When Vicki Wegerle was mysteriously strangled in Wichita, Kan., in 1986, her two young children not only lost their mother, but nearly lost their father, Bill, in the crime's aftermath.
Many suspected for 18 years that Bill killed Vicki, but the murderer was really Dennis Rader, aka the BTK killer.
The Wegerle family shared their story for the first time with Erin Moriarty.
Living Under Suspicion
To this day, Bill Wegerle cranks up the volume on the song Pretty Woman when he hears it on the radio. It reminds him of his wife, Vicki, and the way he felt about her. They had met in high school. "It was like we were just meant to be, we had so much in common," he says.
But for 18 years—ever since Vicki's body was found strangled in their home—Bill Wegerle lived under a cloud of suspicion. "There were definitely police officers that thought that Bill Wegerle killed his wife," says Lt. Ken Landwehr.
Now, the truth is known. Vicki Wegerle and the grieving husband and children she left behind were among the victims of a serial killer who terrorized Wichita, Kansas for three decades. He called himself "the BTK killer" for "bind, torture, kill."
The details of the 10 murders committed by Dennis Rader are now a matter of public record. He described every crime in detail. "I've dealt with very, very cold-blooded killers, but none who have such a tremendous memory over this many years. I've never dealt with anyone like this before," says District Attorney Nola Foulston, who prosecuted Dennis Rader.
But Bill Wegerle and his children have been silent until now about what happened to them over 18 years. "Bill Wegerle was victimized and tortured in this whole episode from the day his wife died," says Foulston. "The day that she was killed it not only killed him, it put him under suspicion for a long period of time."
Bill met Vicky when they were just 16, and they were married at age 17. They were 18 when their daughter, Stephanie, was born. "To me it seemed like she was always happy and bubbly and easy-going," Stephanie remembers. "And life was good."
Eight years later a son, Brandon, was born. "My life revolved around her, and her life revolved around the kids and me and her family too," Bill recalls. "Those were the important things for us."
Then came a day so surreal that even 19 years later Bill seems in shock. On Sept. 16, 1986, Bill was driving home for lunch to see Vicki and Brandon, then a two-year-old, when he passed the family's car on the road, with someone other than his wife behind the wheel. He walked into his house, and Brandon was sitting by himself on the floor, apparently alone in the house.
Eventually, he went into the bedroom and discovered his wife's body on the floor. She had been tied up and strangled.
The police suspected Bill of the murder early on—especially after he failed two lie detector tests, the first given by police and a second by a polygraph expert hired by Bill himself. "The individual that I hired to take the polygraph, he said he believed what I was saying was true. He said it's just the stress that I was under," Bill says.
The police never had enough evidence to actually charge Bill or anyone else with Vicki's murder.
But the rumors persisted for years.
"I remember going back to school, and my friends would tell me on the playground that 'my mom and dad said that your dad did it,'" says Stephanie, who is still tearful at the memory.
Asked how she responded, she says, "I didn't say anything. We knew what the truth was. So it just made me more aware of who I was friends with."
Brandon recalls a teacher in middle school who "relayed to her younger son that me and my dad were bad people, and to stay away from us."
As they got older, of course the children wondered what had really happened to their mother. By the time he was seven or eight, Brandon says, his grandmother told him that she thought the BTK killer was responsible.
Those initials meant nothing to the child, but they haunted many in Wichita, representing a phantom killer who'd never been caught. Vicki's death came nine years after his last known murder, but her brutal death carried his trademark: She was bound and strangled, just like all the others before her.
In January 1974, four members of the Otero family were tied up and strangled, including two children, nine-year-old Joseph and 11-year-old Josephine, who was hanged from a basement pipe.
In April 1974, 21-year-old Kathryn Bright was tied up, strangled and stabbed to death.
In a note left at the Wichita Public Library in October 1974, the killer took credit for the Otero murders, and gave himself a name: BTK for bind them, torture them, kill them.
In March 1977, there was another victim, and this time there was a witness, six-year-old Steve Relford.
To this day, Steve Relford remembers every detail of that terrible day. He was walking home from the store with soup for his sick mother when a stranger confronted him. "Shows me a picture," he says. "Asked me did I know who it was? I said, 'No sir. I don't know who this is.'"
Steve ran home but moments later, there was a knock on the door. "Me and my brother rush to the door," he recalls. "I beat my brother. I let BTK in my house."
