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‘In Cold Blood’ a cold case police decide is worth digging up

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The notorious killers of “In Cold Blood” are long dead, but their bones could have another hellish story to tell.

The remains of Perry Smith and Richard Hickock were unearthed Tuesday for DNA testing. Authorities are looking for a link to the slaying of a Florida family that occurred about a month after the drifters killed a random Kansas family.

In novelistic fashion, Truman Capote described how the pair -- now subjects of books, movies and criminal lore -- killed Herb and Bonnie Clutter and two of their children, Nancy and Kenyon, on Nov. 15, 1959, on a farm near Holcomb, Kan. Some older Midwesterners will tell you that was the crime that made them start locking their doors at night.

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Executed in 1965, Smith and Hickock were buried in a quiet cemetery not far from the Leavenworth prison where they were hanged.

America has never been a stranger to mass killings, but at one point 35 years later, a state representative compared the “In Cold Blood” murders to the Bible -- everybody knew the basic story but had different interpretations of what the whole thing meant.

Today, authorities are wondering whether Smith and Hickock replicated their heinous crime somewhere else, out of the eye of Capote and history.

“Man and Wife, Children Die,” read one of the headlines in the Sarasota News on Dec. 21, 1959. The quadruple killing in Osprey, Fla., was the biggest news of the day, and the paper showed a photo front and center of a child’s dead body in a bathtub: Debbie Walker, 2, who had been shot and drowned.

According to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, her brother, Jimmie, 3, had been shot three times in the head. He was found next to their father, Cliff, who had also been shot. Their mother, Christine, had been punched and raped and also shot twice in the head.

Florida police piled up almost 600 suspects. They never convicted anyone.

But included on that list was Smith and Hickock, who had made their way south after the Clutter murders and spent a little time in Florida. According to the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office, they were seen in the area on the day of the Walker murders and again the next day before they headed north to Tallahassee, west to Louisiana, and then to Las Vegas, where they were arrested.

The Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office picked the case back up four years ago and has homed in on Smith and Hickock.

“This isn’t just a whim,” said Wendy Rose, spokeswoman for the Sarasota sheriff. “There are a lot of witnesses that put them in the Sarasota area.”

The case may be more than half a century old, with some memories long faded, but investigators now have an advantage their predecessors never did. When officials retested the evidence from the Walker killings in Florida, they discovered semen on a victim’s clothing -- providing DNA, ripe for officials to match with a suspect.

Kyle Smith, a deputy director for the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, said a warrant for exhumation was approved Monday in Leavenworth County District Court in Kansas. He wasn’t sure when testing would be finished, but the FBI may get involved if more testing is needed.

Smith knows all about the bodies unearthed Tuesday, as have many officials in the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, whose agents played key roles in Capote’s “In Cold Blood.”

Of course he’d read the book. “It’s kind of a big part of the culture here at the KBI,” Smith said. Some of the evidence remains enshrined at the bureau’s headquarters.

Rose, of the Sarasota County sheriff’s office, was a bit cooler about the legacy of “In Cold Blood.”

“It might be my Christmas read,” she said. “But there are only a few pages in there devoted to this [time in Florida], and it skims the surface and gets a few things wrong.”

Gets what wrong?

“We thought that was interesting,” Rose said, chuckling. “I think some things are attributed to the wrong guy -- like some things are attributed to Smith and some to Hickock” that were switched around.

Rose added, “Let’s just say it was creative license.”

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