Catch me if you can

He called himself BTK in honour of his murder method - bind, torture, kill - and for 31 years he eluded the police. Then it seems he made a clumsy mistake. David Critchell reports on the hunt for a brutal serial killer who kept a city under siege
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The Independent US

In the end, it seems, what made Dennis Rader invisible was not what made him different, but what made him the same. It is easy now to look at his police mug shot - a stern expression holding his square jaw tight, his solid build cloaked in a baggy prison jumpsuit - and call him the embodiment of evil. But Rader, accused last month by police of being one of America's most notorious and elusive serial killers, was nothing if not the very incarnation of the guy next door.

In the end, it seems, what made Dennis Rader invisible was not what made him different, but what made him the same. It is easy now to look at his police mug shot - a stern expression holding his square jaw tight, his solid build cloaked in a baggy prison jumpsuit - and call him the embodiment of evil. But Rader, accused last month by police of being one of America's most notorious and elusive serial killers, was nothing if not the very incarnation of the guy next door.

However, according to officials in the Midwestern city of Wichita, Kansas, Rader, 60, was the opposite of what he appeared to be. When not leading his Lutheran congregation as its elected council president, or his children and their friends on Cub Scout outings, he was out stalking and murdering his fellow citizens, 10 of them at the last count. For 31 years, he was known here not by his real name, but by the acronym which became synonymous with fear, murder and depravity: BTK.

A married father of two living a quiet life in a small Wichita suburb, Rader was until his arrest on February 25 a compliance officer in his home of Park City, responsible for ensuring community residents kept their lawns trimmed and dogs penned. And while his by-the-book approach rubbed some the wrong way, no one - least of all his wife or church pastor - suspected that he was anything but the neighbourly Good Samaritan he seemed to be.

"That's it," says Arlyn Smith, a former Wichita detective who spent years tracking BTK. "He was invisible in the community because of his ordinariness. He's just like, us."

A generation ago, the BTK Strangler - whose self-given initials stand for his criminal method: bind them, torture them, kill them - had terrorised Wichita, threatening the aura of safety that cloaked the otherwise peaceful municipality. Over the course of five years in the mid-to-late 1970s, he brutally murdered seven people, all the while frustrating the best efforts of policemen such as Smith to catch him. Then in 1979, he seemed to vanish without a trace.

Most thought that he had probably died, been jailed or moved away. But, as some had suspected, BTK had been among them all along.

Smith, a big hulk of a man who still walks with the sure-footed swagger of a cop on the beat, remains incredulous at the events that began unfolding a year ago. Last March, after 25 years of silence, BTK resurfaced with a letter to the local paper, renewing his old taunting of police by sending notes and mementos of his crimes to the media.

"He could be in his bed tonight, if he hadn't decided to start communicating again," Smith says. "He was home free."

Instead, Rader is in Segdwick County jail, charged with 10 murders - two of which had not previously been linked to BTK until last month. His arrest appears to have turned on a few simple mistakes made by the killer since resurfacing. But while the events leading to his apprehension appear to be straightforward enough to have come from a television detective programme, nothing else about Rader is simple.

The Arkansas River runs slowly and smoothly through the heart of this city of 344,000 people. The town got its name from the Wichita Indians, who were resettled here from Texas some 150 years ago. The town proper was built nearer the turn of the century, by dusty cattlemen who stopped at the site of the abandoned Indian camp to feed their animals and let them drink from the river. The area soon became a bustling outpost on the famed Chisholm Trail, used by cowboys to drive wild steers from Mexico and points south all the way up to the slaughter yards and rail stations of Chicago to the north.

These days, Wichita is better known as the "Air Capital of the World": Boeing, Lear and Beech still operate large manufacturing plants on the outskirts of town. It is a pleasant city with a slightly rundown business centre surrounded by quiet suburbs full of quaint one-and-two-storey homes built back from tree-lined streets.

It was here that Joseph Otero, a 38-year-old recently retired Air Force officer certified as both a flight instructor and mechanic, took his young family in 1973 to build his life anew. Less than a year later, he and most of his family were dead, the first victims of BTK.

To this day, 31 years later, Bernie Drowatzky is still haunted by the sight of the little girl. She'd been dead for hours by the time he saw her, but Josephine, a small but precocious 11-year-old, was still hanging from a noose tied to a sewer pipe in the basement of her parent's modest bungalow. Her hands were bound behind her back and she was wearing nothing save for a pair of socks and a sweater. The rest of her clothes were in a pile by the base of the stairs. Her body was covered in semen.

Drowatzky, then a detective with the Wichita police department, is a man of few words but the tightening tone in his voice as he describes finding Josephine Otero tells you everything you need to know. "It still gets me," he simply says. "I still have nightmares."

It was 15 January, 1974. Drowatzky - now long retired and living in Oklahoma - had already logged nearly 10 years on the force at that point, but nothing he'd done or seen thus far prepared for that cold wintry day.

