The killer came back. Or maybe he was here all along.
A serial strangler who tormented his victims and taunted an entire town with his murderous boasts before disappearing for 25 years has resurfaced in recent months with proof that he had killed again -- in 1986. The self-named "B.T.K. Strangler" -- for bind, torture, kill -- is playing his cat-and-mouse game anew, all but daring someone to find him.
First came the letter in March to the Wichita Eagle newspaper with photocopied Polaroids of the corpse of Vicki Wegerle, a young mother killed in 1986 in a case that had gone unsolved. She is now considered his eighth murder victim. Then came a letter to a television station, one to the police and one discovered on a July morning at the Wichita Public Library.
Police raced to restart their investigation. They dusted off old file boxes, studied cryptic new clues and dispatched officers to request DNA samples from hundreds of Wichita residents. They have circulated the killer's poems -- "Drop of fear fresh Spring rain would roll down from your nakedness" -- in the hope that someone will recognize the demented author.
The latest phase has generated more than 4,000 tips. Police, who report being "inundated" with requests for safety advice, are conducting public training sessions while warning residents to use deadbolt locks and never open doors to uninvited strangers.
"It's kind of freaky," said high school student Caitlin Thompson, 17, who was born 13 years after B.T.K. first struck in 1974, "because you don't know whether he's going to do it again."
One of the case's most intriguing traits is that a cold trail grew warm because the murderer wanted it that way. To the detectives and amateur sleuths who had once cared, the pursuit of B.T.K. had become a distant puzzle, something they found themselves pondering when they were out fishing or mowing the lawn. Thirty years after the first slaying, it looked as though B.T.K. had gotten away with murder. Seven of them.
B.T.K. had been silent for so long, in fact, that most everyone figured him for dead.
"There's going to be more. B.T.K.'s not going to let it drop," Wichita psychologist Howard Brodsky said. "He loves the attention. He definitely likes to taunt."
To investigators, the killer remains faceless. There has never been a credible description, although traumatized survivors in the 1970s estimated his age from the mid-twenties to perhaps 30. He is best known for his gruesome crimes and his notes, which tend toward the melodramatic. His inner demons figure prominently.
"I can't stop it so the monster goes on and hurts me as well as society," he wrote after the killings began. "It's a big complicated game my friend the monster play, putting victims number down, follow them, checking up on them, waiting in the dark, waiting, waiting."
It was a wintry morning, Jan. 15, 1974, when B.T.K. first attacked. In a working-class neighborhood in east Wichita, he cut the telephone line after Joseph Otero, 38, drove off to school with his three oldest children. Inside the house were Julie Otero and the couple's two youngest, 11-year-old Josephine and 9-year-old Joseph II.
Investigators remain unsure how B.T.K. got inside. He may have rung the bell, or he may have simply pushed open an unlocked door. He appears to have fought with Julie Otero, who had some training in martial arts. He bound her feet and strangled her and did the same to Joseph II. When the elder Joseph Otero arrived home unexpectedly, B.T.K. tied him and choked him to death.
The killer spent the longest time in the basement, police believe, hanging Josephine from a pipe and masturbating. B.T.K. did not sexually assault his victims, but in the Otero house and others, police discovered semen, the source of the DNA detectives are trying to match.
It was not long before police had what they called a confession from a young Wichita man, who named two friends as accomplices. Word spread fast, inspiring the true killer to indignation. He placed a letter in an engineering book at the library and called the Wichita Eagle with instructions about where to find it.
"I did it by myself and no ones help," he said in the October 1974 letter, dismissing the suspects as mere attention seekers. He reported details that only the killer could know. For good measure, he included a symbol of authenticity that would mark later missives, including the one mailed to the Eagle this year.
The police were persuaded. The hunt was back on.
By then, B.T.K. had killed his next victim, Kathryn Bright, 21. He was waiting for her when she arrived home. Either then or later, her brother also entered the apartment. The attacker tied up Kevin Bright in a separate room, tried to strangle him, shot him in the head and left him for dead. After B.T.K. left the room, Bright staggered from the apartment and survived, badly wounded and foggy about the details. In a panic, retired police chief Richard LaMunyon said, B.T.K. stabbed Kathryn Bright to death.
For three years, he was not heard from.
