When it comes to Kansas crimes, two cases capture the most attention – the Clutter murders and BTK.
Those cases and the Kansas Bureau of Investigation’s seven-decade history prompted a former director of the agency to write “Beyond Cold Blood: The KBI From Ma Barker to BTK.”
“What I try to emphasize is that the unsung heroes in the BTK case were the Wichita police officers who worked on the Otero (family) case in 1974, the (Nancy) Fox case in 1977 and the (Vicki) Wegerle case in 1986 when nobody knew what the heck DNA was but still collected the evidence in those cases,” said Larry Welch, the agency’s director from 1994 to 2007. “That DNA from those three cases later confirmed (Dennis) Rader was indeed BTK.”
The book is the subject of two presentations Welch is making Thursday and Nov. 2 in Wichita.
Influenced by the law
In writing the book, Welch said he tried to highlight some of the agency’s landmark cases – and spread a good word about his hometown of St. John and the coworkers and lawmen he’s come across through the years who helped solve the crimes.
The Kansas Bureau of Investigation was formed in 1939, championed by three organizations: the Kansas Bankers Association, the Kansas Livestock Association and the Kansas State Peace Officers Association.
The KBI solved one of its first big cases in 1941 after a bank robbery in Macksville. That summer, five prisoners escaped from Lansing Correctional Facility. All were rapists, robbers and killers. Three were quickly caught. The last two remained on the lam and robbed the bank.
The KBI was pressed into action.
On Sept. 16, 1941, a shoot-out occurred in downtown Macksville, leaving the two criminals dead in the street. At that robbery were two people who would later greatly influence Welch: Stafford County Sheriff Logan Sanford, who would become the second director of the KBI and Welch’s mentor; and Welch’s future wife, Shirley Barnes, then a 5-year-old girl standing in the crowd near the bodies.
Welch and Barnes would fall in love in 1953 when they were juniors in high school – she at Macksville, he at St. John, 13 miles apart.
“I spotted her at the state fair,” Welch said. “She was leading the Macksville Marching Mustangs. And she was in that twirling outfit. She was a drum major. What happened after that for the next several weeks today would be called stalking. When she finally caved in and went out with me, her first words to me were, ‘My mother doesn’t let me date St. John boys.’ It staggered me. I’d never heard that before. Our first date was on Halloween. We went to Larned to the drive-in theater. Her mother ended up loving me, God rest her soul.”
Even before then, Welch knew he would be a lawman. In junior high, he began writing letters to J. Edgar Hoover, then director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, asking what it would take to be an agent.
After graduating from KU law school in 1961, Welch tried to get a job at the KBI but was turned down. The FBI, which by then had a file of his letters, hired him.
For several months during the early 1960s, he helped provide security for then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy. He worked in Knoxville, Tenn.; Washington, D.C.; Miami; Puerto Rico and Texas before coming home to Kansas in 1969. In Wichita, he supervised FBI operations in Kansas.
In 1994, he was named director of the KBI, becoming its third director with an FBI background.
Welch’s book highlights some of the KBI’s most famous cases, including when Herb and Bonnie Clutter and their children Nancy, 16, and Kenyon, 15, were found murdered in their farmhouse near Holcomb on Nov. 15, 1959. The case was made famous by Truman Capote’s book “In Cold Blood.”
But Welch’s book also traces the prominent roles the KBI played in helping solve other murders, such as those of Francis Donald Nemechek of western Kansas, who killed five people in the ’70s, including a 3-year-old boy whom he left outside to freeze to death.
In 2004 when BTK resurfaced after a 25-year silence, Welch said it was because of an article in The Eagle about the 30th anniversary of the Otero killings and “because there was an indication that other people were about to write the story of BTK. And he believed nobody should write that story but BTK. If he hadn’t been so arrogant and kept his silence and gone to the grave, we may never have known who he was.”
Welch said it was a privilege to work with Lt. Kenny Landwehr of the Wichita Police Department, who led the BTK task force.
“BTK would get angry if there wasn’t a response and if his communications hadn’t been found,” Welch recalled. “He was wondering what was going on. Kenny was … trying to keep this jerk happy so he doesn’t kill somebody else, and that was always, always a concern. We can’t do something because that might anger him and he will show us who is boss and kill someone else. That was a terrible responsibility.”
The mission and future of the KBI, Welch said, will always be the same as it was when it was founded in 1939.
“It is ordinary men and women doing extraordinary things with a tight budget and a director who goes to the Legislature asking for more help. It is a wonderful agency that is often undermanned and overassigned, yet continues to be one of the best bargains in state government.”