About 10 years ago, a young Wichita police lieutenant named Doug Nolte worked a child drowning case and was waiting in the hospital room when the homicide unit commander, Lt. Ken Landwehr, walked in and strode to the child’s bedside. The boy was about 5 years old.
Everybody knew it was a simple drowning; Landwehr was there because all unattended child deaths must be looked at, if only briefly, by homicide investigators.
Nolte knew Landwehr was a stellar investigator, but he saw something in the next moment that will stick in his mind always. It tells who Landwehr has been to Wichita in the past 35 years, and who dead people always were to him, even after he worked hundreds of brutal crime scenes.
Landwehr reached out to the body, put a warm hand on the child’s head and said something quiet, quick and solemn. It could have been a prayer; Nolte didn’t ask.
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Landwehr turned to him. “Touch him,” Landwehr ordered. “You got to touch him.”
In those brief two or three seconds, Landwehr taught Nolte that a dead body is no mere object. Landwehr believed that a body is a tragedy, and a person, a person deserving dignity, kindness – and justice.
In hallways in City Hall where police commanders and officers work, notices were taped to walls last week that brought people up short. As retirement announcements go, this one is historic.
Lt. Ken Landwehr of the Wichita Police Department, profane, witty and by all accounts a stellar investigator, will retire March 12 after 35 years, the last 20 of them as the homicide unit commander. He’ll play golf and spend time with his wife, Cindy, and son, James, now 15. Landwehr doesn’t value highly the awards and praise he earned in that time, Cindy said, but he’s proud that he helps James with his homework.
He oversaw the solving of hundreds of Wichita murders since 1992, some of them nationally known. The Carr brothers murders, for example. The BTK serial killer case.
Landwehr was not talking to the media last week, but talked extensively with The Eagle several years ago: There are multiple published books about his work, including “Bind, Torture, Kill, the Inside Story of BTK, The Serial Killer Next Door.” In that story, written by The Wichita Eagle staff with his cooperation, and published in 2007 by HarperCollins, Landwehr and his friends and family told the story of his life and how the task force he commanded solved the BTK serial killer case.
We’ve all seen Landwehr on television, describing murders in news conferences in a flat, monosyllabic voice. But in that book, fellow detectives and civilians like his wife and his mother, Irene, described not only how Landwehr solved cases but how badly police work sometimes tore at his soul. He hated murder, they said. He hated injustice, and transformed that passion into brilliant work.
A turning point
Landwehr grew up a west Wichita boy, an Eagle Scout and high school debate champion who revered his mother and father but got into occasional fights, pulled practical jokes on nuns in Catholic school, drank to excess as a teen, and discovered mystery novels. He liked best the Arthur Conan Doyle novels about a genius detective named Sherlock Holmes.
Landwehr was only 20, playing foosball and drinking beer at the Old English Pub, around the time four members of the Otero family were tortured and murdered in January 1974.
He majored in history at Wichita State University, thought about applying to the FBI, and worked as a clerk at Beutel’s Clothing Co. in north Wichita. In 1977 Landwehr and several Beutel’s customers were hog-tied by armed robbers; a robber, standing over Landwehr, picked up the store owner’s pistol and worked the slide, putting a bullet in the gun chamber.
The robbers left him and the others alive, but shaken. This was a turning point in his life. Landwehr applied to become a police officer.
Officer Landwehr was injured in 1979 when a burglary suspect slammed a door on his arm and the broken glass slashed his wrist. Landwehr, bleeding profusely, took off his necktie and tied a tourniquet.
One night, hearing a scream, Landwehr found that a truck had backed over a little girl as the girl and her brother tried to cross the street, hand in hand. His mother, Irene, said Landwehr never got over calls like that, that they distressed and depressed him. To cope, he told jokes, played golf and drank. Sometimes, after knocking back a few, he’d open the doors on his third-story apartment and drive golf balls into the night air, sometimes splashing them into the apartment complex swimming pool.
