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After 31 years and 10 deaths pieces fall in place

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Wednesday, March 14, 2007, at 8:24 a.m.
  • Updated Tuesday, March 27, 2012, at 12:30 p.m.

It was the moment Lt. Ken Landwehr, commander of the BTK task force, had devoted much of his life to making happen:

"Hello, Mr. Landwehr," a handcuffed Dennis Rader said, as officers put him into the back seat of a unmarked police car.

"Hello, Mr. Rader," Landwehr responded.

And with that brief exchange, Landwehr knew: This guy might open up, tell us everything we need to know to put him away.

Here, pieced together using information released Friday night in an unprecedented briefing by investigators and in interviews by The Eagle, is the story of how an 11-month investigation caught BTK, Wichita's notorious serial killer.

## Cat and mouse

BTK, who killed 10 people between 1974 and 1991, had played a twisted game with investigators for years — culminating in a spate of communications to media and police that accelerated in frequency a few months before his Feb. 25 arrest. After years of silence, he had resurfaced with a letter to The Eagle in March 2004.

He wrote in sickening detail about how he tortured and strangled his victims. He taunted his hunters. He would make up things to send investigators off on false trails.

But police were determined to catch him at his perverted game, and with the FBI's advice they developed a crucial strategy:

Keep him communicating. Don't use his language because that would give him a thrill. Make Landwehr —"Kenny," to his colleagues — the one who talks to him. Hold news conferences to give out very limited information. Warn the public when you have to. Don't take questions from reporters. The purpose of the news conferences is to speak to the killer, not the media.

Never say something that would provoke him into killing again.

As it turns out, Rader was still looking for victims and had recently targeted a possible No. 11.

## Finally, answers

During their investigation and in their interview of Rader after his arrest, police learned answers to questions large and small that had puzzled BTK investigators and amateur BTK sleuths.

For example, BTK wrote that he stalked P.J. Wyatt, an English professor at Wichita State University, where he got his administration of justice degree. Last spring, police noted that he had written a poem "O Death to Nancy," a perverted version of a song sung in some of Wyatt's folklore workshops in the 1970s.

But police later found out he had never been in her classes. Police say he found the original song while looking through poetry books in the WSU library, which happened to be near the crime and justice books he was studying.

His communications always contained misspellings, typos. People wondered: Was it intentional, or was he trying to make people think he was sloppy or uneducated? Was English not his native language?

"The fact is that Mr. Rader is a very bad speller. He doesn't know how to write," Landwehr said Friday night during the meeting where he and other task force members laid out the investigation for a handful of reporters.

DNA played a key role in finally making an arrest.

In 2000, four years before BTK ended his silence, the cold case became hot. Wichita police detectives Kelly Otis and Dana Gouge were assigned to work on the unsolved 1986 killing of 28-year-old Vicki Wegerle, a wife and mother found bound and strangled in her home on West 13th.

Police had found a man's DNA under her fingernails. In 2003, the profile was entered into a newly developed national database of criminals.

But there was no match.

However, DNA tests showed that the same killer had been in the homes where BTK strangled four members of Otero family in 1974, and Nancy Fox in 1977.

After Wegerle was killed, though, there had been no BTK letters. No taunts. No threats. No communication.

Until March 2004, when BTK re-emerged with a mailing to The Eagle: a photocopy of three pictures the killer had taken of Wagerle, lying on the floor, plus a copy of her missing driver's license.

The photocopy also had a signature the killer had used in his communications over the years: an odd configuration of "B," "T" and "K," sometimes with the "B" drawn to resemble breasts.

Once police saw the photocopy, the hunt was on.

Police announced the startling development, and news media pounced on the story. Police received 1,000 tips over a weekend.

To handle the response from the public, police set up a command center at a law enforcement training academy. They needed elbow room for phone banks and computers. The Sedgwick County sheriff's office assisted with data entry and research support.

Callers gave police an overwhelming number of possible-suspect names.

