Archive for Monday, April 4, 2005

Left behind: Man lives painful life in shadow of brother’s crime

April 4, 2005


What people notice about 67-year-old Walter Hickock isn't his comfortable drawl, his arthritis-pained hands or the reflective way he sometimes seems to withdraw.

People remark about Walter's last name because they've heard about his brother, Dick, a notorious murderer.

Because of a horrific, bloody act his brother committed years ago, Walter has learned to retreat from inquiries into his life like a hand recoiling from a flame. Even after 45 years, he isn't much closer to coming to grips with the fact that his brother was executed for a brutal crime.

In 1959, Richard Hickock and an old friend from prison, Perry Smith, slaughtered four members of the Herb Clutter family in Holcomb after a fruitless robbery attempt. The incident gained the two men and the town international attention through the journalistic efforts of Truman Capote, who turned the small-town crime into the best-selling narrative, "In Cold Blood," which chronicled the crimes, the killers' lives and their 1965 hanging.

Although Walter and Dick had similar DNA and shared childhoods -- the deadly shotgun used in the murders had been Walter's youthful hunting purchase -- they aren't the same person. Walter, however, says that he and his family were declared guilty the same day Dick was, their verdict accompanied by a punishment of a subtler sort. The remaining Hickocks were left alone to survive the bruises of public scorn and private confusion.

Deeply affected, Walter has only begun to acknowledge and sort out the nagging uncertainties of his past, leaving unanswered many questions about the deepest emotions he experienced. Although Walter believes his brother didn't pull the shotgun's trigger, he said he can never know for sure. Such doubts and deep emotions, although extreme, aren't unusual for families of criminals, experts say.

Walter's life was not untouched by the actions of the older brother he called the "hero" of his youth. While Dick faced a series of judges, Walter's struggle to understand the harsh truth of his brother's crime helped derail three marriages and contributed to his breaking ties with his children. While Capote grew famous, Walter received hate mail, and potential employers denied him jobs, he says, because of his brother's actions.

"I don't know what (the public) would know about me in the first place -- the only time my name was ever mentioned in that book was just that I was a brother, nothing good or bad," said Walter, who in January became the only person from either killer's family to speak publicly about his experiences. "But people would write them mean letters and stuff ... I know they would think (the murders were) a bad thing that had been done, but I don't see how they come up with blaming the families, too."

Shared childhood

Walter and Dick were born into the chaos of the Great Depression, two kids who loved the outdoors. The boys' father, Walter Sr., had been a migratory worker who followed the wheat harvest in his younger days.

In his narrative, Capote described Walter Sr. as "a man with faded, defeated eyes and rough hands" and his wife, Eunice, as "a plump woman with a soft round face unmarred by a lifetime of dawn-to-dark endeavor."

Walter remembered his parents as being kind but firm.

"If they would tell you something or try to get something through to you, they'd make it pretty plain that they were trying to tell you something, learn you something, teach you something," he said. "But I'm not sure if they were loving in the way you'd usually say a family is loving."

As for the Hickock boys, they were "very close." Walter, the junior by six years, said he always looked up to Dick.

"He was more or less a hero," Walter said. "Dick was good at sports and would show me quite a few things, take me to ball games and things like that."

They were friends, brothers and co-conspirators in mischief, trusting each other in a way only people who share those bonds can.

"My brother was probably the greatest rifle shot I've ever seen with a .22 rifle," Walter said with a deep chuckle. "I used to set a Gerber baby food can on the top of my head and let Dick shoot it off."

As the two grew older, they gravitated toward different interests. Walter turned his attention to riding and caring for a horse a family friend lent him; Dick spent his time dating girls and playing sports, school becoming less of a priority.

In 1947, the Hickocks relocated from Kansas City, Kan., to a farm in Edgerton, a small town in eastern Kansas "about four or five blocks square," Walter said.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the publication of Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood," considered one of the 20th century's great works of literature. It also was among the first books in which the reporting techniques of journalism were assembled with the flair of traditional fiction writing.The book is set in the community of Holcomb in 1959, when four members of a prominent farming family were killed in a fruitless robbery. Herbert and Bonnie Clutter and their children Nancy, 16, and Kenyon, 15, were shot by Perry Smith and Richard Hickock. The book details the crime, the lives of the two paroled criminals and law enforcement's search and eventual capture of the men.A class of seven reporting students, a photography student and four documentary film students at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln spent the fall studying Capote's work and its impact on literature and journalism, the community where the story unfolded and some of its principal characters.The students obtained exclusive interviews from people who had refused to talk publicly about the crime or the book, including Nancy Clutter's boyfriend, Bobby Rupp, who was the last to see the family alive and was initially questioned about the murders; Walter Hickock, Richard Hickock's younger brother, who describes for the first time the agony the family endured after the crime and publication of Capote's book; and the family that lives in the former Clutter home as well as exclusive photographs from inside the house.Because the nationally renowned book is set in Kansas, it seemed natural to publish the students' work in a Kansas newspaper. The results are part of a four-day series that begins today in the Journal-World.Tuesday¢ Former prisons chief Charles McAtee remembers the murderers¢ A prosecutor and an investigator both played key roles in the case and were forgotten in the book¢ Former KBI agent Alvin Dewey Jr. became a composite who Capote credited with solving the case¢ If it happened today, advances in technology might have solved the case more quicklyWednesday¢ The family that lives in the former Clutter home is witness to the book's enormous impact still today¢ Holcomb has changed much from the time Capote wrote his book¢ The death penalty has divided Kansas many times

