Archive for Thursday, December 29, 2005

A case to remember

Tonganoxie native helps close BTK case

December 29, 2005

Chances are, 2005 is a year that Wichita homicide detective Dana Gouge never will forget.

It's the year in which Dennis Rader, Wichita's BTK serial killer, was caught.

Gouge, who grew up in Tonganoxie, was part of the law enforcement team that zeroed in on the man who'd eluded police and terrorized the community for nearly two decades.

In August, Dennis Rader pled guilty to 10 counts of first-degree murder and confessed to being the BTK serial killer.

BTK was a name Rader gave to himself in the 1970s. It stood for bind, torture and kill. The brutal murders occurred from 1974 to 1991.

With his earliest possible release date set at Feb. 26, 2180, the 60-year-old Rader will spend the rest of his life behind bars. Currently, he is imprisoned at El Dorado Correctional Facility.

Just a couple of years ago, Gouge and his colleagues worried that the identity of BTK never would be known.

It had been two decades since the killer had sent taunting notes to the media or had left cryptic notes around town, packaging them in cereal boxes and including copies of items or photographs from the murder scenes.

After years of no communication from BTK and without the occurrence of any more known BTK murders, authorities wondered if the killer might be dead, or at least in prison.

But early in 2004, shortly after Wichita attorney and author Robert Beattie began talking about a book he had written on Wichita's serial killer, BTK resurfaced.

In March 2004, BTK sent a letter to the Wichita Eagle newspaper and included a photocopy of the driver's license of Vicki Wegerle, and photos of her body.

Wegerle had been strangled in her Wichita home in 1986. Until then, BTK hadn't been linked to Wegerle's murder.

This BTK letter -- the first in nearly 25 years -- reopened lines of communication with law enforcement. And law enforcement officials were hopeful the killer would slip up and somehow reveal his identity.

But there was a more urgent concern.

BTK had murdered before. It was possible he would murder again.

Cold case

Gouge, a 1982 graduate of Tonganoxie High School who holds a degree from Emporia State University, started working for the Wichita Police Department in 1987.

In 1995, he was assigned to the city's homicide section as a detective and in 2000 he was one of the detectives assigned to work on a cold case -- the 1986 murder of 28-year-old Vicki Wegerle.

The detectives sent evidence from the Wegerle murder to a forensic center for DNA testing, a technology that had not been available at the time of Wegerle's death.

Because the investigation was a cold case, it would be December 2003, before testing was complete.

"It took three years to get the results back," Gouge said. "We found out that there was an unknown male DNA profile retrieved from under her fingernails."

That information cleared Wegerle's husband from being a suspect.

The DNA profile was put into the Combined DNA Index System, which was designed by the FBI. It uses forensic DNA analysis as a crime-solving tool by enabling federal, state and local laboratories to cross-compare DNA profiles obtained from convicted offenders and suspect-less cases.

When the Wegerle DNA results came in, DNA evidence from BTK's known killings hadn't been entered in the CODIS indexing system.

But three months later, DNA results from two BTK cases -- the Nancy Fox and the Otero family -- were entered into the database.

This time, there was a match.

"In March 2004, as soon as the Nancy Fox case and the Otero cases were entered into the CODIS system, they hit on the Vicki Wegerle case," Gouge said. "It confirmed that there was one offender that did all the BTK cases."

Communication resumes

In March 2004, Gouge was the first homicide investigator to see the letter that BTK had mailed to the Eagle.

"Having worked the Wegerle case, I knew what it was and what it meant," Gouge said.

The letter, Gouge said, included a symbol that BTK had drawn.

"In the past, back in the 1970s that was kind of his signature," Gouge said. "I recognized that because I'd seen the cases before."

From then on, the goal of the investigators was to keep BTK talking.

Kelly Otis, another homicide detective who worked with Gouge on the BTK case, said that Lt. Ken Landwehr, who had worked on the BTK case for more than 20 years, was charged with talking to BTK through press releases.

"The behavioral scientists at Quantico had told us to keep him going," Otis said. "The more you talk to him in your press releases, the more he will begin to bond with you guys."

Even with that advice, investigators of course, didn't know whether BTK would be caught.

"There were months and months and months where we were going with this plan and we weren't sure whether it was going to work," Gouge said.

In the meantime, all leads were investigated.

But the thousands of phoned-in tips yielded nothing. Investigators took some 1,600 mouth swabs from men for DNA testing -- none of which matched the killer's DNA profile.

Telling his story

In the end, Otis said, it was Beattie's book about BTK that prompted BTK to send the communication to the Eagle.

"Rader said that's what spurred him," Otis said. "If someone was going to write a book about him, it wouldn't be that guy -- he wanted to tell his own story."

And, the FBI's advice worked. BTK became caught up in the game.

"He was feeding his own ego," Otis said. "That's eventually what caught him. He couldn't quit talking, he couldn't quit writing, he couldn't quit communicating."

One of those communications -- delivered Jan. 8, 2005, in a cereal box -- wound up in the back of a pickup truck of an employee of a Home Depot store.

It would be more than two weeks before the letter reached homicide detectives. In it, BTK asked if he could be identified if his notes were sent on a computer disc.

This was a turning point in the investigation.

As BTK suggested, the officers placed an ad in the miscellaneous section of the Eagle's classified pages. The ad said, "Rex, it will be OK."

And to Rader, that meant he could send his messages on a computer disc, and the disc could not be traced to him.

Unknown to Rader, investigators traced video from Home Depot's security cameras. They saw a person putting something in the back of the employee's pickup truck. Though the man and the vehicle he was driving were not identifiable, detectives were able to determine the vehicle was a black Jeep.

