BTK

Startup paper was first to tell public of BTK

The first public glimpse into the mind of the BTK serial killer did not come from the police or any of the city's major media outlets.

It was provided in 1974 by a new weekly newspaper called the Wichita Sun.

Created by KAKE founder and general manager Martin Umansky as an alternative to the morning Wichita Eagle and the afternoon Beacon, the Sun was only two months old when, on Dec. 11, 1974, it reported that the person who killed four members of the Joseph Otero family in January had written a letter to police detailing the crimes and describing a "monster" in his brain that compelled him to kill.

"It was the first real connection between BTK and the Otero murders," said Randy Brown, former editorial editor for The Eagle, who wrote for the Sun at the time.

A Sun reporter, Cathy Henkel, received a copy of the letter from a source she wouldn't identify, and she wrote the story. It appeared nearly 11 months after the Otero killings.

"I felt at that time, and still do, that the public had a right to know this guy was still out there and stalking his victims," Henkel said. "It seemed urgent that people know. I still feel that way today."

The letter first surfaced in October 1974 when Eagle employee Don Granger received a phone call telling him he could find the letter in a book in the Wichita Public Library. He called police, who retrieved the letter.

The letter remained a secret until the Sun printed portions of it in only the 10th issue of the paper's existence.

"I can't stop it so the monster goes on and hurts me as well as society.... "a portion of the letter said. "It's a big complicated game my friend the monster play, putting victims number down, follow them, checking up on them, waiting in the dark, waiting, waiting.... "

Thirty years later, Henkel, currently the sports editor at the Seattle Times, still won't identify the person who gave her the letter.

"Like a good journalist, we never revealed how we got it, and wouldn't now," she said.

"The only thing the police asked me when I told them I received the letter was if there was any possibility I could've gotten it from the killer," she said. "I said, 'No possibility.' "

Henkel said she spent several days working on the story. She also asked experts on psychology about the effects that printing the letter might have on the killer.

"The advice I got was that the killer needed that kind of exposure or he would kill again," Henkel said. "That seemed to fit with logic and everything else."

The last person she interviewed for the story was Wichita Police Chief Floyd Hannon.

"As soon as I mentioned the letter," Henkel said, "he picked up a phone and called a meeting and said, 'We're done, right?' "

The day after the story ran, Hannon held a news conference to confirm the letter's existence and the likelihood that the author either was in the Otero house at the time of the killings, or was familiar with the killer and had been told about the murders in great depth.

He also said the letter contained details that not even the police knew.

A week later, the Sun printed a follow-up story about the lack of leads from a police telephone hotline that had been set up to take tips from the public. Then it wrote no more about the case, which by then had dried up.

It would be four years until BTK wrote again. The Eagle received a poem on Jan. 31, 1978, that the killer had written on an index card. It referred to the slaying of Shirley Vian.

A month later, KAKE received a letter claiming responsibility for the deaths of Vian, Nancy Fox and another unnamed victim.

By then, Henkel had left Wichita for the Eugene (Ore.) Register-Guard, where she worked for 10 years before joining the Times.

"It's something I was obsessed with for a short time," she said, "but then I left town."

Henkel said she has continued to follow the case from Seattle. When Times reporters were investigating the Green River killings in the Northwest, they studied the BTK case, she said.

The Sun also was gone by the time BTK wrote again. Problems with circulation and lack of advertising revenue helped doom the paper. It stopped publishing after 2 ½ years and 125 issues.

But the early BTK scoop had helped the Sun shine, however briefly.

"The Sun was pretty popular in the early days. We had a pretty good reputation," Brown said. "I guess this would have helped cement our reputation."

  Comments