Thirty years ago, Seattle Times sports editor Cathy Henkel was a reporter in Wichita when she obtained a letter written by serial killer "BTK" and made it public that he was stalking his next victim.
The letter still burns in my hands.
Thirty years later, the words of a madman are still horrifying to read — how he killed a family of four, binding and strangling each. The 11-year-old girl had been hung from a pipe in the basement; her parents and 9-year-old brother strangled in their bedrooms.
All just a mile from where I grew up in Wichita, Kan.
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Afterward, he would type the two-page letter and include every detail of his killing spree — what kind of knot he used on each, what clothes they wore, how he left their bodies, and the souvenirs he took: the boy’s radio, the father’s watch.
“I needed one, so I took it. Runs good.”
He tucked his letter in a book at the downtown public library. The police retrieved it on a tip, then kept it secret for months, even though the killer said he was stalking his next victim, preparing to kill again. He was begging for attention.
That’s when, as a 26-year-old reporter, I obtained a copy of the letter from a trusted source, one who stays anonymous to this day. The newspaper I worked for, a now-defunct weekly called “The Wichita Sun,” published the story, revealing that a serial killer was ready to strike again and that the police were keeping it quiet.
His sentences were clipped, his grammar poor and words misspelled, but his letter was numbing:
“When this monster enter my brain, I will never know. But, it here to stay … Society can be thankfull that there are ways for people like me to relieve myself at time by day dreams of some victim being torture and being mine. It a big compicated game my friend of the monster play putting victims number down, follow them, checking up on them waiting in the dark, waiting, waiting … Maybe you can stop him. I can’t. He has areadly chosen his next victim.”
He signed it, “Yours, Truly Guiltily,” adding that his code name would be “BTK,” for “Bind, Torture, Kill.”
Police say now that there were 10 murders.
The killer sent letters, drawings and poems to the news media, taunting the police. And then he stopped writing for 25 years.
Had he died? Was he in prison? In a mental institution?
Last March, he broke his silence, sending letters again to the media and leaving packets around the city — one in a Post Toasties box by a roadside — containing trinkets taken from his victims: a driver’s license, jewelry, photos of a victim before and after her death, and finally, chapters of a book he was writing about his life titled “The BTK Files.” In all, nearly a dozen communications from a serial killer who had not gone away.
He was still somebody’s neighbor.
They had his voice on tape, calling in a “homicide” in 1977. I listened to his voice countless times, straining to recognize it. They had his DNA. He sent them a biographical chapter from his book. They had so many clues that the Wichita police became a laughingstock.
But nobody was laughing.
Least of all me. When the article was published in 1974, I received threatening calls. Were they cranks, or was BTK now stalking me?
When the killer resurfaced, they started again. This time from Internet chat rooms, where I was vilified for protecting my source, where someone suggested I “should be hung.”
The letters kept coming, too, even to my desk at The Seattle Times. About a month ago, a psychic sent me a veiled clue and asked me to act upon it.
There were many suspects through the years. In 1998, police cordoned off a block in east Wichita, hovered overhead in a helicopter, and beat on the door of one of my best friends.
They believed he was BTK.
Varying witnesses had described BTK as short and tall, dark and blond. Police said my friend Dan fit their profile: A former cop and a crime reporter, he lived in the area of the killings. But most of all, he had a copy of that letter.
The police reached me at The Times and asked me about the letter. Sheepishly, I told them that I gave a copy to Dan, a historian of sorts, when I moved to the Northwest 28 years ago. Dan and I used to talk a lot about BTK, gathering theories. We also worked with Bob Beattie, a Wichita attorney who has been writing a book about the killer for the past three years. It was supposed to be published next month, but who knows now.
Last spring, when I was back in Wichita caring for a sick friend, BTK had just returned to the scene, claiming a victim police had not attributed to him. And he included photos of her dying to prove it.
It felt like 1974 again.
My mother was in the hospital, and I was afraid to stay in her big house alone. But I had to go in, get some clothes, feed the cat, do some chores. I couldn’t seem to do it, though, especially when I found that a door had been left unlocked. With BTK’s return, the local media were trying to find me and had left several calls on my mother’s answering machine. If they could find me now, I reasoned, so could BTK.
I asked a neighbor to go in the house with me. Flashlight in hand, we threw open each door, looked inside each closet. The cat scampered and hid as we went through all three floors, holding our breath.
Of course, we found nothing.
Outside, we laughed at ourselves, and he told me a story.
“You know, I was a paper boy in that neighborhood where those first killings took place,” he said.
Every Wichitan seemed to have a connection to one of the murders. In the Midwest, we all knew somebody who knew somebody.
My mind raced. They said that the killer probably traveled in the neighborhood easily, unnoticed. What if my neighbor was BTK?
But I’d known him all my life; there was no way he could be BTK.
We all had stories like that over the years. The neighbors of the man now in custody are telling similar ones.
Today, Wichita is breathing again. I watched the news conference from 1,800 miles away as the mayor and the police chief hugged, as the entire room stood up and cheered when the chief said, “The bottom line: BTK is arrested.”
The suspect has a face now. Late Friday night, I found photos of him on the Internet, cavorting in a school or church play. There is a paper sign pinned on his chest, “Help Us.” He is 59, married, has two grown children. He lives in Park City, a Wichita suburb, and is a 1979 graduate of criminal justice from Wichita State University. He is the president of his church congregation and has been a Cub Scout leader. He worked for the city.
My heart still skips when I think of him. It is hard to believe that these horrible crimes might finally be solved.
If so, there can be peace at last.
Cathy Henkel: 206-464-8278 or firstname.lastname@example.org.