The Redemption of Charlie Otero

After four members of his family were brutally murdered, he went from honour student to paranoid outlaw. It took 31years to catch the killer – and for Charlie to heal himself
 

CHARLIE OTERO walked home from school under a crisp winter sky, almost giddy about the future. He’d aced his biology exam, and he was beginning to make friends in his new town. Charlie had always been a straight-A student and star athlete, outgoing and popular. But his family had moved from Panama to Wichita, Kansas, a few months earlier, and he’d been feeling off-kilter ever since. Now things were looking up.

Charlie, 15, planned to go to Wichita State University after high school; then he would follow his father, a recently retired master sergeant, into the Air Force. He yearned to distinguish himself as an officer, flying jets and earning medals. “My father expected a lot from me,” Charlie says. “I wanted to show him I could do it.”

On that January day in 1974, he crossed the suburban street to his family’s neat white bungalow and saw that the garage door was open and his mother’s car was missing. She was usually home to greet him after school. He walked around back, and the family dog bounded toward him across the snow. No-one ever let Lucky – a German shepherd mix with a habit of biting strangers – outside alone. Charlie stepped into the kitchen and noticed a half-made peanut butter sandwich sitting on the table beside an empty lunch box. Then he saw his father’s wallet tossed onto the stove, its contents strewn across the top.

His brother Danny, 14, and sister Carmen, 13, had returned home just minutes before. Suddenly Charlie heard Carmen shout, “Come quick! Mum and Dad are playing a bad joke on us!”

From the doorway of his parents’ bedroom, Charlie saw Joseph Sr., 38, on the carpet by the bed. He had been strangled with a belt, and his handsome features were grotesquely swollen.

Charlie’s mother, Julie, 34, lay on the mattress; a length of clothesline was cinched around her neck. Both of them had been bound with thin cord at the wrists and ankles. “What have you done?” Charlie wailed.

The phone was dead, so Danny ran to a neighbour, who called the police. When the patrol car pulled up, three of the five Otero kids were sobbing on their front lawn. Charlie relayed what he’d seen inside to the police officers, adding that two other siblings – Josephine, 11, and Joseph Jr., nine – were still at school. A search of the house turned up the missing children, however. Joey had been asphyxiated with a plastic bag in his bedroom. Josie’s partially clad body was hanging from a pipe in the basement.

“I hated God for allowing this to happen to my family,” says Charlie, a former altar boy. “I lost my religion the minute I saw my mother lying there.”

THE OTERO KILLINGS baffled the Wichita authorities, but Charlie suspected that his father’s military career had included clandestine work, and he seized on the notion that the murders were related to Joseph’s double life. Joseph, a Puerto Rican immigrant to New York City like his wife, had joined the US Air Force in 1952 and wore the uniform for more than two decades. The family moved from postings in England, where Charlie was born, to Camden, New Jersey, and then, their expanding brood in tow, to Panama for seven years. There, at the Inter-American Air Forces Academy, Joseph taught military personnel from all over Latin America to repair Phantom fighter jets and C-130 cargo planes. Charlie says his father often disappeared for weeks at a time, flying on missions that he refused to discuss.

In Wichita, where Joseph retired and took a job at an airfield maintaining private planes, Charlie recalled troubling omens. One day, his father sent him to make sure that a phone company truck was parked outside when a repairman stopped by unannounced. Another time, Joseph shooed Charlie from the room to make a telephone call. Listening through the door, the boy heard him mention work for the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, the service’s counterintelligence agency. Soon after that, Joseph’s car was mysteriously run off the road. Returning from the hospital with two broken ribs, he offered Charlie his signet ring. “If anything happens to me,” he said, “I want you to have this.”

“I told him, ‘You’ll probably outlive me, old man,’ ” Charlie recalls. “ ‘Keep it.’ ”

Days later, Joseph, his wife, and their two youngest children were dead.

CHARLIE AND HIS surviving siblings were sent to live in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where one of their father’s Air Force buddies had offered to raise them alongside his own six kids. But before long, Charlie withdrew from his siblings and new family. He began to obsess about his theory that his loved ones had been murdered by a team of assassins on the wrong side of his father’s intelligence work – and that the killers would return to finish the job.

“I always thought someone was coming to get me,” he says.

Back in Wichita, investigators probed several conspiracy scenarios. “We tried to follow up on leads in the direction of Joseph’s military work,” says Gary Caldwell, one of the first detectives on the case. “We even sent a couple of investigators to Panama.” They came up dry.

Fearing for his and his siblings’ lives, Charlie kept people at bay, neglected his schoolwork, and spent most of his time racing motorcycles. After graduating from high school, he managed to get into the University of New Mexico, but his crime-scene flashbacks and nightmares made it hard to concentrate on his studies.

Charlie switched to a vocational institute, then drifted to Las Cruces, where a Honda dealership hired him as a mechanic. After he was injured in a traffic accident, he wound up in a dispute with the hospital over his unpaid bills. When the judge ruled against him, Charlie says, “I went outlaw.”

