Paul Dewey was just a boy in 1959 when his detective dad was assigned to investigate the brutal slayings of the Clutter family, who had been found bound and shot to death in their Holcomb, Kansas, farmhouse that November.
The crime — which stunned the tight-knit, trusting community — gained national attention, and eventually infamy, after author Truman Capote traveled there to research it for his 1966 book, In Cold Blood.
Capote’s non-fiction account, a bestseller of both wide acclaim and criticism (for its sometimes murky blend of factual reporting and fictional flourishes), soon became a 1967 film and is now thought of as a touchstone in America’s enduring fascination with true crime.
For the first time ever, in a new documentary, Paul Dewey is sharing his experiences growing up so close to the bloody case that inspired the book that inspired a genre.
“I was 9 when all this happened,” he tells PEOPLE. “I vaguely remember folks looking for dad because the murders had happened and he was out of town.”
Paul’s first-ever recounting will be featured in Cold Blooded: The Clutter Family Murders, a two-part documentary airing on SundanceTV this Saturday and Sunday as part of the network’s “True Crime Weekend” marathon.
Directed by Oscar-nominated filmmaker Joe Berlinger, the four-hour Cold Blooded docuseries features new information about the case, never-before-seen footage and photographs and, for the first time, on-camera interviews with Clutter family members.
Capote’s book thrust Alvin Dewey — or “Al,” as he was better known — into the spotlight, along with killers Richard Hickock and Perry Smith and others in the Holcomb community. In addition to the crimes themselves, Al’s investigation was detailed extensively in In Cold Blood.
The year after it was released, the detective gained an even higher profile when actor John Forsythe played him in the film version of the book, starring Robert Blake as one of the killers.
Pretty heady stuff for a young kid in Kansas, Paul tells PEOPLE.
A former county sheriff who worked for more than 20 years as a special agent for the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, Paul’s dad became the case’s lead because he was based in nearby Garden City, his son says.
“It was all on his shoulders,” says Paul, now 67. “It was a lot of pressure.”
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His father worried about catching the killers, who were ultimately arrested in Las Vegas on Dec. 30, 1959, after a nationwide manhunt. They were put to death in 1965.
“Those first weeks were just torture,” Paul says of Al. “He thought, ‘What if I can’t solve it?’ ”
His father shared little about the case during and after the investigation, Paul says. Keeping everything private “really did eat him up. As the years went on, he developed ulcers and he had a heart attack.”
Also weighing on his father were his emotional ties to the victims: After saying yes to participating in the docuseries, Paul says he learned the Clutters had been friends of his parents from church.
In fact, Paul says, Al and his wife, Marie, had been to their house just a few weeks before the murders.
Capote, Up Close
While Al and his team of investigators raced to solve the crime, two improbable visitors came to visit the Dewey household: Capote and his childhood friend and fellow author, Harper Lee.
“I vividly remember Truman and Nelle coming to our house,” says Paul, referring to Lee by her first name. “I remember coming home from school and they were sitting at our dining-room table conducting what must have been interviews.”
Before Paul and his brother, Alvin, were introduced to Capote, their mother counseled them about their famous guest, then perhaps best-known for his 1958 New York novella, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, as well as his literati reputation and tell-tale chattiness — and his voice’s distinctly high pitch.
“I remember my mother setting me and my brother aside and giving us a stern warning, telling us, ‘Whatever you do, do not laugh when you hear [Capote’s] voice,’ ” Paul recalls. “‘He’s going to be different than you’ve ever heard before.’ ”
When they did finally meet, he says, “I bit my tongue and my cheek all that evening.”
As Paul grew into his teens and twenties, his perspective on Capote changed. He remembers how the writer took the Dewey family to Palm Springs, in California, and to a Christmas party one year at Gloria Vanderbilt’s home.
“It was really nice of him and it really exposed us to a world we obviously weren’t connected with, coming from a small town in Kansas,” he says.
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Paul says his family kept in touch with Capote even when he fell into a downward spiral at the end of his life, in the mid-’80s.
“I always thought of him as a friend and he would call from New York periodically, even during his dark days, and talk with mom and dad,” Paul says.
His best memory of Capote is as a master raconteur. “Truman’s reputation should have been more for his storytelling than his writing,” Paul says. “He would regale people with stories in conversation. Everybody was fascinated, listening to every word he said.”
A Lifelong Relationship with ‘Nelle’
As with Capote, Paul and his family were drawn to Lee as soon as they met her and, he says, they stayed in touch with her until the end of her life, in 2016.
“There was an affinity and a connection right off, particularly with my mother, who is from New Orleans,” he says. “She hit it off with Nelle right away and with Truman, too, because they were all Southerners. She was a friend.”
While he was fond of Capote, “I was particularly attracted to Nelle,” Paul says.
While combing through the boxes of documents his parents had kept about the case, he says he found a note his mother saved: “It said I had promised Nelle when I grew up I would marry her.”
He and his family trusted her, Paul says.
“Whenever we were approached by someone wanting to do a book or an article or a film about In Cold Blood or the murders, we were always advised by Nelle not to do it. She felt that folks would not get it right or would try to use whatever we said to pursue some other angle that wasn’t correct.”
“She wrote letters with great wit and incredible description and observation,” Paul says. “I remember her writing about [the 2005 biographical film] Capote, saying she considered it a triumph of truth over fact because so much in the film is wrong, but the truth of it was there.”
Cold Blooded: The Clutter Family Murders will air Saturday and Sunday (9 p.m. ET) on SundanceTV.