Killer confronted police more than once in 31 years of hiding

John Speer
John Speer The Wichita Eagle

One of the more brazen habits of the BTK serial killer, police say, was the way he confronted law enforcement officers several times during the 31 years he evaded capture.

Besides asking three cyber-trained officers in 2004 how to avoid detection while sending e-mails, he had at least two other confrontations that amazed police. They figured all this out years later, after they caught him and realized who BTK was.

BTK murdered 10 people starting in 1974. He spent the next 31 years living in Park City and working in or near Wichita, stalking women while publicly portraying himself as a husband, father, church-goer and Boy Scout volunteer.

Roofing job in Park City

John Speer is now a deputy chief for the Wichita police.

In 1993 he was a young officer living in Park City. He needed to repair his house.

Twenty cop friends showed up to shingle Speer’s roof, among them Tim Relph.

The roof was hot – a nasty job, Relph and Speer remembered later. Toward the end of the day the cops noticed a man in uniform standing beside a Park City truck. He was taking Polaroid photos of the cop roofers.

“Everybody stop,” Speer said. He climbed down. Relph watched Speer argue with the man about whether Speer had acquired a work permit.

What struck Relph later was how cold, official and “brazen” the man sounded. It was obvious from the 20 or so cop haircuts, and from the police jargon Speer used, that this was a flock of cops on the roof. But the code compliance officer from Park City seemed to care not at all.

The other cops jeered at Speer later, about how the guy had coldly quoted codes and regulations to a law enforcement officer.

But something about the confrontational manner stuck out, enough that Relph and Speer remembered it for years.

Eleven years later, the BTK serial killer resurfaced after decades of silence. Police and the FBI formed a task force of 50 cops, run by Lt. Ken Landwehr, with a core group including Relph and three of the more experienced detectives on the roster.

For the next 11 months, Relph and the others worked night and day, worried that BTK planned to kill again.

In February 2005, they caught him. When Speer and Relph saw his face, they recognized him.

That was the guy. He took their pictures in 1993.

By then, BTK had killed ten people.

Helping a murder investigation

The surprise Speer and Relph felt in 2005 was nothing compared with how Detective Scott Wiswell felt a year or so later.

By then, according to Landwehr, Wiswell was well known in the department as a respected sex-crimes detective. He’d solved several hard-to-solve rapes, including at least one involving a serial rapist, Landwehr said. Detectives respected Wiswell.

Which is why Landwehr in 2006 decided to “torture him a little,” as he later put it.

Landwehr had just heard a tip connecting BTK to Wiswell in an old homicide investigation. It took place 14 years before BTK resurfaced in 2004.

Landwehr died of kidney cancer earlier this year. One of those who mourned him was Wiswell, who nevertheless remembers one of the crueler practical jokes Landwehr ever pulled.

He remembers it this way:

“Wiswell,” Landwehr called out one day in 2006, in the detective’s offices in City Hall. “Were you ever going to get around to telling me you interviewed BTK?”

“What?” Wiswell said. “No!”

Landwehr walked away. He left Wiswell in the dark for two days. Then he confronted him again, in the bull-pen area on the sixth floor of City Hall, where Landwehr’s homicide detectives and other investigators of violent crime were working within earshot at their cubicles.

“You lied to me,” Landwehr said. “Do I have to read you Garrity?”

Heads turned.

“Garrity warnings” are what investigators give law enforcement officers when those officers come under administrative investigation.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Wiswell said.

“You lied to me,” Landwehr repeated. “You interviewed BTK. You sat right across the desk from a serial killer and didn’t think to tell me about that?”

“No,” Wiswell said.

“Do you know the penalty for lying to a police officer during a homicide investigation?” Landwehr asked.

Wiswell knew: It was grounds for immediate termination.

“You will never find a more straight-arrow honest detective than Scott Wiswell,” Relph said this past week. “He was trying to defend himself, but when Kenny gave it to you with both barrels like that, it could be tough.”

“I never, ever talked to that guy!” Wiswell replied.

“Really?” Landwehr said. “I’ve got the proof right here.”

He slapped down paperwork from a 1992 homicide case file.

In the sheets, Wiswell saw a report he had written himself.

Wiswell’s report described how Dennis Rader, the Park City code compliance officer, had helped him investigate a homicide 14 years before.

On March 6, 1992, according to that old file, a Park City avionics worker, Larry A. Bryan, 36, murdered his boss, Ronald G. Eldridge, 42, in Wichita. Eldridge had planned to fire Bryan.

The crime was quickly solved, but Detectives Scott Wiswell and Charles Koral were assigned to go to Bryan’s hometown, Park City, and collect background information about him.

Wiswell had forgotten this by 2006, when Landwehr confronted him. BTK had been sent to prison the year before.

At the Park City administrative building in 1992, the police chief had told Wiswell they ought to talk to Rader, who lived two doors down from Bryan, the man now charged in the homicide case.

Rader seemed happy to cooperate. To Wiswell and Koral, he volunteered lurid speculations about Bryan that had nothing to do with the case.

Reading all this again in 2006, Wiswell noticed what a creepy hypocrite Dennis Rader was, in what he said that day.

“Dennis states that one thing he remembers about Larry is that Larry never came out during the day time and he kind of got the nickname vampire around the neighborhood,” Wiswell and Koral wrote in their report.

“Dennis Rader also states that Bryan has a fascination with young kids in the neighborhood. He recalls an incident approx a month ago where he saw Larry Bryan chasing the kids in the neighborhood with what he described as a Jason mask … he stated that Larry always keeps his shades down …”

Wiswell, reading all this, looked up at last and saw Landwehr grinning.

So were other detectives who had listened as Landwehr mocked him.

“Everyboy was laughing,” Wiswell said. Once he figured out it was a joke, he laughed too.

The old case had come to light, Landwehr told him, after Larry A. Bryan himself read about Rader, and felt irritated that a creepy, stalking serial killer like Rader had described Bryan as a vampire interested in chasing children.

From prison, Bryan had written a letter complaining about Rader. He enclosed sheets from his own case file documenting Rader’s words.

All the criminals involved in those investigations were in prison, the cases were closed – and Landwehr was fond of Wiswell, and fond of practical jokes.

Wiswell works now as an investigator for the Sedgwick County district attorney. He remembers the joke fondly.

He said: “You knew Kenny liked you when he went out of his way to hang trash on you.”

Some information for this story came from “Bind, Torture, Kill: The Inside Story of BTK the Serial Killer Next Door,” published for The Wichita Eagle by HarperCollins, 2007, by Roy Wenzl, Tim Potter, L. Kelly and Hurst Laviana.

Reach Roy Wenzl at 316-268-6219 or Follow him on Twitter: @roywenzl.

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