Dennis Rader AKA The BTK Killer

Written by Piers Hernu
  • font size decrease font size increase font size
  • Print
  • Email

The scene that greeted Detective Bernie Drowatsky on the sunny afternoon of January 15th 1974 was so sickening it haunts him to this day.

In the basement of a small one storey house in Wichita, Kansas eleven year old Josephine Otero was hanging by a cord from a sewer pipe. Her knickers were pulled down to her knees and her cold body was covered in semen. Upstairs in their bedrooms, her mother, father and nine year old brother, lay face down, hands and feet bound, bags over their head, dead.

As the news of the murders spread, the people of Wichita, a laid back midwestern city of 350,000 people bang in the middle of the USA, knew they had a monster in their midsts. If there was any doubt, a letter left inside a textbook at the Public Library, dramatically removed it: “I can’t stop it so the monster goes on,” wrote the killer having just described the murder scene in chilling detail, “It’s a big complicated game the monster play, putting victim number down, follow them, checking up on them, waiting in the dark, waiting, waiting….Maybe you can stop him. I can’t. The code words for me will be…bind them, torture them, kill them, B.T.K.”

“There it is,” says Anto the photographer as he pulls the car over to the side of the road in a quiet leafy, suburb of Wichita. We sit there in silence for a few moments gazing at a house which looks eerily familiar. By chance we have pulled up at exactly the same spot from which a press photographer took a black and white photo some thirty years ago. That photo shows the body of Mr Otero being stretchered out of his house and down his snow covered garden path. The snow and the bodies have long since gone but from where I’m sitting the house looks exactly the same. “Come on,” says Anto breaking the spell, “let’s knock on the door.”

But knocking on the door of a house in Wichita is not a good idea these days. Why? Because earlier this year in March, the local newspaper received a letter and ever since then its residents have been gripped by fear. Nowadays nobody opens the door to strangers in Wichita. What did that letter say? Put simply it said: “I’m BTK and I’m back!” With three more letters arriving in May, June and July, each getting increasingly angry, FHM headed out to Kansas on the trail of America’s most successful and scariest serial killer.

Dennis Rader The BTK Killer 2Having despatched the Otero family, BTK went on to kill three more young women over the next three years by breaking into their homes, cutting the phone lines, laying in wait in a wardrobe and then binding, torturing and killing (by strangling) them. Then, in 1979, everything went quiet, slowly the fear receded and in time Wichita returned to normal. For the next twenty five years BTK remained silent. Then in January of this year, on the thirtieth anniversary of the Otero killings, the local newspaper ran an article quoting local lawyer Bob Beattie who was writing a book about BTK. The article closes with a quote from Beattie about the interest his book will generate: “I’m sure we’ll be contacted by crackpots and well meaning people who have little to contribute but I don't think we’ll be contacted by BTK.” Wrong!

“I nearly didn’t write that article,” says Hurst Laviana, The Wichita Eagle’s chief crime reporter. It’s the day before our visit to the Otero family’s house and Anto and I are sitting at Hurst’s desk at The Eagle’s office in downtown Wichita. “The editor said if you can’t come up with some new angle on BTK then forget it. Then some reporter told me Bob Beattie was writing a book.” And so Hurst wrote the article which included speculation that BTK was dead. It was printed and read by the residents of Wichita, one of whom decided it was time to get in touch.

“It was March 17th about 9.40 am when my editor hands me a letter. I open it and it’s a sheet of paper with three photocopied polaroids of a body, a driving license and a strange motif. In fact here it is...” Hurst rummages in his drawer and pulls out a sheet of A4. Wide eyed, Anto and I study the three grainy black and white pictures of a semi-undressed woman lying on the floor – each one shows her in a slightly different position. “Then I noticed the driving license name was Vicki Wegerle,” Hurst continues, “and I remembered that was an unsolved homicide back in ’86. Then we saw the name on the return address was Bill Thomas Killman – BTK!”

On September 16th 1986 when Vicki Wegerle’s husband came home to find his wife, a 28 year old mother of two, motionless on the floor, his first thought was to call an ambulance. She was rushed to hospital before police arrived meaning that no photos of the crime scene were ever taken. By sending in the photos he took of Vicki, BTK was basically saying: “So you think I’m dead do you? Well I’m still here and to prove its me, here are some photos of a murder you didn’t even think I committed!” Looking at the photos, it suddenly hits me - when they were taken poor Vicki Wegerle was still alive!

