Friday, January 05, 2007

Robert Beattie, "Nightmare in Wichita" (2005)

Back to the bookshelves for the start of the year, I chose an especially dark read- Robert Beattie's Nightmare in Wichita. It's the story of the BTK killer's 25+ -year reign-of-terror in Kansas. From 1974 to 1991, a mysterious serial killer stalked and killed (at least) ten victims, most of whom were women. His moniker was coined by the killer himself, and stood for "Bind-Torture-Kill"... which was BTK's primary M.O. BTK was a bondage freak, and preferred sneaking up on his victims in their homes, tying them up, and then strangling them to death. Authorities from local and state law enforcement agencies worked for years trying to solve the mystery of BTK's identity. By the late 80's the case had gone almost completely cold. This fiend was relegated to the role of legendary bogeyman for Wichita's citizenry. Many were convinced that the mystery killer would never be discovered. It was easy to believe the perpetrator of these heinous crimes had died or been incarcerated. Either way, he slippped from the public consciousness.


WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD (If you plan on reading this book, and would like to be surprised, skip the following...)


In 2003, years after the last known activity of BTK, Beattie began to work on a definitive history of this enigma. Somehow, BTK was motivated to break his silence, and make contact once again with authorities. Through a strange interchange with the media, BTK slowly provided essential clues to his identity, and was finally arrested by the police. His revelation was a complete shocker, as his lifestyle and background proved to defy most expectations. Dennis Rader was a compliance officer in nearby Park City. He had been married since before his first murders, was the father of two, president of his Lutheran Church congregation, and a registered Republican. He had worked for a security company during the period of his most intense criminal activity. This nondescript character was also a monster.

Author Robert Beattie is not a journalist. He's an attorney, and upfront about that fact. He became part of his chosen story, through the publicity he dredged up concerning these unsolved crimes. The last 1/3rd of his book details his personal experiences including interviewing people for the book, and dealing with the tremendous national attention that resulted from BTK's resurfacing. While some may be put off by the seeming deflection from the main plot thread, I found the inclusion of Beattie's own story to be illuminating. It's been fairly common for me to wonder about the authorial process, especially in the True Crime genre. Beattie delivers the goods. And he is very clear that the subject of the book is not BTK, but rather the way many in Wichita were affected by his actions. Ultimately his choices seemed natural. The end of the book might seem rushed, but that's understandable because his quarry had become a moving target. BTK was collared as Beattie was putting the final touches on his manuscript.

My own reaction to reading the book was substantial. Reading the explicit details of the crime investigations took me on a creepy journey. Through much of it, I didn't even know that a confession had been extracted. Therefore I had plenty of time to believe that the man responsible for carrying out these atrocities was never caught. That experience gave me an eerie feeling. Some of the images described in these scenes were hard to sleep with. Picture someone waiting in your bedroom closet, having made a chair out of your clothing, and waiting for your return... or imagine having settled into your nighttime routine after a night on the town, and noticing a broken window and a basement light burning. Ultimately, while BTK was the bogeyman to scores of Wichitan women, Dennis Rader was the perfect embodiment of the banality of evil- a humorless petty tyrant capable of acting without the barest conscience in order to gratify himself sexually.

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