Dick was married at age 19. Five years after Dick married, then-18-year-old Walter also wed. But the two still spent time together with their parents at home.

"I loved my brother very dearly," Walter said. "We were close, very close."

It seemed the two had settled down to normal lives, following in their parents' footsteps.

Dick's downfall

Few understood what went wrong.

The Hickocks later tried to make sense of the events that unfolded, Walter said, and presumed the road to prison began with a serious car accident in 1950 that left Dick hospitalized for several days.

"It almost killed him," Walter said.

Afterward, when hospital bills and debts from an unaffordable standard of living started creeping up on Dick, he turned bitter about the scarcity of money. He started writing bad checks and gambling. Then came divorce. Dick cheated on his wife, and the girl he was seeing became pregnant. That girl became his second wife.

Dick drifted through jobs as a railroad worker, mechanic and ambulance driver but found easier ways to make money by continuing to write bad checks and committing petty thievery. In March 1958, he was sentenced to Lansing State Penitentiary for the first time after being convicted of stealing a rifle from an area home.

In August 1959, Dick emerged from 17 months in prison, divorced again, and, Walter said, a different person.

"It's a heckuva place to get put -- you meet all kinds of people, and they tell you all kinds of things, and you don't have much else to do but listen to what they have to say," Walter said. "When Dick came out he'd talk a lot about getting money in not the legal way. I'd never heard him talk about that before."

Still, Dick got a job at Bob Sands Body Shop in Olathe, Kan., and appeared to be a model citizen. Not long after that, he contacted Perry Smith with his robbery scheme.

"That friend of his. That's what happened," Dick's mother said in the book. The Hickocks didn't like Smith -- the only day Walter saw him was when he and his mother visited Dick a few hours before the execution. Walter said he believes Smith's confession that he had committed all the murders.

"According to the book, Perry did it all. I can believe that," he said. "I didn't know Perry personally, but I knew my brother, of course. It's hard for me to believe my brother murdered anyone. I still cannot see Dick doing that. I just wish they would never have met in jail, where all of it transpired."

It appeared Dick had stepped into an abyss and unwittingly dragged his family along with him. The Hickocks were hurt and confused but still tried to support Dick.

Their father fought cancer to testify at the trial and died soon after, Walter said.

Eunice faced her own pain through the ordeal.

"Our mother was hurt big-time, of course," Walter said. "I'm sure that wouldn't be out of line for what a lot of parents would go through. It's not very pretty sometimes."

Eunice wondered if people blamed her for what Dick had done. To some extent she blamed herself.

"Maybe I did do something wrong," she said in the book. "Only I don't know what it could have been; I get headaches trying to remember. We're plain people, just country people, getting along the same as everybody else."

During the years of appeals that followed, those plain country people made the hour-long trip to Lansing State Penitentiary many times.

Walter and his mother took their final trip to Lansing the day before Dick's execution, though they didn't stay to watch.

"We didn't go to the hanging -- we made that clear the trip or two before it took place," Walter said. "Dick said he'd just as soon we didn't go for it. That would've been hard. But we were there the day it took place, of course."

They said their goodbyes, knowing it would be their last moments together. Time was short.

"In Cold Blood: A Legacy," the story of people hoping for decades that the world will forget, airs at 11:30 p.m. Wednesday on Sunflower Broadband Channel 6.

"I told him I didn't believe that he'd taken a life or anything like that," Walter said. "Dick said, 'That's right.'"

Walter and his mother knew what time the hangings were scheduled to happen; later, they heard about them on the news, and a preacher who'd witnessed Dick's death visited their home. But when Dick's trials ended, Walter's were just starting.

Walter's struggle

Life as Walter knew it began to crumble, surrounding him with a cloud of uncertainty that partially remains to this day.

"One thing that'll be a hangup, I guess for maybe as long as I live, is wanting to know if it was true (that Dick murdered that family) or not," he said.

Apart from caring for his mother, who died in about 1980, Walter's struggle to come to grips with Dick's crime led him into a tumultuous personal life with a series of broken marriages. The life he'd built with his first wife, Nora, started to collapse, partly because of the stress of his brother's crimes.

