BTK Letters Never Got Through

By Tina Susman
Staff Correspondent
August 21, 2005

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WICHITA -- Thirty-one years ago, a serial killer slipped a letter detailing some of his murders into a library book, then called a Wichita newspaper and told a columnist where to find it. In misspelled, rambling prose, the letter writer claimed responsibility for the ghastly murders nine months earlier of a couple and two of their children, and he warned that more killings were planned.

It would be four years before police, who persuaded the columnist not to report on the letter, would reveal that a man calling himself BTK -- for Bind, Torture, Kill -- was prowling Wichita's placid, shady streets.

By then, BTK had killed at least seven times.

It would be another 26 years, in February 2005, before Dennis L. Rader, an outwardly normal man with a family and a house in the suburbs, would be arrested and charged with the BTK slayings.

By then, he had killed at least 10 times.

Rader, 60, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 10 life terms in prison Thursday -- there was no death penalty in Kansas when the murders were committed -- but the case is far from closed. In his murderous wake lies a city stupefied by his ability to elude capture for three decades, and questioning whether police were right to withhold details from various BTK communiques -- macabre sketches he did of his crime scenes, for example, and transcripts of his letters -- that some say might have solved the case earlier.

"Had they released all of these things, you'd think someone would have gone, 'Oh my gosh!'" said Wichita attorney Charlie O'Hara.

Shortly before Rader's arrest, O'Hara was hired by a group of Wichitans who planned legal action to force police to release all their BTK information. The case became moot when Rader was arrested, but O'Hara hopes the issue will still be examined.

"Everyone got so wound up that the guy was caught and they got a confession that they couldn't or didn't have the objectivity to look at why it took so long," he said.

Police confident in decision

Law enforcement authorities have no second thoughts. Not only were they faced with their first serial killer, and taking advice from the FBI and experts across the country, they say they had to maintain communication with a human time bomb whose temper might explode at any time.

"We were trying so hard not to do something that would upset this man and get one of our citizens killed," police spokeswoman Janet Johnson said in July. "... Everything had to be read from a script."

Local cops and outside experts agree that releasing too much information could have unleashed a flood of copycats, making it harder to catch the real killer. In addition, they say Rader's communiques included bogus information that could have led to innocent people being suspected.

In short, police say Rader took so long to catch because he was so enigmatic, so unlikely a suspect. His name was not on any suspect list compiled by police over the years, and Rader's wife of 34 years and two grown children told police they had no inkling of his secret life.

Other serial killers have been more prolific. Ted Bundy and Gary Ridgway, the Green River Killer, each killed dozens. Others have been arguably more vile. Edward Gein skinned his victims. Jeffrey Dahmer ate his.

Few, though, have been as baffling as Rader, said Richard LaMunyon, Wichita's police chief from 1976 until his retirement in 1989.

"We could never find a tie between our victims. There just wasn't any commonality," said LaMunyon, comparing BTK to killers who target particular sectors of society such as prostitutes, women or young boys.

Rader's victims ranged in age from 9 to 63, and while he stalked women, he also killed two children and a man.

"It was truly random in the purest sense," LaMunyon said. "He just literally selected victims off the street."

Equally mystifying was Rader's outwardly normal, sociable lifestyle, which belied the nocturnal, lone-wolf behavior common among serial killers, said Vernon J. Geberth, the former Bronx homicide commander who helped briefly with the BTK case.

"If this guy had fit the profile of most serial killers, we would have been dealing with a non-social individual," said Geberth, whose book, "Practical Homicide Investigation," is used worldwide. "The fact was Rader was a city compliance officer, Boy Scout leader, church council member, and in all these social activities, he became invisible."

Geberth says it was Rader's "malignant narcissism" that finally did him in.

The killer got 'kind of bored'

After The Eagle's longtime cop reporter, Hurst Laviana, wrote in January 2004 about the 30th anniversary of BTK's first murder, BTK sent the Eagle his first confirmed communique since 1979 -- photographs of an unsolved 1986 murder and the victim's driver's license. The Eagle published a picture of the license along with the dreaded news: BTK was back.

Rader, in an interview with a psychologist after his arrest, said he re-emerged because he wanted to control the telling of his story and because he was "kind of bored." Rader also said he enjoyed reading of his exploits in the paper and watching the police -- Keystone Kops, he called them -- scramble. Over the next year, Rader sent about a dozen notes and packages to local media and police, most of which were reported on but with few details disclosed.

That proved his undoing. "Every time he communicated, he had to drop the communication someplace, so slowly but surely the noose was tightening," said Geberth.

One day, BTK delivered a computer disk that police traced to a computer at Rader's church. He was arrested Feb. 25, 2005.

Since then, the public has learned a lot about BTK, including that he wrote a letter in 1988 that police never made public; that he did detailed sketches of some of his crime scenes; and that he was a terrible speller.

That information has angered some Wichitans, including one woman who is convinced Rader stalked her in 1991, the year of his last known murder. The woman, who did not want to be identified, said a mysterious man harassed her at her home in the area of at least two other BTK-related incidents, but police dismissed it as a peeping-tom case.

Because police had convinced the public BTK was dead or otherwise inactive, she said, she did not make the connection for years.

"I keep saying, 'Maybe if they would have ... followed me for a few weeks, they would have been able to nab the guy,'" she said.

The case has also led to second-guessing among journalists who covered the case.

"It was clear from that first letter that the police intended to squash more information than ... make public," said Cathy Henkel, now of Seattle, who wrote in a competing Wichita newspaper about the letter several months after the Wichita Eagle columnist learned of it. "That ... seems to have hindered a quicker solution."

Copyright (c) 2005, Newsday, Inc.

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