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Back to Archives | Back to December 2006 Contents 

Bind, Torture, Kill: The BTK Investigation

By Norman D. Williams and Kenneth Landwehr

   

he BTK investigation in Wichita, Kansas, was a serial homicide investigation spanning decades and presenting extraordinary challenges. The investigation began in the mid-1970s, spanned 30 years, and concluded with the arrest of a 59-year-old compliance officer in a small community adjacent to Wichita. His apprehension came as a result of a creative approach that used local media to maintain contact with the killer and carefully manage the release of information about the case. The case also allowed the Wichita Police Department to develop innovative ways to manage large amounts of information provided by the public and use biological and computer forensics.

The BTK serial killer first stuck in 1974 with the murder of four members of a Wichita family in their home and committed his last murder in January 1991. Thirty years after the first murders, between March 2004 and February 2005, the BTK killer resurfaced amid media attention, triggering an intensive 11-month investigation by local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies that brought the case to a successful close. The BTK killer’s craving for media attention provided unusual opportunities for innovative involvement of the news media. When BTK sent a letter to the local newspaper after 16 years of silence, the Wichita Police Department developed a controversial media strategy to foster communications with the serial killer.

It is not a new investigative technique to employ the news media in communicating with serial killers, but the Wichita Police Department knew it had to develop a carefully planned strategy that controlled the messages sent to BTK. Between March 2004 and February 2005, the BTK Task Force recorded more than 5,600 tips and leads from the public, collected more than 1,300 DNA swabs, and convinced the killer to communicate with police by using a computer disk. The disk provided the first leads to his identity, which was then verified by tests on his daughter’s DNA. This ultimately let to the arrest of a suspect who held a community in fear for more than 30 years.

The Investigation
The serial killer who identified himself as BTK, for bind, torture, kill, first struck in January 1974 with the murder of four members of the Otero family. He killed again just three months later, but waited nearly three years before striking for the third time in March 1977.

The case riveted the community when the murders first began occurring, and again when BTK resurfaced in 2004, and two facets of the investigation proved to be unusual. The first is the way the Wichita Police Department was able to stay in communication with the killer through the media. The second involves the application of DNA and computer forensic science.

When the BTK serial killer resurfaced in Wichita after lying dormant for 16 years, the police department found itself in the unenviable position of having to address the problem on several fronts. The department needed to quickly develop strategies to calm a fearful community and then create a task force to investigate the cases, develop strategies for catching the killer, and, finally, formulate a process to organize massive amounts of data that included thousands of tips and leads.

Because the BTK serial killer had been silent for so long, many in the community believed that he was dead, had moved to another state, or was incarcerated somewhere. When the media stories broke concerning BTK’s reemergence, the community was simultaneously fearful and anxious to help catch the killer.

On March 19, 2004, the killer sent a letter to the Wichita Eagle newsroom. In its report on the letter, the newspaper reported BTK was claiming responsibility for the September 16, 1986, murder of a young mother of two who was found inside her Wichita home.

Wichita police held a news conference on March 25, 2004, confirming the BTK communication as authentic and asked citizens with any information to contact the police department. A tip line, an e-mail account, and a post office box were set up to accommodate tips. In the first 24 hours following the news conference, almost 400 tips were received. By mid-May the tips received by the police exceeded 2,000.

Another letter from the killer surfaced on May 5, 2004, in the newsroom of Wichita television station KAKE. As new chapters in the story of the serial killer began to unfold, the Wichita Police Department started adapting its investigative techniques. Keeping in mind that the department’s primary goal was to identify and arrest the BTK Serial Killer, the BTK Task Force faced four primary challenges.

First, it was important to manage all contacts with the media and control the flow of information. Second, it was critical to effectively manage a barrage of incoming tips and leads. Third, it was important to accurately and efficiently eliminate potential suspects. Fourth, all of this needed to be done while maintaining communication with the unknown killer, with the expectation he would eventually make a mistake.

The Media Strategy
It was decided early in the renewed investigation that managing the release of information about the case while simultaneously maintaining a good working relationship with the local media was essential. With carefully structured information being released by the police, the local media went to extraordinary lengths to obtain new or exclusive information. Several issued challenges to BTK, asking him to contact them directly. That resulted in the department’s executive staff developing a strategic media relations plan at the onset of the investigation. In spite of fierce media criticism that the plan inhibited the free flow of public information, it was closely followed throughout the 11-month investigation.

