Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Underwater Forensics

Did he or Didn't he?

Mary Fager went out of town to visit relatives. She returned home to Wichita, Kan., on December 31, 1987, to find that her family had been slaughtered. Her husband Phillip had been shot twice in the back, and in the basement her two daughters were both dead in the hot tub, which was still bubbling. Nine-year-old Kelli, naked, had been strangled first, while Sherri, 16, had been bound and then drowned. Wichita had already experienced the nasty work of a serial killer, the BTK, then not yet caught, who had killed four members of the Otero family in the 1970s, so detectives wondered if there might be a link. In fact, one of the BTK detectives assisted in the Fager family investigation.

Dennis Rader -- BTK serial killer
Dennis Rader -- BTK serial killer

An autopsy determined that the triple homicide had occurred the day before, and that the girls' flesh had simmered in the tub for hours. One immediate suspect was a contractor named Bill Butterworth, who had recently built the Fager's sunroom. Inexplicably, he'd stolen the family car. They located him in Florida and brought him back for trial. He claimed that he'd entered the home, seen the bodies and became so traumatized he'd fled. He could hardly recall what he'd done that day.

A few days after the triple homicide, Mary Fager found a note in her mail that seemed taunting, and with it was a drawing of a young girl, bound and lying next to a tub. The killer seemed pleased by the murders but did not claim credit. It seemed that Mrs. Fager had received a message from BTK, who's read about the crime and decided to impose his own sadistic flourish. The signature was similar to those he had placed on other missives, but the drawing was not an accurate rendition of the crime. The BTK killer seemed to be merely a voyeuristic participant after the fact.

However, the note gave Butterworth's attorney what he needed to file a motion to link this murder to the unsolved BTK murders. While the judge denied the motion, the media played it up sufficiently to taint the jury pool. Jurors might now be primed to believe that BTK, whoever he was, was responsible. In an unusual move, the judge allowed testimony from a hypnotist who had put Butterworth under a trance. This expert testified that Butterworth, whom he maintained could not lie under hypnosis, had recalled finding two of the victims already dead and the third one Sherri in a struggle with someone, so he'd fled the house. The jury apparently believed this and found Butterworth not guilty of the crime. Dennis Rader BTK would later admit he had sent Mrs. Fager the letter and drawing. However, despite his confession to ten other murders, he did not take credit for this one.

Investigators in underwater forensics believe the girls could have been the victims of someone with a sexual fixation with drowning. Aquaphilia is sexual festishism that involves water. Whoever had placed them into the hot-tub might have wanted to watch their bodies in water, and perhaps had even strangled them in this location. Such people exist, as the next case shows, and more investigators should become aware of them in order to look for a specific kind of evidence. There are adults-only Websites for these paraphilias, and one man's membership in such a Website helped make a murder case stick.