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Murder for the Holidays: The unsolved Walker family murders

Editor’s Note: I recently found out about a European, pagan tradition of celebrating the Winter Solstice, a time when “the dead would have particularly good access to the living,” with ghost stories. Writers of mystery novels continued this tradition by publishing Christmas themed murder mysteries such as Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot’s Christmas and Francis Duncan’s Murder for Christmas. I wanted to observe this custom with some articles about murders committed during the holidays, with maybe a few ghost stories when possible. The title for this series is inspired by Francis Duncan’s novel and the BBC series titled A Ghost Story for Christmas.

One of Florida’s most brutal, unsolved murders occurred six days before Christmas in 1959. The entire Walker family, husband Cliff (25-years-old), wife Christine (24-years-old), son Jimmie (three-years-old), and daughter Debbie (two-years-old) were killed in their small home in Osprey on December 19th. There were hundreds of suspects, including the notorious killers made famous by Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, but the case has gone cold.

Cliff, Christine, Jimmie, and Debbie Walker.

Christine and Cliff Walker and their two children had been out running errands the day of the murders. Christine was the first to return to their home, located on the cattle ranch where her husband worked as a hand. She was at the house long enough to put away the groceries before she was interrupted by an unknown assailant or assailants.  Although she ferociously fought her attacker(s) with her high-healed shoes, even staining the pumps with their blood, her efforts were not enough to stop the assault.  She was raped then shot in the head with a .22 caliber firearm.

When Cliff returned home with Jimmie and Debbie, they too were gunned down. It’s thought that two-year-old Debbie was also drowned in the bathtub because the killers ran out of ammunition and the little girl did not die immediately.

Daniel McLeod, Cliff’s co-worker at the ranch, discovered the horrific scene early the next morning when he stopped by to pick him up to go hunting.

Investigators from the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office recovered evidence from the scene that included the victims’ clothes, Christine’s bloody high heels, and a fingerprint from the bathtub faucet.  Police also discovered that the killers took the couple’s marriage certificate, Christine’s high school majorette uniform, and Cliff’s pocketknife.

Police questioned hundreds of suspects and gave dozens of polygraph tests but never made an arrest.  These suspects included Daniel McLeod, the man who discovered the bodies; Elbert Walker, one of Cliff’s cousins; and a neighbor who made unwanted advances on Christine.  Even a serial killer, named Emmett Monroe, confessed to the crime, though police believed he was lying so they did not find his confession credible.

For decades, investigators believed that Richard Hickock and Perry Smith were the most promising suspects. Hickock and Smith slaughtered the Clutter family on November 15, 1959 in Holcomb, Kansas, about 34 days before the Walker family homicide. The Clutter murders and subsequent investigation were documented in Truman Capote’s true crime novel, In Cold Blood. The pair shot and killed Herbert Clutter, his wife Bonnie, and two of their children in their home. The men then fled the state and traveled all over the U.S. in an attempt to evade capture.

Police eventually arrested them on December 30, 1959 in Las Vegas.  They were tried and found guilty of the Clutter murders.  The coldblooded duo was hanged in 1965 and buried in a private cemetery near Leavenworth prison.

Sarasota County Sheriff’s investigators thought Richard Hickock and Perry Smith could have perpetrated the Walker slaying because the ruthless killers were known to have been in Florida during their time on the lam.  Witnesses spotted them throughout the state between Tallahassee and Miami.  They checked into a hotel in Miami Beach, which is about four hours from Osprey, and checked out the morning of December 19th.  That same day, Hickock and Smith were seen at a department store a few miles from the Walker home.  A witness even noticed that one of them had scratches on his face.

According to the investigators’ theory, Hickock and Smith were able to gain access to the Walker home by pretending to sell their 1956 Chevy Bel Air, the same kind of car that Cliff had wanted to buy.  Investigators also thought they stole Cliff’s pocketknife because they had a similar one on them when they were arrested.

Capote explored this theory in In Cold Blood but doubted it because, according to his research, the Hickock and Smith had an alibi for the time of the crime.  Not only that, but the they were questioned about the Walker killings but passed a polygraph.   However, police found inconsistencies in Capote’s claims so still considered them suspects.

In August of 2012 the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office announced that they would exhume Hickock’s and Smith’s corpses to extract DNA samples in the hopes that they could match it to DNA recovered from the Walker home.

On December 18th 2012, almost 53 years after the Walker family was murdered, agents from the Kansas Bureau of Investigation dug up Hickock and Smith’s graves, while a deputy from the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office observed. Forensic scientists extracted DNA samples from their bones, then the samples were compared to semen found on Christine Walker’s undergarments.  Unfortunately, the tests results were inconclusive because the DNA from both the crime scene and suspects’ bones was either degraded or contaminated.

According to yet another theory, the murderers were acquainted with the Walkers. Katherine Ramsland, professor of forensic psychology at DeSales University in Pennsylvania, studied the case and maintains that whoever committed the crime knew the family because of the personal items taken from the home.

There are currently no other suspects and murders remain unsolved.


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