A month after receiving the Home Depot package, BTK mailed a package to FOX Kansas television station in Wichita. Gouge and Otis picked it up.

"I thought we would have a good chance of getting information off the disc," Gouge said.

But, he said, nobody knew if the information on the disc would lead them to the killer, or if it would be something planted to throw them off course.

As it turned out, the disc would lead officers directly to BTK, who would be arrested nine days later.

Computer experts determined the disc had been used on a computer at the Christ Lutheran Church by a man named Dennis. An Internet search showed that a Dennis Rader was president of the church's congregation.

That same day, investigators, Gouge drove by Rader's Park City home. Parked in front of the house was a black Jeep.

"We were able to obtain through a court order a biological sample taken from his (Rader's) daughter in Manhattan," Gouge said. "It was tested by a KBI lab and that whoever BTK was, it was her father."

A lot of work to do

On Feb. 25, 2005, as Rader, who worked as compliance officer for Park City, was driving home for lunch, officers stopped him. Eight officers came out of four cars to secure the scene and arrest Rader.

Because Rader, who was a city compliance officer, would have weapons in his vehicle, this would be a critical maneuver.

"We just didn't want anyone to get hurt at this last stage of the investigation, and it's hard telling what he would do," Gouge said. "We knew that it could come as a surprise to him and hopefully overwhelm him and that's what happened."

The details, planned ahead, specified that Gouge would handcuff Rader.

"But Clint Snyder, who's another detective, said that I had to use his handcuffs because that's kind of a historical moment, to handcuff a serial killer that had terrorized Wichita for the last three decades," Gouge said.

Though the officers felt good about capturing Rader, it wasn't a high-five moment yet.

"We weren't done yet -- we had a lot of work to do," Gouge said. "Ultimately, it was about 30 hours of videotaped confession which we all participated in."

During that time, there was no rest for the officers. Gouge said coffee -- and adrenalin -- kept them going.

The interviews with Rader showed that he might not have been as smart as officers thought.

"After he (Rader) was caught, it was kind of funny," Gouge said. "When he was about to confess, he asked Landwehr, 'Why did you lie to me about the ad in the paper that said I could communicate and not be traced?' And Landwehr said, 'That's because we were trying to catch you.'"

That surprised Rader, Gouge said.

"He was really shocked that we would not tell him the truth about that," Gouge said. "He thought we had a good thing going."

Glimmers of hope

It wasn't until August, after Rader's sentencing, that Gouge felt like the investigation was complete.

"We were very happy with the outcome," Gouge said. "We knew that so many people had participated in this investigation. ... There were over 200 officers and five different police agencies that participated in the searches and the arrest of Dennis Rader."

For instance, he said, as Rader was being arrested, nine search warrants were executed consecutively, with searches at the church Rader attended, his home and his office.

Surprisingly, Gouge wasn't the only former Tonganoxie resident working on the case. Lt. Mike Hennessey, who attended high school in Tonganoxie also worked on the investigation.

There were times, Gouge said, it seemed that BTK would never be caught. But then, he said, there were glimmers of hope.

"We hadn't gotten close until we caught his car on video," Gouge said. "That was really the first indication that he was going to do something that he would get himself caught."

There were times the detectives wondered if BTK was brilliantly setting them up.

"But he just wasn't that smart," Gouge said. "He had just been careful in the past and he got carried away because of the ongoing communication with the police department."

In plain sight

Otis said BTK was difficult to catch, in part because he could fit into society.

But Otis said he could not have predicted that BTK was a family man, a city employee, president of his church congregation.

"None of his co-workers, none of his church congregation, nobody thought he was a bad guy," Otis said. "But we talked to people after the fact who didn't speak highly of him. ... They thought he was strange. There were women who came out and said he was weird, that he was stalking them, but prior to his arrest we never got a tip on him."

And, Otis said, he believes it's likely Rader didn't commit murders, other than the ones he's been convicted of.

"You can't be for sure, but BTK was a very prolific note-taker, journal-keeper," Otis said. "He would keep notes about what he'd eat for lunch. He would always have notes on his stalkings, he wrote several multiple-page letters on his killings."

Planning the next move

Today, with Rader behind bars, Gouge is thinking about his own future.

He and his wife, Michelle, who is a corporate attorney, live in Wichita. They have two children.

Gouge is three classes away from finishing his master's degree in business administration at Wichita State University. With 18 years on the Wichita police force, he'll have the option of retiring in two more years. Or, he can stay and put in 30 years on the force.

Perhaps it's time for change.

Gouge said he might be interested in teaching at the junior college level. And in 2001, he was involved in starting the Mid-States Homicide Investigators Association, which provides low-cost training for officers. Gouge said he would like to continue his involvement in MHIA.

But one thing Gouge doesn't plan to do is write a book about the BTK case.

"Several reporters at the Wichita Eagle are collaborating on writing a book about this investigation," Gouge said. "We are cooperating with them. I'm personally not going to write a book, but we're answering their questions."

A year ago, Gouge and other investigators wondered whether BTK would be apprehended. That question was answered in 2005.

It was a banner year for detectives, including Gouge, who at last could rest, knowing the BTK serial killer would spend the rest of his life behind bars -- finally off the streets of the city he had terrorized for decades.

Gouge is all too aware of the significance of playing a role in the investigation.

"I'm just glad that I was in the position that I was in at the time," Gouge said. "That was to become involved in this investigation and involved in something that is particularly important to Wichita and Kansas history."

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