BTK gave Steve and his two siblings a blanket and some toys, then locked them in the bathroom. The terrified children watched through a crack at the top of the door as their mother, Shirley Vian, was tied to her bed and strangled.
No one could blame that little boy for his actions that day, but the adult Steve Relford says he will feel guilty for the rest of his life. Why? "I answered the door," he says.
In December 1977, BTK bound and strangled 25-year-old Nancy Fox. In a new twist, he reported the murder to police himself.
Then the killer sent a chilling letter to a local TV station that read in part: "How many do I have to kill before I get a name in the paper or some national attention?"
As former Wichita Police Detective Arlyn Smith notes, "He apparently was pretty irritated by the lack of news coverage."
Soon, the city was in a panic.
Then, in 1979, BTK seemed to disappear. So, when Vicky Wegerle was killed seven years later, police focused on the most logical suspect, her husband.
"I knew there was an individual out there that did this," Bill Wegerle says now. "But to me, it just seemed like they weren't looking for anybody else."
Meanwhile, his children were suffering, too. "I just miss her," says Stephanie, adding, "Even at ten years old, she was my best friend."
But her brother says the little girl soon "was like my second mother" as "she stepped in and kind of took over."
The Wegerle children not only lost their mother, they also had to endure the whispers and rumors about their father for 18 years. Stephanie resolutely says she never considered that the rumors might be correct.
And then, on a March day in 2004, everything changed.
It started with a letter to reporter Hurst Laviana. Inside the envelope was a copy of Vicki Wegerle's driver's license and what appeared to be pictures of her body, taken at the crime scene.
"I looked at the crime scene photographs and realized they weren't routine crime scene photographs," Laviana says.
Laviana was right. The police didn't take those photographs. In fact, since EMTs were the first on the scene and had moved the body before police arrived, there were no crime scene photos. The only person who could have taken the photographs was the killer.
For Lieutenant Ken Landwehr, who ran the BTK task force, the letter was a huge breakthrough. After 18 years, Bill Wegerle was cleared and BTK was exposed as the real killer.
But for the Wegerles and for all the families that lost loved ones to BTK, the horror came rushing back with the new development.
"This monster come into my home and took my wife away from me. Took my life. Our whole lives away from us as we knew it, and changed us as people for the rest of our lives," says Bill Wegerle.
"We had gone on with our lives for all these years," says his daughter, Stephanie, "and then to have all of it come up again, and to have to live through it all again was pretty hard."
The return of BTK also shocked Wichita's district attorney, Nola Foulston. Like everyone else in town, her life as well as her career had been haunted by the faceless killer. "I was the same as everybody else," she says, "locking my doors, checking my phone… living in the same fear that everyone else was living with."
The arrival in the mail of Vicky Wegerle's driver's license was only the beginning. Throughout 2004, there was a frenzy of chilling communiqués from BTK. The killer was scattering clues from past crimes all over the city, teasing, puzzling and frightening its citizens.
There were horrible "doll-grams," little Barbie dolls, one with a noose around its neck posed to represent the murder of 11-year-old Josephine Otero. There were cereal boxes, a sick play on the words "serial killer," and ugly little pictures.
Why did BTK reappear after years of silence? Police believe it was because of a writer named Bob Beattie, and the publicity surrounding his new book about the murders.
"This guy always wrote because he wanted attention," Beattie points out, noting the early complaining letter to a television station saying, "how many do I have to kill before I get some attention?"
Soon, the killer, seemingly jealous of the Beattie's publicity, submitted his own book to police.
And then BTK made a mistake. Inside another cereal box, he sent a note asking whether he could send police a computer disk and still stay anonymous. He wrote, "Look, be honest with me. If I send you a disk will it be traceable? Just put [the answer] in the newspaper." BTK even suggested a secret code number for the communication.
It was the break that the police needed. They placed a coded ad in the newspaper, following BTK's instructions. Assured of anonymity, BTK sent in a disk. And he was trapped.
It took no time for computer experts to trace the disk to a local church, and a user named Dennis. A Google search turned up a Dennis Rader, president of the Christ Lutheran Church.
The ghost who had terrified Wichita for 30 years finally had a face. And what a face it was. BTK was, of all things, a dogcatcher, a suburban family man with two grown kids and a tidy little house.
The investigators were sure they had BTK But they wanted an air-tight case. They wanted DNA.
They secretly obtained a DNA sample from Rader's daughter, then in college, and compared it to semen left at some of BTK's crime scenes. It was a close match.
