Former prison official recalls notorious case
Onetime director of penal institutions haunted by good sides of 'In Cold Blood' murderers
Perry Smith and Dick Hickock swung from the gallows long ago.
Truman Capote, the author whose best-selling book “In Cold Blood” immortalized the brutally murderous pair, also has died.
But Topeka attorney Chuck Mc-Atee, who played a key role in the executions of Hickock and Smith and came to know them and Capote well, lives on. So do his memories of what may be the most notorious of Kansas crimes and the making of the book and movie that described them.
“I grew to know Dick Hickock and Perry Smith as human beings more so than murderers,” McAtee said.
Smith and Hickock killed the four members of the Clutter family Nov. 15, 1959, in the family’s farmhouse near Holcomb. The killings were shockingly violent.
The pair were demonized as psychopathic killers and were among the last to die on the gallows of the state prison in Lansing.
McAtee was then the state’s director of penal institutions. He said he befriended the killers though he was repulsed by their deeds. To this day, he weeps when reminiscing about the goodness he found in the perpetrators of the gruesome slayings.
Until the Clutter killings, Smith and Hickock were small-time crooks.
When they were arrested two months after the murders, evidence against them was overwhelming. Both confessed with a disturbing flatness of emotion.
They were sentenced to death March 29, 1960, for killing Herbert Clutter, a farmer and community leader; his wife, Bonnie; his daughter, Nancy, a straight-A student; and his son, Kenyon, a bookish 4-H member.
The family was bound, slashed and finished off by shotgun blasts after Smith and Hickock failed to find in the house a safe rumored to contain $10,000 cash.
The killers made off with $50, a radio and a pair of binoculars.
McAtee is a former U.S. Marine, FBI agent and federal prosecutor now in his 70s. But his descriptions of events almost four decades ago are crystal clear.
As state pardon attorney under Gov. John Anderson and later as the equivalent of the Kansas secretary of corrections, McAtee came into contact with inmates across the state.
“That’s when I first met Hickock and Smith on death row,” McAtee said. “They became pen-pals for the next four years.”
In one of those letters, men on the row at Kansas State Penitentiary asked for permission to play radios. Lansing’s warden had rejected the request, suggesting the chime of closing cell doors was all inmates deserved.
“It hit me these guys had been on death row for years, and they’ve never heard the sound of music, and they’re going to die,” McAtee said.
The warden was overruled when McAtee stipulated inmates could have radios if they used headphones at all times.
“Let me tell you, the letters I got from those guys thanking me for the radios,” he said, pausing. “It still gets to me.”
A clever author
Capote’s book, “In Cold Blood,” began when the New York writer came across a 300-word article in the back of The New York Times describing the mysterious murder of a family of four in rural Kansas.
He seized upon the story and came to Kansas to turn it into a book. He spent six years researching and writing the “nonfiction novel.”
After Hickock and Smith had been sent to prison, Capote requested visiting privileges. His application was denied, based on state rules limiting guests to immediate family and lawyers. Capote asked the governor to intercede, but at McAtee’s urging, Anderson declined.
Then came a dinner invitation in Topeka from Capote, who surprised McAtee by bringing along Nell Harper Lee, author of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
McAtee enjoyed the evening at the Holiday Inn restaurant, and especially liked talking with Lee.
“We were in tall clover thanks to Truman,” he said.
Capote never mentioned the prison access problem at dinner. But a few weeks later, McAtee learned the celebrity writer had turned to powerful leaders in the Senate to twist Anderson’s arm. The governor, facing internal political pressure, folded.
Capote “was on the visiting and mailing list from then on,” McAtee said.
It gave the writer unprecedented access to Smith and Hickock. It was access he depended upon to write the bestseller.
Preview to a kill
When Gov. George Docking was defeated for re-election in 1960, death-penalty advocates began threading the hanging nooses. Five men were on death row at Lansing, but Docking commuted sentences of Earl Wilson and Bobby Joe Spencer to life in prison before leaving office in January 1961.
The remaining three — as well as two others — would be put to death while McAtee worked for Anderson.
In November 1962, McAtee got a taste of what awaited Smith and Hickock. The state executed Lowell Lee Andrews, who had killed his parents in an effort to take ownership of the family farm.
McAtee sat by a telephone until the call came at 12:45 a.m.
“That was my first experience of waiting for word we had hanged somebody in the corner of the penitentiary,” he said.
The state followed the hangings of Hickock and Smith with another double-execution — the last to take place in Kansas. George R. York and James D. Latham, who went on a cross-country killing spree while absent without leave from Fort Hood, were hanged in 1965 for the murder of a railroad worker four years earlier.
Preparing to die
In their solitary time on death row, Hickock and Smith did some soul-searching before being executed. McAtee’s job placed him in their inner circle.
He said Smith was an introspective man who tried to find peace through painting, reading and writing. Smith created biblical images in watercolors on bed sheets, some of which survive. He memorized a book, “Thoreau on Man and Nature.”
Before shuffling in irons to the gallows, Smith recited a poem he’d written, “Eternal Hope,” to McAtee. He also gave him a handwritten copy, signed simply with the letter “P.”
“I’d give anything in the world to have a recording of Perry Smith reading the poem … with his meter, tempo, inflection, feeling.”
The poem argues that men in prison — even killers — are not devoid of value.
“But he who thinks that man is bare,” the poem says, “disrobed of pride by force, has not the depth of soul to share emotions at its source.”
McAtee: “It grabs me every time I read it.”
He said Hickock focused on his relationship with his wife and children.
Hickock had written to his wife as the execution neared to suggest that any royalties from books or movies about the slayings be placed in a trust fund for their children. She replied in a harsh letter that she didn’t want to be part of anything that would help their offspring remember their father.
