Smoking Out BTK
Robert Beattie’s book The Hunt for the BTK Strangler turned out to be the best hunter of them all
Published in 2005 Missouri & Kansas Super Lawyers magazine
on October 24, 2005
Updated on October 17, 2016
The attorney who brought the notorious BTK strangler to justice did so in an unorthodox way: he flushed him out with a book. But then the career path for Robert Beattie has been anything but traditional.
Jury duty motivated the Wichita firefighter of 15 years to become an attorney. Seated on a multiple homicide first-degree murder case, Beattie was impressed by the workings of the legal system, especially the professional respect between the judge and lawyers, and, after earning his law degree at Washburn University in Topeka, he started practicing in 1993, at the age of 37. “As any sole practitioner, I did a lot of what walked in the door,” he says, from family law to antitrust.
A second jury duty stint inspired Beattie to write a textbook for the political science classes he taught part-time at Newman University. For the chapter about grand juries, he used the BTK case to illustrate how a grand jury might be convened to investigate the case of the serial killer, who murdered 10 people from 1974 to 1991 in the Wichita area.
In his research of the BTK strangler (so named for his method of Bind, Torture, Kill), Beattie became fascinated with these unsolved murders. A retired police detective who had worked on the BTK case encouraged Beattie to write a book. “If you don’t, no one will,” the detective told him. The family of one of the victims also urged him to write a book, thinking it might encourage the police to reopen the investigation, which had gone cold.
Beattie had long enjoyed writing. At 17, he wrote for a weekly column in the Wichita Eagle called “Teen Talk,” and he’d written two unpublished science fiction novels. He decided to take on the challenge.
Beattie conducted more than 400 interviews, and, by 2004, he realized he could not practice law and write. “I would do both jobs poorly,” he says. He chose the book.
Beattie’s wife Mary Ann, a pediatrician, supported his book project. “She realized there were reasonable risks that you take for the community,” Beattie says. “We thought this would be a reasonable risk. If the killer was caught, it would be worth it.”
One thing he didn’t immediately discuss with his wife: In the novel Red Dragon, a serial killer based on the BTK strangler murders a man writing a book about him. “We took as many security measures as prudent,” Beattie says. Retired police officers watched them when they ventured out of their Wichita home.
Over 17 years the BTK strangler had claimed 10 victims and taunted the police with poems and cryptic letters, but then he fell inexplicably silent. Beattie’s research revived discussion of the case — and the BTK strangler resurfaced. He sent a letter to the Wichita Eagle that included photos of a 1986 strangling victim and renewed his cryptic messages. This time his taunting backfired. A computer disk he’d sent to police was traced to Dennis Rader, 60, who lived and worked in suburban Park City as a code inspector, tagging citizens for minor violations. Two days after Beattie signed a contract with New American Library to publish his book, police arrested Rader and charged him with 10 counts of murder.
Rader’s arrest shocked many, but not Beattie, who figured the BTK strangler would be someone fastidious and neat, which would explain in part how he eluded capture for so long.
Jackie Williams, former U.S. Attorney for Kansas, believes Beattie’s book, and the pre-publicity surrounding the book, smoked out the killer. “A lot of people agree with me,” Williams says, including, it turns out, Rader himself, who said in a TV interview in July that Beattie’s book prompted him to reappear. It made him want to tell his version of the story.
Nightmare in Wichita: The Hunt for the BTK Strangler was published this spring, and Beattie sold the movie rights to Sony Pictures and it premiered on CBS in October. At this point, he’s more interested in returning to his science fiction novels — and eventually his law practice — than telling the next chapter in the BTK strangler’s life. “Someone will write a book about Dennis Rader,” he says, “but I’m not that guy.”