Charlie Otero finds peace, stability nearly 40 years after BTK murders

05/31/2013 11:57 AM

05/31/2013 11:57 AM

It was one of Charlie Otero’s revelations.

It involved a certain obscene gesture with his middle finger. And it involved an emotion he might be excused for having — hatred.

For more than three years, Otero has been working at an El Dorado motorcycle dealership only a couple of miles from the prison holding Dennis Rader. In 2005, Rader confessed to murdering Otero’s parents and youngest brother and sister in a way that is still shocking 39 years after it happened. Otero was in 10th grade at Southeast High School on Jan. 15, 1974, when he walked home and found the carnage in the family’s little white house on North Edgemoor. The pictures that Otero’s mind took that day, of his mother and father tied up and brutally strangled, will never leave him. He is 55 now and in some ways is still trying to cope with what he found that afternoon, what came to be known as the first murders by a mysterious serial killer who used the initials BTK, for bind, torture, kill.

But something good has happened to Charlie Otero.

For the first time since that traumatic day, Otero is enjoying a sustained period of peace and stability. He said he has a new motivation: helping other people who are suffering.

It is a remarkable transformation, considering that for years he had been, as he describes it, living an outlaw life in the same New Mexico hills that Billy the Kid haunted. Back then, Otero slept in shacks, lived off the land, partied too hard, raised pit bulls and hung around the wrong kind of bikers. He lived too close to violence. He raced motorcycles and didn’t care if he crashed. He developed mechanic skills but never had a sustained income. “I was a wild man,” he said.

Things hit a new bottom when he went to prison in New Mexico from 2001 to 2005, after pleading guilty to aggravated battery over a domestic violence allegation.

Even before Otero got out of prison, he became a sought-after interview subject for talk-show hosts and reporters covering a riveting story unfolding in Wichita in 2004 and 2005 – the serial killer who had been quiet for decades, who had left a trail of unsolved killings including the Oteros, was again sending letters to media and police. Detectives were working hard behind the scenes and caught the killer after he got careless while corresponding with them.

Otero still doesn’t believe Rader — who had worked for a home-security firm and as an animal control officer and who had volunteered as a church and Boy Scout leader — was the only one involved in his family’s killing. But that’s another story.

‘Carrying that weight’

In late 2008, Otero moved back to the Wichita area, which seemed crazy for him because that is where his life was thrown into a different orbit that terrible day in 1974.

But returning has been a good thing, Otero says.

“I feel like the people of Wichita embraced me. It made it one of the easiest and the smartest things I ever did, was to move here.”

After years of scattered periods of homelessness, he is living with his fiancee in Valley Center in a nice, older ranch-style house. He has real stability — hard-wood floors beneath him. He has his own yard and a garage to keep his motorcycle out of the weather. Each work day, he drives a beat-up 1978 Chevy truck to El Dorado and works on motorcycles that go up to 200 mph. His boss said he has a special knack for fixing carburetors.

He still has the same outward appearance he kept in prison: a goatee and a shaved head except for a patch on the back of his head that sends forth a corkscrew lock of hair. To some people, at first glance, he might still look a little like an outlaw or maybe a pirate.

But he said he is a different man on the inside.

One of the revelatory moments that reflects his new life came last year. But it began with him coming to work at the 321 Kawasaki dealership in El Dorado, just a short drive from El Dorado Correctional Facility, where Rader sits behind bars after receiving 10 consecutive life sentences for murdering 10 people between 1974 and 1991.

The motorcycle shop co-owner, Bette Luinstra, said that even though she didn’t know Otero, she had been praying for him and his surviving siblings as she watched the BTK story unfold around the time of Rader’s sentencing. She believes God had a hand in bringing Otero to work at her business, that he represents a “victory over darkness.”

She had asked him if he would have a problem working so close to his family’s killer.

He chuckled, she recalled Thursday, and told her something like: “He’s in there, and I’m out here. He’s locked up and will never get out, and I’m free and will never go back.”

Still, there was a time when, if Otero passed the prison, he would reflexively extend his middle finger in the general direction of Rader.

But one day last year, as he was heading back from out of town, he had been praying for a friend who had been wounded in a shooting and praying for his fiancee’s ill mother.

He decided that it wasn’t right to be asking for God’s help and hating someone at the same time.

So Otero decided to let his hate for Rader go, to stop raising his middle finger.

“I hate what he did,” he said.

But hating Rader, now 68, was “like carrying a weight around, and I was just tired of carrying that weight.”

As he said that, he was standing near his tool box in the motorcycle repair shop. He paused a moment, then added: “Don’t get me wrong; if the guy was standing in front of me, I’d probably punch him in the jaw.”

‘I lost my religion’

As part of his new life, as a member of several different ministries, Otero is speaking to inmates (but not at the El Dorado prison where Rader remains), to homeless people and people in recovery, including meth addicts. “And I’m talking to them about opening their hearts to the Lord.” He said he wants to be a source of motivation, not a symbol of pain or object of pity.

He has taken a public-speaking course and wants to do more speaking engagements. He has spoken several times to students at Wichita State University, including an introductory criminal justice class taught by Danny Back, a Wichita lawyer who has befriended Otero.

Each time, Back said, Otero puts all of himself into his talk.

Thursday night, Otero stood before a few dozen students in Back’s class at Hubbard Hall. Otero wore crisp blue jeans, dress cowboy boots, an adobe-brown shirt and turquoise jewelry — with some of the hues of his New Mexico past. He had scrubbed his calloused hands clean after a day of handling machines and tools, and he wore a cross around his neck. His voice gradually got louder, impassioned, as he recounted how he walked into his home that day and learned that four of his family members had been slaughtered.

“When I saw them, I hated God. I lost my religion.”

Suddenly, two weeks from his 16th birthday, “I’m an orphan,” he recalled.

He raised his hands and for an instant cupped them over his eyes.

“I can’t explain to you how intense my emotions were at the time.”

As he remembers it, one of the first cops at the scene that day asked him, “Could your dad have done this?” Otero was the oldest son in a traditional Puerto Rican family. He was proud of his dad, who had retired after a career as an Air Force master sergeant and technician. His dad had been a championship boxer.

From that day forward, he told the class, “I became an outlaw. I blossomed hate for authorities.”

After police caught Rader, Otero said, he began to obsess about revenge for his father, Joseph, 38; mother, Julie, 34; sister Josephine, 11; and brother Joseph II, 9.

Otero had one thought: “Get your hands on this man.” He could see himself lunging toward Rader.

On the day of Rader’s sentencing, when Otero got a chance to get close to Rader, something unexpected happened. Otero’s young son, a son he had never seen before, who was living in Wisconsin, had suffered a debilitating head injury. Suddenly, Otero’s thoughts shifted away from Rader, away from hate and anger, and to his son, with whom he now has a relationship.

Now, Otero is the subject of a documentary, “I Survived BTK.”

“Life can be very strange,” he told the students Thursday night.

He spoke without a break for two hours and took several questions. Afterward, many of the students shook his hand as he stood by the door. One of them, an older student, turned as she was leaving the classroom.

She smiled at Otero and said, “You’ve had a hell of a life.”

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