BTK: Reliving the past

For those who didn't endure the original BTK years — 1974-79 — the fearful, agitated reaction many longtime Wichitans have had to his recent resurfacing is a little baffling.

After all, the thinking goes, these crimes were decades ago — what's the big deal about a letter from some over-the-hill criminal? A little context might help.

The 1970s gave America Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy, and they gave Wichita BTK. He was here, living among us, picking people off, and the randomness of his crimes was shocking. He could be anyone; and so could his victims. He mostly killed white women with short hair, yes. But he also attacked Hispanics, men and children. Possibly others.

And unlike Bundy and Gacy, he was never caught; he just retreated into the dark places in the back of our minds, popping up when things went bump in the night.

Now, this all-too-real bogeyman is back — and so are the memories, the fears, the what-ifs and the could-it-bes. We're taking this personally.

Last week, a schoolmate and former Eagle reporter sent an e-mail from Maine seeking details about new developments in the case — and reminding me that 30 years ago, she was "in gym class with Carmen Otero even as her family was being murdered."

The year Shirley Vian and Nancy Jo Fox were killed, my best friend at high school sat awake night after endless night, too scared to sleep because she had figured out her home's roofline would make it easy for BTK to enter her second-floor bedroom window. On the weekends, she'd have me over so we could stay up in shifts, like soldiers on patrol.

But BTK didn't just provoke intense fear; he also inspired sick phone calls from pranksters saying, "This is BTK. You are next." It was unnerving, even though it was a hoax. It was downright terrifying for my mother, one of the countless women who got such a call.

She dialed the BTK hot line to report it — and as the detective began speaking, the phone line went dead. Back then, everybody knew that BTK cut the phone lines of his victim's homes.

In a blind panic, she ran back and forth between the front and back doors, unsure which exit to take for fear of running directly into her worst nightmare. Finally, in desperation, she grabbed the phone again — and there was a dial tone. Shaking, she redialed the hot line number. The detective apologized for fumbling with the phone and cutting her off. Oh.

Now, even though she knew it was a hoax call, and even though she knew the phone problem was a total fluke, it hit her as hard as if she really had heard from the killer. It was years before she could walk into the house alone again.

I used to chide her about sending other people in to search the house — I mean, come on, what was going to happen if one of us actually found this guy behind the shower curtain or in a closet? —but that kind of fear wouldn't listen to reason, only the passage of years with no new BTK crimes.

And now he's back.

I'm reminded that the generation gap is alive and well when I hear BTK being dismissed as now "too old" to still be menacing. If he was 18 at the time of the Otero murders, he'd only be 47 or 48 now (about 10 years younger than Arnold Schwarzenegger). And I marvel at the level of denial required to seriously assert, as some Wichitans have, that the return of BTK has been fabricated just to sell newspapers. Police investigators have authenticated the new letter and the accompanying murder-scene photographs.

What gives me hope — and comfort — is that as time has marched on, forensic science has advanced by light-years. Although BTK eluded capture for 30 years, the good guys are much better equipped to find him these days. And with the ubiquitousness of cell phones, cutting the phone lines to isolate victims seems like ancient history.

Further, a clear-eyed assessment of the risks of falling victim to a serial killer reveal that any one of us is far more likely to meet our demise on Kellogg — or after we've eaten our 10,000th fatburger, for that matter.

Still, you'd be a fool to not lock your doors.