It was a routine followed by thousands of Wichita women in the late 1970s:
Upon arriving home, check the phone immediately.
If the line is dead, get out.
“I don’t think people today realize the kind of tension there was in Wichita at that time,” said lawyer Robert Beattie, who was a West High School student at the time.
“There was a lot of anxiety and fear,” recalled Al Thimmesch, a retired Wichita police official. “Of course, a serial killer will do that.”
It was 30 years ago this month that a killer calling himself the BTK strangler murdered the first four of his seven victims. The four — all members of the Joseph Otero family — were strangled in a small, one-story house at 803 N. Edgemoor.
After three decades, the case remains active and unsolved. And Beattie, who teaches a criminal justice course at Friends University, has cut back his law practice and is researching a book about the man considered by many police officers as the city’s most notorious killer.
What made the case frighteningly different for city residents was the fact that the killer sent several taunting letters about the crimes to local media. He cut the phone lines of his victims before killing them, and he took souvenirs from the crime scenes — a pocket watch from one, a driver’s license from another.
Beattie has interviewed dozens of retired police officers and witnesses, and he hopes to have a draft of the book done by the end of the year.
“It’s a people story,” he said. “It’s also a little mini-history of the last 30 years — not only of Wichita but many of its institutions.”
Beattie, who likes to base his course work on real criminal cases, plans to structure his entire next class on the BTK killings. In coming weeks he will try to track down people who held elected office at the time of the killings.
“This was a big budget item that ultimately did not prove to be fruitful,” he said.
The first BTK victims were discovered on the afternoon of Jan. 15, 1974, when 15-year-old Charlie Otero came home from school and found the bodies of his father, Joseph, his mother, Julie, his 8-year-old sister, Josephine, and his 11-year-old brother, Joseph II. All had been bound, gagged and strangled.
Police think the second killing occurred on April 4, 1974, when Kathryn Bright, 21, was stabbed three times in her home at 3217 E. 13th St. After that, there was nearly a three-year lull.
The killing resumed on March 17, 1977, when Shirley Vian, 24, was bound and strangled in her house at 1311 S. Hydraulic.
The last victim, Nancy J. Fox, 25, was bound and strangled in her home at 843 S. Pershing on Dec. 8, 1977.
The last confirmed BTK contact occurred on April 28, 1979, when he broke into a home in the 600 block of South Pinecrest and waited for a female homeowner to arrive. He eventually got tired of waiting and left, but later sent her a note that told the woman of his plans to kill her.
In his first letter to The Wichita Eagle and Beacon, the killer dubbed himself the BTK strangler because he liked to bind, torture and kill his victims.
A difficult investigation
Over the years, police have invested more than 100,000 hours on the case, using everything from DNA testing to psychological profiles.
Although the killings remain firmly implanted in the minds of those who lived through them, Beattie said many Wichitans probably have never heard of BTK.
He said he used the BTK case during a segment of his class last year and was surprised at the reaction.
“I had zero recognition from the students,” he said. “Not one of them had heard of it.”
He said he decided to write the book to document a significant chapter in the city’s history. He also said the book might prompt someone to offer information that could help solve the case.
“I’m hoping someone will read the book and come forward with some information — a driver’s license, a watch, some car keys,” he said. “If he (BTK) has died, maybe some family members who has those items will realize their significance.”
Beattie has talked with dozens of police officers, including a detective who spent the night in the Otero home on Jan. 15, 1974.
“He was hoping the killer would come back by, so he stayed there,” Beattie said. “But it turned out to be a parade. Everybody in Wichita drove by the house that night.”
Thimmesch, who was a detective on the day of the Otero killings and was promoted in time to supervise the investigation of the final BTK homicides, said investigators don’t know why the killings stopped.
“There are three things that could have happened,” he said. “He could have moved to a different area, he could be incarcerated for something totally unrelated to BTK, or he could be dead.
“It’s highly unlikely with the motivation he had, that he was able to correct himself.... Witness reports have him as being a fairly young individual, so he probably didn’t die of old age.”
Using new technology
Lt. Ken Landwehr, who oversees homicide investigations for Wichita police, was a Wichita State University student at the time of the Otero killings. He was one of six detectives assigned to work full time on the BTK case when it was reopened in 1984. Landwehr spent more than three years working on the case full time and has been trying to identify the killer for 20 years.
In the late 1980s, DNA testing was conducted on semen found at the Otero house, but detectives were never able to find a match.
A small sample of the semen remains, Landwehr said, and is stored at the Sedgwick County Forensic Science Center. He said he hopes to be able to develop a new DNA profile using today’s more sophisticated techniques and run the profile through the FBI’s national DNA database.
“It’s an interesting case,” Landwehr said. “We’d definitely like to solve it.”
Beattie said he expects his book to draw the attention of a lot of people who remember the killings.
“I’m sure we will be contacted by both crackpots and well-meaning people who have little to contribute,” he said. “But I do not think we’ll be contacted by BTK.”