Reporter who broke the story of BTK’s return dies after years-long battle with cancer

Hurst Laviana, the investigative reporter who in 2004 revealed that the BTK serial killer had resurfaced, died in Wichita on Dec. 20. He was 72 and had battled cancer for years.

He leaves three daughters, Alexa, Amanda and Hannah. He leaves also a drawer full of mummified sheet cake slices (more on that later), along with national newspaper reporting awards and respect from journalists, prosecutors and police. They sometimes argued with him but trusted him as they did no other. That trust came into play when he played pivotal roles during much of the 31 years of the BTK’s reign of terror.

He will be remembered by his daughters for his world-class grass mazes at their Manhattan cabin, his famous oatmeal cookies, and the implicit goodness deep within his soul. When asked for advice for his daughters, he directed them to “never miss a chance to pet a dog.”

Laviana was born in Kansas City, but soon moved with his family to homes in multiple states. He attended Kansas State and the University of Kansas, eventually going to work at The Wichita Eagle in the early 1980s. Painfully introverted, he said almost nothing to anyone on most days. But . . .

“Hurst lived a block away from my wife, Laura, and me,” said Arlice Davenport, a former Eagle senior editor. “Whenever we would walk past his house, I inwardly saluted. Somewhere in there was a genius at work; his magic miraculous and golden.”

“He knew how to make the complex accessible,” said Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett. “I knew there would be an accurate story the next morning, when I turned around and saw Hurst sitting quietly in the gallery.”

Laviana’s fellow journalists thought him a compellingly strange character, cunning with sources, and possessing a mostly secret, savage wit.

“There was a comedian in there, dying to get out,” said Bob Lutz, a former sportswriter and columnist.

BTK returns

The Eagle’s crime reporters saw his most iconic workday up close in March 2004, when a creepy letter addressed to the newsroom arrived. No one could make out what it was intended for, vague and as nonsense-appearing as it seemed at first glance. It could easily have been trashed. But reporters watched Laviana stare at it, for an hour or two, until he said: “You know, this might be BTK saying hello.”

Reporters hearing this felt sick. BTK – self-named for Bind, Torture, Kill – had stopped his spree after seven murders in the 1970s, or so people thought. Dozens of stories had been done in the subsequent 25 years, most of them Laviana’s. The Eagle has an old file drawer full of BTK investigative files, stories, autopsy reports, police files – a BTK creepy note or two – dating to 1974, when BTK murdered four members of the Otero family in Wichita. Hurst had studied all documents repeatedly.

Staring at the note in 2004, Laviana immediately dismissed his BTK notion, thinking him long dead. But he kept staring.

The message contained stenciled letters and numbers – and faded, repeatedly photocopied pictures, including one of a driver’s license for Vickie Wegerle, whose 1986 murder Laviana had reported on after it happened. She had died eight years after BTK’s last known murder and last public messages.

Cops didn’t consider Wegerle a BTK victim, Laviana told reporters that day. Her murder remained unsolved, though. And he noted that her driver’s license image looked like (maybe) a serial killer trophy.

Other photos looked like Wegerle’s body lying in multiple poses. The reporters, passing the sheet around, thought they were crime scene photos.

And then Laviana jumped up as though stung. “Look at her arms. They’ve been moved. They are not in the same position in all the photos. The cops never move a body around when they shoot photos at a crime scene.”

He knew what he must do now. It gnawed at him.

Cops and reporters should never be close friends in a democracy. Skilled reporters – backed, when necessary, by lawyers – insist on news coverage unfettered by police, politicians or others.

But they also have ethical obligations.

“We have to show it to the cops,” Laviana concluded.

Just before he left for police headquarters, he made a copy of the letter and put it on his desk – a crucial decision.

What he did next is the stuff of newspaper legend.

He took the original to a Wichita police commander who was busy that day. “Check with the detectives,” Laviana suggested. The commander soon forgot what Hurst had brought him. Laviana called later to remind him, but it was Friday dusk by then.

The commander forgot again until two days later, when Laviana nudged him.

The commander went to the homicide unit and handed the sheet to detectives Kelly Otis and Dana Gouge, who had spent years studying thousands of cold-case documents of BTK information – including the messages BTK sent police and the media in the 1970s.

