Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods


Almost Famous

When people think of male killing teams, they rarely think of the two men who were responsible for making true crime into a unique genre: Dick Hickock and Perry Smith. On November 15, 1959, in search of a safe inside the farmhouse owned by Herbert Clutter, they slaughtered a family of four and then made a run for it.

Famed writer Truman Capote was looking for book ideas and he came across two possibilities: following a "day lady" aroundManhattan or exploring the impact on the small town of Holcomb, Kansas, of this mass murder during the night. A friend advised him to "do the easy onego to Kansas." Little did he know.

The newspaper story about the murders was brief, just a few paragraphs, but it got his interest. "It suddenly struck me," he said in an interview with The New York Times in 1966, "that a crime, the study of such, might provide the broad scope I needed to write the kind of book I wanted to write. Moreover, the human heart being what it is, murder was a theme not likely to darken and yellow with time." What he wanted to accomplish was nothing short of "literary photography."

So he packed up and went to Kansas with his friend Harper Lee, and then spent the next 10 years of his life writing an American classic. Not only did he learn about who the Clutter family had been and how the townsfolk reacted to this brutal crime, but when the killers were caught, he got to know them as well and was even invited to their executionan event that deeply affected him. In fact, he was the only person they wanted to spend time with before they died.

Dick, a psychopathic drifter from a stable home, had met Perry in prison. Perry had a bad leg, limited intelligence, and suffered from serious headaches. He'd bragged that he'd once murdered a man, so Dick thought he could use Perry to pull off the murder of this rich farmer that he'd heard about from a fellow con. Herb Clutter, 48, had a safe full of money-$10,000-he'd been told, and it would be easy pickings for a man who knew where to go. Dick had a plan, and when he and Perry were released, he put it into motion.

As they collected the things they would need, Dick insisted, "No witnesses." They were to leave no one behind alive. Perry wasn't so sure about that, but he didn't argue. They moved on toward the farmhouse. Waiting one evening until the place looked dark, they went inside, cut the phone lines and roused Clutter out of bed. Tying up his wife and two teenage children in various rooms, they insisted he open the safe. He told them there was no safe. That's when they got upset.

When the Clutters missed church the next morning, friends went to find out what was wrong. The murderous rampage the night before was soon discovered.

Nancy Clutter, 16, once full of hope and promise, was found first. She had been shot in the back of the head at close range. She was lying on her side, facing a wall that was covered in a spray of blood. Her hands and ankles were bound, but the covers had been pulled over her, as if someone had thought to cover the horrible sight.

Mrs. Clutter was on her bed, shot dead, with her hands tied in front of her. Her mouth had been taped with adhesive and her eyes were wide open in fear.

Not finding Clutter or his son, Kenyon, the investigators went into the basement. Kenyon was lying on a couch, his head cradled by a pillow, but he was bound hand and foot, with tape over his mouth. He'd been shot squarely in the face, at close range. He had to have seen it coming.

The last one to be found was Herb. He, too, had been shot in the face, but his throat had been cut as well. Tape was wound around his head and across his mouth, and his ankles were tied together. He was sprawled on a mattress box in front of the furnace. Next to him was the bloodstained imprint of a shoe or boot.

No one had any idea who could have done this-certainly no one who lived there. Clutter had no enemies. The family members were kind and gentle. Everyone liked them. Then investigators learned about a man in Kansas State Penitentiary who had told Dick Hickock about Herb Clutterthe very guy who'd described the nonexistent safe. He knew who had killed the Clutter family, and he'd confided his secret to a fellow inmate, who then passed it on to the warden. The search was on, with 18 men from various law enforcement agencies assigned to the case.

Dick and Perry were arrested in Las Vegas after they had traveled from Mexico to Acapulco to Miami Beach and back to the southwest. They were brought to Garden City, Kansas, where a crowd of people waited to see them, Capote among them. He tried to interview them the next day, but Perry was suspicious and Dick so garrulous that he said essentially nothing.

Perry Smith, mugshot
Perry Smith, mugshot
Dick Hickock, mugshot
Dick Hickock, mugshot

Over the next five years, as they were convicted, sentenced to be hanged and appealed their convictions, Capote got to know Perry much better. Ironically, Perry told him that all he'd ever wanted to do in his life was to produce a work of art, and now his crime was going to do that for him. He didn't like the title, though. The murders, he insisted, were not committed in cold blood.

It was never quite clear which one had committed the murders. Dick, who was the first to break down and confess, denied committing any of them, but Perry said that he'd done two and then had handed Dick the rifle and told him to finish it. So that was two a piece. Then he'd amended his statement, because he didn't have parents and Dick did, so he didn't mind taking the full rap. That would spare the feelings of Dick's family.

About the Clutters, Perry said, "I didn't have anything against them, and they never did anything wrong to me-the way other people have all my life. Maybe they're just the ones who have to pay for it."

As he went to his execution, Perry kissed Capote on the cheek and said, "Adios, Amigo."

This type of criminal team, composed of from two to five people, is often guided by a central figure with a particular fantasy. Something about his energy inspires the other participants to serve that fantasy. Without him, they may never have committed a murder. To some degree, they all have psychopathic traits, and while a few have claimed after arrest to have been unwilling accomplices, the evidence indicates otherwise, as we shall see.

We're Following
Slender Man stabbing, Waukesha, Wisconsin
Gilberto Valle 'Cannibal Cop'