The Clutter House: Murder in the Heartland

by | Dec 7, 2020 | Crime Writing | 4 comments

I can almost remember the scene – clear as Autumn in the Sierras, when in 1967 I purchased a book I’d been anxious to read in an airport bookstore, Truman Capote’s, In Cold Blood. I was in the spacious Pacific Heights living room I shared with five fellow stewardesses. The flight from Rome had been unusually long, passengers had been unusually grumpy, and all I wanted was a glass of wine, a few crackers, and a good book. It was past midnight, and my roommates were asleep. Capote’s book beckoned.

I was hooked from the first page. Capote’s description of Holcombe, Kansas – the “land is flat, and the views are awesomely extensive; horses, herds of cattle, a white cluster of grain elevators rising as gracefully as Greek temples are visible long before a traveler reaches them,” – pulled me into the story from the first page. Maybe it was because I’d spent my senior year in high school in a small Midwestern town much like Holcombe: Shenandoah, Iowa. Or perhaps I was ready to be transported from Rome to Holcombe. Either way, I knew I had been in the hands of a master storyteller when I regretted having to read the last page.

Fast forward to December 5, 2020, and an article in Lawrence Journal-World titled, “In the end, just a home – A house with a history of murder finds a new life.” The story could only be about one murder, especially if the author wrote for a Kansas magazine – In Cold Blood.

The article told how Leonard and Donna Mader came to purchase and occupy the Clutter farm in 1990. The author wrote: “Along with the extra closets and bedrooms in this house came something else, a lingering history…the place will always be synonymous with something else: Clutter. The story of a family killed there 45 years ago draws strangers to the doorstep, driveway, and telephone, constantly reminding the Maders the home will never be only theirs.”

The photos that accompanied the article are oddly chilling: two Mader family members sit in the blue Naugahyde breakfast nook installed by the Clutters. Another picture of the family farmhouse shows it is updated but has the original house’s look and feel. The driveway, shrouded in shadows, fog, and bare tree branches, appears ominous. Then a thought occurred.

While researching my true crime book: “Jigsaw and Jane: Thirteen Years of Murder and Mayhem with Badge Number One” I sat in the chair serial killer Bill Bonin sat in while visiting his best friend, Scott Fraser. I held and read victim Steven Wood’s report card while standing in his bedroom alongside his mother, Barbara Bien. I stood just a few feet from the spot where serial killer Bill Bradford dumped the body of Tracey Campbell.

Murder transforms the most ordinary item or location from normal to scary: a shrouded driveway, a wingback chair, a report card, a breakfast nook, a rock formation in the Mojave Desert, a farmhouse once the scene of an infamous murder, a dream that parallels a crime scene.

When it comes to murder – ordinary can become lethal. A chair becomes kryptonite. A report card becomes all that’s left of a loved one. A family residence becomes a haunted house.

I’ve learned never to look at an object in one direction. One crime transforms everything.