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Archive for Saturday, February 19, 2005

Messages from BTK differ from initial letters

Correspondence to media has gone from chilling to chatty

February 19, 2005

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— The letters and poems began arriving in 1974.

Shot through with spelling and grammatical errors, they alternated between tortured rambling and cold-blooded, gleeful detail.

Then, the BTK killer vanished. And since he resurfaced in 2004, his messages have been different -- although no less enigmatic.

The killer once raved about "factor x" and an inability to control a "monster" living inside him, all the while giving graphic descriptions of his crimes. The few details released about the new messages indicate a businesslike, almost cordial approach.

But the increasing frequency of the communications -- and the attention BTK is getting from them -- concern one researcher.

"For some of these killers, there is kind of a cycle that once the spiral begins to accelerate the next step is to kill -- and get a whole new generation of people scared, and a whole new generation of media people interested in him," said Dirk Gibson, author of "Clues from Killers: Serial Murder and Crime Scene Messages."

Craving attention

BTK has been linked to eight unsolved slayings between 1974 and 1986. Gibson said the killer loves the attention.

"Even though he did derive pleasure from torturing ... and killing his victims, that was secondary to the real payoff -- which was the psychological and interpersonal rewards of communication," said Gibson, who has studied more than 500 serial killers.

That was apparent in the 1970s, when the self-named BTK -- the initials stand for the self-coined nickname "Bind, Torture, Kill" -- terrorized Wichita.

When one of his messages -- a poem sent to the Wichita Eagle-Beacon on Jan. 31, 1978 -- was mistakenly rerouted to the classified ads department, BTK sent a letter to KAKE-TV days later complaining: "How many do I have to kill before I get my name in the paper or some national attention?"

Another letter, sent to the newspaper, also showed BTK's need for recognition.

"P.S. How about some name for me, its time: 7 down and many more to go," it read in part. "I like the following. How about you? 'THE B.T.K STRANGLER, 'WICHITA STRANGLER', 'POETIC STRANGLER', 'THE BONDAGE STRANGER' OR 'PSYCHO', 'THE WICHITA HANGMAN', THE WICHITA EXECUTIONER, 'THE GAROTE PHATHOM', 'THE ASPHYXIATER'."

Change in tone

KAKE has also received communiques from BTK since his re-emergence, some containing messages for police. But the tenor has changed.

In a postcard sent to the station earlier this month, BTK thanked the station for its quick response to two other messages and expressed concern for two news anchors after a passing comment one had made on the air about having the flu.

Randy 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 BTK in the 1970s.

"This is a very different BTK than the original," Brown said. "The first letters were full of horrifying details of these crimes, ravings and very graphic information about the victims and the monster in his brain -- ugly, nasty, scary, terrible kinds of things that people who saw them still have bad dreams about."

Although no recent deaths have been officially linked to BTK since he resurfaced last year, the worldwide attention the case has received on the Internet as well as in the traditional media has been overwhelming.

Brown attributes that to the 24-hour nature of today's news. In the 1970s, he said, "If you had some news, you reported. If you didn't, you didn't."

"It is hard to believe this is really the same twisted killer that was scaring the heck out of everybody -- had a town completely on edge -- in the late 1970s and 1980s," Brown said.

Killers' correspondence

BTK is hardly the first serial killer to communicate with the media.

The Zodiac killer, blamed for at least five killings in northern California in the late 1960s, wrote coded letters to newspapers taunting the police. That case has never been solved, and the San Francisco Police Department closed its investigation last year.

And long before that, Jack the Ripper wrote letters to London agencies which, like BTK in the 1970s, provided gruesome details of his crimes and promised more killings to come.

The shadowy Jack was so media-savvy that he asked the Central News Service not to release his first letter "till I do a bit more work, then give it out straight." A later postcard thanked the agency for honoring the request.

Some researchers, Gibson among them, link the rise of infamous serial killers to innovations such as the rotary printing press, which made the penny paper available to the masses in the 1800s.

"The stories that were covered were lurid and sensational and salacious and intended to titillate and captivate the reader," Gibson said. "The more nasty, the more newsworthy -- and it is no different today."

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