BTK Killer: Remembering the Victims

The Wichita Eagle newsroom recently faced a coverage situation that few newspapers encounter: A serial killer resurfacing many years after his last killing.

The Wichita Eagle newsroom recently faced a coverage situation that few newspapers encounter: A serial killer resurfacing many years after his last killing.

Dennis Rader, 59, was charged recently with 10 murders in Wichita, Kan., from 1974 to 1991. Rader was a compliance officer for nearby Park City.

Prosecutors allege that Rader is the infamous BTK killer, who resurfaced in 2004 by sending packages of evidence to The Eagle and KAKE Channel 10 in Wichita. It became national news when the mysterious killer decided to retraumatize the victims' families and the community by taunting them with pieces of evidence, photos and puzzles.

BTK even created his own nickname, meaning "Bind, Torture, Kill."

After Rader's arrest in February, The Eagle provided extensive coverage on the suspect. But it also devoted significant space to the victims, including immediately after the arrest. Initial coverage included a column by Mark McCormick, who wrote about the victims' families:

"They live among us, but forever live set apart. Rise and sleep next door as neighbors, but engage in a struggle far from anything most of us could imagine. They live more intensely the nightmare that we all shared."

McCormick's column is only one of many stories and items that The Eagle devoted to the victims, their families and the community. Examples could be seen day after day, but the most striking example came on Sunday, March 6.

On Page 1, underneath a large mosaic illustration of Dennis Rader and the headline "The Puzzle of Dennis Rader/WHO IS THIS MAN?," the Eagle carried a story with the headline "10 VICTIMS: PEOPLE LIKE US." The following words preceded the referral to two inside pages with stories about each victim:

"They had families, hobbies and hope."

"They liked to cook. They told jokes. They went to church. They loved their children."

"They were us."

"In the storm surrounding last week's arrest of Dennis Rader, attention has naturally been focused on the BTK suspect."

"Who was he?"

"What drove him?"

"Who knew him best?"

"Those same questions also apply to BTK's victims. By now, Wichita knows a lot about what happened to them."

"But do we really know them?"

"Inside you'll find profiles intended as a reminder that Joseph Otero, Julie Otero, Josephine Otero, Joseph Otero II, Kathryn Bright, Shirley Vian, Nancy Fox, Vicki Wegerle, Marine Hedge and Dolores Davis were more than BTK's victims."

"They were real people."

"They were us."

Why all the coverage devoted to the victims? Because its editor listened to a newsroom who was sensitive to victims' family members and the community, sensitive to what was needed to continue the long recovery from a sensational tragedy.

"After several days of coverage, quite a few people in the newsroom had the same thought—we didn't want to leave readers without a sense of who the victims were," editor Sherry Chisenhall wrote in response to questions for this op-ed column.

"They were people with families, hobbies, hopes, disappointments. Many of their deaths happened so long ago; it would be easy for readers to think of those killings as long-ago historical events. The shock of the crimes can get lost in the passage of time, and we didn't want that to happen. Listening to the children of the victims, it was striking how much pain remained. We didn't want the human loss to be forgotten."