Landwehr and crew decided suspects would be eliminated systematically, scientifically. The eliminators:

- Race: The DNA profile showed the killer was a white male. - Age: The calculation was based on the idea that the killer probably would have been, at youngest, 18 to 20 when he killed his first known victims, the Oteros, in January 1974. - DNA: In a somewhat controversial move, investigators took 1,600 DNA mouth swabs from men mainly in and around Wichita; a few came from people living out of state. Almost all voluntarily complied.

If DNA ruled out someone, police crossed that person off their list, "much to the chagrin" of some people who persisted in suspecting the eliminated people, Landwehr said. Some repeatedly sent e-mails to police demanding that the task force continue to investigate certain people.

But department spokeswoman Janet Johnson said: "There's just no arguing with DNA."

- Incarceration: Someone who was in jail or prison during any one of the murders was eliminated. Also, prisoners in recent years would have DNA on record, and police knew that BTK's DNA didn't match any of them.

##Puzzling letters

On May 4, KAKE Channel 10 received a letter with a word-search puzzle titled "Chapter 8." Investigators went through it and sent it to the FBI. Amateur sleuths started seeing other names and addresses in the puzzle, by linking letters and numbers together in creative ways.

But police now insist that people were making false connections. Some people claimed to see Rader's address in the puzzle, but it wasn't there, Johnson said.

The computer-generated puzzle told investigators the author had some computer skill, but not a lot. For one thing, he didn't line numbers up with the letters.

The original of the puzzle would be found in Rader's stash at work, in a locked cabinet.

Rader found the unintended things people saw in the puzzle "quite comical," Landwehr said.

On June 9, 2004, what police would call Communication No. 3 was found at First and Kansas taped to a stop sign. And for a while afterward, police watched for things attached to stop signs.

No. 3 included an outline of 13 chapters titled "The BTK Story." Chapter 1 said only: "A serial killer is born."

One of the documents in the package graphically described the Otero murders. There is a drawing of a nude female, bound, gagged and hanging from a rope. With the drawing were the words: "The Sexual Thrill Is My Bill." BTK hung 11-year-old Josephine Otero from a basement sewer pipe. Police found semen in the basement.

Rader told police he used various copiers, in different locations, sometimes a grocery store, for the communications he sent out.

## A strange twist

One of the most bizarre BTK communications involved the unusual death of Jake Allen, a 19-year-old from the Argonia area who authorities determined had killed himself on July 5, 2004, by lying on railroad tracks near his farm home.

On July 17, 2004, employees at the downtown Wichita library found a package marked "BTK" in a book depository and reported it to 911.

In a letter titled "Jakey," the killer said "I had to stop work on Chapter 2" because of Allen's death. "I was so excited about this incident that I had to tell the story." The letter claimed that BTK used computer chats to lure Allen out to the tracks by posing as a private investigator who needed Allen's help in catching the serial killer.

Investigators concluded, partly by checking a computer Allen used, that his death wasn't related to BTK, that he had never chatted online with anyone about BTK.

Rader told police the letter was a smoke-screen. Allen's death "did intrigue him," Landwehr said.

That same letter also contained this note: "I have spotted a female that I think lives alone and/or is a spotted latchkey kid. Just got to work out the details. I'm much older (not feeble) now and have to conditions myself carefully. Also my thinking process is not as sharp as it uses to be.... I think fall or winter would be just about right for the HIT. Got to do it this year or next!... time is running out for me."

Rader turned 60 after his arrest.

Because of the implied threat, Police Chief Norman Williams decided to increase task force resources four days after BTK made the library drop.

A state grant and $1 million in federal funding, obtained with the help of U.S. Rep. Todd Tiahrt, R-Goddard, also helped pay for the growing investigation, including overtime pay and expenses for vehicles and computers.

Five days after the discovery at the library, police issued a news release warning that BTK had used fake identification to enter homes. Among other home-security tips, the release said, "Don't open your door to strangers." A part of the warning specifically addressed people living alone.

During the meeting with reporters Friday, Landwehr said, "Our focus during this entire time was to keep Mr. Rader inactive."

Behind closed doors, police and the FBI talked almost daily about strategy. The idea of using Landwehr as the sole spokesman was to develop a rapport with the killer.

Johnson, the police spokeswoman, was heavily involved in the communication strategy.