He quit his job and got by on freelance work – rebuilding Harleys, selling handguns, and breeding pit bulls and Dobermans – for clients who didn’t need to see his ID. He figured that without a paper trail, a hit squad would have a harder time finding him. He began drinking heavily and using drugs, becoming lost among his increasingly embattled thoughts.

By 1987 he was living with a girlfriend, Lynette Shafer, in a remote desert area in New Mexico. Their house was a shack made of shipping containers from a local missile range, encircled by barbed wire and guarded by attack dogs. Carved into the hillside behind it was an abandoned jail in which Billy the Kid was briefly imprisoned a hundred years earlier. Sometimes Charlie would sequester himself for days behind the lockup’s steel-plate door. “Nobody could get to me,” he says.

When Lynette announced that she was pregnant, Charlie sent her back home to Wisconsin to have the baby, whom she named Joseph, after Charlie’s father and brother. Just weeks later, the couple cut off all communication with each other. Both believed that Charlie’s would-be assassins might harm the child as well – and that letters or phone calls might be intercepted by the killers.

IN TIME, Charlie found a new girlfriend and became the father of two daughters. “I loved those girls,” he says. “We’d go to the park with the dogs. I’d take them motorcycle riding.” But neither Charlie, then in his mid-30s, nor the children’s mother, not yet 20, was able to fully care for them. When the girls were four and five, the couple separated. Charlie tried to stay in touch, but that grew difficult after he married a woman with bipolar disorder and a taste for methamphetamine.

Then came an event that would again change Charlie’s life. He became a plaintiff’s witness in a civil lawsuit his wife had filed. While doing a routine background check on Charlie, the attorney received case files on the Otero family murders. That day, while the two were having lunch at a Mexican restaurant, he asked Charlie, “Have you ever heard of the BTK killer?”

“No,” Charlie said.

The lawyer told him that a serial killer who went by the initials BTK for what he did to his victims – bind, torture, and kill – had long ago contacted a Wichita newspaper claiming responsibility for the Otero murders and vowing to strike again. And he did: Over the next 12 years, he committed at least four more murders in the Wichita area. The victims, each a woman, were trussed up with elaborate knots and strangled slowly.

BTK’s subsequent messages for investigators took the form of macabre poetry, puzzles, and gruesome works of art. He knew details of the murders that the police had not made public. He wrote that he had a “monster” inside him. He sent half a dozen notes in all, then, in 1988, stopped all correspondence. The trail went cold.

Charlie was stunned – and angry – when the lawyer finished recounting what he’d learned. Wichita investigators had failed to share this break in the case with him when it came to light 24 years earlier. “In these types of investigations, there’s a whole lot you don’t want to let out,” says retired detective George Scantlin, who worked on the case. “The initial messages were kept confidential and used as an investigative tool.”

Still, something didn’t add up for Charlie: How could just one person have subdued his father, an ex-commando, and his mother and siblings, all of whom had trained in judo? “I said, ‘This is bull – I’ll never believe it,’ ” Charlie recalls.

He couldn’t know it yet, but the hunt for BTK would eventually help turn his life around. At the moment, though, his troubles seemed never-ending. Charlie’s wife called the police after an argument and accused him of trying to choke her with a coat hanger. He denied it, but facing a charge of attempted murder, he accepted the prosecutor’s bargain and pleaded guilty to aggravated battery. In October 2001, he began a 44-month sentence at Western New Mexico Correctional Facility.

IN PRISON, Charlie worked as a mechanic and took courses in computer programming and astronomy. He spent hundreds of hours reflecting on his tormented history and even started attending chapel. “I was doing good in prison,” he says. “It was like a revitalisation.”

Charlie spent the 30th anniversary of his family’s murders behind bars. A few weeks later, one of his cellmates called out to him, “Hey, Charlie, your mum’s on TV!” A news programme was reporting that BTK had resumed his communication with a coded message to The Wichita Eagle. Pictures of victims BTK had claimed flashed onscreen one by one, including those of Charlie’s parents, sister, and brother. The return of the killer rekindled his rage. “I was like a grenade with the pin pulled,” he recalls.

The next day, Charlie wrote to the producers of America’s Most Wanted, identifying himself as a relative of four of the Wichita victims. They asked him for an interview from prison. Newspaper reporters began calling, too, and a woman who’d seen him on TV volunteered to design a website on which Charlie could field questions about the case.

With the spotlight back on his family, Charlie’s old nightmares – images of his loved ones’ screaming faces and tortured bodies – kicked up. But his waking hours held a note of hope. By breaking the silence he’d enveloped himself in for so many years, Charlie dreamed of tempting the killer out of hiding. Perhaps, he thought, BTK would leave some DNA on his next letter. “I dared him to come for me when I was on prison road crew,” Charlie recalls. “I thought, If he runs me over, maybe somebody will see his license plate.”

