By: Brian Orloff
Wichita media have had a strong connection to serial killer BTK since his first victim in 1974, receiving various communications from the killer including letters, poems, and notes. Journalists grappled with what, or how much, of these communications to publish in order to serve the public but not jeopardize the police’s investigation.
Now that a suspect — Dennis L. Rader — has been arrested, journalists in Wichita have been more forthcoming about some evidence that they previously withheld. A Los Angeles Times story, called “Media’s Role in BTK Case Scrutinized,” spotlighted various journalists who reflected on their interactions with authorities and the ways in which they handled the evidence.
The story quoted Wichita Eagle staff writer Hurst Laviana, a key BTK reporter, saying, “I have regrets for holding things back.” But today Laviana told E&P that he feels comfortable with the Eagle’s treatment of the evidence. He says the paper only refused to publish one letter with a BTK signature and a series of numbers and letters, which it published Wednesday.
“That very first letter, it was simply three photographs and three other items on a single sheet of paper,” Laviana said. “One was a signature — a BTK signature that he had put on his earlier communications. … Because that signature was on our letter, they realized it was authentic. And if they put out the signature, they couldn’t weed out the copycats.”
“The second thing they asked us to withhold was a series of letters and numbers which we published in yesterday’s newspaper,” Laviana continued. “It looked like gibberish. It didn’t look like it meant anything. That’s what I meant when I told the L.A. Times reporter that maybe that was not the right thing to do. I’m not saying it was the wrong thing to do, I’m not saying it was the right thing to do. But if there’s anything to second guess, it would be that decision.”
Police also asked Laviana not to publish the identity of BTK’s 1986 murder victim after he received a copy of her driver’s license. Laviana published it anyway. “I just said, ‘No way. I just can’t withhold that,'” he said.
The Los Angeles Times story also revealed that an ABC affiliate, KAKE-TV, received clues and letters from BTK as well, including a puzzle filled with clues and a doll, its hands bound and a bag over its head. But Laviana said the only clue the Eagle received, and withheld, was the string of numbers and letters.
The question of what to withhold recently rankled Wichita Police Chief Norman Williams, who made news when he threatened to sue media outlets for publishing what he felt were unsubstantiated reports. The Eagle ran an editorial arguing that the media and police must work together in the investigation.
Despite a slightly contentious history, Laviana said that his decision to publish information, such as the victim’s identity, for instance, shows the independent nature of the press.
“The police lieutenant … asked me [to withhold that information]. He didn’t tell me,” Laviana said.
He explained the relationship, and the occasional friction, as part of a “professional relationship” between police and journalists. “Sometimes they do things we don’t like. Sometimes we do things they don’t like,” he said.
The Wichita Eagle will continue to cover the BTK story with in-depth coverage. Laviana says his next story, which will run this weekend, will explore the suspect’s life and history. “We’re trying to find out everything we can about the guy,” he said.