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DNA could crack a notorious Florida cold case


SARASOTA, Fla. (AP) — The Walkers’ wood frame cottage stood plain and white, surrounded by pasture land and hardwood forest. There in tiny Osprey, on the southern tip of the vast Palmer Ranch, the family’s nearest neighbor was half a mile away.

As daylight broke on Dec. 20, 1959, half a dozen lawmen stood in the living room and stared down in silence.

Christine lay barefoot, bruised and bloody, her pink flowered dress pulled up, her slips and petticoats in a muddle. Clifford and the children had been ambushed, the young father on his back in the living room, still wearing his straw cowboy hat, a bullet hole in his right eye. Jimmie was curled up next to his dad, blood smeared on his clothes and in his hair, suggesting he’d crawled to his father as the killer shot him three times in the head. Baby Debbie, they found in the bathtub, facedown in 4 inches of water, also shot in the head.

Six decades later, one morning last June, Pat Myers hobbled into the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office and sank into a seat across from a detective in a crisp white shirt.

What exactly had Det. Brandon Clark done, since they’d met a year and a half earlier, to solve the murder of his sister? Myers asked, five rows of wrinkles amassing above his large blue eyes. “Do you realize, in December, it’s going to be 64 years?”

Clark, 41, was the latest of a dozen investigators to examine the cold case.

“Let me say this, Mr. Myers,” Clark said. “I think we’re closer now than we’ve ever been.”

Myers was 7 when a neighbor burst into his living room to announce what she’d heard on the radio.

Christine, his half-sister, was dead — beaten, raped and shot with two different handguns. He learned, too, of the deaths of her husband, Cliff, 3-year-old Jimmie and 23-month-old Debbie.

It was among Florida’s oldest unsolved crimes on record, notorious for its brutality, as well as for a pool of suspects that numbered over 600. High among them: The killers made infamous in Truman Capote’s true crime classic “In Cold Blood.”

Myers, 71, had pleaded for answers most of his life, sometimes dropping into the sheriff’s office when the phone fell quiet. But the Walker murders had consumed detectives, then spit them out, for half a century.

In recent years, as suspicion amassed around the “In Cold Blood” killers, Myers grasped at the hope of closure.

Now, Clark was telling Myers, as he had several times before, that his suspicions lay elsewhere.

Myers felt like he was ricocheting between theories, like a pinball. And though Clark was earnest, Myers feared the result would be no different.

The Walker investigation was yet another of America’s quarter-million unsolved homicides — a mounting crisis in the minds of justice experts — and a case study into how thousands of hours, tens of thousands of dollars, exhumed bodies, DNA tests, fingerprints and bullets can fail to add up to answers.

Clark — with his “never-say-die” attitude, per one supervisor — had found a niche in such cases. But like other detectives, he had to handle them alongside other investigations. He dove deep on the murders in 2019, the same year he closed about two-thirds of his 130 cases.

Myers wondered how much longer he would be able to make the three-hour drive to Sarasota. Sixteen stents kept his heart pumping, another five expanded veins in his legs. He’d been able to make this trip only because his wife of 51 years, whom he cared for at home in Lake Placid, was in rehab after a fall.

He still spoke with the previous detective, who remained convinced Capote’s killers were responsible. They’d killed a family of four in Kansas. Why not this family of four, too?

“I don’t think it’s them,” Clark said.

Myers leaned forward and rested his arms, sun-splotched from decades overseeing orange groves, on the table. He’d made a promise.

“This case don’t want to be solved,” he said. He meant that agency officials didn’t want to expose their bungling and lack of commitment.

Clark said he still hoped to get Christine’s DNA, to clear up longstanding confusion. He was seeking permission to exhume her from her grave.

“Go ahead,” Myers said. “Dig her up.”

On the Walkers’ final day, they headed a dozen miles north for used car lots in bustling Sarasota.

Cliff, who earned $55 a week managing a herd of deep red cows, wanted to trade in his wife’s 1952 Plymouth.

At one lot, Cliff, 24, who spent most of his time atop an Appaloosa horse, considered a two-tone 1956 Chevrolet 210. At another, the cowboy test drove a Hudson Jet.

In the end, though, the couple drove back, pausing at the ranch barn to pick up cattle feed. Cliff and another ranch hand, Don McLeod, headed off to hunt. Christine, 24, bubbly and spirited, hung back with McLeod’s wife.

