Once again, Wichita is in fear of the 1970s BTK Strangler

Authorities say new letter takes blame for '86 death, appears to be authentic

March 27, 2004|By Jon Yates | Jon Yates,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

WICHITA, Kansas - For some, the memories had only recently faded, the gnawing dread that made them check behind their doors when they came home at night or look for broken windows before they entered.

Now, 30 years after the first grisly murders that terrorized this Midwestern city, fear has again gripped many in Wichita after police said this week that the serial killer called the BTK Strangler has resurfaced.

A March 19 letter to a local newspaper suggests the killer, last heard from in 1979, was responsible for the killing of a 28-year-old housewife in 1986.

The letter included a copy of her stolen driver's license and crime scene photos as evidence.

The letter, which authorities believe is authentic, has spurred a run on pepper spray, sparked a flood of calls to local home security businesses, and dredged up old nightmares of an unknown killer who some say changed this city forever.

"He was our bogeyman," said Robert Beattie, a Wichita native who is writing a book about the killings. "If this guy is out there, he's still dangerous because he was always dangerous."

Authorities say the Strangler first struck in 1974, killing a family of four in their home on the city's east side. Police believe that, over the next 12 years, he killed four more times, attacking young women in their homes.

Richard LaMunyon, who was the city's police chief from 1976 until 1989, said investigators interviewed several suspects but could never crack the case.

LaMunyon said the Strangler communicated with police through letters to local media. He got his nickname after a letter sent in 1978 in which he asked for one and suggested nine possibilities.

Bind, torture, kill

Among his suggestions were the Wichita Executioner, the Poetic Strangler, the Asphyxiater and the BTK Strangler - a reference to his method of killing: bind, torture and kill.

LaMunyon said his office consulted psychologists who told him to agree to a name to establish a line of communication. They chose the BTK Strangler.

Until last week, the Strangler's last letter was in 1979, and many thought he had died. LaMunyon said that from what he knows about the most recent letter, it is real - and it is the Strangler.

"We don't know if he was in jail; we don't know if he was here all along," said LaMunyon, who estimates that the man is now in his late 50s or early 60s. While LaMunyon doubts the Strangler would strike again, not everyone here is convinced.

"It's not that I'm afraid of him, but it's always in the back of your mind. It's imbedded," said Susan Ferguson, 48, a waitress who remembers being convinced that the Strangler would get her if she stayed out after dark. Ferguson said she still opens her door at home with extra force, in case somebody is hiding behind it.

Others, like Misty Dillon at 26, are too young to remember how Wichita reacted in the 1970s. For her generation, the BTK Strangler was a ghost story that only now has become real.

"I was going to buy some Mace for myself, but I heard they were sold out," Dillon said. "It has me concerned."

Charles Bright, whose daughter, Kathryn Bright, 21, was the Strangler's fifth victim when she was killed April 4, 1974, said he never thought he'd hear from the Strangler again.

"After it went on so long, I thought he was in prison or dead," he said yesterday. "It's up to the police to find him now. They've got hopes. I hope so too."

Rose Stanley, who was an anchorwoman at KAKE television in Wichita in 1977, said she was the target of one of the Strangler's letters. In the letter, the Strangler said he was going to "get" a local newswoman.

At the time, she said, she was the only anchorwoman at the station. Stanley, now an investment executive in Wichita, said she is taking things cautiously.

"I think everybody is kind of shocked," she said. "It's kind of like, oh my gosh, 30 years and this again?"

Some kind of joke

Not everyone is afraid. Some wonder whether it truly is the Strangler or a relative or friend who got hold of the pictures and sent them as a joke.

Matt Simmon, 40, said he remembers his father keeping a pistol under his pillow at night during the height of the BTK Strangler fears. Simmon, a meter reader for the local water company, said he hasn't even considered taking similar action.

"I'm fascinated by it," he said. "I hope they catch whoever sent the letter because to be terrorizing the city in this way is just kind of cruel."

Some, like Jodi Drinkwater, said that while they are concerned, they are determined not to show fear, figuring fear is what the Strangler thrives on.

"We left our house open," Drinkwater, 36, said. "We always do. It's kind of in defiance. If he wants to break into a house that's already open, that doesn't say much about his ability."

Investigators say that throughout his killings, the BTK Strangler kept to a routine. In all but one instance, he cut the phone line to the home, then broke in and waited. The killings were particularly brutal, and he apparently took photos at at least one of the homes.

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