Three decades after the BTK murders began, it all ended. One of the most notorious murderers in American history was arrested as he headed home for lunch.
Wichita Police Lieutenant Ken Landwehr spent his entire career preparing for this one moment, confronting the man he believed to be the serial killer BTK. His first reaction: "I thought he was a geek," Landwehr says. "I know that sounds terrible. But he was just so full of himself."
Landwehr sat down to interrogate Dennis Rader, as District Attorney Nola Foulston watched from the next room.
For the first few hours, Rader admitted nothing. Then Landwehr told Rader there was DNA evidence connecting him to six of the murders, including Vicky Wegerle's. Traces of Rader's skin were found under her fingernails.
Suddenly, Rader started to talk. "The dam had broken," Landwehr says. "You could not shut this guy up."
The most astonishing part of the confession, Landwehr says, was Rader's indignation that the police had lied to him about that floppy disk. "And when I told him, 'I was trying to catch you,'" Landwehr recalls, Rader responded, "'But we had such a good thing going. You and I had that rapport.'"
"Can you believe that? They could have sold him the Brooklyn Bridge," Foulston says.
Rader eagerly spent the next 30 hours reviewing the last 30 years of his life, proudly confessing to murder after murder and revealing a darker nature than anyone could have imagined. "It was just nauseating," says Foulston. "He'd start going on and on and on about each and every one of his conquests."
While Rader was confessing, investigators were turning up physical evidence against him. In his City Hall office they discovered in plain sight a cabinet full of souvenirs from the killings, all neatly filed. There were all the original communications; all the trinkets and driver's licenses.
Inside Rader's tiny, 900-square-foot house, there was another stash: a container in his closet full of what Rader called "slick ads"—sexual fantasy cards he made using magazine photos of women and young girls.
The police theorize that his fantasies allowed him to go years without killing. "His mind was totally fantasy-driven," Landwehr says.
They built up a picture of an elaborate double life led by a very busy man. For instance, he told police he used a former job installing burglar alarms to enter homes and troll for victims. At the time he killed Vicky Wegerle, he was working at the home security firm. When he strangled his neighbor Marine Hedge in 1985, he took the body to his church, where he was president, and posed and photographed it. A Boy Scout leader, Rader slipped away from a scout camping trip in 1991 to strangle 62-year-old Dolores Davis. It was his last murder.
Finally, in a Wichita courtroom, Rader pleaded guilty to all 10 murders, using a casual, cooperative tone strangely at odds with the brutal murders he described.
Stephanie Wegerle was watching. "I was still kind of in a fog, I think. It just didn't seem real that this person could do these things," she says. "And then for me it really hit home when he said he walked up to the door and heard the piano." Her mother had been playing the piano on the day she was killed.
But even as he was admitting what he did, Rader failed to answer the biggest question of all—what made him do it? We were allowed to speak to Rader over the phone, and to meet with him in jail twice. Cameras were not allowed.
BTK Takes Credit
Rader says he grew up like any other child in a loving family, and insists he was never abused. In fact, Rader's court-appointed attorney, Steve Osburn, admits he tried to find anything from Dennis Rader's past that could somehow explain BTK. Osburn found no trace of a trauma or event or family dysfunction that might help explain Rader's actions.
Yet, Rader told us and investigators that as young as age seven or eight he became fascinated with inflicting pain on living things. He started with animals.
Nola Foulston recalls him saying that as a young boy he first became aroused when chickens were killed at his grandparent's farm. "He became very fixated on the death of those animals," she says.
While other boys of his generation looked up to baseball players, Rader's hero was Harvey Glatman, a serial killer who targeted young single women in Hollywood. He was executed in 1959 when Rader was just 14, but Glatman became an inspiration for the boy.
The Disney Mouseketeer Annette Funicello, Rader told detectives, was his "favorite fantasy hit target." Rader imagined how he would kidnap the star Mouseketeer and "do sexual things to her in California."
As he got older, he collected detective pulp magazines depicting women in bondage. The act of tying up a human body became a secret obsession.
All of these obsessions, of course, remained a secret unknown to those who lived and worked with Rader from day to day.
"They were looking for crazy Charles Manson, somebody with a history of crimes, sex crimes, mental disorders," says author Beattie. "You get on the elevator with Charles Manson, you're going to move to the other side of the elevator. You get on the elevator with BTK, you're going to smile and nod and have a conversation. You're never going to suspect this guy."