Christine drove home first that afternoon. Cliff and the kids followed a half hour later in his work Jeep.

The next morning, McLeod dropped by to go hog hunting with Cliff. He discovered the grisly scene.

Within hours, a crush of cars crawled down the shell road just to see where the family had lived.

The Walkers dwelled amongst country folk, whose women were sorted by their morals and men by their prowess roping cattle or catching hogs. Behind many closed doors, kerosene lamps and frying pans flew. Christine had grown up in one of those households.

Even after Christine married, authorities documented instances of half a dozen men propositioning her, patting her on the rear, grabbing her, trying to kiss her, especially when they had been drinking, which was often.

The day before she died, Christine told her mother and mother-in-law that Cliff had been in a fight and “liked to got killed yesterday.”

There was no shortage of suspects. On the night of the murders, at least seven men had been fishing at a nearby creek. Another three were seen drinking on the road to the Walkers’ house. One of Cliff’s cousins also aroused suspicion after he grew hysterical outside the Walker gate upon learning of the deaths and fainted at the funeral.

McLeod also fell under suspicion. But he told police he had seen the Walkers’ neighbor, Wilbur Tooker, at their house at least two dozen times. Tooker, a 65-year-old retired railroad telegrapher, had made advances on Christine, which she rebuffed.

Sarasota Sheriff Ross E. Boyer believed he was searching for someone local. Why kill the children unless the perpetrator had been recognizable?

Florida analysts spent the equivalent of 44 full lab days that first year poring over evidence, making 2,920 fingerprint comparisons and conducting ballistics tests on more than 75 guns.

But within weeks, Sheriff Boyer’s attention turned — for a while — to two other suspects accused of murdering a family 1,600 miles away in a Kansas farm town of 270 called Holcomb.

Perry Smith, 31, and Richard Hickock, 28, met as petty thieves serving time at the Kansas State Penitentiary.

Smith, a drifter from Nevada, had been placed in an orphanage at age 13 after his mother, an alcoholic, choked on her vomit.

Hickock, a car mechanic and father from Kansas, had suffered a severe head injury in a car accident when he was 19.

They listened as a fellow inmate bragged about a farmer who kept lots of cash in a safe.

Upon release, the pair met up and slipped into the Clutter farmhouse outside Holcomb late on the evening of Nov. 15, 1959 — about five weeks before the Walkers would be killed. Unable to find a safe, they obliterated all four members of the Clutter family. Herbert and Bonnie, and their children, Nancy, 16, and Kenyon, 15, died from shotgun blasts to the head.

Over the next six weeks, Hickock and Smith traveled about 10,000 miles, from Kansas and California to Mexico and Florida. They were arrested in Las Vegas in late December after the inmate who had told them about the safe tipped off police. Capote’s book detailing the Kansas crime would come out in 1966.

Kansas authorities, hearing of the Walker murders, suggested Sarasota’s sheriff take a look. Both families lived in rural communities. All had been shot in the head. No child had been spared. Hickock had once said his philosophy was to “leave no witnesses.”

The sheriff had Hickock and Smith’s pictures published on the front page of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. He told the Sarasota Journal at least four people said they had seen the men, including a saleswoman at W.T. Grant’s department store, seven miles from the Walker home, on the day of the murders. One or two days prior, a man said they had asked to fix his bent fender for money, and a gas station owner said they’d asked about auto paint shops.

And the day after the murders, in Nocatee, east of Sarasota, three people said they had seen the men, one with a “scratched-up face,” seeking U.S. 27, the main road north. Detectives had told the public to look out for suspects with cuts. They’d found blood spattering the heels of Christine’s suede pumps, surmising she’d used them as weapons.

But the killers, who had confessed to the Kansas murders, said they’d never been to Sarasota. And what appeared to be a bloody fingerprint on the family’s faucet apparently did not match either man.

A day after they were sentenced to death, Hickock and Smith answered questions about the Florida murders while strapped to a mid-century lie detector test. Kansas authorities told Boyer they passed.

Boyer interviewed suspects in at least five other states. In New Jersey, he handed Madame Florence, a psychic consulted by police departments, a pair of Christine’s bobby pins, department records show. She told him he had already spoken to the murderer, someone with a face scar who “wore glasses.”

But he never went to Kansas to interview Hickock and Smith. He told a Sarasota newspaper reporter he relied on Kansas authorities to ask those questions. Meanwhile, the head of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation told a reporter that, had he been facing a similar situation, “I’d have had an investigator down here weeks ago.”