BTK sent nine more notes and packages to the media and police over the following months. Two were decorated with New Mexico-themed postage stamps, which Charlie interpreted as directed at him. But the most astonishing communiqué came in December. It was a call to Charlie from a 16-year-old Wisconsin boy named Joseph. “This is your son,” said the voice on the phone. “I’m looking forward to meeting you.”

CHARLIE WALKED OUT of prison into a cold rain on January 3, 2005, ready to make amends with the world. The first person he visited was his sister Carmen, now a mentor to at-risk kids in Albuquerque. He apologised to her for his years of estrangement, and the two spent the afternoon talking as they hadn’t since childhood. Later he called Danny, who was working as a cable installer in Phoenix. Their conversation had the same tone of forgiveness, and they vowed to stay in closer touch. He got a room at a halfway house not far from Carmen’s place and found a job as a day labourer.

He was clearing brush on a landscaping job the next month when he got a call from Carmen. “They got him,” she said, and Charlie’s adrenaline pumped so intensely that he uprooted shrubs as if they were dandelions.

DENNIS RADER, a 59-year-old Cub Scout leader and father of two, confessed to ten murders as the BTK killer. Rader was the compliance officer for a Wichita suburb and president of the congregation at Christ Lutheran Church. He had remained undetected for 31 years, until he sent police a message on a floppy disk that was traceable to his church computer. Investigators also obtained a DNA sample from Rader and it showed a strong resemblance to samples taken at several BTK crime scenes.

Charlie and his siblings attended Rader’s trial, listening as he described without remorse how he’d stalked their mother, Julie, and young Josie, planning to torture them to death after getting rid of Joey, and how he’d clipped the phone line and waited by the back door for a chance to get in. Rader said he’d been surprised to find Joseph Sr. home that morning but had a pistol to keep the situation under control.

During Rader’s testimony, Charlie kept himself calm by thinking of the people who cared for him, his long-lost family members and the hundreds of strangers who’d written to him after seeing him on television.

“I wanted to kill him,” Charlie says of Rader, “but I didn’t want to hurt them.”

At Rader’s sentencing, Charlie, Danny, and Carmen cried as prosecutors showed photos from the crime scene inside their neat white house. BTK would soon be condemned to ten life terms. But for Charlie, any sense of resolution would have to wait.

During the lunch break, he got a call from his ex-girlfriend Lynette: Their son Joseph, 17 years old, had been hit by a car while riding his bike near his Wisconsin home. He was in a coma, and the doctors didn’t know if he’d live.

Parole rules forbade Charlie to travel without permission. He worked the phones, wrangling with the authorities to allow him to fly the next day to Wisconsin. But before leaving one tragedy behind for what could be the beginning of another, he planned to address the court.

The next morning, family members of the victims spoke with restraint and dignity. When it was Charlie’s turn, he stood ramrod straight. “Dennis Rader did not ruin my life,” he said in a strong, clear voice. “He caused me to challenge my faith, separated me from my loved ones, and changed my future forever . . . but despite Dennis Rader’s efforts to destroy my family, we survive.”

Carmen spoke, too, mourning those she had lost. Then the three siblings embraced, and Charlie boarded a plane to meet his son, Joseph Otero Shafer, for the first – he hoped not the last – time.

CHARLIE SPENT A WEEK at Joe’s bedside. He told the boy how much he loved him and promised to take him hunting and fishing as soon as he got better. Joe gave no sign of hearing his father but did emerge from his coma three months later. His mother nursed him back to health at home. Charlie visited Joe when he could and called him several times a week.

Now, at 20, Joe has some cognitive and memory problems as a result of the accident but has recovered sufficiently to work two part-time jobs. He hopes to go to college someday. And he adores his father. “He’s a lovely, caring person,” he says. “We talk about everything – life, work, home. It’s great to know he’s finally there.”

Charlie is determined to right other important relationships. He’s working to restore ties with his two daughters, now teenagers, who had been placed in his brother’s custody shortly before Charlie went to prison.

He has found a nurturing mate in Linda Evans, a Wichita native who attended the trial as part of her job aiding victims’ families. “I’ve seen him blossom since the trial,” she says. “The anger has gone away.”

The couple share a house trailer with two small dogs in Albuquerque. They travel at times around the country to screenings of a new documentary movie, The Feast of the Assumption: The Otero Family Murders – made by another former Wichitan, Marc Levitz. Charlie talks to audiences about his story, hoping it will help others find solace in hard times. He’s taking a course to further hone his public speaking skills.

Charlie still believes there’s more to the Otero family murders than Rader admitted – he has never fully let go of his conspiracy theory. But with the killer locked away forever in a maximum security cell, Charlie no longer dreams of death.

Instead, he’s busy remaking his life. “If there’s a heaven, I want my mum and dad to look down and be proud,” he says. “I want my family to know I’m going to make it.”

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