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A Media-Savvy Killer

WHAT: It started three decades ago. “It has always been part of the paper’s lore,” Rick Thames, former editor of The Wichita Eagle told Editor & Publisher’s Joe Strupp. Since his first murder in 1974, the “BTK” killer — his own acronym, for “bind, torture, kill” — has sent the Eagle four letters and one poem.

The Eagle’s Website was subpoenaed in 2004 when investigators thought BTK might be posting items on a discussion board. And in the spring of 2005, the killer sent the paper a letter after 16 years of silence, apparently sparked by a story about the 30th anniversary of the first killing.

BTK killed eight people. The first was Jan. 15, 1974, the last 12 years later, in 1986. The killer’s first communication with the newspaper was 10 months after the first killing. A reader found a letter inside a book at a local library and called the newspaper. The last letter arrived in March 2004 and included photos from the 1986 crime scene, as well as a copy of that victim’s driver’s license. The killer also has sent letters and made phone calls to a local television station, but his main media connection has been the Eagle.

The newspaper has involved itself in the in other ways. In 1974, when it was still the Eagle-Beacon, it offered a $5,000 award for information leading to an arrest. And a 1978 poem from BTK was mistakenly included in romantic messages the paper runs on Valentine’s Day.

Eagle Reporter Hurst Laviana, who followed the case for more than 20 years, was one of three reporters who were asked to give DNA samples last summer, in a desperate attempt to find the mysterious killer. “It seemed like a logical thing for them to do,” Laviana told E&P, adding that police told him they’d received five tips from people urging that he be tested. Apparently he was cleared; he never heard back from investigators.

In April 2005, the Sedgwick County District Attorney subpoenaed the identities of six people who had posted items to a BTK bulletin board on the Eagle’s Web site. The Eagle cooperated without a fight but was criticized by the DA for running a story about the subpoenas.

All of this puts the newspaper in an awkward position. The killer seems almost to be using it as an agent of communication. It is both a provider of evidence and chronicler of the news. Some employees worried that BTK might target them as attention increases.

Two questions: How should a newspaper, or other media outlet, handle communications from someone who says he’s guilty of multiple sensational crimes? And how much should it cooperate with law enforcement authorities?

WHO: Put yourself in the shoes of the editor of the Eagle, or of a television station that might have received similar communications.

Consider the stakeholders: The Wichita community, terrorized for years by a mysterious killer, certainly has a stake in finding out who this person is and incarcerating him or her to prevent future potential harm. This is a case where the public’s stake is higher than it might be in other cases.

The killer is a prime stakeholder, an odd duck who seems to enjoy tantalizing the media and the public with taunts about his or her identity. Law enforcement authorities are stakeholders, in that they’ve been spinning their wheels for years.

WHY: Does cooperating with the killer by publicizing his taunts create more opportunities that he’ll be caught? Or does it simply play into the killer’s twisted desire for attention? What would happen if you were to stop forwarding every communication from this clearly imbalanced individual? What is the greatest good for the greatest number?

HOW: Decide how best to establish the outcome you’ve identified as best. Explain it to yourself, and write it down to help you articulate it. You might also want to explain your decision, and the decision-making process, to your readers and/or viewers. Prepare for the inevitable questions you’ll get from them.

(Epilogue: Dennis Rader, who admitted to being the BTK Killer, was arrested Feb. 25, 2005, by Wichita Police. On June 28, 2005, he pleaded guilty to 10 counts of murder.)

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