Monster Returns to Taunt
The killer’s words echo across the decades:
“When this monster enter my brain, I will never know. But, it here to stay.
“Maybe you can stop him. I can’t.”
From 1974 to 1979, the monster stalked this prairie city. He killed four young women, two children and one man. He called himself B.T.K., for his method: bind, torture, kill.
B.T.K. taunted police with long letters about his sadistic drive. He sketched his crime scenes. He wrote odes to his victims. His last communication was a lament, addressed to an elderly woman who eluded him because she stayed out late on the night he had chosen to hide in her home and strangle her. “Why didn’t you appear?” he demanded.
Then he fell silent. Until last month.
After 25 years, the killer resurfaced with another letter. This one took credit for an eighth murder, the unsolved strangling of a young mother in 1986.
“I’m 100% sure it’s B.T.K.,” Lt. Ken Landwehr said. “We do believe that B.T.K. is in Wichita.”
In the working-class neighborhoods east of downtown that B.T.K. targeted in the ‘70s, many residents took the news with a shrug. The streets are much rougher now, and many protect themselves with guns and dogs.
“Tell him he doesn’t want to come around the ‘hood these days,” warned Crystal McGill, 15.
“Let him come,” said Ramon Davis, 29. “We’re not scared.”
Those who worked the case for so many frustrating years don’t share that nonchalance.
Retired Det. Gary Caldwell discovered one of B.T.K.’s first victims, in 1974: A little girl, strung up by her neck, wearing only socks and a sweater. “It scares me,” Caldwell said, “to think he’s back.”
When Caldwell was hunting the strangler in the ‘70s, sophisticated forensics meant figuring out what type of copy machine B.T.K. used. Now, police are analyzing the semen he left at crime scenes. They’re running old fingerprints against a national database.
But some police think the killer’s own words may yet prove as valuable as his DNA.
“I don’t think they’re just ramblings. He knew what he was writing,” retired Police Capt. Bernie Drowatzky said. “I’ve always thought there was a key in there. I just never was able to find it.”
B.T.K.’s first victims lived in a modest frame house in east Wichita.
On Jan. 15, 1974, Joseph Otero drove his three oldest children to junior high. His wife, Julie, stayed to get the two youngest ready for elementary school. Outside, in the wintry sun, B.T.K. snipped the phone line. Then he most likely rang the bell. There was no sign of forced entry. B.T.K. bound and gagged Julie Otero, 34, and strangled her with the cord from a Venetian blind. He pulled a plastic bag over the head of her youngest son, 9-year-old Joseph II. When Joseph Sr., 38, came home, B.T.K. strangled him too.
Searching the pitch-black basement for clues, Caldwell bumped into 11-year-old Josephine, hanging from a sewer pipe. She had not been sexually assaulted; none of the victims was. But semen was found at the crime scene.
Calling the case the most bizarre he’d seen, the police chief assigned 75 officers to work it. After several months, they announced a confession from a troubled youth, who also implicated two friends.
In his first message to police, in October 1974, B.T.K. set the record straight. Like his later communications, the letter was pitted with grammatical errors and misspellings. B.T.K. hid it in a mechanical engineering textbook at the public library. Then he called an editor at the Wichita Eagle with directions to retrieve it.
“Those three dude you have in custody are just talking to get publicity for the Otero murders,” B.T.K. wrote. “They know nothing at all. I did it by myself and no ones help.”
He then described the crime in detail only the killer could know, down to the colors of each victim’s clothing. He even told police a fact they hadn’t realized: He had stolen Joseph Otero’s watch. (“I needed one so I took it. Runs good.”)
B.T.K. signed the letter with a distinctive mark that police will not describe. It has appeared on all the notes they believe to be authentic.
He added this postscript: “The code words for me will be ... Bind them, torture them, kill them, B.T.K., you see he at it again. They will be on the next victim.”
In fact, the next victim was already dead.
Kathryn Bright, 21, had been stabbed on April 4, 1974 -- six months before B.T.K.’s letter about the Otero murders.
