Now a guard at El Dorado, woman was nearly a victim of the serial killer

08/28/2005 12:00 AM

03/27/2012 3:08 PM

In 1977, 17-year-old Karin Clark had a favorite hangout, a humble house at 1243 S. Hydraulic. She baby-sat there. And she got to party there with her older sister and anyone who walked freely through the door. What she didn't know is that a serial killer was watching.

She wouldn't know the danger until after he visited on St. Patrick's Day 1977. After that, she realized that just being at the house at the wrong time could have gotten her murdered.

On that March 17, 28 years ago, a well-dressed man who would later become known as the serial killer BTK walked up to the door. But because no one answered, he went a few houses down the street, where he strangled 26-year-old Shirley Vian Relford.

Now, the story has come full circle, to El Dorado Correctional Facility.

The teenager who was once a potential BTK target is a corrections officer now, helping to monitor prisoners there. Her last name now is Rodriquez. And one of the newest prisoners there is BTK, a balding 60-year-old named Dennis Rader.

For years, the idea that the killer had come so close haunted Rodriquez. But not anymore: The mystery's over, and the killer can't alter or destroy any more lives.

"He's not scary," said Rodriquez, now 45 with two grown children.

"The bogeyman's behind bars."

On Aug. 18, District Judge Greg Waller sentenced Rader to 10 consecutive life terms, one for each of his victims from 1974 to 1991. Rader remains in isolation at the maximum-security prison. He is undergoing an assessment to determine where he should be placed and how he should be handled.

Rodriquez wouldn't comment on any contact she might have had with Rader in prison but said she has seen him in the facility.

She said prison rules prohibit her from disclosing details about any inmate or prison operations.

She said she notified her supervisors of her past involvement in the BTK case.

Footsteps in the leaves

On Thursday, Rodriquez and her sister, Judy Skerl, now 50, went back with an Eagle reporter to 1243 S. Hydraulic. Skerl, whose name was Judy Clark then, had lived there.

It's now a vacant lot. Only driveway curbing, embossed with the year 1921, shows a house had been there.

The sisters walked through ankle-high weeds, crickets chirping around them.

In their minds, they could see the front porch and the window where Rodriquez had heard someone crunching in the flowerbed leaves one fall night in 1976. It had to have been a window peeper, she always thought. No one had a good reason to be there at night.

She was a cute 16-year-old with long brown hair. When she heard the footsteps just outside the window, she was alone. Her sister and Cheryl Gilmour Sarkozy, the owner of the house, had gone on a beer run.

Rodriquez froze when she heard the leaves crackle. Out of fear, she couldn't move. Her sister, Skerl, remembers finding her that way.

Sarkozy, now 55 and living in Florida, told The Eagle in February, just a couple of weeks before Rader's arrest, that police informed her in 1977 that Relford's killer had first come to her door. Because the killer remained at large, the newspaper didn't give Sarkozy's last name or where she lived. It was the first time she had talked with a reporter about her brush with the killer.

In interviews with police after his Feb. 25 arrest, Rader confirmed some of his actions that St. Patrick's Day in 1977.

He had put on dress shoes, nice slacks and a tweed coat and carried a briefcase. It was "broad daylight," he said, and he was posing as a private detective.

Sarkozy's home at 1243 S. Hydraulic ended up second on his hit list.

According to a court document, Rader told police Lt. Ken Landwehr that his first target was someone at 1207 Greenwood, the street just west of Hydraulic.

He had been stalking the neighborhood. He had used an alley between Hydraulic and Greenwood to hide and spy. He liked that the alley was dimly lit.

How he scouted

Back then, Rodriquez drove a light blue 1962 Rambler American and parked off the alley, which runs into the Dillons store parking lot at Hydraulic and Lincoln.

The women could see Thursday how the killer could have parked in the lot and watched both the Greenwood address and the women's house on Hydraulic.

Back in the parking lot or in the alley, he might go unnoticed. During the police interview, he said he drove straight to a parking lot the day of Relford's murder.

