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Four boys who grew up to catch a monster

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Wednesday, March 14, 2007, at 8:24 a.m.
  • Updated Tuesday, March 27, 2012, at 4:56 p.m.

It has been one year since the cops caught the BTK monster and put an end to his deeds.

So many words have been written and so many stories have been told that many of us are tired of hearing how the monster hunted people and hurt children and dressed in women's underwear.

But one story has not yet been told. And it mentions the monster hardly at all.

It's about four little boys.

And how they grew up.

It begins when the boys are still boys, when the monster first goes out to strike. The beginning is scary. But if you are brave and eager, you will soon reach the middle, where the boys have grown big and bold, and the monster has disappeared. And then the end of the middle leads to the beginning of the end — and the monster returns.

And guess who goes out to stop him?


In 1974, when BTK killed two of the Otero children and their parents, Kelly Otis was 10 years old, a fourth-grader living in California. He was a Cub Scout whose father had died young and whose mother worked hard to make ends meet. It would be many years before he would meet Dana Gouge.

Gouge was also 10, also a fourth-grader, and also a Cub Scout, growing up in the little town of Tonganoxie, Kan.

One month after the Oteros died, a man named Richard Henry was convicted of torturing and murdering an elderly woman who had lived two blocks from Gouge's family. Henry had once beat up Gouge's brother and burglarized Gouge Fabrics, the business run by Gouge's mother. The boy Gouge took a dim view of these acts.

In another part of Kansas, near the little town of Burden, Clint Snyder fed chickens.

He was a farm boy, in the sixth grade. Like all farm boys, he went to school five days a week and worked seven, feeding cattle, cleaning manure out of chicken coops, driving tractors through dust. Before the yearly livestock fairs, Snyder spent hours washing and combing prize steers and training them to lead on a rope. He liked Ford Mustangs. He liked to read novels — crime novels.

The news of the Oteros' deaths — and that of Kathryn Bright four months later — did not touch Snyder deeply. Wichita was miles away. The biggest thing that happened to him was that he went out for junior high football and broke his leg.

But Tim Relph lived in Wichita. And what happened to the Oteros scared him a lot. Relph was one of eight kids, a seventh-grader attending Magdalen Catholic School. On the morning the Oteros died, Relph and his seven brothers and sisters climbed into the station wagon and his mother dropped them a few kids at a time at their schools: Kapaun Mount Carmel High, Southeast High and Magdalen.

Relph, like the other boys in this story, was about the same age as Josie Otero, 11, and Joey Otero, 9. The route that Relph's mother drove went along several of the streets that the five Otero kids traveled to school.

Relph was scared for a long time that the killer might do to the Relphs what had already been done to the Oteros.


In 1977, BTK shut Shirley Vian's children in their bathroom and strangled her.

Gouge did not hear about it then, or if he did, he does not remember. He had just joined the track team. Soon he would set his school's seventh-grade record for the discus: 112 feet, 11 inches.

That record stands today.

Later that year, BTK strangled Nancy Fox.


In 1979, BTK broke into Anna Williams' house, then tired of waiting for her to come home.

Later that year, Relph got himself into a little trouble.

He was 17 and had worked at Jiffy Lube so much that he'd begun to think he'd never get all the oil washed off. He liked to tinker, and he liked to race. One night he raced his buddies along East Kellogg. He had a BB pistol; he decided to show off. He had modified the gun so that instead of going piiiingggg, it went bannggg.

He shot it off in the dark. Neighbors called the cops.

Cops do not treat a young man gently when they think he might have a real gun. Officers Darrell Haynes and Paul Holmes put him face down on the sidewalk and snapped cuffs on his wrists.

In spite of this indiscretion, Relph was a devout Catholic raised by devout Catholic parents. He concluded, after his arrest, that he could behave better.


Kelly Otis' mother moved the family from California to Wichita in 1976. He graduated from North High School in 1981 and started classes at Wichita State University.

But then he got a job as a security guard, chasing shoplifters in the hardware department of a David's department store. When people grow up without a lot of money, even a little money can seem like a lot. College seemed less interesting. He had a car and could drink a little beer and play a little pool. He quit college.


Clint Snyder, the farm kid from Burden, graduated from Wichita State in May 1984, married his fiancee, Tammy, in June, and joined the Wichita police academy in July.

For four years, he had ridden patrol in Cowley County with a reserve sheriff's deputy who was a close friend. Snyder had decided that he wanted his own badge.


In June 1985, one month after BTK's eighth victim, Marine Hedge, was found dead in a ditch, Otis graduated from the Wichita police academy and became a patrol officer.

Otis had liked being a security guard, but his pay got cut just as the police department needed help.

Relph joined, too. He graduated as the top cadet in the next academy class. He prompted smiles among some cops when he showed up in uniform.

His arrest six years before had helped shape his life. The cops had put him in handcuffs, but treated him with stern courtesy and professional tact. Police work was honorable work, Relph had decided.