The young assembly-plant worker had come home with her brother, Kevin, to find an armed assailant “waiting in the dark, waiting, waiting” as B.T.K. later wrote. The Brights put up a fight and Kevin managed to stagger out the door with two gunshot wounds to the head. Kathryn died within hours.
Authorities did not connect the case to B.T.K. for several years. But the assault bore some of B.T.K.’s signatures: The phone line was cut and Bright was bound with a certain type of knot.
Police surmised that the Brights’ resistance had forced B.T.K. out of his routine -- leisurely strangling his victims for sexual pleasure.
B.T.K. waited three years to kill again.
On March 17, 1977, he forced his way into Shirley Vian’s east-side bungalow with a gun. He herded her three young children into the bathroom. Then he stripped, bound and strangled their 26-year-old mother.
Nine months later, on Dec. 9, B.T.K. called police from a pay phone to report his next victim: Nancy Fox, 25. In a clipped, precise tone, he told the dispatcher: “You will find a homicide at 843 South Pershing.” He pronounced the word “home-icide.”
By then, police knew a serial strangler was stalking east Wichita. Chief Richard LaMunyon debated whether to warn the public. He had told his wife to be on guard. Shouldn’t he also tell the citizens he had sworn to protect?
Might it appease B.T.K. to see his exploits made public? Or would it only fuel his bloodlust? LaMunyon went with his instincts: He kept quiet.
“We did not want to give [B.T.K.] credit,” the chief recently explained, “in the hopes that he would communicate with us again.”
In January 1978, a mail clerk at the Wichita Eagle opened a curious letter: An index card, printed with rubber stamps that spelled out a short verse. It began, “SHIRLEY LOCKS, SHIRLEY LOCKS, WILT THOU BE MINE.”
Pegging it as a Valentine’s Day ad, the clerk sent it off to the classified department.
As police later discovered, the poem was B.T.K.’s ode to his sixth victim, Shirley Vian, whose death in 1977 had been ruled an unsolved homicide. B.T.K. apparently expected the verse to spark a public panic. When it didn’t, he sent a two-page, single-spaced letter to KAKE-TV.
“How many people do I have to kill before I get my name in the paper or some national attention?” it demanded.
“How about some name for me, its time: 7 down and many more to go. I like the following. How about you? THE B.T.K. STRANGLER ... THE WICHITA HANGMAN, THE WICHITA EXECUTIONER, THE GAROTE PHANTOM, THE ASPHYXIATER.”
With an explicit threat from the killer in hand, LaMunyon decided he had to warn the city. He did not release the letter in its entirety; indeed, the police have never shared the full text of B.T.K.’s communications with the public. But at a news conference on Feb. 10, 1978, LaMunyon read excerpts -- and described what he knew of B.T.K.
Frightened women began compulsively checking their phone lines to see if they’d been cut. They searched closets before going to bed. “Whenever you got together with anyone, you always talked about it,” recalled Judy Howard, 61.
Police drew up an “A list” of fewer than a dozen top suspects.
“But we were never able, in good conscience, to narrow it down to one,” LaMunyon said.
B.T.K.’s seven known victims lived within three miles of one another, in tidy working-class neighborhoods east of downtown. They all lived in older homes from the 1940s or ‘50s.
All had the number 3 in their address. All lived on the west side of the street.
Did any of it mean anything? No one could be sure.
Officers searched for patterns, frantic to separate the coincidences from the clues. They called in a psychic, a numerologist and the FBI’s new profiling unit. They analyzed the phases of the moon during each slaying. They drew up charts of everything they knew about the victims -- down to the grocery stores they frequented.
“I don’t think there’s an investigator in the world working on a case like this who hasn’t lost a lot of sleep trying to figure it out. I know I did,” retired Officer Mike McKenna said. “You endlessly think, ‘What have I missed? What’s tripping this guy’s trigger?’ ”
The letters seemed full of suggestive hints. But interpreting them was maddening.
Did the many errors indicate that B.T.K. was poorly educated? Or was he trying to play dumb?
He patterned his poems on obscure sources: A ballad from a college folklore text, a nursery rhyme recently printed in a puzzle magazine. Did he seek them out to confuse investigators? Did he remember them from childhood? Or perhaps he subscribed to the magazine? Maybe he had studied literature in college?
