When Jack Ware walked down the half-mile-long dirt and gravel road leading to the former home of wealthy Kansas wheat farmer Herbert W. Clutter on the night of Nov. 15, 1999, he heard the steady and eerie clacking of the barren branches of the Chinese elm trees lining the driveway.
The Flagstaff resident had traveled to the family's River Valley Farm on the outskirts of Holcomb, near the county seat of Garden City, to honor the 40th anniversary of the murder of Clutter, his wife, Bonnie, and two of their four children still at home, daughter Nancy, 16, and son Kenyon, 15.
Ware, who has spent 12 years researching the crime, was haunted by the thought that if he had been on this road the night of Nov. 15, 1959, he might have been able to save the family from brutal murder at the hands of two ex-convicts, Richard "Dick" Hickock and Perry Edward Smith, who had mistakenly thought Mr. Clutter had $10,000 in a home safe.
"I had this kind of morbid sense of, 'Gosh, if I had been there 40 years before, I could have stopped it,'" Ware recalled. "I could have blown on the killers' car horn. I could have gotten the guy who oversaw the property. The wind was blowing that night in the opposite direction; when the shotgun went off, the wind was carrying the noise away from the caretaker's home."
A GRIPPING STORY
In 1971, when Ware first read "In Cold Blood," the acclaimed 1966 book about the crime by American author Truman Capote, he was captivated by the story.
The novel details the murders of the family who were bound and shot to death in various rooms of their home. Capote interviewed the criminals extensively and published his novel after they were executed for their crimes in April 1965.
"I knew immediately I would visit Holcomb where it happened," Ware said. "I wanted to see the grave site and the farm. I guess what drove me was I couldn't believe such a God-fearing family had been slain in such a manner. Something about it gripped me and stuck with me for years."
Capote had also been captivated by the quadruple murder when he read a 335-word article in The New York Times the day after the crime.
With the help of his childhood friend, writer Harper Lee (who won a Pulitzer Prize for "To Kill a Mockingbird"), he traveled to Holcomb to visit the crime scene and interview residents and investigators.
He spent six years on the project, compiling 8,000 pages of notes, and first published the story in a four-part serial in The New Yorker.
Ware's research has also been thorough, and continues as the 50th anniversary of the crime approaches.
"I feel I probably know as much as anybody outside KBI [Kansas Bureau of Investigation] investigators," Ware said. "I've interviewed all the trial officials, and all the people connected with the crime. I have a pretty good knowledge of it after 12 years."
SO MANY COINCIDENCES
When Ware, 61, re-read "In Cold Blood" about 14 years ago, he focused on a second murder, that of the Clifford Walker family in Osprey, Fla., which occurred a month after the Clutter killings.
The murder of Cliff and Christine Walker and their two young children had been very briefly mentioned in the Capote book, and FBI, Florida and Kansas investigators initially looked into a connection.
"I went to the library and dug up an Arizona Republic article about the Walker killings," he said. "I got in touch with the sheriff's department down in Florida and began to talk to the detective assigned to the case. That's where my interest mushroomed, with our conversation. There were so many coincidences between the two killings."
Ware, who grew up in Lake Charles, La., and has lived in Flagstaff since 1992, said that Hickock and Smith were on the run for 45 days and were in southeast Florida, near Osprey close to Sarasota, and checked into a hotel.
"They checked out the day after they checked in," he said. "That night, the Walker family was killed. They were actually seen in the area before and after the family's murder."
CAPOTE TOO ATTACHED
Ware said Capote was a great writer, but didn't follow up the Walker connection.
"I don't think he did the detective work on the Walker killings," Ware said. "He and Perry were real close. He said Dick and Perry were in the Florida hotel for a week, when the investigators confirmed they were only there for one night. Capote could have gotten them to confess."
Today, the Walker murder is still an open case. Ware said he is sure Hickock and Smith also killed the Walkers.
"Since they had already hit one farm, it would make sense they'd say, 'Here's this other farm away from town; let's try our luck here.' I have no doubt they are guilty, as soon as the detectives in Florida run DNA testing on the two relatives of the Clutter killers who are still alive. They already have DNA of the Walker clothing."
Ware, who has been married for 35 years and has three grown children, is a successful eBay seller today.
Even though he values collectibles, he said he never sought to have any tangible items from the murder scene.
"But, I do have some wood taken from the Clutter's barn," he said. "One of these days I do intend to use it to make some picture frames. I'm sure by now that barn has been torn down. The two-story house is still there; it was mostly a very sound house."
Betsey Bruner can be reached at email@example.com or 556-2255.