The sheriff’s office recently said it did not have any transcripts of those interviews. And in Kansas, authorities had been focused on the Clutters, an agency spokeswoman said, and they have no evidence that officers interrogated the killers about the Walkers.

In a recent interview, retired Sarasota Lt. Dario Valente recalled speaking with one of Boyer’s chief investigators, who told him that while one of the Kansas killers denied the Walker murders, another confessed.

For all of the agency’s early efforts, even obsession, investigators left stones unturned, resulting in dozens of men in the tiny Sarasota County town living under the frost of suspicion, many until their deaths. Boyer’s conviction about a local killer influenced the probe for decades.

“I put a lot of faith in that,” said Ron Albritton, a retired Sarasota detective and distant cousin of Cliff’s who oversaw the inquiry through the 1980s and 90s. “I always looked at the Walker case as ‘Keep looking,’ because it’s not Hickock and Smith.”

One spring day in 2013, Myers sat alone inside his barbecue restaurant in Lake Placid, where a painting of cowboys wrangling a steer hung on the wall. He’d opened the place after two decades in the orange groves. A special was scrawled on the chalkboard: half a barbecue chicken and two sides for $7.95.

Finding out who had murdered Christine had consumed his family for decades, and now, with many of them dead or far-flung, it had fallen on him to keep up the pressure. So, again, he dialed the detective he trusted most.

He and Kimberly McGath went back to 2007, when she expressed an interest in the languishing Walker file. She had graduated first in her police class, with a perfect entrance exam. She earned praise for securing confessions and for her enthusiasm and empathy.

Unlike Sheriff Boyer decades before her, she thought there was something to the men of “In Cold Blood.”

She found it interesting that a car the Walkers were test-driving resembled the 1956 Chevy Bel Air the men had stolen in Kansas and driven to Florida. Could they have crossed paths and made arrangements to trade cars?

As she organized boxes of witness statements, ballistics reports and crime scene photographs into an 8,000-page digital record, more clues — and gaps — emerged.

A Miami Beach detective discovered that the day before the murders, the pair had checked in at a motel there, paying $18 for a week’s stay. But the next morning, they vanished.

When arrested in Las Vegas, McGath found, Smith was carrying a pocket knife similar to one missing from Cliff’s pocket. Officers found, beneath the car seat, a toddler shirt and a pink jacket that could have matched Christine’s dress, as well as an Army gas can and burlap bags that could have come from Cliff’s military-style Jeep.

But, as she would find time and again, neither Kansas nor the Las Vegas Police Department could locate any of that evidence for her. After six decades, several police agencies had destroyed or misplaced evidence connected to the Walkers.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement had lost an early semen sample from Christine’s underwear.

The FBI had purged the “In Cold Blood” killers’ palm prints — a crucial loss, as a fingerprint examiner told McGath the faucet print used to exonerate the men was actually a partial palm print.

She read a report that the pair sold two dolls to a minister in Louisiana for $1.50 in gas money after they had left Florida. Could those dolls have been for Debbie? No one had documented the wrapping paper, and the minister was long dead.

Dead trails, missing bits — but also so many pieces of evidence that lined up. It was hard to imagine, McGath often told Myers, in their sometimes meandering phone calls, that anyone wouldn’t classify the men as suspects.

Myers could not imagine it being anyone else either. He just wanted someone to write it in a report, to confirm it, to put it to rest.

Months later in 2013, McGath was at her desk in Sarasota reading a report on the DNA from the Kansas Bureau of Investigation. There was a problem. Several problems.

The year before, she had convinced a judge in Kansas to exhume the remains of Hickock and Smith to see if their DNA matched an unknown profile in Christine’s underwear. The Kansas Bureau of Investigation lab had pulled partial DNA from the men’s femurs and teeth.

As it turned out, the tests exposed contamination at the lab. Smith’s tooth returned a female DNA profile — that of the examiner who analyzed the bones. His femur turned up another unknown female profile.

Scientists managed to capture partial DNA for both of the men, however. And the DNA from Christine’s underwear, the report concluded, wasn’t theirs.

In every direction McGath turned, she was met with blunders and blurred results, common problems in cold cases.

The mix-ups made McGath wonder about the evidence already tested. She sifted through thousands of pages, looking for the original DNA test of Christine’s underwear that had detected a male suspect — a result detectives had leaned on for years. That’s when she noticed that the supposed suspect’s DNA was remarkably similar to Christine’s own incomplete DNA sequence, gathered from her dress.

