HOLCOMB – Alan Stoecklein was a 4-year-old curiously watching as a line of black cars and ambulances drove up the road toward his home.
It will be 57 years ago on Tuesday when four members of the Clutter family were murdered in their 14-room home at their River Valley Farm just outside of Holcomb.
The story of the Clutter murders has lived on so many years later because of the horrific nature of the family’s deaths, but also because of Truman Capote’s best-seller book “In Cold Blood.”
Back in 1959, Alan’s dad, Alfred Stoecklein, had been Herb Clutter’s hired man for 11 years, and the only Clutter employee living on the farm. He and his wife, Geraldine, were raising three children. Along with Alan there was Rodney 7, and an infant, Terry, living in the small stucco home not a hundred yards from the Clutter house.
Herb, his wife, Bonnie, and two of their four children – Nancy and Kenyon – were murdered during the night and their bodies discovered that Sunday morning by two of Nancy’s girlfriends who came to the home to ride to church with the family.
The two homes were separated by a large Quonset building, and that night the Stoeckleins were busy tending to baby Terry, who was sick and crying. Capote described the scene in his book:
”Seems Stoecklein lived not a hundred yards from the Clutter house, with nothing between his place and theirs except a barn. But he was saying as to how he hadn’t heard a sound – said, ‘I didn’t know a thing about it till five minutes ago, when one of my kids come running in and told us the sheriff was here. The Missis and me, we didn’t sleep two hours last night, was up and down the whole time, on account of we got a sick baby. Bout the only thing we heard, about ten-thirty, quarter to eleven, I heard a car drive away, and I made the remark to Missis, ‘There goes Bob Rupp.’ “
Sunday was the one day of the week that Alfred did the milk separation in the mudroom of the Clutter house. All the other days of the week, Herb Clutter did the separating.
“He went into the house and Geraldine took the children to church,” said Sue Stoecklein, Alan’s wife and current director of the commercial exhibits at the Kansas State Fair. “Then, when he was through, he went to church. When he got back, the police were there.”
Alan recalled watching all the vehicles, but was told to stay close to their house. He and his brother Rodney didn’t watch for very long because once Alfred and Geraldine learned what had happened, they whisked their young family away from the farm to their grandparents’ house in Garden City. Just like the other residents in the area, the Stoeckleins were terrified not knowing who would have done such a horrific act.
“Me and the Missis, we’ve slept our last night on this place. We’re movin’ to a house alongside the highway,” Alfred Stoecklein was quoted by Capote as saying.
Despite the murders, there was still work for Alfred to do on the farm. The next day he had the grim task of wiping up the blood from the floor in the basement where Herb and Kenyon Clutter had been killed. Then, with the help of family friends, they loaded the back of the pickup truck with pillows, bedding, mattresses and even the playroom couch, and he drove the truck to a field and then made a mountain of belongings. Stoecklein sprinkled the mountain with kerosene and struck a match.
Capote made another reference to Alfred, whom he described as not usually a talkative man, though he had much to say as he assisted in the cleanup.
”He wished folks would ‘stop yappin’ and try to understand’ why he and his wife, though they lived scarcely a hundred yards from the Clutter home, had heard ‘nary a nothin’ – not the slightest echo of gun thunder – of the violence taking place. ‘Sheriff and all them fellas been out here fingerprintin’ and scratchin’ around; they got good sense, they understand how it was. How come we didn’t hear. For one thing, the wind. A west wind, like it was, would carry the sound t’other way. Another thing, there’s that big milo barn ‘tween this house and our’n. That old barn’ud soak up a lotta racket ‘fore it reached us. And did you ever think of this? Him that done it, he must’ve knowed we wouldn’t hear. Else he wouldn’t have took the chance – shootin’ off a shotgun four times in the middle of the night! Why, he’d be crazy. Course, you might say he must be crazy anyhow.”
