When SundanceTV's four-hour documentary series “Cold Blooded: The Clutter Family Murders” premiers Nov. 18-19, it will bring back memories for local resident Jerry Collins, who was a prison guard at Kansas State Penitentiary (now Lansing Correctional Facility).
By RIMSIE McCONIGA
When SundanceTV’s four-hour documentary series “Cold Blooded: The Clutter Family Murders” premiers Nov. 18-19, it will bring back memories for local resident Jerry Collins, who was a prison guard at Kansas State Penitentiary (now Lansing Correctional Facility).
Academy Award nominee Joe Berlinger and production companies AMC Studios, RadicalMedia and Third Eye Motion Picture Company have put together the series, which tells the story of an infamous crime that shocked the nation on Nov. 15, 1959.
The series focuses on the brutal murder of four members of the Clutter family in their home in the small Kansas farming community of Holcomb. The documentary takes a fresh and in-depth look at the murders and delves into the resulting investigation, convictions and executions of the murderers, Perry Smith and Richard Hickock.
A farmhand for Herb Clutter had told Hickock about a safe at the farmhouse where he claimed Clutter kept large amounts of cash. Hickock contacted Smith, a former cellmate, about robbing the safe, leaving no witnesses and starting a new life in Mexico.
The men drove 400 miles to rob Clutter’s home, but found there was no safe and little else of value in the house. The four family members were asleep and after they were awakened, they were bound and gagged. Smith and Hickock were determined to leave no witnesses and killed Clutter, his wife and two children.
The book “In Cold Blood” was written by Truman Capote and published in 1966. The book was an instant success and is now the No. 2 biggest-selling true crime book in publishing history.
When Collins first heard of the Clutter family murder, he was in the Marine Corps in California.
“I thought it very unusual when that story made headlines way out in California,” Collins said. “Then I didn't hear anything more about this case because the killers were not picked up until two to three months after the crime. It was 1959 when I was stationed in California and February 1960 when they were caught.”
Collins never imagined he would be meeting the murderers four years later and witnessing their execution six years later.
In 1963, Collins started working at the Kansas State Penitentiary and met Hickok and Smith, who were then inmates at the prison.
“The second or third week of training I was assigned to death row with seasoned officers,” said Collins. “There were eight men on death row at the time. Hickock and Smith were outgoing and friendly. The other six were withdrawn. After training, I was assigned to death row on the midnight to 8 a.m. shift. Hickock never stopped talking about football games and was always predicting scores. Smith said he always wanted to be a lawyer. I told Smith that I was from Abilene, Kansas, and he talked nonstop about President Eisenhower. Perry Smith was a Korean War veteran and earned a Silver Star.”
When the documentary’s film crew was in Leavenworth in May to shoot footage, they asked Collins to do an interview about his experiences with Smith and Hickock, which will be featured in the documentary.
In addition to surviving Clutter family members, the documentary draws from the first-hand accounts of relatives, friends, townspeople and law enforcement. Some of these people have never spoken publicly about the murders.
The interviewees include Paul Dewey, son of Alvin Dewey, who was the Kansas Bureau of Investigation’s lead detective on the case; Gerald Clarke, Truman Capote’s biographer and friend; and actor Scott Wilson, who played murderer Hickock in the Academy Award-nominated motion picture, among others.
To pass the time on his midnight to 8 a.m. shifts on death row, Collins had many conversations with Smith and Hickock.
“Hickock giggled a lot and he enjoyed telling dirty jokes,” said Collins. “Smith seemed more mature. It was difficult to think of these two being cold-blooded killers. Not one time did either mentioned their case. They were polite and respectful to me. I like the new procedure in carrying out an execution in Kansas. The death row is now located at the El Dorado Correctional Facility. The inmate is transported to Lansing 24 hours before execution. The Lansing staff probably couldn’t get to know the inmate like I did seeing them four to five years.”
On the day before their execution, Collins said Hickock and Smith were allowed to give away their property after breakfast.
“Hickock wanted me to have all his sport books which I declined,” said Collins.“Smith presented me with a small purse which I still have. Both were taken from death row to the captain’s office and placed in separate rooms. Both placed orders for a last meal. Hickock was in a joking mood. When I offered him a cigarette he said, ‘Oh no, they cause cancer.’ A reporter in the room said, ‘Dick, this must be the longest night of your life.’ Hickock replied, ‘No, I think it might be the shortest,’ then he giggled. Smith spent a lot of time in the other room with the chaplain.”
The documentary presents never-before-seen details of the gruesome murders, such as original photographs, audio recordings and documents from the case, as well as memoirs and letters from the murderers and their families.
The film’s producers say that through this immersive investigation, the true crime documentary series deepens understanding of this notorious crime and explores the role it played in the American psyche.
“Surprisingly, no definitive documentary has ever been made about the Clutter family murders – an event so stunning that it spawned Truman Capote’s landmark book, ‘In Cold Blood,’ gave birth to a whole new literary genre: the nonfiction novel, and marked the start of America’s obsession with true crime,” said Jan Diedrichsen, general manager of SundanceTV and Sundance Now. “We are excited to partner with the brilliant Joe Berlinger on this documentary series to explore the social and cultural impact of this gruesome crime that turned cold-blooded murderers into household names.”
After five years on death row, Smith and Hickock were executed by hanging just after midnight on April 14, 1965.
The gallows used in the executions is part of the collections of the Kansas State Historical Society.
Collins remembers that on the night of the execution, a crowd of protestors gathered near the prison and additional roadblocks were used on Kansas Avenue down to Highway 73.
“When state vehicles pulled up in front of the captain’s office to transport Hickock to the warehouse where the gallows stood at 11:45 p.m. there was complete silence,” said Collins. “All present looked at each other and some said, ‘Oh no, this is really going to happen.’ Hickock went first at 12;01 a.m. Then Smith at 12:45 a.m. After completion of the executions some of us went to the officers’ mess.
“Over the years some of us at the execution got together. We discussed what we remembered about that night. An officer talked about the staring down contest between Smith and the hangman. I learned later that the hangman was from St. Louis, Missouri, and was a military hangman.
“And after the trap door was sprung several pigeons went wild flying around the warehouse.”