Archive for Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Family in slaying probe wants apology

No corpse found in Morton County search

October 20, 2004


A Morton County family says their farm last week was stormed by state police looking for evidence of a cult killing.

And they'd like an apology.

"They'd like someone to explain why they were approached in an intimidating manner by agents with guns drawn in a murder case that's years old, if not decades old," said Clinton Peterson, a Liberal attorney representing Joe and Betty Bitner, their son, Casey, and Joe Bitner's sister, Edith Bitner.

The search warrant, Peterson said, gave agents the authority to look for "religious/occult artifacts ... powders, herbs, robes, gowns, restraint devices, masks, symbols, altars ... biological materials, including blood, hair and bones; clothing, human and animal bodies, and any evidence of human or animal sacrifice."

None were found, he said, because "there were none to find," adding, "the absurdity of suspicion that the Bitners, any of the Bitners, were involved in cult activity cannot adequately be summarized. It is simply ludicrous."

The Bitners live on parts of the family's 5,000-acre farm north of the Cimarron National Grasslands, near the small community of Richfield.

Kansas Bureau of Investigation agents and other law enforcement officials spent much of last week digging for human remains on the property. The search ended Monday.

Earlier in the week, investigators reportedly inquired about an unsolved 1971 slaying of an Elkhart teenager, Suzanne Johnson, whose body was found in a field near Elkhart, more than 20 miles from the Bitner property.

Both the KBI and Atty. Gen. Phill Kline's office have declined comment about what was found at the farm.

But Peterson on Tuesday issued a two-page statement saying the only items taken were financial records and an aerial photograph of the property.

No human remains were found, he said.

Joe, Betty and Edith Bitner are in their 60s, Peterson said.

Guns drawn

Peterson said the Bitners were law-abiding and did not object to the search. But they are upset, he said, that during the initial service of the warrant, KBI agents saw fit to approach Joe Bitner, who was loading tools into a pickup truck, with guns drawn. The agents, he said, also ordered Edith Bitner, who is deaf, out of her house at gunpoint.

KBI director Larry Welch denied agents drew their weapons.

"I had an assistant director and a special agent in charge on the scene, directing operations," he said. "And I have been assured that no guns were drawn during the execution of the search warrant."

Welch added, "I have no reason to believe that is not the case."

The Bitners disagree.

"It is our position that Mr. Welch is either lying or is misinformed," Peterson said. "We're not sure which."

Peterson said as many as 25 law enforcement officers stormed the Bitners' property. It's unclear how many were with the KBI, the Kansas Highway Patrol or area law enforcement agencies.

"With so many people running around," he said. "My clients had a hard time keeping track." The Bitners were ordered off the property and not allowed to return for three days.

Whitney Watson, a spokesman for Kline's office, said the attorney general was on the Bitner property for "a day or two, early on," adding, "He wasn't there when the warrant was served."

Fair game

Watson defended the search.

"The warrant was issued by a judge, who, based on the information presented, believed that a crime had been committed and that evidence of that crime would be discovered," he said. "Without that belief, the warrant would not have been issued."

Because the investigation is ongoing and charges have not been filed, the warrant is not a public record, Watson said.

Peterson has a copy of the warrant. He said the Bitners were willing to make public the document once they knew whether it was legal to do so.

Murder allegations

It was unclear what prompted the search warrant, Peterson said. But family members told the Journal-World they think it was driven by testimony presented during Amarillo, Texas, divorce proceedings involving Joe and Edith Bitner's niece, Rebecca Galaviz, who during cross-examination alleged her family had been involved in murder, incest, occult practices and prostitution.

The Amarillo Globe-News reported in Tuesday editions that the KBI had requested a copy of Galaviz's testimony.

Also, the newspaper reported that court records showed Galaviz testified she witnessed one murder on the family farm and had knowledge of others. She alluded to the murder of a "Suzanne White" in the mid '70s.

Galaviz is a daughter of Joe and Edith Bitner's brother, Jim Bitner, who died Oct. 7 in Amarillo. He was 67.

Attempts to reach Galaviz, who lives in New Mexico, were unsuccessful.

Witness 'needs help'

Vicki West, another of Jim Bitner's four daughters, said Galaviz was unstable and prone to exaggeration.

"She needs help," West said. "She isn't sane enough -- if 'sane' is the right word -- to know that just because she thinks these things happened doesn't mean they really happened.

"I grew up in the same house, and I can tell you they did not happen," she said. "I feel sorry for my sister. She's tormented, but there's no excuse for what she's done."

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