Since his first contact in March this year BTK’s three subsequent letters have arrived in May, June and July - each marked with his secret motif and each more angry than the last. His most recent package was again left at The Public library, which stands less than 100 yards away from the hotel in which FHM are staying. Police refuse to reveal its contents but it is widely believed to have contained photos of other victims and the threat to kill again.

Wichita is a City on the edge. Many now believe that up to fifteen other unsolved murders in Wichita bear the grisly hallmark of BTK’s work. Everyone FHM speaks to from check out girl to hotel manager knows all about him and his grip on the city’s collective psyche is simply extraordinary. Self defence schools, shooting ranges, gunshops and burglar alarm companies have never had it so good but the young women of Wichita have never had it so bad – many of its female students have given up individual lodgings in favour of sleeping in communal rooms.

Anto and I stand outside 804 North Edgemoor, the Otero’s former home, trying to pluck up enough courage to knock on the door. As we do so a man with a walking stick hobbles around the corner. “You guys the journalists?” he asks, “I had a call from a lady saying you were coming.” 

Anto and I exchange baffled looks. We have turned up here on the spur of the moment, having told no one of our plans. “C’mon, lemme show you around.” We follow him to the porch keeping quiet about the fact that we have no idea who told him we were coming. This proves not to be the only spooky incident on what proves to be an extraordinary trip.

It turns out that Greg Lietz, a former Burger King manager, bought the Otero’s house six years ago. “They said there had been a murder here but what they didn’t say was that four people were killed, its still unsolved and that it was BTK!” he grins, “I didn’t find out until about four years ago when there was a picture of my house on the TV.”

“This is where he left his footprints in the snow,” he says jabbing at the lawn with his walking stick, “and here are the actual phone lines he cut,” he says pointing to a junction on the side of the house, “look you can see where the new phone lines were spliced in.” He talks animatedly about the killings, explaining his theory that BTK was a student who was initially inspired to kill by the release in America of the film A Clockwork Orange. I ask him if it’s not perhaps a little difficult to live in a house where such atrocities took place. “The only problem was my first halloween,” he says scratching his head, “I bought a bunch of candy for trick or treat but no kids came. They know what happened here and they don’t like being really scared.”

He then shows us where the bodies were found. “The father was in this room on the floor, the mother face down here on the bed and the boy was on the floor in what’s now my library.” When Anto asks if we can see the basement he looks flustered: “Er…no it’s kind of messy down there.” Back in the car Anto and I agree that it has been one of the strangest, most unnerving hours of our lives. In Wichita these days it’s difficult not to ask yourself the question “Have I just met BTK?”

Three months after the Otero killings, on April 4 1974, Katherine Bright came home with her brother Kevin to find BTK was waiting for them. He overpowered both and shot Kevin twice in the head. Miraculously he survived and fled the house to flag down help. By the time the police arrived however, BTK had gone and his sister lay dying from numerous stab wounds to the stomach.

For the next three years it seems that BTK lay low until, on March 17th 1977, 24 year old Shirley Vian’s body was discovered at her home tied up and strangled. Then on December 9th at 8.30am police received a call from a payphone: “Yes. You will find a homicide at 843 South Pershing. Nancy Fox,” said a calm, emotionless voice. The phone was found dangling off the hook whilst Nancy Fox was found bound, tortured, killed (by strangling) and covered in semen.

The first thing Anto and I notice about her old house as we pull up outside, is the length of the grass on the lawn. The rest of the street bustles with life, kids play in gardens, dads wash cars and everywhere the lawns are neat, green and perfectly manicured. Nancy’s house sits peeling in the sun, surrounded by long grass, its shuttered windows like heavy eyelids on a head hung in shame. Houses are our homes, they are where we are supposed to feel safest, they are supposed to protect us. Not this one and it knows it.