On the day of Hickock’s execution, his wife came to the prison to apologize for that statement. She asked to see her husband, but the warden refused.
“The warden said the prison is locked down,” McAtee recalled. “You can cut the tension with a knife.”
McAtee intervened and made certain the couple met a last time. He stood in the room as the Hickocks spoke, husband and wife standing three feet apart but never touching.
She said, “I’m sorry for the tone of the letter I wrote you.”
Hickock asked about their children. “Tell them I love them,” he said.
After Hickock’s wife left, the condemned man turned to McAtee and said he should have been hanged long before the Clutter murders for what he had done to his own family.
The last hours
McAtee said he received dozens of letters from people asking for the honor of sending Smith and Hickock to hell.
“I had all kinds of letters from volunteers,” he said. “There were many requests to be witnesses.”
State law stipulated the list of witnesses. There were law enforcement officers, reporters, relatives of the victims, a minister and McAtee.
The condemned were allowed to ask three people. Smith and Hickock asked Capote and Lee to attend. Capote agreed, but Lee declined. They invited any relative of the Clutters to use the third spot, but none accepted.
McAtee said Capote had promised to spend time with Smith and Hickock on their final day.
But at 2 p.m., McAtee received a call from Capote, who was in a Kansas City, Mo., hotel.
“I can’t do it,” Capote said.
Capote would be at the prison for the execution, but he couldn’t bring himself to face Smith and Hickock.
That left McAtee to sit for hours with the men. He said Hickock in his final hours pointed the finger at Smith.
“Perry killed them all,” he told McAtee.
A long series of appeals exhausted, the men at 10:30 p.m. had a dinner of boiled shrimp and strawberry soda.
Hickock, 33, was first to be buckled into the execution harness. He asked that his corneas be donated to Kansas University Medical Center.
Smith, 36, went next. Just before moving to the execution chamber, he asked to use the bathroom. The warden refused, but McAtee overruled him.
Perry responded to that kindness by giving McAtee the “Eternal Hope” poem.
The wooden gallows were built inside a prison warehouse with a dirt floor. It had 13 steps.
“As we walked inside, the splatter of rain could be heard on the roof,” McAtee said. “As the warden read the warrant, a dog howled … as if wailing for these souls about to depart earth.”
The executioner, McAtee said, could have been from central casting. He had a black suit and shirt, and a four-day growth of beard. His coat collar was yanked up and hat pulled low.
“His eyes were penetrating,” McAtee recalled.
The trap sprung under Hickock at 12:19 a.m. April 14, 1965. He was pronounced dead by the attending physician at 12:41 a.m.
“That 22 minutes seemed a damn eternity,” McAtee said.
McAtee heard the thud-snap that announced Smith’s rope-broken neck at 1:07 a.m. He was officially declared dead at 1:19 a.m.
Both were buried at Mount Muncie Cemetery in Lansing. Capote paid for small stones to be placed on their graves. They were stolen around 1980, but recovered 20 years later at an Allen County farm.
Bright lights, big city
In 1967, “In Cold Blood” was made into a movie by director Robert Brooks. The film was nominated for four Oscars.
Hickock was portrayed by Scott Wilson, while Smith’s role was played by Robert Blake.
It was filmed in Holcomb at the Clutter farm where the killings took place. More filming was done at the Statehouse in Topeka. In the trial portion of the movie, six of the original jurors were used as actors.
McAtee said Brooks bought the toilets used by Smith and Hickock on death row, and placed them on sets for the film. Brooks couldn’t convince state officials to sell him the prison’s gallows.
Blake was escorted by McAtee into the Lansing prison where the executions were carried out. The physical resemblance between Blake and Smith was astonishing, McAtee said.
“Blake was Perry Smith reincarnated,” he said. “He was a little cocky guy, just like Perry Smith.”
McAtee said it was an irony Blake now finds himself facing charges of murder.
Blake is in a California jail pending trial in the May 2001 shooting death of Bonny Lee Bakley, the actor’s 44-year-old wife.
Death penalty view
McAtee didn’t set out all those years ago as a Washburn University student to watch men die.
But his life as a U.S. Marine in the Korean War, the FBI with J. Edgar Hoover, the U.S. prosecutor’s office, the executive branch of Kansas government and the dusty floor of a warehouse in Lansing made it so.
Those experiences shape his perspective on capital punishment. He still believes the death penalty an appropriate sanction, if handled properly.
First, he said, the law must be applied in all state and federal courts to be an effective deterrent. Defendants in capital murder cases must have first-class defense lawyers and access to the same level of forensic science as the prosecution, he said.
McAtee said the appeals process for people on death row should be expedited. Lethal injection should not be the method of punishment.
“It should all be done by hanging,” he said.
Since capital punishment was reinstated in Kansas in 1994, six people have been sentenced to death — Gary W. Kleypas, Michael Marsh, Gavin Scott, Stanley Elms, Reginald Carr and Jonathan Carr. A seventh jury recommended death for John E. Robinson Sr., who will be formerly sentenced Jan. 21. In Lawrence, Damien C. Lewis, 22, is charged with capital murder in the July shooting death of an elderly couple.
If executed, inmates are given lethal injections at Lansing.
Despite his support of capital punishment, McAtee said his experience with Smith and Hickock tempered his view about the death penalty. The issues are sometimes as conflicting as the Clutter murders were confounding, he said.
Smith’s final words to McAtee, relevant to the debate, still ring in his ears.
“Mr. McAtee, I’d like to apologize to someone. But to whom?” Smith said. “You know, you can’t undo what we did with an apology.”