Answering BTK: Let's manage our fears

As Wichita woke up last week to the news of BTK's re-emergence, a war over our peace of mind began. Jada Campbell, brushing her hair and listening closely to radio reports, kept nervously peeking out of her bathroom and down the hallway of her apartment, unsure whether she'd actually heard anything.

Fear had set in.

One of her friends had asked if she could spend the night because she was too afraid to go home to an empty house.

When Jada arrived at work, she and the other waitresses and lunch-hour customers at Heroes Sports Bar found themselves shaken by the news.

BTK, a killer linked to seven murders in the 1970s and one in 1986, may have won the first round.

Most terrorists do.

They puncture our calm and tap into our most fragile vulnerabilities. They use our imaginations to turn shadows and doubt into terrifying marionettes.

That's the battle many now face.

It has been roughly 30 years since a serial killer called BTK — for Bind, Torture and Kill — began stalking Wichita.

The killer has claimed responsibility for an eighth slaying in a letter The Eagle received March 19. The letter suggests that he was responsible for the Sept. 16, 1986, strangulation death of Vicki Wegerle, who was found dead in her west-side home.

The crime was never solved.

For those of you who didn't live here then, you may have trouble understanding how a letter about a nearly 18-year-old murder could leave your new neighbors so shaken.

The Wichita of the past couple of decades has had street gangs, drug trade and quadruple homicides. But those of us who've been around longer remember streets so safe that it wasn't always necessary to lock your door.

BTK became our dividing line between those eras.

Once again, people running businesses with night staffs have revisited security procedures or instituted them.

Mothers are calling daughters who don't live at home and asking them to please call and let Mom know they got home OK.

Husbands are bolting their families behind doors or hiding shotguns under beds.

"There's a lot of concern," said Irene Armstrong, past president of the Southwest Neighborhood Association. "But we all have to keep on living."

For people like 20-year-old Jada, who isn't old enough to remember the aftermath of the murders, the killer's re-emergence has them on edge.

And it doesn't seem to matter that all of this happened more than a quarter-century ago.

What's left has the texture of a terrorist attack, a feeling of being cruelly pushed and manipulated out of a comfortable orbit.

That's probably why he contacted The Eagle and sent horrific photos of the 1986 crime scene.

The killer wants us again to move directly to our telephones when we get home and press them to our ears, listening for a dial tone. He was known to clip phone wires and then hide inside his victims' homes.

He wants us clenching cell phones with 911 already dialed, thumb on the send button.

The killer wins when we tip-toe around at fear's heel. As difficult as it may be, we must not allow him the satisfaction.

We have to respond the way many Wichitans already have: by phoning in nearly 300 tips to the BTK hotline (263-0138) since Wednesday night and by trying to remain calm.

"I don't think the whole city should shut down in fear," said a young woman who works late downtown and who didn't want her name used. "We just need be a little more careful."

Whether or not instilling terrorist fear is the killer's intent, we still have to respond as if it were.

That means matching his resolve to frighten us with our own resolve to manage our fear.

And not let it control our lives.