Archive for Sunday, December 12, 2004

Media’s DNA checked in BTK probe

Journalists cooperating with Wichita police in homicide investigation

December 12, 2004

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— Randy Brown thought it was the right thing to do when the Kansas Bureau of Investigation asked him to submit to a DNA swab as part of the search for the serial killer known as BTK.

As a former reporter, he also was curious.

Brown -- a senior fellow at Wichita State University's Elliott School of Journalism -- was a reporter at the now-defunct Wichita Sun when that weekly paper first broke the story about the BTK serial killer in the 1970s. He later worked at the Wichita Eagle and then KAKE-TV.

The KBI agent who took the swab this summer told Brown, 64, that investigators suspected the BTK killer might be connected to the media, police or a utility company.

BTK, which stands for "Bind, Torture, Kill," is linked to eight unsolved killings from 1974 through 1986. He resurfaced in March with letters to media and police.

"We have these hot lines where people come in and fink on a name," Brown said. "When your name shows up three times, they start swabbing you.

"Any fool can call up and mention your name three times and the KBI is at your door," he said.

The prevalent theory in the 1970s was that the killer was connected to a utility company, Brown said.

"This theory about the media and cops is something that came out of chat rooms and the amateur detective frenzy," Brown said.

Hurst Laviana, a reporter for The Wichita Eagle, was pulled aside by Wichita police Detective Kelly Otis this summer after covering a routine police news briefing. Otis asked him to allow a DNA swab, telling him police had received five tips pointing to him as a suspect in the case.

"Knowing everybody closely associated with this case, including police, has been swabbed, it doesn't alarm me. Reporters have been swabbed," Eagle editor Sherry Chisenhall said Friday.

National interviews that Laviana gave to other media have put him in the public spotlight, Chisenhall said.

"Because BTK has always communicated with the media, it doesn't surprise me we continue to be part of the story -- whether we like it or not," she said.

Like a fraternity

The KBI confirmed it has done hundreds of DNA swabs in connection with the BTK investigation. Wichita police did not immediately return phone calls Friday for comment.

"Most of us thought it wasn't a big deal. It's almost like joining a fraternity. You want to get a T-shirt that says, 'I'm not BTK,"' Laviana said.

Laviana, 53, joined the newspaper in 1982 and was a reporter there at the time of BTK's last known killing in 1986. When BTK resurfaced in March with a letter to The Eagle about an unsolved 1986 slaying, it was Laviana who recognized the victim's name on an enclosed copy of a driver's license.

His relationship with Otis, and the detective's approach in asking him a "personal favor" for his DNA, persuaded Laviana to agree.

"You are a little offended they would think that, but at the same time relieved to be done with it," Laviana said.

Luring the suspect

Ronald Loewen was news director at KAKE when the Wichita television station got a letter in the 1970s from the BTK serial killer. Loewen did the story himself.

Police, thinking the killer would be more likely to contact Loewen than to use an anonymous mailbox, provided protection for him for some time. Loewen has kept that information to himself all these years.

"I was used to try to draw him out for a period of six to eight weeks," Loewen said. "There was a feeling of hope, of expectation that there would be more communication."

Loewen, 56, is now vice president of strategic development for Greenville, S.C.-based Liberty Corp., which owns a group of 15 television stations.

This summer, Loewen said, he was contacted by Wichita police Lt. Ken Landwehr asking him to submit a sample of his DNA. Landwehr told him they were taking DNA from police and reporters associated with the BTK story.

"I was more than happy to do it," Loewen said.

Reporters who covered the murders in the 1970s and 1980s lived the story, he said. They experienced the terror of the community.

"This guy happened to commit his crimes in very small television market before (the coming of) 24-hour news, so he never got the notoriety he wanted," Loewen said. "He doesn't have to kill one more person to get the position in history he wants. We all need to know his personal story."

Need for consent

Media lawyer Mike Merriam, who frequently represents Kansas newspapers and broadcasters, said police could not take a swab from a reporter without a search warrant or the individual's consent. He doubted police could show enough probable cause to get a warrant just because the suspect was a reporter.

"I don't have enough facts to judge whether it is nefarious or annoying. ... If they are following up on tips, that is a different issue than if they decided to throw out a big media net and try to catch everyone in it," Merriam said.

Once the DNA is in the databank, it is there forever and can be used for other investigations, he said.

"It sounds like civic thing to do, but it seems the potential for abuse is so great I wouldn't cooperate with them if they asked me," Merriam said.

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