"We were trying so hard not to do anything that would upset this man," she told reporters Friday.

At the same time, the department felt pressure from the public to be more open about what it knew.

On Oct. 22, 2004, BTK left Communication No. 5 in a UPS box at Second and Kansas.

It contained a long story of his purported life, with many details that turned out to be deceptions, with bits of truth interspersed. He lied about his year of birth, for example, saying he was born in 1939 — not 1945.

The story claimed that the killer saw significance in the number 3, but it turns out Rader put that in the letter only because he heard speculation that BTK picked addresses with a 3. He told police he never used the number to select victims.

Soon after the UPS box drop, police conducted surveillance near First and Kansas and Second and Kansas, thinking the killer could leave another package there. The FBI brought in cameras to help with surveillance.

Two members of the task force, KBI agents Ray Lundin and Larry Thomas, from the Topeka office, essentially moved to Wichita so they could work on the case.

For Landwehr, one of the most disturbing parts of the October communication was a photo collage the killer had made — with pictures of children, from magazines and other publications, with bindings drawn across their bodies and faces.

That November, Chief Williams met with FBI officials at their Virginia headquarters.

On Dec. 14, a man walking through Murdock Park found a package containing Nancy Fox's driver's license, tied to the ankles of a bound doll.

Except for a hole in the license, used to attach it to the doll, the nearly 30-year-old license was in pristine condition. It was Communication No. 6.

The task force noticed BTK was moving the location of his drops. The investigators decided that I-135, not far from Murdock Park, was the perfect route for the sneaky killer. The highway let him move in and out without being seen.

## Beginning of the end

A major break in the investigation came from the killer himself.

On Jan. 8, he left a package in the bed of a pickup outside the Home Depot store on North Woodlawn. Police say the killer thought the truck owner would notice the package and report it.

The store has a video system monitoring traffic outside — and it would be the beginning of BTK's downfall.

"That was our first break," Johnson said. "It was of huge significance to us."

The package, with the words "bomb" and "BTK" written on a Special K cereal box, was found by a store employee in his pickup. It appeared to be trash and was discarded.

Police learned about the package days later, after the employee realized the significance of it. Police retrieved Communication No. 7 before it reached the landfill.

Police asked Home Depot for 90 days of surveillance tapes, and later praised the company for cooperating.

And then, for the first time, Landwehr could see the killer in the parking lot: a blurred, unidentifiable figure walking up to the truck. At first, the only thing investigators could detect was that the killer was driving a dark vehicle.

By estimating the ground clearance and wheelbase, investigators deduced it was a Jeep Cherokee — one of about 2,500 registered in Sedgwick County.

With satisfaction, Landwehr realized: BTK is making mistakes.

In the package, the killer said he lived in a three-story house with an elevator. A bomb was supposedly in the basement, rigged to explode if investigators arrived. Police learned there were hundreds of homes around Wichita with elevators. They decided that if they ever had to raid such a place, they would flood the basement to disable the device.

The story didn't seem plausible, but it forced investigators to think through how they would handle such a scenario.

BTK also listed information about several "PJs" — his code for "projects," or potential victims — from past years. Police worked hard to identify those people, who told police they didn't want to be publicly identified.

In one of those listed PJs, the killer wrote: "PJ Twin Lakes, Twin Lake Area, 1974-1975, Walked the Mall looking for victims."

He also claimed to have tried to abduct a bank employee, who fought him off.

Communication No. 9, contained in a Post Toasties box found on North Seneca near 69th Street, included a bound doll tied with rope to a piece of plastic pipe — symbolizing Josephine Otero.

In Communication No. 10, received by KAKE on Feb. 3, BTK said he used "plastic glove and plastic bag to protect fingerprints marks" while leaving the Post Toasties box.

## An electronic trail

The biggest break came from Communication No. 11, received by KSAS-Fox TV on Feb. 16.

Tucked among a locket and letter was a computer diskette that BTK identified as a "Test Floppy for WPD review."

Secretly, through Eagle classified ads placed by police, BTK had asked police whether the diskette he would use to communicate could be traced to him. The police answered with the code: "Rex, it will be OK." He told police to use that name.

