Suspect in `BTK' killings arrested

Investigation of Kansas deaths spans 30 years

At least eight homicides

February 27, 2005|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WICHITA, Kan. -- Authorities announced yesterday morning that they had made an arrest in one of this city's most puzzling and lasting mysteries: the hunt for a man blamed for at least eight killings beginning more than 30 years ago who had dubbed himself the "BTK" killer for his preferred method -- bind, torture, kill.

"The bottom line: BTK is arrested," Police Chief Norman Williams said yesterday, setting off a round of applause from the dozens of people gathered in the City Council chambers, including family members of some of the victims.

The suspect, identified as Dennis L. Rader, was arrested without incident, said Lt. Kenneth Landwehr, who led the investigation for the Wichita Police Department.

"We will be approaching the district attorney's office next week to see if charges will be filed against this individual," Landwehr said.

Officials said Rader, 59, was a supervisor with the Park City Compliance Department. Among his duties was animal control, including dog catching.

In addition to the eight homicides blamed on the BTK killer, Sheriff Gary Steed of Sedgwick County told reporters yesterday that investigators were trying to determine whether Rader was responsible for at least two other killings -- in 1985 and in 1991.

The 1985 case involved a 53-year-old woman, Marine Hedge, who lived on Rader's street in Park City. Law enforcement officials said she was abducted from her home and her body was found eight days later along a dirt road.

The Sedgwick County district attorney, Nola Foulston, said that she and other officials would not give any details on statements that investigators might have taken, evidence gathered or forensic tests until charges were filed.

But Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, attending the winter meeting of the National Governors Association in Washington, told the Associated Press that state highway patrol officials familiar with the case told her that investigators had linked Rader to the slayings.

"The way they made the link was some DNA evidence, that they had some DNA connection to the guy who they arrested," Sebelius said.

The announcement came after more than three decades, off and on, of a frightened city's search for a killer, which included DNA tests on thousands of residents, millions of dollars and uncounted work hours expended by police investigators, and a peculiar and public cat-and-mouse game between a killer and an otherwise fairly quiet Kansas city of about 350,000.

Between 1974 and 1986, BTK was blamed for eight killings -- among his apparently random victims was a 38-year-old retired Air Force mechanic, his wife and their two young children, who were slain in their home -- as he taunted police officials and the local news media with letters that provided graphic details of the slayings.

Then, nearly 20 years ago, the killer simply dropped out of sight. He resurfaced a year ago with a letter to a local newspaper claiming responsibility for the eighth killing on Sept. 16, 1986. The victim was Vicki Wegerle, a 28-year-old homemaker and the mother of two small children. She was found strangled at her home, but her 2-year-old son, who was with her, was unharmed.

The arrest, announced at City Hall by a crowd of local, state and federal officials, came after a day of frenzied police activity in Wichita on Friday, as SWAT and bomb unit officials gathered in a neighborhood in Park City, a modest suburb 10 minutes north of downtown Wichita. Officials said that Rader's house was searched and that computer equipment was removed.

But the arrest also came after 31 years of waiting. Wichita police had been looking for BTK since January 1974, the month of the first killings. In the interim, police chiefs and officers had come and gone. Witnesses and family members of victims had moved away or died. Police technology had changed drastically, and profiles of the killer had been drawn and redrawn. And clues -- usually more the stuff of murder mysteries than of real life -- continued to appear, leaving some in this city wondering what it would take for the police to finally get their man.

The first killing left four members of the Otero family -- Joseph Otero Jr., 38; his wife, Julie, 34; and their two children, Josephine, 11, and Joseph II, 9 -- dead in their Wichita home. They had each been strangled with cord from Venetian blinds. In the 12 years that followed, police would attribute four more deaths to BTK.

Each killing fit the same pattern. The killer was diligent, efficient, audacious. He cut telephone lines. He slipped into homes unnoticed -- the authorities believe that in at least some of the cases he used fake identification to gain access to his victims' homes. He left his victims bound and killed them slowly.

Most of all, he wrote. For years, BTK sent chilling, taunting letters to anyone, it seemed, who might listen -- the police, the local newspaper, the television stations -- in which he often left what appeared to be tantalizing clues.

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