his name was Kenyon - from his room. We woke him up and he seemed too damn scared to move. Dick yanked him outta bed kinda rough. He was wearing only a T-shirt, so I threw his pants at him and ordered him to put'em on quick-like.

"As he did so, I spotted a little gray radio on his desk - a nice little job from Zenith that I really took a shine to. We searched his room for cash, couldn't find a red penny, but I liked that radio. So I took it. At least I wasn't empty-handed so far.

"While we were hustling the scared guy toward his folks locked in the bathroom, out from her own bedroom walks the girl, his sister, Nancy. All dressed, like she hadn't been to bed yet; she wore a kimono kind of thing thrown over her top and jeans; her hair was wet and drying under a towel. She said something kind wiseacre-like like, 'Good grief, what is this - some kinda joke?' Guess she thought we'd laugh, but I think she got the message, though, when she saw my gun and Dick shoved her into the bathroom with the rest of her family. Her face paled fast.

"Well, there they were, all the Clutters, pulled from their beds, trembling like leaves, packed into the can. Haha! The family we'd come so far to see. But, damnit, no safe! The problem now was: What the hell to do with'em!"

Buying time to think, the trespassers contrived to separate the three, tie them up, gag them, scare them into telling where the family treasure might be hidden. This agreed upon, they decided to usher the respective clan each to his or her own corner and play mental gymnastics with them, toss the knife around, wiggle the gun barrel in their faces, threaten them until patriarch Clutter relented with the concealed cash.

"In the bathroom we tied their wrists so they couldn't fight back, ya' see."

Smith had volunteered to be the lasso man ("I was always handy with a rope") while Hickock covered them with the shotgun. After they were defenseless, he brought Mr. Clutter down to the basement at the point of the knife. (Dick remained upstairs, continuing to guard the other three.) In the furnace room, Smith directed Clutter to stretch out on the concrete floor after kicking over a large empty mattress box that had been leaning on the wall. ("I couldn't have him lying on the dirty, cold floor.") The stumpy little abductor then proceeded to truss the man's feet and hands together ("His hands were already tied, literally, and with my knife at his Adam's apple there wasn't much he could do but relent.") The bridle Smith wound restricted the man's movements; the more he might struggle the more he would choke.

"Next thing, I brought the boy down. At first, I put him in the room with his dad; tied his hands overhead to a steam pipe. But, I reconsidered. If he broke loose, it would be too easy for him to free the old man, so I cut him loose and hurried him to the playroom beyond where there was this big, comfortable couch. I roped his feet to the couch, and his hands, too. As I was leaving to go back upstairs, he took a violent coughing jag; out of nervousness, I'm sure. And 'sides, the whole place gagged of varnish for some reason. I felt sorry for him and propped his head upon a pillow. 'Member, I still didn't wanna hurt nobody."

Returning to the second floor, Smith now marched Mrs. Clutter to her own bed and taped her mouth shut with duct tape (to prevent her possible cries from awakening her next door neighbors, the Stoeckleins). "She was still crying as I tied her up; wouldn't believe that I meant no harm. But, she seemed more concerned about her daughter than herself, pleading with me not let my partner touch Nancy. I said I wouldn't let that happen in a million years, but, frankly, I was worried about that myself. Earlier in the day, ya' see, Dick was boasting about how he just might have his way with that teenager if she was pretty enough, and Nancy was a pretty girl. Well, at this point, things got a little heated and ugly."

The Clutter basement where, in front of this furnace, the master of the house's bloody body was discovered, tortured <br />(Garden City Telegram)
The Clutter basement where, in front of
this furnace, the master of the house's
bloody body was discovered, tortured
(Garden City Telegram)

Smith found that Hickock had already taken the girl back to her room, had ordered her onto the bed, and now sat on the edge of it talking to her in a calming, fraternizing voice. At Smith's appearance, Hickock cooled. Together, they tied the girl's ankles together and told her to lie still. Smith bumped Hickock into the hallway.

"Then Dick says to me out there, 'I'm gonna bust that little girl.' And I said, 'The hell ya are!' Ya' see, I hate that kinda behavior, no one who can't control themselves sexually. That irks me. We got into a little tiff out there in the corridor outside her room, but I figured it was no time for us to have our own personal quarrel. Time'd come to settle that later."

Here, Smith paused and quipped, "That stuff about Nancy, what he'd have liked to have done with her, I can bet in his version he didn't tell ya' that, did he?"

Dewey only motioned him to proceed. Smith chuckled, winked, and went on.

Accordingly, after the flare-up, the boy's relationship became strained, coupled with the tensions of their crime. There seemed no alternative at this point but to let the Clutters be and get the hell out of there. But, Hickock had a one-track mind: He kept balking about Smith's interference in Nancy Clutter's bedroom. "It made my stomach turn to think that he was still considering banging the girl. And that I had admired this guy. I had lapped up all his brag about how tough he was gonna get with the Clutters, but when the time came, I had to do most of the work and all he wanted to do was screw that teenager."

They decided to leave the Clutter house. ("We couldn't find any money and the whole scene had gone sour anyway.") Before they left, they checked once more on the Clutter men. Kenyon was securely tied, and so was his father.

But, Dick wanted to make sure the old man wouldn't break free to call the cops before they had a chance to clear the county. He started to wrap Clutter's head in duct tape, his intention to leave only a space for his nose but slow him down should he unloosen the binds (after all, he was a large man and no lightweight). Peeling the tape off to see and talk would hurt like the dickens. While he worked, Hickock threw epithets and bragged how Clutter was lucky to live — that if it was up to him he and all his family would be wiped away. Smith, nearby, reddened.

"This, on top of everything else, made me fume. 'Go ahead!' I stretched my palm toward Dick, the knife in it. 'You're so damned hard, you kill him!' Well, he hesitated, he chickened. He didn't know what to do 'cause I called his damned bluff...Then...

"I guess my mind snapped. I didn't realize what I'd done 'till I done it. Shoved it in and sliced Clutter's throat - God, the sound, like somebody screaming under water! At this point, Dick panicked and wanted to run, but I knew I couldn't leave Clutter like that; I hadda put him outta his misery. I aimed the gun and shot - hell, he would've died anyway. Everything kinda exploded after that."

The barrel of the shotgun roared three more times that night. Kenyon. Nancy. Bonnie. "I made Hickock do the shooting on Nancy and her mother; I told him I'd had enough." They retrieved all the discharged shells so the gun couldn't be traced, then hastened out the same door they came in, through Mr. Clutter's office. And they didn't speak for another dozen miles, not until their Chevrolet cleared Garden City.

"You never found your safe," Dewey shook his head. It had been the most disgusting tale he'd ever heard. More stark, more dark, than Hickock had told it. "Perry, just how much money did you and Dick get that night?"

Smith thought a moment. "About forty or fifty bucks."


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