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Archive for Thursday, March 3, 2005

Experts on serial killers praise BTK investigators

March 3, 2005

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— It took detectives 31 years to catch the man they believe is the BTK strangler, even though the killer scattered clues around and the suspect under arrest was not exactly hiding. But many experts on serial killers say the investigators deserve praise.

Serial killers are notoriously hard to catch.

"The fact that the case wasn't solved for so long doesn't mean that they were going down the wrong routes," said James Alan Fox, a Northeastern University criminologist and author of the book "Extreme Killing." "If he wasn't so good at killing and covering his tracks and evading police, he would have been caught years ago."

Dennis L. Rader, 59, was arrested last week on suspicion of being the BTK killer believed responsible for at least 10 slayings in Wichita beginning in 1974. BTK sent messages to the news media about the crimes in the 1970s but stopped for more than two decades before resurfacing last March with a letter to The Wichita Eagle. Since then, BTK taunted authorities with cryptic letters.

Authorities responded by taking swabs of DNA from more than 4,000 people, including journalists and police officers. And they appealed to the public for help by disclosing a detailed profile of the killer, including details such as the killer's possible obsession with trains and having a grandfather who played the fiddle. But some of the details may have been false -- red herrings planted by the killer.

All the while, Rader lived what seemed like a normal life as a married father of two, Scout leader and active member of his church. His job as a municipal code inspector had him in daily contact with the public, and he even appeared on the local TV news in 2001 in his tan city uniform for a story on vicious dogs.

Dropping off map

"I don't know what more they could have done," said Eric Hickey, a criminal psychologist at California State University-Fresno who wrote the book "Serial Murderers and Their Victims" and who has been an FBI consultant on cases including that of the Unabomber. "Once in a while there's going to be a case where the guy is smart enough that he's going to be able to disappear off the map for a while."

Thirteen years elapsed from the time Jeffrey Dahmer first killed until police found his apartment full of human torsos soaking in acid, severed heads in the refrigerator and decomposing body parts in the closet. Green River Killer Gary Ridgway killed 48 women in Washington state beginning in 1982 but was not caught until 2001.

One of history's most famous serial killers, Jack the Ripper, who terrorized London's East End in 1888, was never captured.

Michael Newton, whose books include "The Encyclopedia of Serial Killers" and "Still at Large," on at-large serial killers, said about one-fifth of the 20th century's roughly 1,500 serial killers were never caught.

Investigators have not said exactly how they connected Rader to the crimes. But there were strong indications that a computer disk BTK sent to a Wichita TV station played a key role. Rader's pastor was quoted as saying that police asked him for a list of people who had access to the church computer and that he gave them Rader's name.

Wide-open field

Experts say investigators in the BTK case may have had an advantage since the crimes were committed in a midsize city of 350,000, not a big metropolitan area. But serial killings are still difficult to solve because the victims and their attacker are typically strangers.

"When you're talking about someone who kills a stranger then you've got a whole universe of suspects to deal with," said Steven Egger, a criminologist at the University of Houston-Clear Lake who wrote a book on serial murderers, "The Killers Among Us." "It's very difficult to narrow the field of suspects down to a manageable number."

There were clues that, in retrospect, seem to point to Rader.

One of BTK's victims lived on Rader's street in Park City. Two of the victims worked at the Coleman camping gear plant where Rader was employed in the 1970s. And investigators had long seen a link between the killer and Wichita State University, from which Rader graduated in 1979.

In a 1978 letter, BTK included a poem with striking similarities to the folk song "Oh Death," and a letter sent by the killer last year included a chapter titled "PJs." Police believed BTK was familiar with P.J. Wyatt, a Wichita State professor who discussed that song in class.

Charley O'Hara, a Wichita lawyer, likened the investigation and Rader's arrest to a basketball game. "Just because in the last five minutes of the game your team plays well and wins," he said, you still have "to reflect on the 35 minutes before that."

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