April 19, 2004

A serial killer terrorizes a city, hiding in people’s houses, cutting their phone lines, and strangling them when they get home. In letters to the local media and police, he dubs himself “BTK” after his M.O. — binding, torturing, then killing his victims. City residents get into the habit of checking their phones for a dial tone as soon as they get home.

Welcome to Wichita, Kan., 1974.

After he’d killed seven and tried for one more, BTK disappeared in 1979. Twenty years after his first killing, when The Wichita Eagle ran an anniversary story on the case, he was an old but vivid nightmare, still at large. By the time the thirtieth anniversary rolled around this January, and Eagle crime reporter Hurst Laviana wrote another retrospective for the paper, BTK was a ghost story.

Perfect time for a sequel.

Two months later, BTK sent the Eagle a message, touching off a flurry of new coverage, both from the paper and of it, subpoenas to some users of the Eagle‘s website, and a host of questions about what happens when a newspaper becomes part of the story.

The Return of BTK

On March 19, 2004, Laviana was hustling from the newsroom on his way to a daily 10 a.m. police briefing when his editor Tim Rogers handed him a suspicious envelope, just in from the mailroom. After a quick glance at the envelope (with “Bill Thomas Killman” listed as the name on the return address) and the cryptic photocopy inside (three crime scene photos and a driver’s license), Laviana made photocopies of the material and kept them. He took the originals with him to the police briefing, where he gave the letter to police captain Darrell Haynes.

At first, Laviana dismissed the letter as a crank, like the one he’d gotten six weeks earlier from a prison inmate in Kansas City who’d confessed to a host of murders, trying to get a transfer to another facility. Preoccupied by deadline pressures that Friday, Laviana didn’t really look at the photocopies he’d made until later in the day. The name on the driver’s license — Vicki Wegerle — immediately caught his eye. It belonged to the victim of an unsolved murder from the mid-’80s. He wondered if the sender might have been Wegerle’s killer, but he put the matter out of his mind until the Monday morning police briefing, when he asked Haynes about it.

The police captain had left the letter on his desk over the weekend, but after Laviana’s reminder, he forwarded it to the homicide department. Later that day, homicide detective Kelly Otis called Laviana, with a simple request:

“He said, ‘Give me two days,'” said Laviana, in a phone interview, “and I immediately knew what he meant. He meant he wanted us not to publish a story (on the letter) for two days. I went to my assistant managing editor Tom Shine.”

Hurst Laviana: “The way (the police) were acting … I started thinking, ‘This could be something big.'”

Laviana, Otis, and their supervisors agreed on a deal — the Eagle wouldn’t publish anything about the letter right away, but the police would talk to them exclusively on the record about it on Wednesday.

By Tuesday afternoon, his talks with the police had Laviana’s news instincts going. “It was just the vibes I was getting from the cops,” he said, “the way they were acting, that I started thinking, ‘This could be something big.'”

But the paper had to wait for the police. “Without them saying, ‘This is a letter from BTK,’ we had no story,” said Tom Shine. “We had a letter with no writing on it with three crime scene photos and a driver’s license. We had no idea what it meant. … So when the police told us we need time to verify this, we didn’t have much of a choice.”

On Wednesday, the police department delivered its verdict exclusively to the Eagle: “The photographs appear to be authentic,” said lieutenant Ken Landwehr to the paper. “I’m 100 percent sure it’s BTK.”

The killer had ended his 25-year silence.

Part of the Story

That Wednesday afternoon, the Eagle posted a short breaking news item on its website. Alice Sky, who manages the newspaper’s site from Kansas City, had left work for the day when her liaison at the newspaper e-mailed her the news about BTK’s return. Sky estimates she spent about five hours that night setting up a special section on the site for the case.

The story exploded into the national media the next morning.

For the Eagle, the days after the story brought the deluge of coverage one might expect — a timeline of the case, neighborhood safety tips, an interview with an FBI profiler, follow-ups with the police, even a piece about the spike in local sales of security devices. “You can’t write enough about BTK if you are in Wichita,” said Eagle editor Rick Thames. “Assuming you’re covering new ground and not exploiting the issue, and I really don’t feel we’ve done that.”