With shaky hands I try the front door but its nailed shut. Round the back Anto and I shade our eyes and peer through the window into the bedroom where she died. It’s empty. The wardrobe where BTK hid long gone, probably sold second hand to someone who has no idea what once crouched inside waiting for the sound of Nancy’s key in the front door. Two months after her death police received a letter from BTK and a poem loosely based on and old folklore song entitled “Oh! Death To Nancy” (see below) If we fast forward to the last letter sent by BTK in July 2004, it contains an enclosure called the “BTK Story” which lists as one of its chapters “PJs”. Police believe this may be a reference to DR PJ Wyatt, a female teacher who used the song in English literature classes she taught at Wichita University during the 1970s.

Later that morning at our hotel Anto and I meet up with Bob Beattie, the lawyer whose book on BTK triggered the article that lead to his reappearance. Over lunch he recounts how, last October, Nancy Fox’s mother, father, brother, sister and best friend came to talk with the law students he teaches: “It was very emotional,” he says gazing into the middle distance, “that kinda changed it for me. BTK became less of an intellectual mystery for me and much more personal, emotional and real. Her brother is still a seething volcano of grief even today.” After lunch we walk to the nearby library where BTK left his last package in the book drop off bin less than a month ago. “You know, I thought I was writing a history book,” he grins, “then when Hurst called me saying BTK was back it was like he was telling me aliens had landed.” We look inside the bin but find only books. “You know what?” he says as we head back to the hotel, “I wouldn’t be surprised if I haven’t spoken to or met BTK at some point in the last couple of years.”

That evening Anto and I drive out to the northwest edge of Wichita to the Law Enforcement Training Centre. Tonight sees the first of a series of hastily convened “Residential Safety” seminars organised by police in direct response to the threats BTK placed in the library bin. Along with fifty or so concerned residents of Wichita, I sit through an hour of advice about how to keep intruders out via locks, bolts, peepholes, pepper spray etc. Sitting down I count three men that fit the description of BTK – 5”10ish burly, dark hair, 55-65 years old. I swear that one of them, a particularly sinister looking character, gives me a tiny nod when I catch his eye. I don’t catch his eye again. Strangely, the speaker makes no mention of BTK and we are told later by a cop that this is because of a “directive from the top”.

The next morning Anto and I drive to the clinic of Howard Brodsky a psychologist specialising in sex offenders who was consulted by police about the case throughout the 80’s. “I wouldn’t doubt that in the early 70’s he was jilted by a woman,” explains Brodsky pulling up a couple of chairs, “and it may even have been Julie Otero. And did that lead him to deal with his experience by attending a poetry class at Wichita University?” It’s an interesting theory which leads him on to the inevitable subject of BTK’s reappearance. “I’ve heard from contacts that there are pictures of dead people,” says Brodsky of July’s package, “that’s pretty much confirmed.”

So how can we catch him? “It’s good that you’re here because I want to say things via the press that will provoke him into action. I think he wants to talk and he could do that to a professional like me without fear of being exposed. As long as he doesn’t reveal an imminent risk to somebody else he would have my total confidentiality.” I sit there amazed. Knowing BTK loves to read about himself, Howard Brodsky is using FHM to communicate with BTK! I point out that Brodsky may well have already met BTK as a client. “That could very well be,” he nods, “but I’ve seen so many crazy, psychopaths that I couldn’t tell you which one.”

Anto and I drive away from the clinic deep in thought. Brodsky’s cryptic comments and odd ideas leave us thinking he knows more than he’s letting on. In need of answers, we drive east to visit the office of Richard La Munyon, the former Police Chief of Wichita from 1976 to 1988. “The only thing consistent about BTK is his inconsistency,” shrugs La Munyon who assigned eight of his men to work full time on the case back in 1984, “people know who I am and everywhere I go they want to talk about him. I don’t think he wants to die without people knowing who he is and I really want to know if I know him.”

La Munyon’s frustration is apparent but he’s not alone. The suspicion that BTK’s identity is staring everybody in the face is strangely shared by everyone we’ve met involved with the case. Each of the major players is grimly fascinated by the identity of a man who has taunted, teased and humiliated them for the last thirty years. Each is like a man one clue away from completing an enormous crossword with the last word on the tip of his tongue. For now though the last word must go to Bob Beattie whose book unwittingly triggered BTK’s reappearance: “My book’s not finished yet – hell even I don’t know what’s gonna be in the last chapter!”

Oh! Death To Nancy

What is this that I can see,
Cold icy hands taking hold of me,
For Death has come you all can see.
Hell hath open it’s gate to trick me
Oh! Death, Oh! Death, can’t you spare
Me, over for another year!

