June 28, 2005

Wichita gets answers, not satisfaction

The courtroom drama everyone wanted to watch had promised much.

A guilty plea, the rumors said.

A freak show.


Retired police Sgt. Joe Thomas planned to tune in after 31 years spent arming himself every morning to go out his own door.

William Cornwell planned to watch, hoping to hear answers he'd sought when he led the first detectives after the first killings.

Women and children and men who had buttoned up their houses all their lives because of this man tuned in to watch. A horror show. A freak show. A show with a final answer:

Was it him?

Out of the dark

One silent group did not have to tune in.

They moved toward the courthouse as though to lay something to rest: solemn like a funeral, 30 or more mute witnesses. They looked down at hot pavement, some holding hands. Detectives guarded the group front and back.

For long minutes, as the families of the dead walked slowly past the courthouse parking garage, and then to the courthouse door, no one called out any of the usual pat questions about "closure" or "how-do-you-feel." Photographers trotted sideways beside them, shooting, shooting. But the media, for most of the walk, left these survivors mercifully unquestioned.

The group entered the courthouse. The camerapeople stayed outside, waiting in the glare of a summer sun, on a day when old secrets would finally be dragged from the dark of one man's mouth.

First-person pronoun

In the courtroom, Dennis Rader opened his mouth and said it publicly for the first time.


Judge Greg Waller asked for details.

Rader politely complied. At length. In detail.

"I," he said.

The first-person pronoun.

"I had a hit kit."

"I put him down."

"I put a bag over her head."

"I saw her enter a house, with another man, and I thought she might be a possibility."

I, I, I.

Outside, the sky had turned so clear that a half-moon could be seen hanging over the courthouse, even in the glare of a sun that baked hard pavement and chased dark shadows into small corners.

Thomas, the old police sergeant, missed the whole thing.

He'd wanted to watch, but he'd had to take his wife to the doctor. So he didn't see it live.

That was all right, though. He'd seen enough.

Earlier in the day, he'd walked out his front door to pick up his newspaper.

In his hands, he carried a doorstop.

He'd carried a doorstop out to pick up his newspaper for 31 years, every morning since 1974, when as a police officer he walked into Joseph Otero's house and made sure no one disturbed the bodies until detectives arrived.

He had looked in on all four people, two kids, two adults. The girl hung by the neck from a basement sewer pipe.

Monday, Thomas carried the doorstop once again. An old habit now. Pick up the doorstop, fetch the paper.

It had occurred to him long ago that a doorstop would be a handy club. To defend himself. To beat BTK to pieces, if BTK ever came to his house and interfered with him while he stepped outside.

Days and nights

At his home in Derby, William Cornwell sat quietly, watching as Judge Greg Waller asked questions Cornwell had tried so hard to answer so long ago.

Cornwell spent three straight days and nights at the police station after the Oteros died, sleeping in chairs, eating sandwiches, writing down ideas, trying to outthink this man, trying to find his name, his motive, his face.

At the Otero house, he'd looked into Josephine Otero's face as she hung from the sewer pipe. A girl, age 11.

He tried hard, but he failed to find the killer and stop the killings. After he retired, other detectives failed, and failed, and kept trying.

But now Rader appeared and opened his mouth.

Cornwell listened, his excitement growing.


The first-person pronoun.

"Finally," Cornwell thought.

He'd done his best.

"Almost no one knows how hard we all worked.

"We tried so hard."

The face of ego

"I, I, I."

Bob Beattie, a lawyer who spent years researching the BTK story for a book, sat back and watched BTK's mouth pronounce that first-person pronoun again and again.

In the face on the screen, Beattie saw ego, the ego he'd discerned when he had first seen BTK's sick, twisted, egocentric writings. Now here was the ego's face.

Beattie watched.

"He seems to be restraining his glee," Beattie concluded.

"Now he is free to tell his story. It will not surprise me if he wants to frequently talk with the news media."

Narcissist, Beattie thought.

'I want to know'

"I called them 'projects,' " BTK told the judge.

He called his victims "projects" as he stalked them, as he studied their habits, as he killed them. He said this matter-of-factly. Like it was a job.

Misty King watched him say this and freaked out.

"For the first time since all this happened, I'm sick to my stomach."

King met Rader in 1998 when she lived in Park City, where he worked as a compliance officer.

When he heard her husband had been critically injured in a Toughman competition, Rader came to King's door to ask if she needed anything.

He stayed friendly after she got a divorce. But everything changed when a boyfriend moved in.

She got citations for violating city ordinances. She saw Rader watching her house from his truck parked across the street. More than once, she caught him peering through her windows.

More than once, Rader told her all her problems would go away if she got rid of her boyfriend.

He euthanized her dog.

She listened to him Monday.

She began to connect mental dots.

"First he'd pick a 'project,' then he'd 'troll,' then he'd stalk..." she thought.

Maybe she ought to write him a letter, she thought.

"I want to know," she said. "I want to know."

She wants to know if she was one of his projects.

Hands, faces, eyes

In the recreation center in the basement of Rhatigan Student Center, the sound of crashing bowling pins went uninterrupted for a while.

But a few people broke away from the lanes when they saw "Rader Pleads Guilty" on the big-screen TV in the corner of the room.

People drifted to the television screen one by one.

Rader opened his mouth and began to talk.

"I." The first-person pronoun, over and over again. Then followed specifics, about bags pulled over heads, and hands and feet tied, and people who fought as they died.

As Rader kept talking, hands went up to faces and covered eyes.

'How do you feel?'

After the hearing, the detectives and the family members walked slowly out the restricted-access door at the north end of the courthouse and into the sunlight. Detective Kelly Otis took the point, staring impassively at the television cameras.

"How do you feel?"

The group walked behind Otis, one step at a time, flanked by other investigators who had come on to the case long after Thomas, after Cornwell, after so many others. The younger detectives had built the case step by step on the work started by the older men who had tried hard to shine a light into dark. Now the younger men took a daylight walk with survivors.

"Any comment, Lieutenant?" someone asked Lt. Ken Landwehr.

"Not now, thanks," he said.

A few steps away, Steven Relford walked slowly, staring straight ahead.

As a little boy, he'd let a monster into the door of his home. Then he'd watched the monster pull a bag over his mother's head.

He'd just seen the monster again, talking, talking. I, I, I.

"How do you feel?" someone asked now.

"Fine," Relford said.

He kept walking. His face had turned red.

"Do you feel you have closure?"

Relford stared straight ahead.

"No," he said.

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