Thames said the paper focused on advancing the investigation with the most thorough reporting possible, without alarming Wichita residents unnecessarily. Here are his words on the paper’s strategy:

We tried very hard to define the potential for danger through our interviews with police, but they were pretty tightlipped. So we just tried to lay out the story as dispassionately as we could, offering people everything that we knew. And then as the story developed, I felt like it was very important that the Eagle report on it with as much depth as possible, not just because people were interested in it, but because there was an active search. And the possibility that the BTK could still be caught.

The Eagle has the most extensive files of any medium on BTK. Thirty years of reporting, crime by crime, in great depth and detail by a lot of great reporters over the years. And those files were still there with us. Up until this point, we had looked upon them as history. Suddenly now they were something alive and relevant.

Rick Thames: “As the story developed, I felt like it was very important that the Eagle report on it with as much depth as possible, not just because people were interested in it, but because there was an active search. And the possibility that the BTK could still be caught.”One of the first things we did was we asked one of our better reporters, Roy Wentzl, to begin digging through (the Eagle‘s archive of files on BTK) for every detail he could find about the killer. Characteristics, tendencies, proclivites, likes and dislikes, just clues that the killer had dropped over the years through various cases. And I was really pleased that we were able to put together a very comprehensive story in a very short period of time. …

Roy had this package ready for Sunday’s paper, and we ran it under the heading of ‘Do You Know BTK?’ And we’ve continued to run stories of that nature under that heading, because the fact is there are a number of people in Wichita who are having contact with this person, no doubt. And there may well be something that we could report that would provide the clue that people need.

The Eagle adapted quickly to the fact that the paper was a player in the story, and didn’t shrink from covering itself in that role. In response to early questions about why the newspaper received the BTK letter on the 17th, but did not release that fact until the 24th, the paper published a detailed, straightforward account of the letter’s route through the newsroom, written by Laviana.

That article even included a mention of the paper’s dealings with the police, a degree of transparency that carries through much of the paper’s coverage. (Another article notes, for example, “Police said details about the letter make them certain it was sent by the same person who sent previous BTK letters. The Eagle has agreed not to publish several of the details in the letter that have led police to this conclusion.”)

Of course, the Eagle wasn’t the only news organization reporting on the Eagle.

“Particularly local broadcast media got extremely aggressive when they realized we had a letter,” said Thames. “And it may have been more than local. But we were getting phone calls into the newsroom — there were people who wanted to talk to anybody. You could have put the security guard on and they would have interviewed him.”

Soon, the coverage became problematic. “People were trying to get their work done and couldn’t get it done,” said Thames. “We also had people trying to walk into the building without being invited, that sort of thing.”

So editors wrote a message to the staff, saying, in Thames’ words, “We’re going to be talking to people, but let’s have an approach to this.” Thames said he recalled no interviews being canceled as a result, although in a later interview, he mentioned that the paper gave an exclusive report to local television station KWCH the night the story broke, due to a content-sharing agreement between KWCH and the Eagle.

A month later, the newspaper would be central to the story again — this time because of its website’s message boards, which were thick with discussion about BTK.

Digital Detectives: The BTK Boards

Soon after the story broke, website manager Alice Sky had e-mailed the paper’s editor, managing editor, and online liaison to say, “This kind of story cries out for a discussion board.” She called into the editors’ morning meeting ready to argue the point, but found that the editors agreed with her.

So the discussion boards went up, and soon, they took off. Site readers posted hundreds of messages, looking for complex numerological patterns to the dates and addresses of the crimes, trading knowledge about the minutiae of the cases, and sometimes, just seeking company.

“There was a lot of ‘I was there when this was happening and you just don’t know how much we were scared,'” said Sky. “Everybody’s amateur theory of the crime and how the cops could find him.”

Early in the life of the board, Sky wrote to Knight Ridder lawyers with questions about how stringently editors should monitor the material posted.

“The corporate counsel basically said don’t treat it any differently than you treat any other bulletin board you have,” said Sky. “Our policy is if somebody calls and complains about something, we’ll look at it, we’ll take it down if it’s offensive.”