"We were really hoping he would buy that," Detective Otis told reporters at the briefing.

Another task force member, Detective Randy Stone, with the department's computer crimes section, easily identified the diskette software as belonging to Christ Lutheran Church. It contained the name "Dennis."

Dennis Rader, he quickly found from a Google search, was the congregation president. It took him two hours to connect the diskette to Rader.

Once they had it, police knew they had him.

Otis, Gouge and a few other task force members then drove by Rader's small ranch home, at 6220 Independence in Park City. They saw a black Jeep Cherokee, which belonged to Rader's son, who was away in the military.

Police began loose surveillance of Rader, "to make sure he is where he was supposed to be," Landwehr said. For one thing, they wanted to make sure he wouldn't kill again.

The challenge for police became how to keep BTK from knowing investigators were closing in. Rader later told police he would have fled if he had known he was a target.

He said he would have eventually put all of his twisted thoughts on diskettes and gotten rid of his original communications. He planned to put the disks in a bank deposit box under a different name.

He never wanted to be caught, police said.

Investigators, without the knowledge of Rader's daughter, used a subpoena to gain a DNA sample from her medical records.

Her DNA told them that her father was BTK.

Landwehr credited the investigators who years ago collected DNA from the Otero, Fox and Wegerle murder scenes.

Landwehr and the others have concluded that there was nothing in the old investigative files that would have led to Rader, except for a list of more than 20,000 WSU students that included him. Investigators had always suspected that BTK frequented the campus.

"The answer wasn't in any one of these (old) files," Otis said. "There were no missed opportunities."

There had been intriguing suspects besides Rader, Landwehr said. "But they were all eliminated."

The task force worried that the media might learn of Rader before they could arrest him — which had happened before they burst into a home in south Wichita last December to gain a DNA swab from Roger Valadez, who was not BTK.

For Rader, police mapped out a precisely coordinated plan to simultaneously arrest him, search his home and other key places, and contact his relatives. Investigators searched the Park City Library to see if he used a computer there. He did.

About 215 officers and agents were assembled, mostly for the searches.

## Caught on schedule

Rader was predictable, Landwehr says.

Police knew that Rader always left his office at 12:15 p.m. and arrived home for lunch at 12:18. Police had been watching him for several days.

As Rader drove into the frontage road off 61st Street in Park City, an unmarked police car stopped him.

There were plenty of guns drawn on him. Lundin dragged him out of his truck.

"At that point, we're dealing with an individual we believe committed eight homicides," Johnson said.

They took no risks. They knew he had used guns before.

Rader was handcuffed and searched. Otis, a stocky man with a flattop and a wise-cracking sense of humor, wielded a shotgun.

Moments later, Rader and Landwehr were saying "hello" and calling each other "mister" in the back of the police car.

Police audiotaped the arrest from the car used to transport Rader and took aerial photographs from a helicopter.

"I was breathing hard. I can't tell you how fun it was," Landwehr said of the arrest.

"That was a great day for everyone in law enforcement."

Even in an interview room on the fourth floor of the Epic Center, Landwehr knew Rader was still a dangerous man, that if Rader had a chance, he would kill him.

Bob Morton, an FBI behavioral analyst, and Landwehr conducted the initial interview. The idea was that Rader would respond to Landwehr and that Morton, being from the FBI, would boost Rader's ego.

Then teams of detectives interviewed Rader about the cases they had been assigned to. Other detectives talked to him only about his communications. And sheriff's personnel approached him about the Marine Hedge and Dolores Davis homicides, unsolved killings to which he also confessed.

Police interviewed him for 32 hours.

"We tried to encourage him to sleep, and he wouldn't," Johnson said. He napped periodically.

About three hours and 15 minutes into the initial interview, Rader looked at Morton, and Morton said: "Say who you are."

Rader answered, "I'm BTK."

Rader's own DNA came back as a match about a dozen hours after the start of the interviews. He learned that investigators already had his daughter's DNA.

He was starting "to figure out that he's put in a corner," Landwehr said.

At one point, Rader told investigators that the string of numbers and letters on the letter mailed to the Eagle in 2004 was a German fractional code he knew from his military background. Police had sent the code to an FBI cryptologist. The code made no sense to the FBI.

