Six days before Christmas in 1959, a killer wiped out a local family of four, staining their living room floor with blood.
The crime — one of the most horrific in Sarasota County history — shocked a community unaccustomed to such wanton violence.
Suspicion and fear spread from neighbor to neighbor as people wondered if a killer lived among them.
The county’s top lawman, Sheriff Ross Boyer, tried to ease those fears, vowing to bring the killer to justice.
The promise has gone unkept.
Today, the entire story — the murders, the investigation and the mystery of a killer who escaped — has largely been forgotten. The house where the family died is now just piles of debris hidden in woods that soon could be overtaken by housing developments.
But if the killer is alive, he’s an old man whose anonymity could be coming to an end.
The Sheriff’s Office gave the Herald-Tribune unprecedented access to the open investigation in the hope that publicity might thaw its coldest case.
The files reveal details that have never been made public. They tell the story of an ordinary family, of suspicious characters and of determined lawmen who tried, but failed, to catch their man.
The tale may not end there.
Advances in forensic technology give a sheriff’s detective the chance to write the last chapter. Driven by the promises of the men who came before him, and his own personal ties to the murdered family, the detective is trying to unravel the mystery.
Today, he thinks he may be closer than ever to identifying the person who killed his relatives.
On the Sunday before Christmas 1959, Don McLeod woke before the sun and stepped lightly through the house to keep from waking his wife and children.
A few days earlier, he and a friend had spotted wild hogs while they were digging a fire line for their bosses, the Palmer family, whose vast ranch covered much of southern Sarasota County. They agreed to set out for a hunt before dawn, when sleepy hogs return to wallow after a night of foraging.
To guard against the cold, wet morning, McLeod pulled on a windbreaker and a hat with ear flaps that he had picked up in Korea during the war. He stepped outside into the darkness and led his horse into the trailer hitched to his GMC pickup.
Today, the place is a McDonald’s parking lot on Clark Road, but back in 1959, McLeod’s house was a lonely outpost on the Palmer cattle ranch.
With his horse secured, McLeod started his truck and drove west on Clark to U.S. 41, then turned south toward Osprey, where his friend lived. As he had done so many times before, he turned left at the Royal Palm IGA grocery store onto Bay Street, and rumbled down the two-mile dirt road that ended abruptly at Cliff Walker’s house.
Like McLeod, Cliff lived in his house for free in exchange for the ranching work he did for the Palmers, a wealthy family that put Sarasota on the map a half-century earlier when Chicago socialite Bertha Honore Palmer snatched up 100,000 acres of undeveloped land.
McLeod knew his friend to be as reliable as the sunrise. On the countless mornings they had hunted together for hogs or alligators, Walker was always ready with a hot pot of coffee to share when McLeod arrived.
But this morning was different.
The house was dark and still when McLeod drove his truck through the front gate and parked outside.
And there wasn’t a whiff of brewed coffee when he stepped to the door.
“Goddamn!” McLeod thought, ready to tease his friend for oversleeping. “I caught him this time asleep.”