On March 17, 1977, B.T.K. herded Shirley Vian's three young children into a bathroom of their house at 1311 S. Hydraulic. As he killed her, the children escaped through a bathroom window. They described a white man about the age of their 26-year-old mother. They said he carried a black bag, but other details remained fuzzy.
The same year, the killer struck again, strangling Nancy Fox, 25, and calling 911 from a pay phone. "You will find a homicide at 843 South Pershing," he said in a tape replayed endlessly on Wichita radio and television stations. Detectives hoped, in vain, that someone would recognize the voice.
Four attacks, seven dead bodies, but no good leads. Police found little that united the cases.
On Jan. 31, 1978, B.T.K. got in touch again. He sent a short poem to the Eagle, where a clerk first assumed it was a Valentine's Day paean. It began, "Shirleylocks, shirleylocks." It was the killer, referring to Shirley Vian.
The police didn't broadcast the note, and the killer became frustrated. He contacted KAKE television.
"How many people do I have to kill before I get my name in the paper or some national attention? How about some name for me, its time: 7 down and many more to go," he wrote. "I like the following. How about you? The B.T.K. STRANGLER, THE WICHITA HANGMAN, THE WICHITA EXECUTIONER, THE GAROTE PHANTOM, THE ASPHYXIATOR."
Number eight got away. On April 28, 1979, the killer waited for Anna Williams, 63, but she was at a square dance and stopped to visit her daughter, not returning home at her usual time. B.T.K. left in a huff. He soon sent a 19-line poem to Williams and KAKE, along with proof that he had been inside her home. He titled his ode, "Oh, Anna, Why Didn't You Appear."
"T'was a perfect plan of deviant pleasure so bold on that Spring nite," it read.
"Alone, now in another time span, I lay with sweet enrapture garments across most private thought. . . . Alone again I trod in pass memory of mirrors, and wonder why for number eight was not. Oh, Anna, Why Didn't You Appear."
When B.T.K. was in his prime, Wichita had only six homicide detectives. Retired detective Arlyn Smith recalled feeling daunted. "We looked at the boxes and boxes of evidence and thought, 'We're never going to be able to get through all of it,' " he said. He and his partner focused on finding the machines B.T.K. used to photocopy letters.
They succeeded, confirming that he used a public photocopier at Wichita State University and at the library, near where he left his first letter. They also researched the serial killers B.T.K. had named in homage and gathered lists of WSU students, including those who attended a course in which professor P.J. Wyatt used the folklore poem "Oh! Death." It seemed to be the model for another B.T.K. poem, " Oh! Death To Nancy."
One day in the winter of 1979, Smith and his partner were promoted to lieutenant, and their sleuthing ended. A squad of detectives calling themselves "Ghostbusters" tried again in the 1980s, gathering scores of DNA samples, but got nowhere. And that's where the case stayed until March.
"Why does he want all this attention now? It's like he's saying, 'Look at me, I'm still here,' " said Marilyn Wardlow, who lives a few miles outside Wichita and well remembers the fright of the 1970s, when women reflexively checked their phones to see if the wires had been snipped.
One theory is that B.T.K. was reacting to 30-year retrospectives of the Otero killing that appeared this year. In January, the Eagle revisited the case, quoting lawyer Robert Beattie, 48, who is writing a book about the case. In the piece, Beattie said he doubted B.T.K. would surface. Others suggested he must be dead, behind bars or far away.
It turns out he was none of the above. And surface he did. Soon.
"This guy liked -- and likes -- publicity," ex-chief LaMunyon said. "I don't think he wants to die without people knowing who he is. In fact, I'll be disappointed if he does."
Solving the mystery has become a parlor game in Wichita, pop. 350,000, where fear blends with fascination. There are B.T.K. bulletin boards on the Internet and a steady stream of news accounts and hypotheses. Psychologist Brodsky, for example, believes B.T.K. might be a truck driver or a regular visitor, but not a resident.
"It kind of freaks me out, but it's kind of interesting, knowing there's a killer out there," said Carly Moore, 20, a WSU student. "Obviously, he's very smart if he's gotten away with it."
WSU offers a course on serial killers, taught by Lt. Ken Landwehr, who happens to be the chief of Wichita's homicide squad and the lead spokesman on the recent B.T.K. activity. He rarely grants interviews -- police are holding details very tightly -- but he told the class, according to Moore, "I'm going to catch this guy, don't worry."