"It was a heckuva thing to go through, and it's hard to explain," he said. "I've never sat down and really thought about anything to put on paper or anything like that ... to a point I'm trying not to dwell on what happened. I've heard so much about it; it's not a pleasant thing to think about."

"(Questions about Dick's crime) got to eating on me in a bad way, and I left my first wife," he said. "A lot of the things I did I know I didn't do right -- I'd have to say I'm about the sorriest father there is. I had all this stuff going through my head and just took off on traveling jobs -- I'm not the most wonderful person in the world."

He suspected Nora of secretly blaming Dick, his hero, for the murders.

"I really thought that she thought (Dick) had something to do maybe with the killings of the people," he said. "That didn't set too good with me."

Walter and Nora were married 12 years. Only recently has Walter regained contact with the children he left behind. When he spoke with them on the phone, one of their deepest questions was why he left them.

"It was difficult to answer," he said. "Trying to explain why is a lost cause, but I don't blame any of them for not understanding. I had a lot of opportunities to go back and maybe check on them but I didn't, I sure didn't. I didn't know what I'd get to in that area, didn't know what they'd been told about me."

Dick's involvement in the Clutter murders rendered Walter painfully confused; the wake of that confusion, in the form of Walter's perpetual flight, now envelops Walter's children, who are left to wonder whether they were part of the reason he disappeared. Walter doesn't expect the chaos of his past to become any clearer to his children -- even he still can't articulate all that went on. During the decade following his divorce from Nora, Walter married two more times, fathered two more children and became a stepfather to two others. Even though one of the marriages lasted almost five years, eventually both ended up the same as the first -- Walter left. He could never quite escape the shadow that loomed over his name and family.

"It's always kind of been my life. It didn't make a difference who I was married to, it's always come up sometime or somewhere," Walter said.

In the early 1980s, Walter finally allowed himself to plant roots again. He met his fourth wife, Rosita, while working in a bar in Jennings, La. They've been together 24 years.

"I'm married now to a very nice lady, sure is, and I love her very dearly," Walter said.

Though Walter's journeys led him far from his home state, reminders of his past were around every corner. He'd be miles away from Kansas and still see people reading "In Cold Blood." He'd face suspicious looks and personal questions.

"Some look at me kind of strange. I'm sure some of them think, like some I'd heard from right after it happened, that I knew more about it than I ever said," Walter said. "You can see it in their eyes, they would love to ask about it. I guess they're just holding back or whatever."

For the brave souls who do question him, Walter refuses to try pretending the past away.

"It's something that happened -- I'm very sorry that happened, yes, I most certainly am," Walter said. "But to have to deny that I knew my brother, I've never even thought about doing that. If anybody to this day would collect the names, I'd have to tell them who I was. What am I gonna change after 50 years?"

But such an association doesn't mean merely enduring sometimes painful questions; the stakes are occasionally much higher. Years ago, Walter applied for a truck-driving job in Kansas City, Mo. En route to the interview, Walter passed a newspaper stand displaying a front-page story about the release of the "In Cold Blood" movie.

"(The interviewer) put things together and asked me if it was true (that I was Dick's brother), and then he said he was sorry but the job had been taken that morning," Walter said. "(The same kind of thing) happened in other places, but a lot of them wouldn't come out and say why they wouldn't hire me. But you can read between the lines on a lot of that stuff."

But experts say it's not uncommon for criminals' families to face such troubles.

"There's a stigma attached -- the family must have done something wrong to contribute to this result," said Mark Mauer of "The Sentencing Project," a national think-tank on sentencing in Washington, D.C.

"'Forgotten victims' is an accurate term," Mauer said. "There is very little focus on the criminal's family and its needs ... they suffer in ways no one pays very much attention to."

Even as a first-hand witness of such a situation, Walter said he doesn't know how to help the families of criminals -- sympathy usually is saved for the families of victims.

"I think maybe some people on the face of this earth would like to know what happens to (criminals') family members, but I don't know what I could do about it," he said.

"I really truly believe that the world should know how some people are treated for a sad situation that they had nothing to do with and had no idea this carrying on was going to happen -- to go through what I've gone through and hear what I've heard."

Although his family's story is forever bound between the covers of a book of international fame, Walter is still putting the pieces together in his own mind. Even with the ties that remain for him in Kansas, the Walter Hickock of today no longer is trapped there.

He can be found greeting those who enter the Jennings Wal-Mart, spending time with his Louisiana family or waking up to a daily battle against arthritis. Life goes on.

"To me, that's a thing of the past, at least I hope it is," Walter says to those who inquire about his brother's crimes. "That's about what it amounts to. It's in the past, and that's where I'd like to leave it."

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