'The Floppy Did Me In'

The story of how police used a floppy disk to catch the BTK killer.
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Remember these guys? (AJ Batac/Flickr)

The New York Times reports today on the passing of Ken Landwehr, the Wichita homicide detective responsible for solving the case of the BTK (Bind, Torture, Kill) murders that had plagued the Wichita area for decades. He was 59.

The murders began in 1974, when the BTK killer, Dennis Rader, brutally tortured and killed four members of the Otero family. Over the next two decades he killed six more. Following the murder of Dolores Davis in 1991, Rader seemed to disappear. The case was cold.

The winds began to change following a 2004 report in the Wichita Eagle which speculated that all the years since a murder suggested that the killer was either dead or in prison. Seeking attention, Rader sent a letter to the Eagle, taking responsibility for an unsolved 1986 murder. Over the next year, he continued to send letters, puzzles, and other miscellany to local media outlets. Landwehr led the strategy of "exchanging coded messages placed in newspaper ads" to elicit more clues out of Rader.

Landwehr's big break came in early 2005 when Rader sent a message to a Wichita TV station inquiring about a package he claimed to have left at a Home Depot. An employee there told police that his girlfriend had found an odd package—a cereal box—in the back of his truck, but, not knowing what it was, they had thrown it away.

Police were able to find the box in the trash. Inside were documents describing planned murders. There was also one document with a question: Would it be secure for the murderer to communicate with police via a floppy disk? "Be honest," the note urged. It instructed police to place a classified ad in the paper with the message, "Rex, it will be OK," if it were, in fact, safe.

http://dennisraderbtk.blogspot.com/

Investigators, recognizing the opportunity, ran the requested ad. Two weeks later, on February 16, 2005, a package containing a floppy disk arrived at KSAS-TV in Wichita.

Detectives got to work:

The disk contained one valid file bearing the message “this is a test” and directing police to read one of the accompanying index cards with instructions for further communications. In the “properties” section of the document, however, police found that the file had last been saved by someone named Dennis. They also found that the disk had been used at the Christ Lutheran Church and the Park City library.

Landwehr says Rader had taken pains to delete any identifying information from the disk. But he made the fatal mistake of taking the disk to his church to print out the file because the printer for his home computer wasn’t working.

“It’s pretty basic stuff,” Landwehr says about the reconstruction of the deleted information. “Anybody who knows anything about computers could figure it out.”

A simple Internet search turned up a Web site for the church, which identified Dennis Rader as president of the congregation.

They finally had their suspect.

From there, police were able to confirm that Dennis Rader was in fact the BTK killer by DNA testing.

On February 25, 2005, police arrested Rader. 

The New York Times credits Landwehr with the skill and strategy that eventually undid the case:

It was Lieutenant Landwehr, news reports said, who originated the strategy of playing on the killer’s demonstrated narcissism, prodding B.T.K. in public statements about the case to communicate ever more frequently with the police. It was he who made sure that the small amount of DNA evidence gathered at the Otero crime scene was saved until it was sure to be useful. And after the disk and other evidence pointed to Mr. Rader, it was he who arranged to test the DNA of a relative of Mr. Rader’s to compare with the Otero sample.

During interrogations, Rader "couldn’t get over the fact" that Landwehr had lied to him. He had trusted Landwehr.

“I need to ask you, how come you lied to me? How come you lied to me?” Rader asked.

“Because I was trying to catch you,” Landwehr answered coolly.

In the end, Rader's misplaced trust in Landwehr led to his downfall.

But Rader, for his part, blamed the disk: "The floppy did me in."

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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