We prefer our killers stupid and sloppy, like the Carr brothers — caught within hours.
BTK plays by other rules.
He's no bungling thug. BTK is quick-witted, organized, smart, free... and now he's back.
But who is this man thought to have killed eight people, terrorizing us 25 years ago and dropping back into our lives last week?
Digital Access For Only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
In the everyday life he's living (and he's probably living it among us), he might not only blend in, he might be easy to like. Your friend. Your neighbor. The lawyer guy. The firefighter across the street. The teacher. The Boeing guy with a union card and Wichita roots.
Some old hands like former police investigator Mike McKenna think he's a loner, but that doesn't mean he acts like a nut or talks to no one, or can't tell a good story from a bar stool.
He is "a yellow-bellied snake of a coward of a creature," as the old sheriff Vern Miller called him Thursday.
But he's free, in part because he arranges his everyday life as carefully as he lays his secret plans.
He probably looks like... us.
So let's look at him.
BTK has shown us traces of a personality, faint but discernible. We can see these traces in his acts and words.
For the victims, for the police and for ourselves, we need to study the faint portrait that BTK's notes and murders provide us. BTK wants to inspire fear; let him inspire us to effort.
This is BTK's faintly etched self-portrait, based not only on yellowing newspaper clips and police news conferences, but on the notes BTK sent, and the carefully tied knots he left wrapped around the ankles and wrists and throats of the souls he killed.
BTK knows he's smart. He flaunts it. He probably flaunts it in everyday life, too. In the density of detail he typed out about the Otero murder, the reader can see his ego
"Those... you have in custody are just talking to get publicity," BTK wrote to The Eagle in 1974. "I did it by myself and with no ones help. There has been no talk either. Let's put it straight..."
BTK is depraved.
"I always suspected that he took pictures, and that he possibly made tape recordings of his kills," said McKenna, a former Wichita police investigator who now is police chief in Baldwin City. "From what I hear now about this latest message, that it includes photographs, we know now that he did take pictures. I think he probably made recordings, too. He'd be able to play them back, relive the excitement of the kill."
His depravity went beyond pictures.
Keith Sanborn, now 81, served as the Sedgwick County district attorney in 1974, when BTK bound, gagged and strangled the four Oteros.
It was the first BTK killing, though no one knew it at the time. Within hours of the murders, Sanborn walked into the Otero house.
"I wish I could wipe the memory clean," he said Thursday. "It looked depraved. There was a disrespecting of the dead people. I don't think we wanted some of the details of that disclosed, to head off false confessions, but there were several things done.
"It was bad. It hurt everyone involved emotionally. I've never been able to shake the memory of it."
No arrest ever came of it, because the killer prepared for and performed his work with thought and care. The police drawings of the crime scene showed detailed, careful work. Cords. Ropes. Hoods.
In crime, and probably in real life, BTK displays a wry sense of humor, though like Hitler, he seems to prefer the taunting humor that belittles others' weaknesses, ignorances or wounds. He probably shows flashes of the same kind of humor in everyday life. Wry, critical of others, critical of authority.
He wrote poems about his victims.
He sent messages years ago, complaining that California's "Zodiac Killer" seemed to be getting more publicity than BTK, McKenna said.
In the note he sent the community after the Otero murders, BTK wrote a detailed description of the crime scene, noting that Mr. Otero's wristwatch was missing: "I needed one so I took it," he wrote. "Runs good."
In his Otero note, he tends to be short of sentence, but long-winded. Like people in everyday life who equate braininess with overwriting, he buries his readers in detail. The Otero note goes on and on.
But it also shows a careful observer: minute description beyond the desire or memory of most people. He might even have taken notes over the bodies. He painstakingly describes body positions, items and colors of clothing, types of ropes and gags and cords and hoods employed for each victim.
He made spelling errors, typing mistakes and worded sentences awkwardly , but might be faking those.
"It was almost like English wasn't his first language," said Ken Stephens, a former Eagle reporter who covered BTK for years. "But I suspect nearly every clue he's ever given involves misdirection."