Sky remembers deleting only one message, about a fellow who’d been charged with a murder in Wichita, but acquitted. Someone on the discussion board suggested he was the killer, and posted the address of a family with his last name. After a member of the family called the Eagle, Sky removed the message.

The disclaimer on the message board reads, in part: “Although we do not have any obligation to monitor this board, we reserve the right at all times to check this board and to remove any information or materials that are … objectionable to us in our sole discretion and to disclose any information necessary to satisfy the law, regulation, or government request.”

That government request came on Wednesday, April 21. Police faxed the Eagle a subpoena seeking information from Knight Ridder Digital about six people who had posted messages on the Eagle‘s website. (KRD is the subsidiary of Knight Ridder that co-manages the site with the newspaper.)

The document included a request that its existence not be disclosed. But editors felt it was a newsworthy story, said managing editor Sherry Chisenhall. Editors found themselves facing competing loyalties — a desire not to compromise the police department’s investigation in any way vs. the desire to inform the public about developments in the case. But before they made the choice, they checked their legal standing.

“We consulted with our attorney, who said, ‘Well, it’s a request, you’re not under a court order not to disclose it,'” Chisenhall said. “It’s part of a process here called an inquisition.”

So the Eagle published a story on the subpoena, omitting any details editors felt might hinder the investigation, such as the screennames of the users police were curious about. The district attorney’s office published a statement on its website decrying the paper’s decision. Chisenhall responded with a brief article in defense, posted on the Eagle‘s website.

Users of the website responded with hundreds more posts on the message boards.

BTK and the Media

The March letter from BTK to the Eagle almost seemed to be a response to Laviana’s thirtieth anniversary article, which ended with a quote from a local lawyer who is chronicling the case for an upcoming book: “I’m sure we will be contacted by both crackpots and well-meaning people who have little to contribute,” he said. “But I do not think we’ll be contacted by BTK.”

The letter was the latest in a long line of correspondence between BTK and the local media. At the height of his killing spree in the late ’70s, BTK made them his pen pal, sending letters to what was then The Wichita Eagle-Beacon, and to the local news station, KAKE-TV. A 1978 letter from BTK to KAKE-TV began, “How many do I have to kill before I get my name in the paper or some national attention?”

In 1979, Wichitans heard from him once more. He sent a poem to a 63-year-old woman, telling her he had intended to kill her, but she’d come home too late. On KAKE, police broadcast a grainy seven-second clip of a 1977 call he’d made to the police department. Hundreds of viewers called in with tips.

Might giving more coverage to such a media-obsessed personality stoke his desire to kill?

Editor Rick Thames said he hadn’t considered it. “Just the opposite has been the history,” Thames said. “We just have to report the news going forward regardless of what may be going on in someone’s mind. And what we try to do is provide our readers with what they need to know and what they want to know about the case.”

BTK still has Wichita on edge. Just two weeks ago, KAKE-TV received another letter police suspect may be from the killer. KAKE news director Glen Horn said the tone of coverage from competing television outlets after the station received this letter seemed almost hopeful that it was a fraud.

Eagle staffers describe feeling a grim ambivalence about having gotten the message in March. “The letter spooked my wife,” said the paper‘s assistant managing editor Tim Rogers. “She’d prefer that my name have not been in the paper as having handled the letter. She doesn’t know who this guy is looking at or what he’s doing.”

But. “What I want is for him to get caught,” Rogers said. “And if he were to write us another letter that would help the police catch him, I’m great with that. You know? Write us ten letters if I know that somehow, us reporting on this is gonna help him get caught, if that’s what’s gonna bring him out.”

And though he hates to admit it, Rogers said, his wife’s fears notwithstanding, “I’m enough of a news person, I guess, to — well, I’d hope if he writes another letter, write it to us.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article stated that a member of the family had called Alice Sky, not the Eagle, and that the man acquitted of murder had been tried in Kansas City, instead of Wichita.

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I serve as an Editorial Product Manager at NPR, where I work with member stations to develop niche websites. Before coming to NPR, I worked…
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