Everyone had a theory.
“I learned a lot working with the behavioral science people,” LaMunyon said. “I learned that if you have 30 of them in a room together, you’ll have 60 opinions.”
The few eyewitnesses to B.T.K.’s crimes also contradicted one another, though most agreed he was a white male in his 20s or 30s. Police still have no good description.
Robert Beattie, a local lawyer writing a book on B.T.K., said it’s clear only that the strangler has an unremarkable face. “He’s a monster,” Beattie said, “who looks like a man.”
Serial killers have been boasting of their exploits since Jack the Ripper taunted Scotland Yard in 1888 with a note declaring: “I am down on whores and shant quit ripping them til I do get buckled.”
Once a killer is caught, such letters can provide evidence for prosecutors, such as fingerprints, handwriting samples, even DNA from saliva. But they’re often less useful to detectives.
San Francisco’s Zodiac Killer tormented authorities with at least 21 letters to local papers in the late 1960s and early ‘70s. He was never caught. New York City’s notorious Son of Sam, David Berkowitz, also wrote prolifically in the mid-1970s without giving himself away; a parking ticket eventually led authorities to him.
Still, “the more they write, the better chance they’ll reveal something that will have investigative value,” said Gregg McCrary, a former FBI profiler.
B.T.K.’s latest communication, received by the Wichita Eagle on March 19, revealed little.
The return address -- from a fictitious Bill Thomas Killman -- traces to a vacant east-side apartment, in a dingy yellow-brick building. Rusted clothesline poles stand empty on the weedy lawn.
Inside the envelope was one sheet of paper with copies of murder victim Vicki Wegerle’s driver’s license and three photos of her body, with the clothing arranged a bit differently in each. No crime-scene photos of Wegerle were ever taken when her body was discovered in 1986, so authorities say they’re certain the killer took these shots.
A mark on the paper with the photos matches B.T.K.’s secret signature.
Launching an all-out investigation, police have collected saliva for DNA analysis from dozens, possibly hundreds, of local men, according to a local attorney who represents several of them. They are reviewing lists of recently released inmates, on the theory that B.T.K. might have been in prison during his decades of silence.
Police are also scouring old files on unsolved homicides in search of links to B.T.K. The Wichita Eagle recently detailed 15 cases -- most from the 1970s and ‘80s but one as recent as 2002 -- that bear at least one of B.T.K.’s hallmarks: phone lines cut, victim’s hands and feet bound, nothing removed from the crime scene except a souvenir, such as car keys or a watch.
Investigators are also asking for help from the public; so far, they’ve received more than 2,200 tips.
The intense focus on B.T.K. has stirred old fears in some quarters. SecureNet Alarms was swamped with eight times its normal volume of calls for weeks after the latest letter surfaced.
Barbara Smith, 66, took to keeping her cellphone by her pillow as she slept. Jean Spangler, 59, hesitated before taking out the garbage at night. Gosia Klimek, 28, told her son he could no longer play alone in the yard.
But in many of the weathered neighborhoods that B.T.K. once haunted, residents view the strangler as a ghost, more a curiosity than a threat.
“He’s given us nothing to really be scared about,” said Dwayne Rogers, 24.
Cutting phone lines no longer seems so frightening in a world where nearly everyone carries a cell. Waiting in the dark with a cord sounds almost quaint on blocks where neighbors swap stories about armed home invasions.
“I’m not going to let him change my habits. I’m not worried,” said Renee Vandergift, 40, who lives down the street from a home B.T.K. once targeted. Vandergrift’s two dogs howled in her backyard, and she smiled. “If he comes around here,” she said, “he’s going to get bit.”
Many investigators believe that B.T.K. was stirred to break his silence by an article the Wichita Eagle ran in January to mark the 30th anniversary of his first known killings.
Perhaps he felt challenged by the closing quote in the story, from lawyer Beattie: “I don’t think we’ll be contacted by B.T.K. again.”
Those who have followed the case from the start tend to doubt that B.T.K. will kill again. Then they add that they cannot be sure.
“It seems senseless but we cannot help it,” B.T.K. once wrote. “There is no help, no cure except death or being caught and put away.”
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