They turned pale after a single glance.

Hours passed.

Laviana’s newsroom phone rang.

Six hundred thousand Wichitans were about to enter a scary 11 months.

Two days later, Laviana called the homicide unit commander, Lt. Ken Landwehr – compulsive chain smoker, compulsive hard drinker after work, compulsive f-bomb dropper. People like Tom Stolz, a police commander, thought Landwehr a cagey genius. He had conducted or supervised hundreds of homicide investigations – solving most.

Laviana and Landwehr went back 12 years – met each other on sidewalks, or along muddy ditches, at hundreds of homicide scenes. They good-naturedly needled each other every time. If this was a hoax, Landwehr would mock him then and there.


“Come over,” Landwehr said.

Laviana pulled on his jacket, the same ancient, beige, Members Only thing he’d worn, winter or summer, for decades.

At a small office inside the police department, Laviana shut the door and sat, Landwehr staring at him. Landwehr’s face was ice cold.

Landwehr: “Did you make a copy (of the message)?”

Laviana: “Yes.

Landwehr: “Can I have it?”

Laviana: “No.”

There it was, cold as a midnight door-knock.

Landwehr now had to barter – dangerous to his case, humiliating. He needed to keep the message details secret as much as he could. A lot to ask. Laviana had no reason to say yes.

But they had that 12-year history – negotiating conflicting agendas on delicate stories. Some Laviana stories had upset Landwehr in their deep past.

Landwehr knew, as he said later: Laviana never printed errors, showboated or sensationalized. A stone-cold crime reporter, Landwehr thought – but reasonable. That’s the guy Landwehr needed now.

And that made possible what Landwehr said next:

“It’s him.”

“If it would have been anybody but Hurst,” Landwehr said later, his eyes rolling….

Landwehr then asked Laviana to leave out of his news story all the creepy message contained -- all of it, the words, the images.

That was the request Laviana dreaded, but he and his editors had anticipated it.

He agreed to most of it – he would report BTK’s return, revealing there was a BTK message. He would reveal Vickie Wegerle as a newly discovered BTK victim and that BTK’s message showed the image of her driver’s license.

Laviana thought this story could stay frustratingly active for months, maybe longer. Landwehr needed him to omit things. Laviana needed Landwehr to keep talking.

And so it was: Landwehr and Laviana revealed a shocker. The Eagle got a historic scoop. The public got a heads-up.

Books have been written about what happened next:

For 11 months, Landwehr, that cagey cop, played on BTK’s ego with public news conferences, tempting him to keep writing messages. He lured BTK into sending a message that revealed just enough about his identity.

Laviana stood one day at last, in the City Hall lobby, in a gaggle of reporters, awaiting a press announcement. Word came first in rumors, whispered in the gaggle: There had been an arrest – of a bland nobody. A Cub Scout leader, the president of his church governing committee – an awkward, literacy-challenged father of two from the Wichita suburb of Park City. He was that town’s uniformed code enforcement officer, Dennis Rader.

“A dog catcher!” Laviana said, grinning. “A DOG CATCHER! That’s what we’ll be known for now.”

He looked delighted.

The deadpan mentor

“I had never worked with anyone before him – or anyone after – who was such an encyclopedia of his beat,” said Sherry Chisenhall, the Eagle’s executive editor from 2004 to 2016. “He remembered cases, dates, suspects, unsolved crimes. He was always willing to share information with colleagues, and to be a teacher for young journalists, many in their first reporting jobs.”

Chisenhall in 2005 cut Hurst and three other reporters loose for a year and a half to do a book. In 2007 Harper Collins published “Bind, Torture, Kill: The inside Story of the Serial Killer Next Door.

“Do you think they put enough words in our book title?” Laviana asked, deadpan. It got translated into multiple languages, including Portuguese, which prompted a rare Laviana grin.

Authors of “Bind, Torture, Kill: The inside Story of The BTK Serial Killer Next Door,” from left, Roy Wenzl, Tim Potter, L. Kelly and Hurst Laviana.
Authors of “Bind, Torture, Kill: The inside Story of The BTK Serial Killer Next Door,” from left, Roy Wenzl, Tim Potter, L. Kelly and Hurst Laviana.

