In Colder Blood: Book Review

Back in June, I posted a review of Cold Blooded, a three-episode video series from SundanceTV that re-examines the 1959 Clutter family murders. That crime inspired Truman Capote to write In Cold Blood, a book he termed a “non-fiction novel.” This week, I review In Colder Blood, a book that posits that the Clutter murderers also killed a family in Osprey, Florida.

The Backstory

One week before Christmas, December 19, 1959, Cliff and Christine Walker took their two children shopping for a new car. Actually, they looked for a new used car since their budget couldn’t cover a brand-new vehicle. But their family was growing, and they needed something larger than the Plymouth they currently drove as their family car. Cliff drove a Jeep for his job as a ranch hand on the Palmer Ranch. They lived on the ranch as well in a small house provided by the ranch owner.

An undated photo of the Walker family (In Colder Blood)
An undated photo of the Walker family.

Cliff, 25 and Christine, 24, test-drove a 1956 Chevrolet Bel Air at one used car lot and another car at a different lot. Their next stop was Johnny’s Hardware for lunch. Lunch consisted of hot dogs and sodas, with candy and cookies for the kids. The couple and their children then went to Don McLeod’s house. McLeod was also a Palmer Ranch hand and lived on the property, although at the opposite end in Sarasota. McLeod and Cliff were close friends as well as coworkers. They left the women and children at the McLeod house while they went hunting.

When the men returned, they took Cliff’s Jeep to the barn to load some sacks of feed. Christine drove the Plymouth to the barn and unloaded Jimmy, 3, and Debbie, 1. The children wanted to ride home in Daddy’s Jeep instead of the Plymouth.

Little Jimmy Walker, age 3 at the time of the murders (In Colder Blood)
Little Jimmy Walker, age 3 at the time of the murders

The Crime

Although they had a brief hunting trip the day before, Cliff and Don McLeod planned to hunt wild hogs that plagued the Palmer Ranch. At about 5:30 on the morning of December 20, McLeod stopped at the Walker house. Unable to raise anyone, and concerned that something was amiss, McLeod broke in through the back door.

Once inside the kitchen, McLeod discovered the body of Christine Walker lying flat on her back, her face battered and bloody. She was obviously dead. Beyond her, he could see Cliff’s body and that of little Jimmy curled up beside him. Later investigation would determine that Debbie had been shot through the head and that Christine had been raped as well.

McLeod backed out of the house and jumped in Cliff’s Jeep. His own truck had a horse trailer attached, which would have slowed him down. He then sped toward a nearby IGA grocery where he knew there was a payphone. In an era before ubiquitous mobile phones, a landline payphone was his only option. Borrowing a dime from a woman opening a restaurant, he called the Sarasota Police Department at about 5:45 a.m.

The Book

In Colder Blood is by lawyer turned writer J.T. Hunter. It relates all the facts of the case in rich detail. The portrait of young family simply living their lives slain with no obvious motive is heart-wrenching. But the real meat of the book is the renewed 2007 investigation into the cold case by Kimberly McGrath.

When Don McLeod discovered the bodies of the Walker family on December 20, 1959, it had only been five weeks since the brutal Clutter murders in Kansas. By then, authorities knew that Richard Hickock and Perry Smith had killed the Clutters. They also knew that the pair’s flight had taken them to Florida. Although considered potential suspects, there was no direct evidence that they killed the Walkers.

Photo of Richard Eugene Hickock (L) and Perry Edward Smith (R) (In Colder Blood)
Richard Eugene Hickock (L) and Perry Edward Smith (R)

McGrath took a fresh look at Hickock and Smith as suspects in the Walker case. The pair had stolen a Chevy Bel Air, like the one that the Walkers had test-driven. Maybe their paths crossed, and the couple agreed to swap cars.

McGrath identified 29 points of similarity between the two cases. As a result, in 2012, authorities exhumed the bodies of Smith and Hickock from Mount Muncie Cemetery. She hoped that DNA comparison would either confirm the pair’s involvement or rule them out as suspects.

Nine months later, the Sarasota County Sheriff’s office announced that it was unable to find a DNA match. Nor were they able to rule out Hickock and Smith. After nearly fifty years, the DNA was too degraded to be definitive.

My Take on the Book

In Colder Blood is a quick read (120 pages in the print edition). I found it engaging, well-written, and an enjoyable true crime read. While the Hickock-Smith hypothesis is plausible, I did not find it convincing. McGrath’s list of 29 points are mostly coincidences. While they are believable enough in themselves, there is not much real evidence to back them up. However, that does not reflect on Hunter’s book. He presents the theory in an intriguing fashion.

In Colder Blood is a book I can highly recommend.

A Word of Caution

The book contains crime scene photos that may disturb some readers. If you fall into this category, you’ll want to skip the photos.

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