‘BTK’ Busted, Wichita Paper Linked to Case Has Special Coverage

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By: Joe Strupp

Police announced Saturday morning that they had uncovered new evidence in the decades-old BTK serial killer case, leading to the arrest of a suspect.

?BTK is arrested,? Police Chief Norman Williams said to a standing ovation at Wichita City Hall Saturday morning during a televised news conference carried on three national news channels. The suspect is Dennis L. Rader, a 59-year-old city worker, active in his church for 25 years, and a Cub Scout leader. He is married with grown children.

The Rev. Mike Clark of Christ Lutheran Church said that Rader held a leadership position there.

The 30-year-old serial murder case has been more than just another news story to The Wichita (Kan.) Eagle. Since he first began his killing spree, the killer known as “BTK” has been inextricably linked to the daily newspaper.

Assistant Managing Editor Tim Rogers told E&P Saturday that the paper would not run an extra edition but plans ?a massive Sunday paper? with five or six open pages of news on the case. He also said about 15 reporters are covering the latest developments, a major increase from the usual two reporters assigned on Saturday.

The Sunday Eagle, indeed, carried numerous pages of pieces, with several stories about the suspect’s colleagues in his church, his neighbors, past suspicions, and how the national media reacted.

After he first struck in early 1974, BTK (his self-given nickname for “Bind, Torture, Kill”) has sent the newspaper four letters and one poem. The Eagle’s Web site received a subpoena last year when investigators thought the murderer might be posting items on a discussion board. And BTK’s recent re-appearance, in the form of a letter he sent the newspaper last spring after 16 years of silence, is believed to have been sparked by a lengthy Eagle story marking the 30th anniversary of the first killing.

The paper was back in the news in December when a man arrested on an outstanding warrant was thought to have a link to the case. But he was quickly ruled out as a suspect. Police also found a driver’s license and some other items belonging to one victim killed in 1977 at that time.

There was more news in January, as police announced that they believed that the killer took a necklace from that 1977 victim and gave it to a girlfriend at the time.
Three area reporters covering the story had DNA samples voluntarily swabbed from their mouths in June. “It seemed like a logical thing for them to do,” Hurst Laviana, an Eagle reporter told E&P in December, adding that police told him they’d received five tips from people urging that the reporter be tested. He never heard back from investigators after the test occurred.

The elusive BTK has killed eight people since Jan. 15, 1974, with most of the murders committed between 1974 and 1977, and the last in 1986. The majority were strangled in their homes. The first letter to the Eagle-Beacon, as it was known then, appeared 10 months after the initial killing; it had been placed inside a book at the local library and was found after a call to the paper alerted reporters. The last letter arrived in March 2004 and included crime-scene photos from the 1986 murder as well as a copy of that victim’s driver’s license.

BTK has sent letters and made phone calls to a local television station as well, but the Eagle has remained his key media connection.

“It’s a self-conscious position for a newspaper to be in,” said Sherry Chisenhall, editor since July and a five-year Eagle employee, said last year. “We are more careful about how we are doing things.”

Although the BTK case had been quiet for more than a decade, its unsolved nature required Laviana during his 23 years at the paper to ask police the same question when covering any local murder: “Did the [killer] cut the phone lines?” — one of BTK’s signature practices.

Early on, the paper’s ties to the case went beyond the letters when the Eagle-Beacon offered a $5,000 reward for information leading to an arrest in 1974. When BTK’s poem was received in 1978, just two weeks before Valentine’s Day, it was mistakenly thought to be one of the romantic messages the paper runs on Feb. 14 and was originally sent to the classified advertising department. The paper also has done stories as wide-ranging as how psychics viewed the case.

BTK made his need for media attention clear in a 1978 letter to a local television station, in which he said, “How many do I have to kill before I get my name in the paper?” adding, “a little paragraph … would have been enough.”

After the investigation received a new boost in 2004 from the latest letter, the Eagle found itself again in a strange position as both a provider of evidence and chronicler of the news. When Laviana received the most recent BTK letter on Friday, March 19, he immediately passed it on to police, but they did not look into it until the following Monday. Investigators then took two days to review it and asked the Eagle to withhold certain information from its story, which ran on March 25 — nearly a week after the paper received the letter.

Wichita Police officials have continuously declined to comment to E&P about the case or the newspaper’s coverage.

The Eagle found itself in the middle of the investigation again in April when the Sedgwick County District Attorney’s office subpoenaed the identities of six people who had posted items to a BTK bulletin board on the paper’s Web site. The Eagle cooperated without a fight, Chisenhall said, but drew criticism from District Attorney Nola Foulston when the paper ran a story about the subpoenas.

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