Laviana gave dozens of BTK-related interviews, including to many national news outfits, in the year after BTK resurfaced. But he stopped saying yes at last: the public obsession was itself creepy, he said: BTK sexually abused corpses, “and that’s why people care; that’s why people want us to talk.”

A movie was made – a mediocre, poorly constructed cable television story, but with story characters named “Lt. Ken Landwehr,” and “Hurst Laviana.” Laviana later joked that his daughters never acknowledged his fame until they heard he might have been mentioned in Glamour Magazine.

Chisenhall loved him as a galvanizing creator in her newsroom toolkit. Many reporters are helpless with math, but Laviana had a math degree from Kansas State University, which enhanced a pioneering news skill:

Computer data reporting, all new in the 1990s, brought the Eagle national reporting awards, including one for revealing that numerous Kansas parolees had killed more people after release.

Introverted, closed off, almost never smiling; but he was, to colleagues, a strangely compelling man with a strange job: He studied hundreds of autopsy photos. Covered child murders and never once blinked.

When huge stories broke, he often took the newsroom’s most maddening task – as the rewrite writer meeting pitiless deadlines. He speed-sifted dozens of files and dozens of reporter scribbles, then turned it all, in 20 minutes, into vivid prose. He did this with demeanor of a small-town dentist filling his 20,000th tooth cavity: From the DeBruce grain elevator explosion (1998), the Halloween flood (1998), for much of BTK coverage (2004-2005), for much of the Haysville tornado (1999) and the Greensburg tornado (2007)

Landwehr teased Laviana after he ordered that he be DNA-swabbed to eliminate him as a BTK suspect. He also teased him mercilessly in 1996 after Laviana showed up one day outside a Wichita house fire and gave a chatty man a ride to the hospital where a mother and child were dying. The man in Laviana’s car talked to him freely, saying he was a friend to the family.

“So, how about Mr. Investigative Reporter?” Landwehr teased later. Chatty Michael Marsh was arrested by Landwehr’s detectives –convicted of capital murder for setting the fire that killed the woman and child.

“Hurst was the tightest writer in the newsroom,” said Robert (Randy) Short, Laviana’s frequent investigative reporting collaborator and now a prosecutor. “He could dictate a story from the scene over the phone, and I don’t think the copy editors hardly changed a word of it before it got printed.”

Years later, said reporter Molly McMillin: “When I covered a murder while covering a Saturday shift one time, I interviewed a neighbor of the guy who was shot. On Monday, Hurst asked me if I could recognize the neighbor in a photo. Sure enough. Turns out the guy had given me the wrong (false) name, and the police later arrested him for the shooting. We shared a moment on that one.”

Of endings and cakes

In his final three years, Laviana maddened friends who tried to check on him; he lived alone, frail, ghostly-thin. His texts were blunt, clear, vigorous: “Not really up for a visit,” he wrote on Dec. 16. “Email would be better. I’m just always so tired.” Then later: “Watching the Cowboys lose…Don’t get me started on the Dallas Cowboys.”

But Lutz was right: Laviana was crazy-funny, though often secretly so. Friends who read all about him in the BTK book nevertheless say his finest work involved sheet cake.

Starting in the 1980s, continuing for decades, he’d cut a piece from every sheet cake offered at the going-away newsroom ceremony of every journalist leaving the Eagle. There were multiple rounds of layoffs in the ’90s and beyond. Laviana quietly seethed at the newspaper’s losses.

During every cake goodbye, he cut a piece and plopped it into his lower left desk drawer. He showed the pile to few. The pieces multiplied and mummified from the early 1980s until his departure in 2015.

In his honor, those slices still molder, though we won’t say where.

We like to think also, as former deputy chief Tom Stolz said, that Landwehr and Laviana sit together in heaven today. Saying things that should never see print.

Laviana leaves his three daughters, Alexa Laviana-Burns, Augusta, Kan.; Amanda Laviana, Sydney, Australia; and Hannah Laviana of Fort Walton Beach, Fla. He was married to their mother, Sharon Hamric, for 18 years. Memorial plans have not been set.