Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Murder Cop: A Profile of Vernon J. Geberth

Wichita Killer

In Wichita, Kansas in 1974, someone killed the Otero family of four, singling out the young girl for torture and strangulation by hanging.  Six months later, a young woman was murdered in her home.  The local newspaper received a letter with crime scene details of the Otero family massacre, and while arrests were made, no one was identified as the killer.  Then two women were murdered in the area in 1977, followed by a poem sent to the press referring to the first one.  FBI profilers suggested downplaying the murders, which appeared to make the killer angry.  He sent a letter to a local television station claming that he was among the elite serial killers, all of whom were compelled to kill by "Factor X."  He was already stalking victim number eight. How many people had to die, he asked, before his work would be recognized?

Geberth was doing a presentation shortly after these incidents at the Milton Helpern Center in Wichita. "I met John Dodson, who was the captain of the Wichita police department.  He asked me if I'd look at his BTK case, and he put together a file of the crime scene pictures and reports, and asked me to give him my ideas. In the Otero case it was obvious to me that little eleven-year old Josephine was the intended target because he had spent extra time with her. However, I didn't see that there was any rhyme or reason for what the killer was doing, except that he wanted the authorities to know he was the killer and that he was heavily vested in bondage.  That's why he had called himself BTK.  He had done drawings of his female victims facedown and it was my opinion that he received sexual pleasure from doing these drawings.  I guarantee you that he had pictures of some of these murders, because the drawings were too explicit.  These folks have an intense fantasy system and they're trying to replicate it."  The murder plan is in the pornography; the pictures that arouse them are the roadmaps to their deviance.

The killer ceased responding for a time, and then another event fortuitously brought Geberth together again with the Wichita investigators.  He'd been involved in the investigation of the first case in New York that featured a DNA analysis a watershed case for the forensic use of DNA.  In 1987, the same year as the world's first conviction via DNA analysis in a serial murder case in England, Joseph Castro was charged in the stabbing death of his neighbors, a young woman and her two-year-old daughter.  It went to trial in 1989.  The primary evidence against Castro was a drop of blood on his watchband that was believed to have originated with one of the victims, and the prosecution had ordered a DNA analysis. 

By this time, there had been press reports around the world about the miracle tool for crime-solving, and Lifecodes became the first U.S. DNA laboratory.  They used the RFLP method to test the blood, but after admissibility hearings were allowed to say only that it was not Castro's, rather than that it matched a victim.  The prosecutor indicated that it was not Castro's and offered astronomical odds to support his statement.  The defense expert challenged these odds and the match criteria used.  The trial court then excluded the DNA evidence, although Castro later pled guilty and got a lesser sentence.

Nevertheless, the case had legs: Geberth found a way to turn this temporary setback for DNA into an advantage.

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