Composite character becomes hero
A KBI agent's story
One of the most seasoned and decorated lawmen in Kansas history, Alvin Dewey Jr. was forever immortalized in Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood.”
In the book, Dewey, the Kansas Bureau of Investigation’s lead detective on the Clutter family murder case, gets much of the credit for an investigative effort that involved law enforcement agents from Washington, D.C., to Nevada.
But 45 years after the Clutter murders in Holcomb, it’s difficult to separate where Dewey’s involvement in the case ends and other lawmen’s begins. Furthermore, for all Dewey’s experience, some Garden City, Kan., residents are critical of his relationship with Capote and how that affected what ended up in the book.
There’s no doubt that Al and Marie Dewey got along with Capote.
“He thinks we are genuine, sincere people,” Marie Dewey said of Capote in a 1975 Kansas City Times story about her husband’s retirement. “He likes us for what we are. He became well-acquainted and fond of us over the years.”
Included in “Too Brief a Treat,” a book published last fall that contained many of Capote’s letters, are dozens to the Deweys between 1960 and 1967. Within them Capote writes about everything from buying holiday gifts for the family to asking Al for information that would later be used in “In Cold Blood.” Capote sometimes referred to the Deweys as “precious ones” or “honey hearts” in his letters’ salutations, and even once wrote that he felt as though the Dewey children, Alvin III and Paul, were his own nephews. By 1964, Capote was coaching the younger Al’s writing through the mail.
“Truman became friends with Mom and Dad, and later with my brother and me. There was an affinity right off between my mother and Truman since they were both from the South,” Paul wrote in an e-mail in response to questions.
Paul, an Oregon lawyer handling environmental and Native American issues, would briefly answer only a few questions through e-mail. Al III, a real estate agent on the Oregon coast, declined to speak about his parents or the case. The brothers were 12 and 9, respectively, at the time of the investigation.
“They don’t want to talk to anyone about it,” said Dolores Hope, a longtime Garden City Telegram reporter and friend of the Deweys. “My impression of it is that those were bad times in their lives.”
When asked about the case’s impact on the family, Paul wrote only that “We were already security-conscious but probably became more so. The case was stressful for Dad — with the pressures to solve it, and for Mom with all the publicity.”
In a 1984 supplement in the Garden City Telegram on the 25th anniversary of the murders, Al Dewey, who died in 1987, described the case’s effect.
“The work on it went on far beyond five years between the crime and the execution,” he said. “The strain on my family was considerable, and it caught up with me, too. In February 1963, I was hospitalized with a heart attack brought on by stress and tension.”
Dewey, on paper, was the perfect man to lead the KBI investigation.
After graduating from Garden City Community College, Dewey took a job as a police dispatcher in town. He later went back to school, studying police administration at San Jose State (Calif.) College, then working for the Kansas Highway Patrol for two years. He spent five years at the Federal Bureau of Investigation before serving as Finney County Sheriff for eight years. He joined the KBI in 1955.
In 40 years of police work, Dewey investigated 200 murder cases, helping to solve 14 of 16 he worked on in 1974, the year before his retirement. Despite that experience, Grover Craig, a former Finney County sheriff, said he believed other lawmen on the case, like Rich Rohleder, Garden City assistant police chief, and Harold Nye, a KBI detective, didn’t think much of Dewey.
“Standing on the outside and looking in, I don’t think the guys in the KBI had much respect for him,” Craig said. “But they didn’t tell me that.”
Furthermore, some Garden City residents, such as then-County Attorney Duane West and Craig, say Dewey’s relationship with Capote, not his work, led to his favorable portrayal in the book.
“He was giving Capote stuff because, hell, Capote invited him back to New York many times — big parties and shindigs,” Craig said.
Indeed, in addition to supplying even the tiniest details Capote requested — such as the mileage between Garden City and the Colorado border, or when the Clutter home was built — Dewey also sent Capote entries from Nancy Clutter’s diary, according to one Capote letter requesting the entries and another thanking Dewey for them in “Too Brief a Treat.” West said supplying those entries was “completely improper.”
After “In Cold Blood” was published and became a bestseller, Dewey became world-renowned as the hero of the case. The 1975 Kansas City Times story written when Dewey retired mentions an estimated 1,000 letters he had received from admirers.
There’s evidence that Capote either intended to paint Dewey as the hero or believed he truly was. In a 1960 letter to David O. Selsznick and Jennifer Jones, Capote wrote, “Speaking of the book, the ‘hero’ of it is coming to Los Angeles in July. His name is Alvin Dewey, and he is an agent for the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, the man who was in charge of the case and the person chiefly responsible for solving it.”
Capote seems to be alone in his belief that Dewey was the case’s hero. In the Times story, Dewey himself says he didn’t solve the case alone. Others, like West and Craig, point to Rohleder as the man whose detective work was most important in securing the convictions of the killers, Perry Smith and Richard Hickock.
Although Capote might have pegged the case’s hero incorrectly, there’s literary reason, beyond his friendship with the Deweys, for Al Dewey’s prominent role, according to Charlie Armentrout, a former Garden City police officer who still follows the case’s legacy.
“I think, honestly, Capote’s writing of the story made it what it is today,” Armentrout said. “He needed a primary character. You can’t have a book with six or seven main characters.
“It was probably one of the better cooperative efforts of law enforcement at the time. I think that’s probably what Mr. Dewey would tell you.”
Said Dewey in the 1984 Garden City Telegram story: “The case brought some resentment within the KBI. Many others worked on the case, and some felt I received more than my share of credit and publicity. I think I did but the fact is, the crime happened in my territory and I was in charge.
“The publicity most resented, I suppose, had to do with Capote’s book and the movie made of it. Some of us local folks came off better than others in his book; he was kinder to those he liked and to those who liked him. Some descriptions fit too close to be comfort
able. I was the luckiest. I came off bigger and better than life. Capote used me, because I coordinated the investigation, as a central figure … maybe a hero. Often I was the spokesman who carried his story. Many of the words weren’t mine but the messages they imparted were correct enough.”