Stephens, now with the Dallas Morning News, is a thorough reporter; he still has his BTK notes, though he left The Eagle 19 years ago. He dug them out Friday, and e-mailed some details. After the Otero murder, BTK wrote that long note, stuck it in a book at the Wichita library, and called Don Granger, an editorial board member at The Eagle, to tell him where to find it. Stephens interviewed Granger later.
The caller did not identify himself as BTK. He said "Listen and listen good, I'm only gonna say this once," Granger said. He then said there was a letter about the Otero case in a book in the public library. He identified the book, possibly by number. Granger then called the police and they went and got it. Granger never saw or touched the letter. Granger recalls the voice as being "hard and aggressive." No accent. Definitely Midwestern U.S. Seemed to be 25 to 35, also seemed to be someone "who seemed to be used to giving orders. Not someone who wanted to give orders. Someone who was used to giving orders."
BTK likes to stir things up.
He did so in 1978, when he sent notes revealing that the Otero murders and three others were linked. An Eagle reporter, Casey Scott, covered the news conference revealing, for the first time, that Wichita harbored a serial killer of at least seven people.
"The whole town was talking about it, every barber shop and beauty shop, gossiping about it for years," said Scott, now assistant athletic director at Kansas State. "People talked about it endlessly, speculating, wondering whether the cops had bungled the first investigation on the Oteros, wondering if they'd done a good job. It was the source of endless debate."
BTK seemed to like this, Scott said.
He stirred up Wichita again Thursday.
"I went to a gathering this morning, a board meeting of the Parallax Drug Treatment Center," Miller said Thursday. "Every woman there felt terrified; every man was furious, and wanted to hunt the yellow coward down."
Miller was Kansas attorney general when BTK first killed, then served as Sedgwick County district attorney from 1977 to 1981. He never worked directly on a BTK case, but remembers how the state talked about it.
"Now everyone feels frightened again," he said. "I talked to an old friend last night, and I'm sure he said what a lot of people think. He said, "Vern, tonight the gun lies beside the bed.' "
Stephens, from his notes, reminds us that several people saw BTK. From a police interview Stephens did on July 16, 1979, he heard that a female postal clerk actually talked to BTK when he came in at 4 a.m. on June 16 that year to mail one of his communiques, this one to KAKE-TV.
"A female postal clerk happened to open a door and a man was standing there. He said 'put this in the KAKE box' and handed the envelope to her. She didn't think much about it.
"Later, she described him as about 30 years old, about 5 feet nine inches tall, white. He was wearing a blue jean jacket, jeans and gloves (in June!) He was clean shaven, with hair cropped short above the ears. He had a gap between his front teeth."
BTK is disciplined.
For example, evidence he left behind shows that BTK's murders involved sexual overtones. In most serial killers, the sexual element compels the criminal to take risks, dispensing sometimes with careful planning. Not BTK.
"He is either quite smart with a great deal of self -control, or he's one of luckiest individuals on the face of the planet," said Bill Hirschman, an Eagle police and investigative reporter until 1994, who studied BTK for years.
It's not luck, Hirschman said.
"He has yet to make a bush league mistake. He plans. He stalks."
In the Otero note, BTK mentions "putting victim's number down, follow them, checking up on them, waiting in the dark, waiting, waiting..."
BTK waits intelligently, Hirschman said.
"He can go months or years without rising into the radar."
BTK has an ego.
"Arrogance, self-confidence, a superiority complex," said Stephens, when asked what he recalls about BTK's letters.
"You could tell he felt safe."
He obviously thinks he's more intelligent than the police, Hirschman said. "Why else would he rise out of his rabbit hole, send letters?
"He's looking for recognition. And there's careful planning in that, too. Some of the things he did, he did on the anniversaries of his killings. I suspect if we figured the whole thing out, we'd find a reason for every single thing he ever did."
"Experts" on BTK have said a number of things about him. Some seem to think he's smart and highly educated; some said he's not smart, not highly educated. These contradictions probably amuse BTK.
