BTK Case Ripples Through College Courses

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Nothing puts an end to theorizing about a suspect quite like an arrest, but even with charges filed in the BTK serial murders (search) in Kansas, college students across the country continue to use the case as a learning tool.

In forensic sciences and related courses, already popular because of TV shows such as "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" and "Law & Order," the BTK case has energized students like nothing else, professors say.

"They are actually seeing their subject matter come to life in front of their eyes," said Scott Thornsley, who teaches courses on serial killers and violent crime behavior at Mansfield University (search) in Pennsylvania.

For more than three decades the BTK case has been inspected and dissected by police trying to solve the grisly killings. Over the years, criminal justice students have searched for clues investigators may have missed.

Students studying the case at Georgia State University (search) in Atlanta were free to be imaginative about what type of person BTK might be because so little was known, said Volkan Topalli, an assistant professor in the criminal justice department.

"I would say that 80 percent of the students come up with the lazy answer, which is he's a sicko," Topalli said.

Police arrested BTK suspect Dennis Rader (search), 60, on Feb. 25 and charged him with 10 killings in the Wichita area since 1974. The killer, whose nickname stands for "Bind, Torture, Kill," resurfaced about a year ago with letters to the media and police after 25 years of silence.

Rader lived in a suburb of Wichita, Kan., and has a wife and two children. He once led a Cub Scout troop and was active in his Lutheran church. He worked as an ordinance enforcement officer for the local government.

As part of the master's level forensics science program at Nebraska Wesleyan University (search) in Lincoln, students have studied the BTK case all year, developing profiles of the suspect and examining the crime scenes.

The fact that Rader is married and has children does not fit the profile that student Jackie Hoehner developed about the BTK suspect. Hoehner had theorized that the suspect would be divorced or never married.

Hoehner and three other students in Nebraska Wesleyan's program made a presentation recently to classmates detailing the known crime scenes and publicly released evidence.

On a large screen at the front of a lecture hall, the students showed newspaper photos of the home where the first BTK victims were killed in 1974, police sketches of the bodies, and the students' own diagrams of the inside of the house.

The students in Hoehner's course have primarily studied unsolved cases, or cases in which considerable doubt has been raised about whether the person blamed for the crime is guilty. Some others being examined include the Atlanta child killings from 1979 through 1981 and the Marilyn Sheppard slaying that inspired "The Fugitive" television show and film.

Not all the theories about the BTK killer discussed in the serial murder class at Mansfield University match the suspect, said Kylee Witmer, 21, a junior majoring in criminal justice.

"Someone thought that he was a sadist, which we have not found whether or not that's true yet," Witmer said. "There were a lot of theories."

Witmer and some other students, however, said BTK's letters indicated he was someone who wanted to be in control, thus he could have been a law enforcement-type job similar to the municipal code enforcer job Rader had.

Students at Nebraska Wesleyan predicted BTK would be average looking and would not stand out in a crowd, an attribute Hoehner said fits Rader. She said they also came close to guessing his education level and the type of job he would have.

Hoehner said she and other students had thought BTK may have left the area for a while and returned, accounting for the 25-year gap in communication. That theory was also widely held by others who had examined the case.

"This is going to be one of those cases people are going to be talking about a long, long time," said Brian Withrow, an assistant professor of criminal justice at Wichita State University (search).

While there is interest in the BTK slayings, criminology professors said it is far more common for college courses to examine closed cases — such as those of killers Jeffrey Dahmer, John Wayne Gacy and Ted Bundy.

Not much intelligent information can be obtained before the cases are solved and the convicted offender is extensively interviewed, Withrow said. "Prior to this it is all possibilities, theories and assumptions," he said.