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Challenges of capturing today's Dr. Jekylls

The 'BTK killer' in Wichita, Kan., joins the ranks of serial killers who pose as 'normal' community members.

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By the time Jack Unterweger arrived at the Los Angeles Police Department, he was something of a celebrity. Back in Vienna, his prose had won him the adulation of the coffeehouse cognoscenti and a literary prize. In Los Angeles, he was the silver-haired intellectual come to research a story on prostitution in the United States.

It seemed only natural to allow a journalist of his stature to ride along with officers, bringing him to the street corners at the heart of the Los Angeles sex trade. Of his experience, he wrote: "Real life in L.A. is dominated ... by the broken dreams of thousands who come daily to the city and an equal number who leave, sometimes dead."

Within months, however, the urbane Austrian author famous for his silk suits and his car with a "JACK 1" license plate was in prison, charged with killing 11 prostitutes - including three during his stay in California.

Today, a decade later, as another man - a father of two and former Cub Scout leader in Wichita, Kan. - stands accused of 10 murders, Unterweger's tale serves a reminder that the public lives of serial killers are often intertwined with the ordinary. For generations, notorious murderers have been embraced as kindly grandfathers and celebrated as civic leaders - with one even meeting America's first lady.

Disconnected neighbors

Yet the charges in Wichita come at a peculiar time. Many Americans are leading insulated lives - knowing more about their computer mouse than their co-workers. Increasingly, companies, universities, and online dating services are being pressured to supplement handshakes with background checks and personal references with police records.

In this atmosphere, the news that a dog-catcher who sat on his local church council could have killed 10 people - and evaded suspicion for 31 years - has added unease to a nation unsure of its neighbors.


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