"Some people have speculated that he's a weirdo, and probably appears a weirdo in everyday life," Stephens said.
"But I'm not sure about that. He's good at this, and again, it could be misdirection."
Others, including McKenna, have speculated that he's a loner. But if so, that doesn't mean he always keeps to himself. Some loners interact easily with people when they choose.
Consider these words, from a Feb. 11, 1978, clipping from The Eagle. It concerns the death of BTK victim Shirley R. Vian.
Her children told police that they had been held captive in the bathroom while a man the children said they didn't know attacked their mother.
Vian's 6-year-old son was sent to a grocery store twice that morning on orders of his mother, who said she wasn't feeling well, police said.
On returning from his second trip about 11:45 a.m., the boy was stopped near his house by a stranger, who shows him a picture of a child and woman and asked him if he recognized them.
The boy told police that he had said no, but later the same man came to the door of Vian's home. He had a gun in one hand and a bowling bag or small suitcase in the other, the children told police.
"Don't hurt us," Mrs. Vian said to the man, according to what the children told police.
"I'm not going to," the man replied, then started to tie up Mrs. Vian's 8-year-old son.
He's capable of mistakes.
"He left several living witnesses," Stephens said. "Vian's children, for example. (Kathryn) Bright's brother, though BTK shot him in the head. And he made a phone call, which was recorded. He's come close to getting caught."
He made one mistake that looms larger in his imagination now, no doubt. He left his DNA at several crime scenes. In the 1970s, when he killed most of his victims, most people hadn't a clue what DNA was. Now there are entire television shows devoted to how police and forensic scientists use it to identify killers.
Even with his mistakes, he can ad-lib a crime in progress, think on his feet. When BTK broke into Kathryn Bright's home and hid in the closet on April 4, 1974, he probably didn't think she'd come home with her brother, and that the brother would fight heroically.
But here's how BTK reacted, from a story published in the Eagle on Feb. 12, 1978:
According to a report given to police by Kevin Bright, the man told them he wouldn't hurt them, but needed money and their car for a trip to New York. He said he was wanted by police in California.
The man forced Bright to tie his sister to a chair, then took Bright to another room, where he was tied and gagged, police said.
The man left the room and rummaged through the house for several minutes, Bright told police. The man returned to the room where Bright was tied, and began strangling him with a rope. Bright told police he struggled and got his hands free. The man then shot Bright in the forehead.
The killer returned to the living room, where Miss Bright was tied, police said. Bright told police he heard his sister say 'What have you done to my brother?'
The man returned to the room where Bright was tied, and began strangling Bright a second time. Bright said he again struggled. The man shot him again, with the second bullet hitting him in the face just above the mouth. Bright said he feigned death, and remembered hearing his sister moaning from the next room.
Bright said he was able to escape through a side door and flag down a passing motorist.
Police found Miss Bright with three stab wounds to the abdomen....
The overriding trait Stephens remembers of BTK is arrogance tempered by extraordinary planning.
"He never revealed his writing; everything was typed and Xeroxed or written with letter block stamps or something like that. Every crime he did was carefully scouted out. He'd pick a victim, follow them, figure out when they'd be coming home, get in while they were out, and wait for them."
He likes mystery.
Among the mysteries: Where has he been since 1979? The sender of the latest message is definitely BTK, police say. The last known contact before that occurred in 1979.
"The common assumption would be that he's been in prison, or maybe living somewhere else, doing the same thing perhaps," Stephens said.
"I don't know about that. He could have been living in town the whole time."
McKenna thinks that's what BTK did... lived among us all these years.
"But whoever he is, whatever he's done, he's not made the right mistakes yet," McKenna said.
BTK will never give us good clues, Stephens said. But while we worry, BTK worries too, just a little bit.
"He does not want to get caught," Stephens said. "He does not want to get dragged into court, to have his identity revealed, to have his idiosyncrasies exposed, examined and ridiculed."