‘You have to keep your head in the game’; BTK & I-70 serial killers intersect in Kansas town
WICHITA, Kan. (KMOV) - We arrived in Wichita as darkness set in to meet Tim Relph. After we shook hands, he mentioned he was a little tired.
“Had a murder just after midnight,” he explained. “Been up all night and today working that one.”
Such is the work of a homicide detective, and Tim Relph is no ordinary homicide detective. He is chasing the I-70 killer now. But back then.....
“Several years ago, I was involved in a case we solved that was 30 years old,” Relph said, his voice trailing off. He paused and I waited. “So, I know it can happen.”
Dennis Rader was on the loose back then. Tim Relph was on the hunt. Just like he is now for the I-70 serial killer.
Rader grew up in the small town of Pittsburg, Kansas. He spent four years in the Air Force as a mechanic, then landed a job at Cessna Aircraft Company in Wichita. He married Paula Dietz and had two children. The family lived in a three-bedroom ranch in the quiet suburb of Park City, just north of Wichita. Rader was a boy scout leader, and president of Christ Lutheran church.
He was also “BTK.” Bind. Torture. Kill.
It began on January 15, 1974. Sometime just after 7 p.m., Rader entered the Otero family home at 803 North Edgemoor in Wichita. When he left, four people were dead. Taunting the police, and feeding his own need for publicity, Rader then left a note detailing the murders, and announcing his intentions to kill again inside a copy of Applied Engineering Mechanics at the Wichita Public Library. He contacted the Wichita Eagle bragging about his crime. And thus began 17 years of terror for the city of Wichita, where Rader left behind 10 body bags. His preferred method was strangulation, but he was hardly a professional. Sometimes his victims would regain consciousness. When they did, Rader would whisper in their ears that he was “BTK.” Then he would finish the job.
“That was his form of torture,” said Relph. “He certainly wanted them to know that you were being killed by BTK.”
For Relph, looking back at one serial killer only offers a glimpse into the mind of the other.
“They are very different,” Relph said. “You’re not going to find somebody who thinks like Dennis Rader, thinks like Ted Bundy. One gives you hope for the other. But their motivations are so completely different. One killed over years. This one is such a compact time.”
Besides their motivations and time frames, there is something else completely different about the BTK killer and the I-70 killer: the need for attention. The BTK killer was starved for it. The I-70 killer is a phantom.
In 2005, more than 30 years after getting away with murder, and with years since his name had been in headlines, Dennis Rader began sending letters to both the Wichita Eagle and KAKE-TV. Once, he told them where he had left a cereal box on the side of an old country road. “Cereal boxes because I am a serial killer,” Rader wrote. Even that wasn’t enough for Rader. He would dress up small dolls, put his victims’ names on them, and put them inside the cereal boxes. He taunted the police so much that he enrolled at Wichita State University to study law enforcement. To rub it in, after he lost his job at Cessna Aircraft, Rader went to work for ADT security systems, where business was booming as Wichita families were ordering the systems in hopes of protecting themselves from the BTK killer himself.
And then Rader made his mistake. He put another cereal box in a Home Depot employee’s truck. Inside was a letter to the police department, asking them if they had the ability to trace a floppy disk if he mailed it to them.
“Be honest,” Rader asked in his letter. He then told them to respond to him, using the name Rex, in the newspaper’s classified ads, a la Madonna in “Desperately Seeking Susan.” The Wichita Police Department obliged, hedging the truth just a tad.
“We wrote back, ‘Rex, it will be OK,’” Relph remembered.
Rader mails them the floppy disk, the police department takes it to forensics, and the disks data is traced to Christ Lutheran Church, and then to a church user named Dennis. Police moved quickly, calling in some 200 officers, along with helicopters and a tank to apprehend Rader as he went on his lunch break from work. Rader would confess to the 10 murders and receive consecutive life sentences that amounted to 175 years in jail without the possibility of parole. When he was caught, the media starved Rader stated the obvious: “I just played cat and mouse too long with the police and they finally figured it out.”
Relph could only smile as he remembered. “Most people don’t do what Rader did. Most people don’t communicate. Trying to exchange communication with the police department is a dangerous game.”
Police arrived just in time. Rader was preparing to murder his eleventh victim, a woman three houses down from his home. He said it would be his grand finale, where he would hang the woman upside down, then set her house on fire for dramatic effect.
Relph didn’t just stalk Rader. He was there for the arrest, testified against him, then interviewed him in jail. Today, besides working midnight homicides, Relph teaches law enforcement classes at Wichita State, where the subject often turns to the BTK and I-70 cases. Relph warns that they are not solved overnight.
“If you’re going to get in this business, you are going to have unsolved cases. You have to keep your radar up and keep looking. You have got to keep your head in the game.”
Relph believes if there is any similarity between Dennis Rader and the I-70 killer, it has to do with some sort of traumatic event in their lives. Something that made them pop.
“Where Rader pauses,” Relph said, “you can see events in his life. With the I-70 killer, that has always certainly been the thought, that there was some kind of life distress or some kind of traumatic psychological event that caused to unleashing that fury in such a short period of time.”
So Relph, like other homicide detectives in Indianapolis, Terre Haute, Raytown, and St. Charles, keeps digging, waiting for that day when the right tip, or something like a floppy disk might fall in their lap.
“You can get all kinds of excited. At the time when that tip comes, it’s all hands-on deck. But knowing who did it, that is just a part of it. If you want to push something through prosecution, that is just the start.”
Relph had been going nonstop two days with just a few hours’ sleep. It was time to say goodnight. I told him his job would be easier if all serial killers thought the same way.
“None of them really think the same way,” Relph said.
Then he laughed. “Thank God.”
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