In the mid-1980s, Chief Richard LaMunyon, determined to find the mystery killer who had murdered the Oteros and other people years before, and who had sent taunting messages to the media and the police calling himself “BTK,” appointed a task force, with Officer Landwehr on it. They spent years working night and day.
They filled file cabinet drawers with leads, tips, documents and clues. Over two more decades, after nearly everyone else lost interest or assumed that BTK was dead, Landwehr preserved that information, including body fluids BTK left at the scene of the 1974 Otero murders.
By 1986 he became a detective; in 1987 he was assigned to homicide. He worked the murders of three members of the Fager family, and helped put together what the police were sure was a slam-dunk case against William T. Butterworth. Landwehr was devastated when a jury acquitted Butterworth; to this day, he says they let a murderer go free.
A few months later a woman named Cindy Hughes walked into a bar and saw a man sitting on a bar stool, drunk and angry, complaining about the Butterworth case. He fell off the stool, too drunk to regain his seat unassisted. It was Landwehr.
It was not love at first sight, but Hughes later married him. He would later say that she steadied him, including during all the hundreds of bloody homicides to come. With her teasing and consoling him, he tapered off the partying and talked through his troubled emotions with her.
Landwehr took over the homicide unit in 1992. Most homicide commanders in most cities last no more than three or four years; Landwehr lasted 20. In his first year, there were 57 homicides in Wichita, a record; he had a hand in all of the investigations. He could easily have won promotion past lieutenant but never applied; he detested desk work.
His detectives said he has an ingenious mind, an encyclopedic knowledge of forensics and ruthless common sense.
In late 2000 Landwehr and his detectives worked with little sleep for a week after four murdered bodies were found in a house at 1144 N. Erie. They made an arrest within days. Eight days after the murders, as they went home exhausted after midnight, Landwehr and the detectives were called to an icy soccer field in east Wichita, where four more bodies were found.
Police and his detectives made two arrests within hours: Reginald and Jonathan Carr were found guilty of all four murders. It was a death penalty case, requiring immense amounts of sophisticated work to get past a jury. After the convictions in 2002, Landwehr admirers considered this his most stellar performance.
But in 2004, after BTK resurfaced after 25 years (by mailing to The Eagle three Polaroids of a woman murdered in 1986), Landwehr and Chief Norman Williams formed a task force that included more than 50 officers, including a core group of detectives, Kelly Otis, Dana Gouge, Tim Relph and Clint Snyder. Otis said investigators lived mostly without sleep over the next 11 months, DNA-swabbing suspects and chasing thousands of leads.
Had they failed, it might have ended Landwehr’s career. Once, after Landwehr’s team heard that a city official suggested Landwehr be replaced (a suggestion Williams rebuffed), Landwehr’s team got angry. Landwehr said to ignore it, but cracked a joke. He could take care of complainers, he said. “I can make anything look like a suicide.”
The team planned to manipulate BTK in phony news conferences. Landwehr later said it was the FBI’s idea. But Landwehr’s detectives said this showed Landwehr’s contempt for taking credit. Landwehr had already devised this strategy and described it to some of them 20 years before.
During many realistic-looking news conferences in 2004 and 2005, Landwehr played on BTK’s considerable ego. Landwehr made announcements to assembled reporters to subtly flatter BTK, encouraging him to send messages. The more that BTK sent messages, Landwehr reasoned, the more BTK would risk a mistake.
In early 2005, Landwehr posted a small, coded message to BTK in a newspaper classified ad. BTK sent him a computer disk that BTK thought was trace-proof.
But Randy Stone, an investigator skilled in computer work, showed, only minutes after Gouge and Otis brought in the disk, that BTK was Dennis Rader, a Park City dog catcher, a Boy Scout parent, and a father of two who on Sundays served as president of his church congregation. Landwehr spent the next few days plotting an elaborate arrest and interrogation.
It worked. Chief Williams announced on national television that “BTK is arrested.” Rader pleaded guilty.
BTK went to prison. Books were written. TV documentaries are still being produced to this day, by camera crews calling requesting interviews from Britain and Canada.
Landwehr went home, to Cindy and James.