That led to a disheartening realization:

They likely had been comparing their suspects all these years to Christine herself.

A Florida Department of Law Enforcement serology supervisor confirmed the news to McGath and apologized. He said what was thought to be sperm was more likely Christine’s blood or skin cells. An agency spokesperson declined to comment.

With the DNA testing in shambles, McGath turned to boot prints.

A similar circular print had been found in blood near Christine’s body and at the Kansas scene. Smith owned black engineer boots with a Cat’s Paw rubber cushion sole, featuring circular pads, a little smaller than a quarter.

Sarasota forensic supervisor Michael Gorn told McGath that footwear impressions could be as reliable as fingerprints. But McGath’s supervisors shut down her efforts to gather the men’s boots from Kansas. Her captain, she said, wanted a DNA connection.

In her final report in 2013, McGath said she believed there was enough circumstantial evidence to tie Hickock and Smith to the Walker murders. But she was inactivating the case until new testing or evidence could advance it. She had no hard feelings, she said, but wished the sheriff’s office had allowed her to keep pursuing the men.

The agency issued a press release, noting Hickock and Smith were the most likely suspects. “However,” the release said, “DNA testing seems unlikely to provide conclusive evidence one way or the other.”

In a 2014 email to her supervisors, McGath wrote: “It feels like there’s been a negative cloud surrounding me in regards to the cold cases.” The following year, the mother of three would leave the agency to prioritize family.

In a 2020 email, a spokesperson responded to a question about whether the agency was seeking boot testing this way: “We are not pursuing any of Det. McGath’s recommendations at this time.”

McGath stopped calling Myers. She didn’t want to cross a line. Still, eight years off the job, she felt a certain duty to him. So when he called one day in late August 2022, she responded.

These days McGath, 52, works with rescue horses and writes books.

Now, Myers asked her, “What I don’t get is, how did they get in the house with the dogs sitting there?” He was referring to the Walkers’ three hound dogs in the yard — just another stray detail he picked at, worried over. That had never been clear, McGath replied.

She had never been able to fully put the case aside. Recently, she’d told Myers she’d found a picture of Hickock with two small marks on his chin. Could they be from Christine’s heel?

McGath had also considered Wilbur Tooker, Clark’s favored suspect and the Walkers’ closest neighbor, the one pushy with Christine.

A neighbor had observed him in the area the afternoon of the murders. He was photographed outside the house the day the bodies were discovered — with no marks on him, McGath commented.

He’d had an alibi for most of the evening, she explained. He’d played his violin — badly, according to the conductor — at a concert in Bradenton. He had no criminal record.

But they both knew that DNA had so far muddled the picture.

Since 2004, multiple detectives had sought answers in DNA. More than half a dozen cuttings came from Christine’s underwear alone, with multiple partial DNA samples detected, as well as a stain containing a single sperm cell. Before she left the agency, McGath said, her supervisors declined her requests to do more genetic testing of the stain.

In 2019, Clark was able to test the stain again. It generated pieces of two people’s DNA, one male and one female. But the results were too tangled to isolate any individuals. Now Myers related to McGath what he’d heard from Clark: Though not a conclusive match, Tooker could not be discounted.

To be sure, Clark had told Myers, scientists would have to pinpoint Christine’s DNA and remove it from the mixture.

This peeved Myers. He and his sister, Novella Cascarella, had spoken with the agency more than 15 years ago about exhuming Christine.

“It’s basically a great mess,” McGath said.

McGath understood why Myers needed this. To have a theory was one thing; to have proof was another. Some families, she knew, played their traumas over and over 50 or 60 years later.

Solving these murders, McGath believed, was also about sending a message that law enforcement would doggedly pursue old crimes despite the passage of time.

But national clearance rates have sunk. In 1965, according to FBI statistics, agencies closed 90% of the year’s homicides. By 2020, the rate was 54% — meaning more cases grow cold. Experts blame the drop largely on slimmed-down police budgets and hundreds of unsolved serial killer cases.

At the same time, DNA analysis has become more exact, especially in the past two decades, with testing that once required a million cells now potentially able to identify someone with a single cell, said DNA expert Greg Hampikian, director of the Idaho Innocence Project and a biology professor at Boise State University.