Paul Holmes, one of the officers who arrested him, was now a member of the secret Ghostbusters task force that chased BTK. He was delighted to see Relph.

"I once arrested that mope!"


Like Relph, Dana Gouge graduated first in his police academy class.

As a boy, after Richard Henry burgled his mother's fabrics store, Gouge had brooded about criminals for a long time, and this partly shaped his decision to become a police officer.

At the scenes of several crimes, Gouge met Otis. They both were adrenaline junkies. Facing mutual dangers, they became friends. Over the next couple of years, when Gouge encountered sorrows in his personal life, Otis was his counselor and confidant. Gouge might act wary around strangers, but Otis' wife noticed that Gouge, more than any other person, could crack jokes that sent her husband into gales of laughter.


One night in 1989, Otis went to a door with other officers to stop a domestic disturbance. The man inside fired a shotgun through the door. Then he ran out with the gun, whirled, and aimed at Otis again. Otis shot him twice. The man survived. Otis was OK, but when he tried to unload his own gun, his hands shook so badly he couldn't do it.

Later that year, Otis saw a man moving around strangely inside a parked car. He went to the car and broke up what turned out to be a rape in progress.

There was another shoot-out, this one with a drug dealer, and car chases.

Otis was named the Wichita Police Department's Officer of the Year.


In 1991, a month after BTK took photos of Dolores Davis in a shallow grave, the body of a 9-year-old girl named Nancy Shoemaker was found. She had been kidnapped the summer before on her way to buy soda pop for her sick brother. Her attackers raped her, beat her to death and dumped her body in the country.

Homicide investigators borrowed Snyder from the burglary unit. After months of hard work, he helped solve the case, but his emotions were torn to shreds. He learned that the only way he could do this work was to talk it through with his wife and God.

While he worked on that case, he met a crime lab lieutenant with a wry sense of humor and what seemed like an encyclopedic memory for facts. Many cops admired him. His name was Ken Landwehr.


In February 1993, police dispatchers sent Gouge to the home of someone threatening to commit suicide. He saw a distraught woman sitting on the edge of a bed.

"I want to kill myself," she said. Gouge tried to calm her, but she stood up, pulled a handgun out of her bedding, and put the muzzle to her head. Gouge lunged and snatched the gun away. He looked at it, his heart pounding: a 9-millimeter.

"A dumb thing to do," he thought. His supervisors thought otherwise, and cited him for gallantry in action.


By the late 1990s, Otis, Gouge and Relph were all homicide detectives, working for Landwehr. Snyder had worked with them for two years before transferring to the narcotics unit. They had all become friends.

During one night shift, Relph got bored and opened an old cabinet. It was filled with part of the massive collection of files from the old BTK cases. Landwehr had helped preserve the files from his days as a Ghostbuster.

Relph had worked hundreds of homicides, and Landwehr relied on him a lot. But when Relph opened the old files, he remembered how scared he had been as a seventh-grader after the Oteros died.

A lot of people thought BTK was dead. But Relph told Landwehr that he wanted to become an expert on BTK, like Landwehr, in case the killer surfaced again.

Landwehr teased him: "Are you trying to take my job?" But then he taught Relph for days, showing him how to navigate the vast old files. Relph said it was an amazing education, listening to Landwehr talk. He could see that although BTK had been silent for years, Landwehr was still on fire to find him.


In March 2004, someone sent a taunting and obscure message about Vicki Wegerle to The Wichita Eagle. Vicki had been murdered in 1986 while her 2-year-old son played in the house.

Reporters at The Eagle were not sure what to make of the message and gave it to the cops.

The first cops to see it did not know what to make of it, either.

But one of them took the paper to Gouge, who was just 10 years old when this story began.

He took one look at the message and knew who had sent it. He showed it to Otis, and he knew, too.

They took it to Landwehr, who saw it and said many bad words.

Even Landwehr was scared.

BTK had scared people for 31 years. BTK might kill again.

Chief Norman Williams gathered a big task force, with Landwehr and lots of other cops and agents from the KBI and FBI.

At the core they put Gouge, Otis, Relph — and Snyder, borrowed back from narcotics.

They were not kids anymore. They had kids of their own. They knew how other people felt about kids.

They worked night and day, ran down every lead.

They found a parking lot surveillance film that showed a man driving a Jeep Cherokee dropping a BTK package into a truck. They helped Landwehr trick BTK into sending them a computer disk that revealed who he was. Snyder and Relph drove to his house and saw a Jeep Cherokee.

And then they staked him out, and their commanders formed a plan. And then they went out and got him.

Gouge snapped Snyder's handcuffs on BTK's wrists. Snyder patted down BTK to check for weapons. Otis and other cops pointed guns at him. Then they put BTK in a police car, and Relph drove him and Landwehr downtown.

Then, for a few short hours, they all went home to their wives and kids.

But that wasn't the end of the story.

They all went back to work, the next day, and the day after that, and the day after that.

BTK went to prison, but the boys went back to work.

There is always another bad guy.

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