Josephine's dangling corpse may have been the most gruesome sight, but the scene upstairs was not much easier to cope with. Joseph and his wife Julie were face down in their bedroom, their hands and feet bound, their mouths gagged, the lives strangled from their necks. Their son Joseph II, nine, was in an adjacent room, killed in the same methodical fashion.

It would be months before anyone knew it, but the man who would produce one of the most bizarre stories in the history of serial killing had written his first chapter. It was clear from the very start that BTK was a criminal unlike any Wichita had ever seen. The Otero case baffled the police department for months. They couldn't divine a motive and had little evidence to work with.

"We didn't have any real clues or leads," Drowatzky remembers. "We tried everything we could think of."

Serial murder, like rape, is a power crime. The perpetrator is driven by his control over the victim, and then by the control and importance he acquires with police, the media and the public. BTK's need for recognition surfaced for the first time in October 1974. Based on a confession, authorities had arrested three men in connection with the Otero murders. But the architect of the massacre clearly wanted his due, and not long after police announced the arrests, a man called the Wichita Eagle (the city's daily paper) and directed reporters to an engineering textbook in the city's public library.

Inside was a letter, photocopied enough times to render it untraceable, describing the * crime scene in details that left no doubt as to its authenticity. He was writing for the sake of the taxpayer, he said, adding that he "...did it by myself and no ones help".

It was in the postscript that the killer gave himself his now infamous moniker: BTK. He also left more disturbing clues as to his motives.

"I can't stop so, the monster goes on, and hurt man well as society... It a big complicated game my friend of the monster play putting victims number down, follow them, checking up on them, waiting in the dark, waiting, waiting... the pressure is great and some times he run the game to his liking. Maybe you can stop him. I can't. He has already chosen his next victim or victims... Good luck with your hunting."

Over the next three years, BTK would strike three more times, killing young women in the primes of their lives: Kathryn Bright, 21, Shirley Vian, 24, and Nancy Fox, 25.

Each time, he followed the same systematic approach. After stalking his prey to learn the details of their schedule, he would cut the phone line from outside their home then either break in and lay in wait, or ring the doorbell and force his way in with a gun. Then, he would bind, torture and kill.

The murders had a profound effect on Wichita, which up to then had been a safe and unremarkable blue-collar town deep in the US heartland. Women panicked. In the days before CCTV and mobile phones, men and women alike would ritually check their phone lines before entering their homes.

"People in the Midwest are more trusting and accepting of others, perhaps more than they should be, and it alarmed many, many people," says Mike McKenna, a former detective who worked the case into the1980s.

The fact that police seemed to be making little headway in the investigation didn't help. BTK was not only killing with impunity, but was taunting his pursuers, and the public.

A month after Nancy Fox's homicide in December of 1977, KAKE, a local television station, received a poem entitled "Oh! Death to Nancy" the last lines of which read: "And finally I'll close your eyes so you can't see/I'll bring sexual death unto you for me. BTK."

In another letter received in early in 1978, he mentioned all his killings to date, ending with another mention of the Fox murder: "After a thing like Fox, I come home and go about life like anyone else. And I will be like that until the urge hits me again."

Notes like these had a chilling effect on the city's populace. As Richard LaMunyon, who was chief of police in the BTK years, puts it: "A serial murder wouldn't happen here, it would happen in New York or Los Angeles. It's sad in a way, but we were naïve before. Wichita grew up."

Dennis Rader, it appears now, was also growing up, or older anyway. As he was terrorising his native city, he was rearing children; his son Brian was born in 1975, his daughter Kerri in 1978. In the spring of the next year, Rader graduated with a degree in criminology from Wichita State University - where Arlyn Smith and his partner had determined some of the killer's letters were photocopied. They'd drawn up a list of WSU students of the right age bracket, which Rader was surely on, though as Smith (who had never heard the suspect's name until his arrest) says now: "Half the police force was on that list."

There were thousands on it. Nothing else brought his name bubbling to the surface." At the time, Rader was, as well as studying, working at a home-security company, ADT, whose sales were booming as a result of his crimes.

In June of 1979, the last known BTK communication of the era was received by a local TV station. It was a poem about an intended victim, Anna Williams, a 63-year-old woman who on a previous April night had not returned home as she almost always did. It was titled: "Oh Anna, Why Didn't You Appear".

Then, without another word, BTK vanished. It would be 25 years before he was heard from again.

The pictures of Vicki Wegerle's murdered body landed on Hurst Laviana's desk on a Friday last March as he was rushing out the door.

The images, photocopied on a single sheet of paper, showed Wegerle - a 28-year-old mother of two who had been found strangled in her home in 1986, and who detectives had considered a possible BTK victim before dismissing the idea - in various poses, her bra off and her pants pulled down. Along with the photographs was a copy of her driver's licence.

Laviana, a police beat reporter with the Wichita Eagle, wasn't sure what to make of the letter, so he photocopied it and ran out to that day's police briefing at City Hall.