Inundated with media demands for information, the Wichita Police Department funneled media requests through its public information officer to the head of the BTK Task Force. The media plan developed by the department had several components


First, the task force lieutenant became the sole spokesperson on the BTK investigation, thereby encouraging the killer to establish a rapport between BTK and the lieutenant who would conduct the initial interview after the killer’s arrest. Second, the department limited the availability of the sole spokesperson for the department and controlled the flow of information to the media and to the killer. Third, the department engaged the community by asking for help in identifying the killer.

Naming a single point of contact for the media allowed the police to establish a rapport with BTK and keep him communicating. Experts from the Federal Bureau of Investigation Behavioral Analysis Unit believed that a relationship between interviewer and suspect would be fortified with each media briefing, allowing for a personal connection at the time of the suspect’s arrest and interview.

Identifying an official spokesperson also reduced the impact and credibility of self-proclaimed experts on television who speculated endlessly about the case. The department believed it was crucial for the police to provide information directly to the community and to make the BTK serial killer understand that the task force lieutenant was the voice of the police. Media releases did not indicate the direction of the investigation, the number of swabs collected, the number of suspects eliminated, or the number of personnel assigned to the investigation.

Informational releases were strategically orchestrated, with guidance provided by the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit. At the beginning of the investigation, media briefings were announced ahead of time. But the resulting speculation in the media concerning what the police would say meant the public received bad information. As a result, the Wichita Police Department modified its approach and discontinued the practice of announcing information releases on the BTK investigation. Impromptu releases were made at the department’s regular weekday 10:00 a.m. media briefing. The spokesperson would arrive at the daily meeting unannounced, provide the scripted release, and immediately exit the room without taking questions. Hard copies of the media advisories were provided to reporters and posted on the department’s Internet site.

The FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit also offered guidance on the handling of press briefings. Strategies included not providing any detail that might disclose the direction of the investigation, being careful not to challenge, provoke, or insult the killer, and scripting the briefings in advance to ensure that there were no errors in the delivery of information. Media briefings also were conducted in a location that precluded the media from airing live broadcasts. During each media briefing, the spokesperson reiterated the need for the public’s help and provided information on the venues through which the public could submit tips. Police designed each briefing and release to communicate information to the public, but they also carefully crafted them to communicate with the killer in the hope that he would continue to communicate with law enforcement.

Managing Leads
BTK tip lines were staffed with officers and detectives who transferred tip information to lead sheets. The lead sheets then were reviewed by homicide detectives, prioritized, and assigned to the task force’s investigators. One detective was assigned to manage the investigation’s database by entering information from lead sheets, connecting the leads on each suspect, and conducting research to provide additional identifying information such as addresses and phone numbers. In researching leads, the detective used a number of sources such as old city directories, driver’s license databases, and software programs such as ChoicePoint. In addition, this detective was charged with creating new leads when generating new information from these sources. The database also helped the task force track evidence, in particular the collection and status of DNA swabs. After a lead had been investigated, the results were summarized and a clearance code entered. At the time of BTK’s arrest, the database contained more than 3,500 leads.

Eliminating Suspects
Because of the sheer volume of tips in the BTK investigation, the task force needed to develop strategies to eliminate suspects. Police eliminated all non-Caucasian and Hispanic suspects, on the basis of DNA evidence left at crime scenes, all suspects who were incarcerated at the time of the homicides, and all suspects who were either too young or too old. Any suspect who could not be excluded based on one of the three criteria was placed on a list to be asked for a DNA swab.

Teams of officers and detectives made contact with suspects and collected DNA samples. Most of the men contacted were anxious and willing to help and agreed to be swabbed so they could be eliminated. Any suspect who would not volunteer a DNA sample was placed under surveillance.

Communicating with the Killer
With guidance from the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit, the task force implemented a carefully crafted plan to open a dialogue with BTK. The police responded to communications from BTK using media releases designed to keep the killer communicating—albeit unknowingly—with investigators. The strategy paid off.

In January 2005 BTK left a cereal box containing a message to the police in the back of a pickup truck belonging to a Home Depot employee. In the message he wrote:

Can I communicate with Floppy and not be traced to computer. Be honest. Under miscellaneous Section, 494, (Rex, it will be OK), run it for a few days in case I’m out of town-etc. I will try a floppy for a test run some time in the near future—February or March. 3216912.

