Media’s Role in BTK Case Scrutinized

Times Staff Writers

From the day the news broke of BTK’s existence more than 30 years ago, the media have played a key role in the investigation.

Journalists passed on communications from the serial killer to authorities, often honoring police requests to suppress information. They served as a mouthpiece for BTK.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. March 4, 2005 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday March 04, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 67 words Type of Material: Correction
BTK killings -- An article in Thursday’s Section A about media cooperation with police in the BTK serial killer investigation in Kansas said that Cathy Henkel, who covered the case 30 years ago, cooperated with police then in withholding information from a BTK letter she had obtained. Henkel and her newspaper, the Wichita Sun, had no discussions with police about what they would or would not publish.

Now that a suspect has been charged, some of those journalists are examining the choices they made.

“I have regrets for holding things back,” said Hurst Laviana, a staff writer at the Wichita Eagle. His story about the anniversary of the killings has been credited with BTK resurfacing after a quarter-century of silence. The killer called himself BTK to describe his method: bind, torture, kill.


“I wonder now whether we did the right thing, of editing the evidence,” Laviana said. “Would the police have been able to find a suspect sooner? Did we do the public a disservice?”

This week, the Eagle and KAKE-TV -- an ABC affiliate -- revealed communications they had kept hidden. The evidence BTK sent to news outlets included a doll with a bag over its head and its hands tied behind its back, postcards that seemed to refer to packages from the killer and a puzzle filled with clues to his identity.

The puzzle was part of a package sent last year to KAKE. Hidden in it were the numbers “6220" and the letters “DRADER.” Suspect Dennis L. Rader’s house address was 6220.

Rader, a church leader and father of two, was charged Tuesday with 10 counts of first-degree murder. Rader, 59, is accused of killing seven women, one man and two children from 1974 to 1991.

On Wednesday, Rader’s attorneys said they would seek a change of venue and filed a motion to review the Park City, Kan., man’s competency.

“Everyone has a constitutional right to a fair trial,” said Jama Mitchell, one of Rader’s public defenders. “Starting now, he is not guilty.”

Officials from KAKE and the Eagle said that, with Rader’s arrest, they felt it was time to tell the public all that they knew.

“We saw no reason to hold back any longer,” said Larry Hatteberg, a KAKE anchor who has covered BTK for more than three decades.

The press and law enforcement traditionally use one another. Reporters often share information in hopes of getting some in return; and police use the media to disseminate information they hope will lead to an arrest.

When Cathy Henkel was a staff writer at the Wichita Sun in the 1970s, a source gave her a copy of a letter from someone who claimed to have killed a family of four. It was signed, “Yours, Truly Guiltily ... BTK.”

The details included the types of knots used to strangle the victims and what they wore. After approaching the police with the letter, Henkel and the paper agreed not to publish those facts.

“We felt like if we didn’t work with the police, someone would get killed,” Henkel said.

“Was it right? I don’t know,” said Henkel, now the sports editor for the Seattle Times. “There are times when I regret getting involved in the story at all. It gave us all nightmares.”

Some of the anchors and reporters were looked at as suspects because BTK was communicating directly with them. Laviana and others agreed to let police take samples of their DNA as recently as December.

Robert Beattie -- author of an upcoming book on BTK whose DNA was tested by police -- said that he obtained a copy of the puzzle and showed it to a local Mensa club in May. The members pleaded with him to ignore police requests to not go public with it. Someone, they argued, might spot a clue.

“Now I’m really wondering if I made a mistake and the police made a mistake by not releasing this information sooner,” Beattie said. “It’s just so obvious when you look at it now. He’s got his name and address right there.”

The local ABC and Fox TV affiliates, as well as the Eagle, in recent months received communications from BTK. Some were almost chatty in nature; in one, the killer expressed sympathy for two TV anchors who had said on-air they were suffering from bad colds.

As the communication accelerated, reporters said they intentionally kept their stories vague, noting where and when each package was found but withholding information about the contents.

Authorities will not discuss the specifics of their investigation into BTK. But they acknowledge that without contact between the killer and media, they might not have made an arrest.

For example, one piece of evidence that reportedly tied Rader to the murders was a computer floppy disk sent last month to KSAS-TV. Sources said the disk was handed over to FBI analysts, who determined that it had been reformatted. Data on the disk traced it back to a computer at Christ Lutheran Church in Wichita.

Rader was president of the church’s congregation. His duties included printing the agenda for the church’s council meetings.

When investigators approached the church’s pastor, Michael Clark, “the detectives asked who had access to that computer equipment,” said Charles Liles, a retired Wichita police lieutenant familiar with the investigation. “And there [Rader] was.”