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BTK serial killer: Power of computer forensics

By December 23, 2019March 30th, 2023computer forensics

He called himself the BTK serial killer. It stood for “bind, torture, kill.” And he taunted Wichita, Kansas, law enforcement for more than two decades until his ego and computer forensics brought him down.

The BTK arrest in 2005 and the killer’s eventual sentencing to 10 consecutive life sentences is considered the most famous criminal case ever solved by computer forensics.

As time passes and technology becomes more sophisticated, law enforcement’s and the legal community’s reliance on computer forensics continues to expand. Not only are computer audits and investigations used to crack criminal cases, they are being used by companies to investigate disputes involving violations of company policies, financial and intellectual property thefts, security breaches and more.

The famous BTK case demonstrates the power and effectiveness of adding computer experts to investigative teams.

The BTK killings began in 1974, with the brutal murders of Joseph, 38, and Julie, 33, Otero and two of their children by suffocation, strangulation and hanging. A few months later, Kathryn Bright, 21, was fatally stabbed 11 times. After a gap of three years, Shirley Vian, 24, and Nancy Fox, 25, were found strangled in separate murders.

After another four years, Marine Hedge, 53, was strangled in 1985 and Vicki Wegerle, 28, died a similar death in 1986. BTK then went quiet, not killing again until Dolores Davis, 62, was found strangled in 1991.

Throughout the years of killing, BTK taunted law enforcement, seeking recognition and notoriety through notes hidden in boxes, library books and even newspaper classified ads. After a vicious yearslong murderous spree, from 1974 to 1991, BTK went quiet again.

It wasn’t until 2004, when a newspaper story speculated that BTK was dead, that the killer contacted law enforcement officers. That communications and the computer technology the killer used brought BTK down.

In March 2004, The Wichita Eagle received a letter from a man claiming to have murdered Wegerle. Enclosed were crime scene photographs and items. Before the letter arrived, BTK only had been suspected of killing Wegerle because investigators were unable to match DNA found under the woman’s nails to a suspect.

Another letter was sent to a Wichita television station with more clues and a box was found on a street corner containing a graphic description of the Otero murders. And in July, a package containing more evidence was dropped into the return slot of the downtown public library. By October, an envelope was dropped into a UPS box containing a poem threatening the case’s lead investigator. And in December, police received another package from BTK containing a copy of victim Fox’s driver’s license.

In January 2005, BTK attempted to leave a cereal box containing more crime details in a pickup truck parked at the Home Depot in Wichita. But thinking it was a joke, the vehicle’s owner tossed the box into a dumpster.

Hearing nothing about his January clue-drop, BTK contacted investigators, who scrambled to Home Depot, where they found the box, as well as surveillance tapes showing a man driving a black Jeep Cherokee tossing an item into a truck. Within the month, BTK sent more letters and a message written on a computer floppy disk.

Although BTK had scrubbed old documents from the floppy disk, forensic computer investigators found buried “metadata” identifying Christ Lutheran Church and “Dennis” being the last user. An internet search revealed Dennis Rader was president of the church council.

Further investigation revealed Rader drove a black Jeep Cherokee. And through medical treatment Rader’s daughter had received at a university, a DNA familial match was established with Wegerle’s DNA sample.

Rader, the married father of two, an Air Force veteran, a college graduate, who majored in criminal justice, and a code enforcement officer for nearby Park City, was arrested. He admitted committing the murders and told investigators he would have killed more people, but his intended victims “got lucky.” At the time of his arrest, he was planning another murder.

The lesson learned from the infamous BTK case is that a criminal’s effort to hide a “digital trail” is no match against the skills of a trained forensic computer sleuth.

Alphonso Rivera is the founder and CEO of Advanced Micro Resource Digital Forensics, a Bakersfield-based digital forensic company that specializes in digital audits involving cell phone and computer evidence for attorneys, private investigators, human resources consultants and companies.

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