Investigators acted quickly and responded by placing a classified ad in the Eagle. The ad read: “Rex, it will be ok, Contact me PO box 1st four ref. Number at 67202.”

DNA and Computer Forensics
The computer disk BTK sent to the department was turned over to a detective assigned to the Computer Crimes Section. The examination of the disk located a valid file labeled “Test A.RTF.” The file contained a message: “This is a test. See 3x5 Card for details on communication with me in the newspaper.” The message referred to a card that was also included in the package sent to the television station.

Additional investigation showed the disk was opened in computers at the Christ Lutheran Church and Park City Community Public Library. The file document had been created on February 10, modified on the February 14, and printed that same day. It has been revised four times and was last saved by user “Dennis.”

Most of the information from the disk was found in its properties domain. Such information is automatically written by the software and is based on software registration information and the identity of the user logged on at the time of the activity on the document. After locating the name “Dennis” and “Christ Lutheran Church” in the properties domain of the RTF document, the detective conducted a Google search on the Internet. Through a hit on the site for the Christ Lutheran Church, he found a link to people associated with the church. In that list the detective found the name “Dennis Rader” listed as the president of the congregation. Dennis Rader, a Park City compliance officer, then became the primary suspect in the BTK investigation.

It was one thing to identify a suspect in the case, but it was something else to advance that person to the level of primary suspect. With additional investigation required for an arrest, there was concern about the possibility of alerting the suspect. A quiet but intensive background investigation on Rader was initiated and members of the task force conceived a unique approach to identifying Dennis Rader as a suspect using DNA from one of his two adult children. The task force obtained a subpoena for his daughter’s medical records. As a result of that subpoena, a biological sample was located, and on February 22 the sample was taken to the KBI lab for DNA analysis. The results showed that BTK was indeed the biological father of Rader’s daughter.

The Arrest
On February 25, 2005, shortly after noon, Dennis Rader was arrested while driving home for lunch from his Park City office. After 11 intense months of investigation and collecting more than 1,300 DNA samples, the final DNA swabs on the case were executed by warrant and collected from BTK suspect Dennis Rader. Dennis Rader was advised of his rights. He then agreed to talk.

Rader initially talked to investigators for approximately three and a half hours before confessing to being BTK and committing 10 homicides. During the interviews, he said he identified with Lieutenant Landwehr, the Wichita Police Department’s sole spokesperson. He said that before his capture he felt that he was speaking directly to Landwehr. The killer said that he felt that he and Landwehr had a lot in common, and that they “had a good thing going on.” Rader was also distraught that police lied to him about the police department’s ability to trace his identity through a floppy disk, asking, “Why did you lie to me?”

Self-proclaimed BTK strangler Dennis Rader played a game of cat-and-mouse with the police for almost 30 years. Police used innovative law enforcement techniques and traditional investigative skills to catch him. Contributing to his capture and ultimate conviction were a calculated media strategy, the systematic elimination of potential suspects, and the identification of a suspect through familial DNA.

Lesson Learned
There was an important lesson to be learned from the BTK investigation. In a case such as this one, with intense local, national, and international media interest, in which the perpetrator is a known member of the media audience, constructing and adhering to a comprehensive media strategy is of utmost importance. Without sticking to its media policy, which was very unpopular with all news outlets, it is doubtful that the Wichita Police Department would have made an arrest as early as it did, if at all.

The BTK investigation was a very challenging, complex, and unusual investigation, as it spanned more than 30 years and had a profound impact on Wichita and Kansas. This investigation exhibited cooperation and professionalism between the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the District Attorney’s Office of the 18th Judicial District of Kansas, the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, the Park City Police Department, the Sedgwick County Forensic Science Center, the Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Office, the Social Security Administration, the U.S. Postal Service, and the Wichita Police Department.

In the end, justice prevailed for the victims: the Otero family, Kathryn Bright, Shirley Vian, Nancy Fox, Marine Hedge, Vickie Wegerle, and Dolores Davis. After 31 years, their families were able to confront Dennis Rader and hear Judge Gregory Waller sentence him to 10 consecutive life sentences.

 

From The Police Chief, vol. 73, no. 12, December 2006. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.








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