Rader told police that when no one came to the door at 1207 Greenwood, he remembered another "project" — his word for targeted victims — on the next street. It was Sarkozy. Rader told police interviewing him that he remembered her first name was Cheryl.

He called her "Blackout" — he had code words for the victims he stalked — because he followed her from a bar called A Blackout.

The bar, since demolished, had a reputation of being a wild hangout, and it was on 21st Street, a few blocks west of Wichita State University. Rader was an administration of justice student at WSU during the 1970s.

Sarkozy, Rodriquez and Skerl all went to that bar. They called themselves "the wild and crazy girls," their play on comedian Steve Martin's "wild and crazy guys," popularized on "Saturday Night Live."

Sarkozy said the idea that Rader had followed her made her feel "sick" inside —"a cold feeling."

March 17, 1977, was a Thursday. The local theaters were showing "Marathon Man," "Rocky" and "Network." KFDI was advertising its Country Music Spectacular for the next day, with Tammy Wynette, Ronnie Milsap and the Statler Brothers at Henry Levitt Arena; the top ticket price was $6.50.

That Thursday, after finding no one at Sarkozy's house, the killer went to Relford's house, at 1311 S. Hydraulic. He spotted her son outside on the sidewalk.

After tying up Relford and strangling her, Rader told police, he also intended to kill her three children. He had made them stay in a bathroom. But he left because the phone rang and he thought someone might be coming to the house.

According to the next day's front-page Eagle article about the homicide, the children described the killer as a "paunchy, heavily built white man in his late 30s or early 40s, with dark hair."

Relford's young son Steve showed police the house where he first saw the killer. It was Sarkozy's. She was a single mother with a small son, whom Rodriquez often baby-sat.

Her house was a party house, too, with a literally open-door policy. The young women didn't lock up. Over the years, they wondered whether the killer had wandered in during one of the parties.

'Become very aware'

As Rodriquez and Skerl reminisced in the vacant lot Thursday, they noted that the neighborhood seemed smaller, more quaint back then. "It was a mom-and-pop neighborhood," Skerl said. Wichita had 90,000 fewer people in 1977.

They also recalled how Relford's murder — and the knowledge that it could have been them — changed their lives.

Rodriquez started looking in her rearview mirror for someone following her. "You become very aware," she said.

They started locking doors and planning their schedules so that none of them was home alone. They eventually moved.

Almost a year after the Relford killing, on Feb. 14, 1978, Sarkozy gave police a suspicious-character report about a man who had come to their back door early that morning, looked in and asked for Denise. It was the name of a young woman who had stayed there. When Sarkozy told him Denise wasn't home and asked for his name, he walked away.

She reported hearing his car get stuck in the snow in the alley behind the house, then drive off.

According to the police report, the man was white, in his 20s, 5-foot-10 or 11, with a medium build, brown hair, a mustache and glasses. He was wearing a green Army jacket.

Asked about the report, police Detective Dana Gouge, one of the BTK task force investigators who focused on the Relford case, said he doubted that Rader would have returned to seek another victim in the same location. Rader was too careful for that.

But Rodriquez said that in her mind, Rader was the one who crunched in the leaves in late 1976 and who came to their back door in early 1978.

She realizes how different things could have been if any of the three women had been at Sarkozy's house that March day in 1977.

"It could have been any of us," instead of Relford.

Skerl also realizes how fateful her absence was that day.

"I told my kids, you wouldn't even have been here if I had gone home for lunch that day."

Skerl sees their experience as a caution for any woman — a lesson in the importance of knowing your neighbors and of being alert, wary.

Rodriquez reminds herself how lucky she was.

"What is the percentage of persons that have come close to something like this? I have already beat the odds."

Now Rader sits in the place where she helps secure some of the most dangerous people in the state. Still, she considers it one of the safest places because of all of the security measures.

For a while, at least, Rader will remain at her workplace — sleeping on a foam mat on a slab of concrete, eating every form of processed turkey, hearing heavy doors clang and latches pop open and shut, like all the other prisoners.

Rodriquez has been a prison officer there for 14 months, spending hour after hour around killers and rapists.

But she has an outlet, she said.

"I get to come home every day."

Rader never will.

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