A week later, Lt Ken Landwehr, a Wichita police department veteran who has since headed the BTK investigation, would announce definitively that the letter was from BTK. Just like that, 18 years after the fact, BTK had claimed an eighth victim. And so the chase began again.

What made Rader - if he is indeed BTK - communicate again after so many years remains a matter of speculation. In January of last year, on the 30th anniversary of the Otero murders, Laviana had penned an article on BTK which mentioned that a local lawyer, Robert Beattie ,was writing a history of the BTK case.

Smith, for one, is certain that when BTK read that someone was writing his history, he couldn't help himself.

"My belief is that when he heard about Beattie's book, he thought, I'm not going to let someone else tell my story," Smith says. "I think he was offended by that, and decided that if anyone's going to tell my story it will be me."

From that first letter to the Eagle last year, BTK became prolific, sending seven other communiqués either to police or the media. The killer, it appears, was not without a sense * of his own place in local history. In his second letter last year - sent to a television station in May - he claimed to be writing a book on his life.

Last December, on the 27th anniversary of Nancy Fox's murder, a convenience store clerk received a call from a man saying he had information about a package from BTK. The package, found the next day in a nearby park, contained Fox's driver's licence and a doll with a plastic bag over its head. The park was just a stone's throw from where Fox had been working on the last night of her life.

"He is a unique case," says Steven Egger, a criminologist at the University of Houston-Clear Lake who has studied serial murderers extensively. "Unique in that he communicated with police and the media [not as common as Hollywood would have you believe]."

The Wegerle case immediately launched speculation that despite previous beliefs, BTK had been active all along.

"These guys don't stop, but they will change their MO [ modus operandi] along the way," Egger said last year. Such speculation was confirmed when Rader was arrested. Police now say that he killed two other women: Marine Hedge in 1985 and Dolores Davis in 1991. Neither had previously been linked to BTK, partly because they were older than previous victims and also because their corpses were found days later, far from their homes. Both lived near Rader in Park City.

"They lead a double life, and cloak their identity," says Egger. "Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, was the same way. Psychopaths can pass polygraph tests. There's just a total disconnect between their criminal life and their regular life."

Rader, the man who stands charged with being BTK, is almost certainly the culprit. The state's governor said a day after his arrest that police had matched his DNA with the crime scenes, and the Eagle recently reported that he had confessed to the crimes.

The media has printed and broadcast most of the known facts about Rader's life - father, husband, Air Force veteran, churchgoer - though, of course, the motives and the most tantalising questions remain unanswered, and will remain so until his trial begins later this year, and perhaps forever.

For the men and women who spent years of their lives working the BTK case - sometimes bogged down for months on minute aspects - the moment was a long time coming. On 26 February, at a packed City Hall press conference, police chief Norman Williams announced: "The bottom line: BTK is arrested." The audience, which included the families of many victims, erupted into applause.

Williams and his colleagues were understandably elated. His department had been frequently criticised for failing to apprehend BTK. Since the killer's resurfacing, nearly 5,000 people have been swabbed for DNA, prompting observers to wonder aloud if they had any clues to follow at all. As he had been a generation ago, BTK was, through 2004, but a taunting shadow.

There has been a total lockdown on information since Rader's arrest. Williams has chided the national and international media, which descended in a swarm on Wichita after the news broke, for hounding victims' families and city officials, charging that they are jeopardising the coming prosecution.

Some salient facts have risen to the surface. According to several of the former detectives and other sources who were interviewed for this article, Rader appears to have ultimately been undone by two key mistakes. In the first, his truck was caught by the surveillance camera of a branch of the DIY superstore Home Depot, circling the parking lot where a package that purported to be from BTK was found by authorities. And last month, BTK showed his age (or lack of familiarity with modern technology), sending a package to a television station that contained, among other items, a purple computer disk. The disk was quickly traced by police to a computer in the Christ Lutheran Church of Park City where, in January, Rader was elected council president. He was one of a handful of people with access to it. "I'm surprised at the carelessness of his mistake," says Smith, who now works in data processing. "I don't know if it was arrogance or what."

Egger, currently working on an encyclopedia of the world's serial killers, notes that it is not uncommon for these men to begin feeling invincible after so many years of eluding authorities. He is quick to add, however, that it is incumbent on police to stay the course and capitalise on such mistakes. "Good dogged police work eventually pays off," he says. "Sometimes it just takes a long time."

Rader, whose 60th birthday passed behind bars, is currently being held on a $10m (£5.2m) bond - $1m for each victim. The initial hearing on his case was delayed and has now been scheduled for April 19.

The scars BTK exacted on the city will take another generation to fully heal, but for the first time in many years, the people of Wichita are going to bed without fearing what might happen in the night.

"The hunt is over, and it's been a long time coming," says Beattie. "Soon, Wichita's nightmare will be over."

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