April 12, 2004

Cold-case murders eyed for BTK link

Wichita police's stunning announcement last month that the unsolved 1986 slaying of a Wichita woman is linked to the BTK serial killer has opened the possibility that other cold cases may also be part of his string of murders.

Until three weeks ago, police didn't know who strangled Vicki Wegerle, who was found dead in her home at 2404 W. 13th on Sept. 16, 1986.

Based on a letter sent to The Wichita Eagle, police now think BTK killed her. The single sheet of paper contained a photocopy of Wegerle's driver's license and three pictures of her body, with her clothing arranged differently in each picture.

Wichita police won't comment on the BTK investigation, but officials have said it will include a review of all unsolved slayings of women since 1974. They won't identify specific cases they are looking at.

For Bernita Autry, the resurfacing of BTK reopens questionsabout the death of her best friend in 1974. Sherry Baker was 23 when she was gagged with a pair of panties, tied up with a telephone cord and stabbed more than 70 times.

No charges were filed, and police insist the case is not connected to any other Wichita homicides.

Autry has another theory.

"Her killer is probably BTK," she said. "I'm not crazy. I have a gut feeling. I had this feeling all these years."

Baker's death is one of 15 unsolved cases with one or more similarities to the BTK killings that The Eagle found in a search of past stories and other records from 1974 to the present.

Police say the killer — who took his name because he liked to bind, torture and kill his victims — claimed eight murders in the 1970s and 1980s.

They have received more than 1,000 leads on a BTK tip line in the past couple of weeks. And they have been collecting saliva samples from suspects in an effort to eliminate them through DNA testing.

When detectives investigate a "cold" homicide case, they re-examine the evidence and read all reports. Then they try to track down witnesses and re-interview them. A typical cold-case assignment might last two weeks — more if there are additional leads to be followed.

DNA testing can be done if a cold case has hair, blood or other evidence containing DNA. Fingerprints can be run through a national fingerprint database.

In some of the unsolved cases, police strongly suspected someone other than BTK but could never prove it. This was the situation in the Wegerle case. The letter from BTK has caused police to at least question those previous suspicions.

Wichita lawyer Bob Beattie, who is working on a book about BTK, said he's been taking a hard look at some unsolved homicides during his research.

He said he has questions about three cases in particular. Two victims — Baker and Linda Shawn Casey — were students at Wichita State University. Police said a copy of a BTK letter came from a copying machine at the university. And Tina Frederick 1999 murder occurred a few blocks from the home of Shirley Vian, one of the original BTK victims.

Beattie said it's also possible that BTK might have shot or stabbed someone to death in order to keep them from telling police something that might lead to his arrest.

He noted that BTK stabbed one of his victims — Kathryn Bright — when his plans to strangle her were interrupted by her brother. Beattie said there could be other cases where BTK's plans went awry and he was forced to kill with a knife or gun.

Retired Wichita police Lt. Mike McKenna, who oversaw homicide investigations during the mid-1980s, said detectives always had BTK on their minds.

"Any time you had a crime scene that looked like it had the markings of the known BTK murders, you couldn't discount the possibility," he said. "The BTK murders were something that you measured your homicides by."

McKenna said he doesn't recall any specific cases that had all the earmarks of a BTK killing. But he said he couldn't rule out the possibility that one may surface some day.

"With this latest revelation of his, I wouldn't say for certainty that there aren't any more bodies out there," he said.

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