He tried to recall his own code — which started with "GBSOAP" — but couldn't.

Later, Rader repeatedly tapped on a diskette — it had been put on the interview table — and asked: "Why'd you lie to me?"

"Because I was trying to catch you," Landwehr answered, laughing.

It struck Landwehr as ironic that a lying serial killer would ask such a question.

Rader did voice concern about how his arrest would affect his family, his church and Park City. "But he might lie to me, too," Landwehr said.

When teams of investigators told Rader's wife and grown son and daughter about his arrest, "they were in disbelief," Landwehr said. "But as it came out later, they understood what it was."

"That was a very sad moment," Johnson said.

After police arrested Rader, they found the original Wegerle photos and driver's license taped to a sheet in a locked file cabinet at his work office. He worked as a Park City compliance officer from 1991 until his firing a few days after his arrest.

Rader was so detail-oriented, he kept binders to hold his communications.

Rader had hidden some evidence in his home, including something Landwehr called a "Vian package." But most of his communications were either in the locked work cabinet or on the work computer.

Landwehr and other members of the task force took questions at the end of the session Friday.

One question that lingers is whether Rader killed more than the 10 people. "I'll never say never," Landwehr said. But at this point investigators don't think there are more BTK murders, he said.

Rader reached a point where he "knew he couldn't fight with a 30- or 40-year-old woman anymore," said Detective Tim Relph, another task force member. Two of Rader's last victims, Hedge and Davis, were older.

He wanted to avoid any situation where he would have to grapple with a man. He wanted to reduce the risk to him. He sought the most vulnerable victims.

Landwehr described Rader this way: "He's heterosexual. He's after females. Men, if they are there, he will dispose of them."

Relph told the reporters that investigators "contacted a lot of people" that Rader indicated were potential targets over the years.

Asked how many people could have been targets and how far they might have been from Wichita, Landwehr would say only that some were outside Wichita.

One reporter asked: Why did he stop killing for years?

"He indicated that he never stopped looking," Relph said. Landwehr said he didn't know how close Rader might have been to killing again.

Someone asked: Was Rader's June 27 courtroom description of his crimes accurate?

More or less, but Rader left out a lot, Landwehr said.

When Rader learned that Wichitan Robert Beattie was writing a book about the case, Landwehr said, it probably pushed him into resurfacing earlier than he had planned. The Eagle wrote about Beattie's book as part of a Jan. 17, 2004, story on the 30th anniversary of the Otero murders.

Rader intended to send more communications, including one about one victim, Shirley Vian Relford. He would make the package look like a bomb.

Another question that lingers is what drove Rader to kill.

"He's a sadist," Landwehr said. "He needs to cause pain." Bondage imagery sexually excited him.

Landwehr expects that the Aug. 17 sentencing will focus on the sexual fantasy that motivated Rader.

"I think there's a side of him that sentencing will reveal," Relph said, without elaborating.

Relph sounded disgusted that some people were sending Rader letters and money. "I'm hoping that sentencing will turn that spigot off."

Relph and the others said that what really motivated them to see the case through was meeting the families of the victims.

"Once you meet a family member," Relph said, "this is not a mythical story."

Landwehr sometimes read the computer message boards about the investigation. "They didn't like me." He heard criticism because police had yet to solve the 31-year-old mystery.

But Johnson said: "We knew if we could keep him communicating, we could solve it. That was the key. That's what the FBI told us."

Landwehr credited his colleagues: "It only took them 11 months to solve this crime. It took me 20 years."

The pressure to solve the case brought stress on the investigators and their families.

"It was tough on my family," Landwehr said, "but I would have never stopped."

"Dennis Rader wasn't so special that he would drive us away from our job," Gouge added.

In the end, Landwehr and crew got what they wanted. Keep the killer communicating. He'll make a mistake. He did. Pounce on him. Feed his ego in the interview room.

Once they got him talking, Landwehr said, he didn't want to stop.

The task force got what investigators have sought for 31 years: a confession to 10 murders. A guilty plea.

"And the rest," Landwehr said, "is history, except for the sentencing."

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