Denise Maddox recalls that she was sharing an office with Rader at the security firm when BTK's 14-second phone call reporting Nancy Fox's homicide was re-played repeatedly on television.
She didn't recognize his voice. And she never connected the killer's behavior with Dennis Rader. She remembers him as being polite and even protective of women he knew.
"I was working with all these guys sharing a rest room with them," she says. "I was the only woman. And he always wanted to make sure that they put the lid down and no dirty jokes."
We know from Rader's own letters to police that he admired famous murderers like 'The Boston Strangler' and 'Son of Sam' but what isn't widely known is how much he borrowed from his hero serial killer, Harvey Glatman.
Back in the 1950s, Glatman's victims were beautiful young models lured with the promise of a photo shoot. Glatman bound, gagged, and then photographed them in the moments before they were strangled.
Rader told us that's where he got the idea. He even sketched his last victim, showing the horror on her face.
Rader is proud to take credit for all of this. But what he didn't want the public to know was just how far he took his obsession with bondage. In reality, he took photographs, including one in an open grave he dug for a victim.
"He did not want people to see him in a negative light," says District Attorney Foulston. "He wanted people to see him as some gentleman serial killer."
Somehow, Rader managed to hide it all, even from the woman who thought she knew him best. It seems impossible that his wife could have had no idea of her husband's dark side.
But Landwehr is convinced that she knew nothing: "I've talked to that woman. That woman, just being honest, is a very, very nice woman. A saint. She is totally devastated," he insists. "I've talked to his daughter, a wonderful, wonderful young woman. Totally devastated by the actions of this man. They had no idea."
In talking it over with other people, he says, "I've kind of mentioned to people, you know, in a 30-year period, he disappeared for 10 nights… Probably less than a lot of men in America."
We even asked Rader why he didn't target his wife? He looked shocked at the question. He said he didn't kill anyone he knew. His victims were just "objects."
But he did admit that his wife was terrified of BTK. He says he once reassured her by telling her to keep all the windows and doors locked. "I wasn't really worried," he told us, "since I knew I was the one doing the killing."
Rader's court-appointed attorney, Steve Osburn, believes that Dennis Rader, dog catcher, scout leader, church president, was planning to one day take credit for becoming BTK.
"I think this was his life's work and he wanted basically to take a bow for it," he says. "I mean this is who he was, this is what he did. I don't think he was going to go to the grave without taking a bow for this."
The Last Hurdle
But the families who lost loved ones aren't about to let Dennis Rader take a bow for anything: Jeff Davis notes that BTK has been the center of attention in Wichita for 30 years. Now, Davis says, "He's going to be reduced to a little, pathetic, impotent, little wanna-be human in a little 80-square-foot cell. He'll torment himself forever knowing that the last victims were his own family."
For the families of BTK's victims, the last hurdle was the sentencing of Dennis Rader.
Relford and the other families arrived at the sentencing to finally confront the man who caused them all so much pain.
Vicki's daughter Stephanie came because, she says, "That's the least I could do for her."
First, they had to hear a day and a half of mind-numbing testimony by Dennis Rader.
Then, the families got their chance to speak.
"We have never met. You have seen my face before. It is the same face you murdered over 30 years ago, the face of my mother," said Julie Otero's daughter, Carmen.
"For the last 5,326 days, I have wondered what it would be like to confront the walking cesspool that took my mother's life," said Jeff Davis. "If I had your devil nature, I would delight in the fact that your congregation has turned its back on you. That your friends deserted you; that your wife has divorced you; that your own children have disowned you. You have now lost everything, and you will forever remain nothing."
Bill Wegerle was overwhelmed as he heard his daughter speak from her broken heart: "It's been almost 19 years now but my brother and I had the most important woman in our lives taken from us. It's not fair that we had so little time with her. It's not fair that she never gets to see me with her grandchildren. My mother begged for her life, yet he showed no remorse."
If the families hoped to see that remorse from Dennis Rader that day, they didn't get it. Some of them weren't even willing to sit and hear him speak. They simply walked out.
When he finally apologized, his closing words rang hollow. "There's no way that I can ever repay them," he said.
At the time of the murders, Kansas had no death penalty, so the judge gave Rader the maximum sentence, 175 years. If the families get their way, Dennis Rader and BTK will just fade into the past.
"I hope that people will not correspond with him," says Bill Wegerle. "That would probably be a greater suffering for him than if he was put to death, tortured, or whatever else."
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