Viewpoint: Meet the Dick Tracy of Wichita
This is a story about a cop’s cop. A hometown kid who devoted his life to keeping his community safe, a man who took on the duty no one should have to do – to minister to the murdered and help seek justice for their families.
This column is dedicated to the late Lt. Ken Landwehr, Commander of the homicide unit of the Wichita, Kansas, Police Department because he epitomizes the determination, integrity and ingenuity that all great detectives possess. His deeds will live on in the annuals of America’s crime and justice history.
Landwehr was the son of an aircraft worker and a homemaker. He was an Eagle Scout as a boy and devoured books about the investigations of the legendary Sherlock Holmes. He attended Bishop Carroll Catholic High School where he played tricks on the nuns and was no stranger to occasional bouts of brawling and drinking. At Wichita State University, he was, by his own admission, a mediocre student. He thought about joining the FBI but was unsure about his life’s path – until a fateful day in 1977 when he went to his job at a North Wichita clothing store.
Robbers burst in and hogtied Landwehr, the owner and several customers. As the young college student lay hogtied on the floor, he heard one of the robbers jack a bullet into the barrel of a handgun as he stood over him. Landwehr felt sure he was about to die. Everyone escaped unharmed that day, and that life-changing experience infused him with a deep empathy for victims and gave him a razor-sharp focus for his future. Landwehr joined the Wichita PD the next year, and at the entrance interview, the rookie officer was asked how far he wanted to go in the department.
“I said, ‘I want to command homicide,'” Lt. Landwehr told a television reporter years later. “Those victims cannot speak for themselves, so that’s probably the only reason why I picked homicide.”
His dream would come true, but not before he paid his dues by working in patrol, vice, narcotics, cold cases and, finally, in 1987, he made detective in the homicide unit. There, he worked tirelessly, taking each murder case personally.
Over the years, Landwehr had a hand in working – and mostly solving – some 600 murder investigations. His wife, Cindy, says he felt deeply about each and every case.
His most famous case began in the mid-1980s when Wichita’s police chief assigned the impressive young detective to a special task force called “Ghostbusters.” The goal: to learn the identity of a serial killer who had murdered nine people and signed his taunting notes to local reporters with the moniker BTK (short for bind-torture-kill).
The investigation would span two decades until it finally went cold. There was one more BTK murder in January 1991, but then the brutality stopped. Many thought the killer must have died. Landwehr, who was promoted to Commander of Homicide in 1992, always kept his BTK files handy, firmly believing his department would ultimately solve the case.
He was right. Landwehr was at his wife’s bedside in March 2004 as she was being prepped for gall bladder surgery when word came that BTK had suddenly resurfaced! After being dormant for all those years, a letter bearing the familiar BTK handwriting had been sent to the local newspaper. The author had included Polaroid photos of a BTK kill to prove his identity.
More communications followed, and Landwehr devised a strategy to play to the killer’s ego to keep him engaged. The detective staged a number of news conferences about the investigation, knowing the attention would appeal to the killer’s vanity. The pair began private communications via cryptic newspaper ads in a cat-and-mouse game in which Landwehr could feel the noose tightening. When BTK asked if he could be traced if he sent a floppy disc of information to Landwehr, the detective told him it was safe to send it.
It was not. Shortly after police got their hands on the disc – delivered to a local TV station – they discovered it had been created on a computer at the Christ Lutheran Church in Wichita by someone named Dennis. Dennis Rader was president of the church council. When they first came face-to-face in an interrogation room, Rader reportedly confronted the commander about the trickery. “How come you lied to me?” Lt. Landwehr calmly replied, “Because I was trying to catch you.”
Landwehr had been prescient enough to save a very small DNA sample recovered in 1974 from the first murder scene. That DNA was matched to Rader, who confessed to all 10 murders.
Landwehr was diagnosed with advanced kidney cancer just before his 2012 retirement. He died last month at age 59. I write about him because he was a bigger man than just the BTK case.
After his death, colleagues told touching stories of how the gruff and “sometimes blunt and cantankerous” raspy-voiced Landwehr responded to victims.
He once quietly took a victimized boy aside and described “the beauty of heaven” to the child to help soothe his trauma.
When speaking to families of murder victims, he always talked about when – not if – the killer would be caught.
In the emergency room bedside of a five-year-old drowning victim, a detective was brought to tears when Lt. Landwehr suddenly appeared to lay a comforting hand on the child and whisper something in the little dead boy’s ear. He then turned to the detective and said, “Touch him. You’ve got to touch him.” It was a lesson from a veteran homicide detective that a dead body deserves kindness, dignity and justice. It also signaled how much of himself Ken Landwehr gave to his job over the nearly 35 years he served. That compassion and doggedness-to-duty is why the mayor dubbed Landwehr “The Dick Tracy of Wichita.”
We should all be so lucky to have such a dedicated detective on our local force. Maybe you do.
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