Two days later, on Wednesday, Alfred served as one of the 24 pallbearers for the funeral of the Clutter family. Other pallbearers included Nancy’s boyfriend, Bob Rupp – the last person to see the family alive – and Al Dewey, the Kansas Bureau of Investigation agent in charge of the case.
In the wake of tragedy
When it comes to life on the Clutter farm, Alan Stoecklein’s memories are few. He does remember Kenyon, who was 15 at the time.
“He would be in the yard and talked to us,” Alan said. “And I remember Herb, but not Nancy or the mother.” He sometimes wonders if he really has memories or if what he recalls is just what he has heard other people say.
Following the cleanup and the funeral, Alfred Stoecklein continued to work four more months at the farm helping the surviving Clutter daughters, Eveanna Jarchow and Beverly English, get ready for the estate sale. The day of the sale was his last day at River Valley Farm. Someone from Oklahoma bought the farm. Alfred went to work for the Garden City Co-op, where he remained until he retired. The Stoeckleins lived in the town of Holcomb for two years. Then, when Alan was in second grade, they moved to Garden City.
They went on to have two more children – another son, Tracy, and a daughter, Sandra.
A stranger in Kansas
Before the end of November, in 1959, Truman Capote arrived on the scene after reading about the murders of a prosperous farm family in The New York Times. He thought that if the murder was examined deeply enough it could be a book – he was calling it a nonfiction novel. His massive interviews included Alfred Stoecklein.
“He showed up at our door,” Alan said. But, as children, he and his brothers were not privy to the conversation.
The family was upset with how Alfred was portrayed in the book. The dialect Capote used for Alfred was not accurate.
“It was not very nice or very accurate. He made him sound pretty hicky,” Sue Stoecklein said. “One description had him ‘long toothed,’ and another described them walking their ‘youngins to town.’ They didn’t walk from Holcomb to Garden City. They owned a brand new 1959 Chevy. There was no reason to walk anywhere.”
When they were approached to be in the “In Cold Blood” movie, the Stoeckleins wouldn’t give permission. There was one mention in a scene outside the courthouse. Someone asks Dewey, “What about the hired hand?”
“He is not a suspect,” Dewey replies.
In the second movie made about the murders, there was a mention of the hired hand’s baby crying and they referred to Terry as a girl.
During the trial, when the confessions of the murderers, Richard Hickock and Perry Smith, were made public, it was learned that when they drove the long tree-lined lane leading to the house, they saw a light on in the Stoecklein home. It frightened them enough that they stopped, turned around and started to drive away. But Hickock, according to an article in The Garden City Telegram in 1960 titled “Light Nearly Saved Family,” decided “he had too much in it to back out now.”
They turned back around toward the Clutter home.
Meanwhile, Geraldine once told Sue that she was putting Terry down the night of the murders at about 3 a.m. and saw headlights. She wondered to herself what the Clutters were doing up and then turned out her light and went to sleep.
Law and order
As a child, watching all the black cars driving up the road to the Clutter home might have been the spark that ignited a lifelong passion in Alan Stoecklein. However, he simply says he always wanted to be a police officer. He wanted a job that allowed him to be outdoors and he wanted to protect and serve.
In high school he became a police cadet and explorer, and then at Garden City Community College he studied criminal justice. He served with the police department in Ulysses for one year and then was hired by the Garden City Police Department. From 1976 through 1980 he worked his way up to detective.
In 1980 he went to work with the Kansas Highway Patrol. He moved up the ranks, serving as a sergeant in Hutchinson and a captain in Wichita, and then served over the west region of Kansas. He was appointed by Gov. Mark Parkinson to be acting colonel for the KHP for about six weeks and then served as lieutenant colonel assistant superintendent for Kansas from 2010 until he retired in 2014.
He says he didn’t realize, until much later, how deeply the senseless slaying of the Clutter family directly affected his own family.
“We were uprooted overnight,” Alan said.
“It was a big event in history. But we moved on.”