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Ken Landwehr, who helped catch BTK, dies at 59

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Monday, Jan. 13, 2014, at 5:13 p.m.
  • Updated Sunday, Jan. 19, 2014, at 7:38 a.m.

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Ken Landwehr, the Wichita police commander who helped solve the BTK serial-killer case and many other Wichita homicides, died Monday. He was 59.

Landwehr had battled kidney cancer since shortly before he retired in 2012 from the Wichita Police Department. He commanded the department’s homicide unit for 20 years and led the task force that captured serial killer Dennis Rader – known as BTK – in 2005.

“My heart is broken,” Nola Foulston, the former Sedgwick County district attorney, said Monday. She worked hundreds of homicides with Landwehr.

“Wherever he is now, I hope there is golf, and I know that if there is, he’s shooting under par,” she said.

“Kenny gets a lot of notoriety for catching BTK and a lot of other killers,” said former Wichita police Deputy Chief Tom Stolz. “But Kenny only cared about the victims. That’s something that gets overlooked a lot, something people didn’t know unless they worked with him.

“What drove him was justice for the victims.”

Police officers and prosecutors who worked with Landwehr considered him a quick-witted investigator with a ruthless preference for facts, science and detailed case preparation. He coached detectives in the microscopic science of crime scene investigation but could size up a homicide scene at a glance.

In 2000, according to Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett, Landwehr walked into a house where a quadruple homicide had taken place, glanced around the room and pointed to the body of Raeshawnda Wheaton, shot dead in her bedroom.

Something about where and how she was shot – through a pillow – told him all he needed to know about what had happened.

“Find her boyfriend,” Landwehr said. “He’s the killer.”

Bennett, an assistant prosecutor at the time, later convicted the boyfriend, Cornelius Oliver.

For decades, and especially in 2004 and 2005, Landwehr played a cat-and-mouse game with BTK, who killed 10 people but eluded capture for 31 years.

BTK resurfaced in 2004 with a cryptic letter sent to The Eagle. Landwehr and his task force tricked him into revealing himself 11 months later.

Landwehr deliberately used public “news conferences” to release information about the investigation that played upon what Landwehr had recognized for decades as BTK’s considerable ego. BTK kept replying until he finally made a mistake – Landwehr’s goal all along.

BTK, in a newspaper ad, sent a coded message asking Landwehr whether a computer floppy disk could be traced, and Landwehr sent a coded message back that no, it could not.

When the floppy disk arrived, Randy Stone, an investigator working for Landwehr, found Rader’s identity on it within minutes.

“How come you lied to me? How come you lied to me?” Rader demanded of Landwehr when they finally talked.

“Beyond his coolness and his efficiency, he was an extremely caring person,” said Tim Relph, one of the primary detectives who helped solve that case and many others with Landwehr. “He was certainly intelligent and calculating, but he truly carried all those cases with him. And he suffered for that, more than most people will ever know.”

‘He never let me down’

Landwehr had a vague idea in going to Wichita State University that he wanted to be an FBI agent; his favorite books as a child were the murder mysteries of Sherlock Holmes.

In 1977, armed robbers hog-tied him with electrical cord at Beuttels Clothing Store in north Wichita, where he worked. One of the robbers picked up the owner’s gun and pulled the pistol’s slide, jacking a cartridge into the barrel while standing over Landwehr. Landwehr said later he thought he was about to be killed.

What stuck out about that, he said, was the realization of the helplessness all crime victims feel. Shortly after that robbery, irritated with what he thought of as detectives messing up the investigation, Landwehr joined the Wichita Police Department as a patrol officer.

Chief Richard LaMunyon saw something in him early, pulling the young beat cop out of patrol cars in 1984 and putting him on a secret task force called the Ghostbusters, assigned to track down BTK. After three years they still had not found the killer, but Landwehr put the file cabinet’s worth of evidence in a place where he could find it 19 years later.

In the early 1990s, he briefly ran the police crime lab, learning about science and DNA. In 1992, he took over the homicide unit.

Commanding that unit, said Paul Dotson, one of his predecessors, takes such an emotional toll that most people can’t do it more than three or four years. Landwehr did it for 20 years and supervised work on more than 600 homicides, most of which his group solved.

“I don’t know what else to do,” he joked once. “I’m not any good at doing anything else.”

“He never let me down,” Foulston said. “I may have let him down, but he never let me down.

“I trusted him immeasurably.”

Police Chief Norman Williams, who helped Landwehr shape the BTK case strategy and tactics, said in a statement: “The passing of Lt. Ken Landwehr is a true loss for his family, the Wichita Police Department and the City of Wichita. He was a highly skilled investigator and a tireless advocate for victims and their loved ones.”

Catching BTK

For years, after the science of DNA improved, Landwehr refused suggestions to submit for tests a DNA sample of BTK’s semen found at the Otero house, where he killed four people. The test would use up the sample, and Landwehr decided to keep it intact, knowing the science would improve with years.

When BTK resurfaced, Landwehr got the call while standing beside the operating table where his wife, Cindy, was to have gallbladder surgery. He told Detectives Kelly Otis and Dana Gouge to bring him the letter BTK had sent The Eagle, and when they did, he swore and wondered aloud whether his career was about to end for screwing up this case.

Cindy, on the operating table, rolled her eyes and turned to Otis and Gouge.

“Get him out of here,” she said.

Landwehr spent the next 11 months working around the clock. After his team identified Rader as BTK on Feb. 16, 2005, Landwehr surprised his task force by holding off on an arrest for an agonizing nine days.

He had his team pry into every fact they could find about Rader and found a secret way to obtain the DNA of a Rader relative to compare to the sample from the Otero case.

Landwehr afterward became, briefly, a national figure, the subject of half a dozen books and a reluctant story subject on national network news programs and crime documentaries. He had no use for publicity and talked about the BTK case because he thought the community deserved the full story.

He also said the FBI came up with the strategy to play on BTK’s ego, but fellow cops from the Ghostbusters investigation in the 1980s said Landwehr came up with the idea then, coached them about it – and then gave the FBI credit for his idea.

In 2012 he set a retirement date. He planned to take Cindy and their son, James, vacationing in Hawaii. He sought a routine checkup just before he retired, and that quickly led to a cancer diagnosis – and doctors’ opinions that he would not live long.

He declined offers of help, but commanders like Todd Ojile and Stolz insisted that he accept some help and a retirement send-off. At a gathering at City Hall, hundreds of cops and civilians showed up. On the podium, he endured two standing ovations.

He made reference to his illness just once: He said he planned to shoot a golf score matching his own age when he turned 70. He was 58 when he said that, and he said it with a trace of defiance.

“See you around,” he said.

Contributing: Tim Potter and Hurst Laviana of The Eagle.

Some information for this story is drawn from multiple interviews with Landwehr and others for The Eagle’s book “Bind, Torture, Kill: The Inside Story of the Serial Killer Next Door,” published in 2007.

Reach Roy Wenzl at 316-268-6219 or rwenzl@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @roywenzl.

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