Judge unseals Rader filings

Less than 48 hours after The Eagle and five other news organizations asked a judge to open the court filings in the case of the man accused of being Wichita's BTK serial killer, Judge Greg Waller lifted the seals on almost all of the motions and orders in Dennis Rader's murder case.

One motion filed by Rader's defense lawyers remains closed, and another — the affidavit demonstrating the probable cause for why authorities became convinced Rader was BTK — remains sealed by court. Probable cause affidavits are also closed under state law.

But Waller's action Friday afternoon opened the remaining five filings in what many are calling the biggest criminal court case in Kansas history.

Rader is accused of all 10 murders authorities blame on BTK. After he waived his preliminary hearing April 19, Waller found that there was probable cause to believe Rader committed the crimes and that the case should proceed toward trial. Rader's arraignment is set for Tuesday.

Deputy District Attorney Kevin O'Connor said the documents were unsealed at the request of District Attorney Nola Foulston, adding that the unsealings mark a change in the way Foulston's office will deal with the Rader case.

"We were using an abundance of caution because attention to this case is unprecedented," O'Connor said. "Now we will look at whether it's required" before requesting a seal.

The opened documents include the financial affidavit Rader filled out Feb. 28, three days after he was arrested in Park City, where he worked as a compliance officer.

Rader's answers on his financial affidavit reflect a sense of humor. Where the form asks his job status, he marked the employed box and added "was;" and marked the unemployed box, adding "(probably now)."

He reported earning $2,150 a month as compliance officer and another $193 in a monthly pension. He reported a $45,000 mortgage and listed three vehicles: a 1993 Ford Tempo, a 1991 Ford F-150 pickup and a 2001 Pontiac Montana minivan.

Another unsealed document is the prosecution's witness list with 247 names on it — including that of Don Granger, a longtime Eagle reporter, editor and columnist who died in 1995 at the age of 79.

Granger received a phone call in October 1974 telling him he could find a letter in a book in the Wichita Public Library. He called police, who retrieved the letter, which was the first link between BTK and the murders of Joseph and Julie Otero and their two youngest children on Jan. 15, 1974.

Another Eagle employee on the list, reporter Hurst Laviana, received the March 2004 letter that marked BTK's resurfacing after 25 years of silence.

Also on the witness list are Charlie and Daniel Otero, who came home from school on that January day to find their parents and two youngest siblings slain; Steve Relford, who as a boy in 1977 open the door to the man who killed his mother at their home; numerous former Wichita Police Department detectives, and several current law-enforcement officers.

A motion asking the judge "to determine the Public Defenders conflict of interest" was also opened. The document does not spell out what the alleged conflict is, and chief defender Steve Osburn could not be reached for comment.

Two other motions address mail. One asks that Rader's incoming and outgoing mail be screened for threats and plans of escape; the other asks that all mail sent to Rader from the media be delivered to Osburn.

O'Connor said Foulston decided to review the sealings after Rader's April 19 preliminary hearing.

During the preliminary hearing, the prosecution must prove it has enough evidence for a trial. But Rader waived his right to a preliminary hearing, and no details of the prosecution's case were revealed.

"A lot of information would have been put on," O'Connor said, and it seemed like a natural point to review the seals.

"We planned to review the necessity of the sealings no matter what happened," he said. However, the witness list was ordered sealed — as requested by Assistant District Attorney Kim Parker — after Rader waived his preliminary hearing.

O'Connor said attorneys from the defense and the prosecution met after the hearing and discussed the seals. To remove a seal, O'Connor said, both sets of attorneys must agree.

Waller's action on Friday followed a request two days earlier by The Eagle and five other news organizations to remove seven seals on motions and orders in the Rader case.

Motions requesting the unsealings were filed Wednesday afternoon in Sedgwick County District Court by The Eagle, KWCH, KAKE, KSNW, the Associated Press and the Kansas Press Association.

O'Connor said the news organizations' filings were not related to the district attorney's action on Friday.

"This had nothing to do with the media filing," he said.

"We were already in the process of considering the unsealings."

Wichita First Amendment lawyer Lyndon Vix, who represents The Eagle and filed the motion to unseal the documents, wouldn't speculate on why the district attorney lifted the seals, but said he was pleased.

"I'm just glad that they did it," Vix said. "Whether it was our motion or completely on their own, good for them."

Vix said the news organizations will continue to seek action on their motion.

"I will ask that a hearing be set on the remaining part of our motion that was not voluntarily granted," Vix said.

While probable cause affidavits are closed by state law, they can be made public if the judge orders it, Vix said. Both that affidavit and the document that was sealed after a request written by the public defender's office should be open, he said.

"There is no danger of influencing the community if they are opened up to the public," he said.

Mike Kautsch, a professor of law and director of the Media, Law and Policy Program at the University of Kansas Law School, said he applauded the decision to open the court documents.

"The act of making those orders public allows us all to see what was considered sensitive at some point, and now we can all make up our minds as to whether that was the right decision," Kautsch said.

When told what had been unsealed, Kautsch said "it doesn't sound like the kind of information that would cause prejudice" to a defendant's right to a fair trial.

"What normally qualifies as evidence that needs to be withheld from the press and public is very sensitive — such as a confession, or some extremely inflammatory kind of evidence," he said.

Kautsch called the unsealing "a hopeful sign that the court is reassessing the need for secrecy."