The National Institute of Justice, the research arm of the Department of Justice, has called on agencies to create teams dedicated to handling these seemingly unsolvable cases — more than 100,000 of them from the previous two decades alone. Their funding has helped to solve about 2,000 violent crimes, including killings by the Golden State Killer and the Boston Strangler.

In Florida, several larger departments — including Tampa, Jacksonville and Miami-Dade — have such teams. Most agencies, including Sarasota, do not. Homicide detectives often are told to work on older cases when they have time.

“And that doesn’t work,” said Ryan Backmann, who started Project: Cold Case in Jacksonville in 2015 to document unsolved cases and support other families after his father’s murder went unsolved. “You get an arrest occasionally. But you need dedicated detectives primarily working on cold cases, and across the country in law enforcement, we’re not seeing that.”

Capt. Joe Giasone, a 30-year veteran of the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office, said the agency has 32 cold cases, ranging from the 1959 Walker murders up to a 2019 missing boater. He said detectives have no physical evidence, so far, connecting Hickock and Smith to the Walker murders, no fingerprints.

“The challenges of a case from that long ago … you’re bound by what was done in 1959,” Giasone said.

Giasone wasn’t sure why previous leaders didn’t pursue additional testing 10 years ago. He said the agency remains committed, however long it takes.

But cold cases, too, pose a conundrum. What is the value of solving an older crime versus a newer one? What does society owe, say, the family of Cliff and Christine Walker?

Many justice experts recommend prioritizing cases where an arrest can be made.

“I’m interested foremost in the living cases, where there is a danger to the public or when someone is wrongfully convicted or where a victim is wanting to find an answer,” said Hampikian, the DNA expert. “I’ve got mothers calling me who want to get their sons out of prison. It’s important to keep that in perspective.”

With the possible perpetrators in the Walker murders dead — the “In Cold Blood” killers were executed in 1965; Tooker suffered a heart attack while playing the violin in 1963 — there is scant possibility of an arrest.

But Myers observed that letting the case languish, passing it from one detective to another and failing to exhume Christine 15 years ago to obtain her DNA, as he and his sister had asked, had cost the agency more money and delayed the results.

And it had overshadowed his entire life.

In mid-September, Myers clenched his jaw as he lifted his wife with a gait belt, transferring her from wheelchair to recliner at their modest home. She settled in and smiled.

His sister’s murder was never far from his mind. It was time to give Clark, the Sarasota detective, another nudge. First, he turned on “Gunsmoke” — their daily routine.

He’d met Ella, now 68, on the school bus and proposed to her over the lunch table in high school. When she was well, Ella had vocally supported his efforts to find answers. Now her strokes had robbed her of articulation.

“Behind every good woman, there’s a good man,” he said, as he filled her cup.

Ella face-palmed and smiled.

The detective picked up almost immediately, and Myers told him he wanted an update.

Clark hoped to test the underwear stain containing the sperm cell. He told Myers, if he could get the OK, he was still after a true copy of Christine’s DNA.

“Go ahead, dig her up,” Myers told him, for a second time.

Would he ever get an answer? Each new detective who came along just couldn’t get to the last piece of the puzzle.

The doubt, the what-ifs, kept at him like a jackhammer.

Myers had grown up around people devastated by the family’s deaths, relatives who also made trips over the years to the sheriff’s office, who visited Christine’s and Cliff’s graves and held them close.

There came a point that his older sister, Novella, couldn’t handle going anymore. And Pat promised her he would make sure to keep it alive, to fight for a resolution. As he saw his own health slipping, he felt the weight of that vow.

He’d lied to Novella before she died in 2021.

“It was them, the ‘In Cold Blood’ killers,” he’d said. The relief the 82-year-old felt had come through on the phone. Her voice even sounded different.

Myers wanted to feel that way too. And if he didn’t push for this, who would?

In early January, Myers called Clark and his boss six times with no reply. Days later, he received a return call.

A lieutenant told him that Clark had presented the plan to the sheriff. They had decided to unearth Christine from her grave in the next month.

Myers wanted to feel relief. But he decided he would wait until something actually happened.

About the reporting

This story is based on more than 8,000 pages of records, most from the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office, but also the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and archives of the Sarasota Journal, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune and the St. Petersburg Times.

Leonora LaPeter Anton went with Pat Myers to the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office to witness him talking to Det. Brandon Clark. She was at Myers’ home when he spoke with the detective on the phone. She also was there when he spoke with former Det. Kimberly McGath in 2013 and last summer.