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🎙 “The Sketcher” describes the creation of drawings of the age progression of the serial killer BTK

FHSU graduate returns to Hays to tell the story of forensic art in her new book

Julie Riedel's original sketches of the BTK serial killer from her book The Sketcher. Image courtesy
Mugshot of Dennis Rader at the time of his incarceration. Kansas Department of Corrections
Mugshot of Dennis Rader at the time of his incarceration. Kansas Department of Corrections

By CRISTINA JANNEY
Hays Post

Julie Riedel was a 32-year-old college student when she was assigned the task of sketching the aging process of serial killer BTK.

By the early 1990s, law enforcement authorities had been trying to catch BTK for nearly twenty years.

In her new book, The Sketcher, Riedel describes the process of creating the sketches and facets of her own life during BTK’s reign of terror.

Riedel's grandparents were from Hays, and she holds two master's degrees from Fort Hays State University. She is now an art teacher at Wichita Southeast High School.

On Wednesday she was back in Hays to give a talk about her new book at the Hays Public Library.

Artist Julie Riedel reads from her book "The Sketcher" at the Hays Public Library. Behind her is a picture of one of BTK's victims being removed from a Wichita home. Photo by Cristina Janney/Hays Post
Artist Julie Riedel reads from her book “The Sketcher” at the Hays Public Library. Behind her is a picture of one of BTK's victims being removed from a Wichita home. Photo by Cristina Janney/Hays Post

Dennis Rader, the serial killer known as BTK, killed at least 10 people in Wichita and Park City between 1974 and 1991.

BTK stood for tie, torture, kill. Although Rader killed two men and two children, most of his victims were women, whom he tied up and then suffocated with a plastic bag or strangled with his hand.

He stole personal items from victims' homes, including underwear, and sent taunting letters to the media describing his crimes.

In 2004 he began sending letters again and was finally arrested in 2005.

At the time of his arrest, Rader was married with a daughter and a son. He had worked as a dog catcher and compliance officer in Park City. He was chairman of his church council and leader of the Cub Scouts.

He is serving ten consecutive life sentences at El Dorado Correctional Facility.

Riedel read from the first chapter of her book on Wednesday, in which she describes how she became involved in the BTK case.

Riedel had just completed her art degree at Wichita State University and had been accepted to pursue an independent study in forensic art.

Despite encouragement from her professor at WSU, Riedel doubted her abilities.

“I had no experience dealing with authority figures such as the people of the Wichita Police Department,” she read in her book. … “I was terrified and trembled in my worn boots at the prospect of entering the Wichita Police Department. So few people had believed in me in my life that I doubted professional criminologists would take me seriously.”

She said she had no idea she would be asked to draw a serial killer. She thought she might be assigned a theft suspect, but police were so desperate for information that could lead to BTK's arrest that she was willing to take the risk.

Upon her arrival at the Wichita Police Department, the officer in charge of the case brought her a two-wheeled cart containing the files on the BTK Killer and led Riedel into a musty storage room to spread out the files.

Officer Landwehr explained that he wanted Riedel to use sketches and flipbooks provided by witnesses to create a picture of what BTK might have looked like at ages 26 and 46.

This should include versions of the suspect with a bald head, with facial hair, and with and without glasses.

This type of age progression plotting had never been done before. This was a time before AI or widespread use of the internet that could be used for research.

“I was speechless. The crimes committed by the BTK were the stuff of nightmares for the Wichita metropolitan area,” she read from her book.

“Nobody knew who he was. There was a sense of distrust throughout the town and the surrounding area,” Riedel said. “He could have been your neighbor, your electrician, your phone repairman or the guy who stared at you in the grocery store, and I thought about him all the time I went to the grocery store,” she said.

Riedel, who had five young children, insisted that her name never be mentioned in connection with the sketches.

She was called “The Sketcher.”

“At that moment, I accepted the assignment,” she read from her book. “I didn't understand how much this decision would change my life.”

Riedel needed about three to four months to complete the drawings.

The first clue came from an image created based on the report of a firefighter standing behind Dennis Rader as he made a pay phone call to KWCH Channel 12 in Wichita.

The experience frightened him so much that he had himself hypnotized so that he could describe the suspect.

She started with the eyes, which went against what she had learned as an artist. She thought about BTK. Would he be stressed? Would he be happy and take pleasure in his killing?

She was interested in how bone structure and facial muscles change with age. She drew inspiration from her drawing lessons and the studies of Leonardo da Vinci.

Da Vinci searched tombs to dissect human bodies so he could better understand their muscles and skeletal structures. Since there was no internet, this study had to be done entirely in the library using books.

She began to see people with different eyes. She saw the murderer everywhere.

“Is that him? Is that him? Wait, he has that feature,” she said.

She began having nightmares in which BTK put a plastic bag over her head to suffocate her—his face became more and more complete the closer she got to completing the sketches.

After the sketches were completed and returned to the Wichita Police Department, they were distributed to all local media outlets across the country and eventually worldwide.

When police finally closed in on Rader, Riedel was asked to return the sketches to the police station. The media surrounded the WPD, waiting for the big break.

When Riedel left the police station, she saw Rader in the parking garage.

He was enjoying the media circus that had gathered at the WPD office. He had raised the hood of his car. He didn't know her and didn't know that she had made the drawings, but his eyes met Riedel's.

She immediately went back to the police station and asked to speak to Officer Landwehr.

“Please, please, he’s out there!” she said.

But Landwehr was at a press conference.

Shortly after that day, Rader was finally arrested.

Riedel was not called as a witness in the prosecution against Rader. However, her drawings were admitted as Exhibit 13.

Dennis Rader's recent mug shot. He is serving 10 consecutive life sentences at El Dorado Correctional Facility. Photo courtesy of Kansas Department of Corrections
Dennis Rader's recent mug shot. He is serving 10 consecutive life sentences at El Dorado Correctional Facility. Photo courtesy of Kansas Department of Corrections

“I learned so much while drawing the BTK,” she said. “Sometimes it's overwhelming to think about. I was scared the whole time. It's a very scary thing, and I was scared for my children.”

She said she decided to write the book now with the help of a ghostwriter to heal her wounds.

“We came from a pretty rough family. We all made it. We all love each other. We're all close. We had a pretty rough childhood and that's partly what the book is about,” she said. “I compare the book to my life back then.”

She said the book was difficult to write.

“You find a way to forgive when you write it down,” she said.

She continues to teach and hopes to encourage her students to seize opportunities, as she did in BTK's case.

“I'm passionate about art and helping others succeed,” she said. “I'm a big believer in helping kids figure out what's in their hearts and what they want to do in their lives.”

“So many kids are lost and don't know what to do. I help them get scholarships and I'm also an art teacher.”

Riedel continues to be contacted by police asking for assistance with cases.

She was also contacted by producers who were interested in making a film based on her book.

You can learn more about Riedel, her book and her art at thesketcher.org and riedelartstudio.com

One of her exhibitions is currently on display at Studio 12 in Wichita.

Her original sketches of BTK are for sale. Her book is available at major book retailers nationwide.