I’ll stuff your jaws till you can’t talk
I’ll bind your legs till you can’t walk
I’ll tie your hands till you can’t make a stand

And finally I’ll close your eyes so you
Can’t see
I’ll bring sexual death unto you for me.

BTK: Timeline of a serial killer

January 15th 1974 - Joseph and Julie Otero and their 9 year old son Joseph are found bound and strangled in their home at 803 N. Edgemoor. In the basement their daughter Josephine, 11 is found hanging by a cord attached to a sewage pipe

April 4th 1974 - Kathryn Bright, 21, is found stabbed to death in her home at 3217 E. 13th St. Her brother raises the alarm having been shot twice in the head. He survives.

October 1974 - The Wichita Eagle receives a letter from a person calling himself BTK claiming to have killed the Oteros. The letter includes details of the crime scene that only the killer could have known.

March 17th 1977 - Shirley Vian, 24, is found tied up and strangled in her house at 1311 S. Hydraulic.
Dec. 8th 1977 - Nancy Fox, 25, is found tied up and strangled in her home at 843 S. Pershing. BTK's voice is captured on tape when he calls the police to report the homicide.

Jan. 31th 1978 - A poem written with a child's printing set on an index card arrives at The Wichita Eagle. The poem, “Shirley Locks” which is based on the “Curley Locks” nursery rhyme, refers to the Shirley Vian killing.

Feb. 10th 1978 -- A letter from BTK arrives at KAKE TV claiming responsibility for the deaths of Vian and Fox, as well as another unnamed victim. It includes the poem Oh! Death to Nancy. Police Chief Richard LaMunyon announces that a serial killer is at large.

April 28th 1979 - The killer waits inside a home in the 600 South Pinecrest, but leaves before the 63-year-old female homeowner returns. He later sends the woman a letter letting her know he was there. Police think the killer was targeting the woman's daughter.

Aug. 15, 1979 -- Wichitans listen to repeated radio and television broadcasts of the voice of the BTK strangler from the 1977 phone call.

1984 - A new BTK investigation is opened by a group known as "The Ghostbusters," who spend three years employing new techniques including DNA testing, computer database searches and psychological profiles.

Sept. 16, 1986 - Vicki Wegerle, 28, is strangled in her home at 2404 W. 13th St.

January 1988 - The wife of murder victim Phillip Fager receives a letter from a man claiming to be BTK saying he did not kill Fager and his two daughters.

January 17th 2004 - The Wichita Eagle publishes an article on the 30th anniversay of the Otero killing hinting that BTK may be dead

March 19, 2004 - A letter arrives at The Wichita Eagle containing a photocopy of Vicki Wegerle's driver's license and three pictures of her body. Relatives say the license was the only thing missing from Wegerle's home.

May June July 2004 - Three letters arrive bearing BTK’s trademark motif. Police refuse to reveal contents but it is widely believed they contain photos of previously unclaimed dead bodies and threats to kill again.

Sixty year old Dennis Rader a.k.a. BTK, married with two children, president of the local Christian Lutheran Church and Cub Scout leader was arrested some six months later on February 16th 2005 after a floppy disk he sent to the police revealed embedded information about his identity. Because Kansas has no death penalty, Rader was sentenced to ten consecutive life terms, a minimum of one hundred and seventy five years, without parole.

First Appeared in FHM - Used by Kind Permission

Read 6475 times Last modified on Saturday, 13 February 2021 14:37
Rate this item
(2 votes)
Piers Hernu

Piers Hernu

About Us

ZANI was conceived in late 2008 and the fan base gradually grew by word of mouth. Key contributors came from those of the music, film and fashion industry and the voice of ZANI grew louder. So, when in 2013 investor, contributor and fan of ZANI Alan McGee* offered his support to help restyle and relaunch the site it was inevitable that traffic would increase dramatically and continues to grow. *Alan McGee co-founder of Creation Records and new label 359 Music..


What We Do

ZANI is an independent online magazine for readers interested in contemporary culture, covering Music, Film & TV, Sport, Art amongst other cultural topics. Relevant to modern times ZANI is a dynamic website and a flagship for creative movement and thinking wherever our readers live in the world.