Officer shaken by crime scenes

There are 247 names on the alphabetized witness list unsealed by a judge on Friday. The name Joseph R. Thomas is 218th from the top.

Joe Thomas said Friday that he didn't mind talking about what he witnessed, and what it did to him.

As he put it, "There are a jillion or so retired police officers on that list who are just tickled to death that they caught somebody for the BTK murders — and I'm one of them."

Thomas was a Wichita police sergeant who drew two grim duties: He was the scene supervisor at the house where four members of the Otero family were murdered in 1974, and at the house where Shirley Vian was strangled in 1977.

What that meant was that he was one of the first uniformed officers to show up after the first call and was in charge of keeping the evidence at the scene from being disturbed, including by other officers.

He had seen homicides before, but the Otero house disturbed him a good deal. On the telephone on Friday night, he tried to tell an Eagle reporter that looking inside the Otero house was more or less business as usual for a police officer. But his wife, Hanky, called out to interrupt him: "You were really upset when you got home."

"Yes, I was," Thomas said.

"I wanted to hunt that guy down and do him in myself."

He walked in the house only long enough to see each body.

He saw a little boy, strangled in his own bedroom. He saw an 11-year-old girl, hanging partially nude from the basement ceiling.

Thomas stayed in the basement only 30 seconds or so, to look it over, then walked back up and outside. He'd seen enough. He kept the place secure until detectives came and went to work.

Three years later, he did the same job at Shirley Vian's house. He saw a woman lying on her back on her bed, strangled. At the time, no one knew for sure that the same man who killed the Oteros had killed her. But Thomas remembers looking down at her and thinking it could be the same guy.

He retired that same year, 1977.

After the Otero killings in 1974, he changed a good deal about his life. He formed habits that stay with him to this day. When he enters his house, he always looks around, then checks the phone to see if it works.

He bought door props to keep doors secure from break-ins.

He takes one with him outside, early every dark morning, to pick up his Wichita Eagle newspaper. He looks around at home in the dark, a habit he developed not because he was scared, but because if BTK was stupid enough to try to mess with him, "I wanted to be ready to run that rascal down and tackle him good."

He's 75 now, with seven grandchildren. He grew up in Arkansas and spent 21 years serving the Wichita police.

He said his one regret is that there are a whole lot of police officers from his day who wanted to run BTK to the ground and catch him, but they died before the arrest came. On their behalf, he wants to sit back and watch the rest of the story come out.

"I'm tickled that it might come out," he said. "I'm sure those guys would feel the same way I do."