WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — It’s called “I Survived BTK,” and it’s a documentary about how Charlie Otero has dealt with the murder of his mother, father and two youngest siblings in their Wichita home in 1974 by a serial killer driven by sexual fantasy involving bondage.
The film, which recently went into wider domestic distribution through Netflix streaming, offers a stark, close-up view of Otero – close enough to see the pores in his face, close enough to hear him express what would normally be private thoughts. The documentary puts the viewer with Otero as he grapples with what happened to his family and as he reacts to a killer who taunted the public before he was eventually caught in 2005.
Marc Levitz, the documentary’s producer-director, and Otero, the main figure, say they are proud of the film.
Although it went into commercial release in the United Kingdom in 2011 and into domestic distribution in 2012, it is now getting exposure through Netflix streaming technology. (The original film title was “Feast of the Assumption: The Otero Family Murders.”)
Levitz, 41, grew up in Johnson County, was a journalism student at the University of Kansas and now is a freelance filmmaker-producer living in California. Levitz spoke to The Eagle about his film after the newspaper recently published an article about Otero’s new life in the Wichita area.
Although the film has received some recognition – it narrowly missed a nomination for exceptional merit in documentary filmmaking in the Primetime Emmy Awards in 2012, according to Levitz – it’s tough to make much money very fast in the competitive world of documentaries, he said.
He said he has yet to recoup his investment. He produced the film on a $50,000 budget spread out over a few years from funds “begged, borrowed” from friends, family members and his own credit card.
Otero, 55, said he is due to receive a share of the film’s proceeds once it makes a profit.
Despite the challenges of filmmaking, “I wanted to tell the story,” Levitz said. “It was worth a shot.”
He said he got “help from a lot of people” doing all the various tasks along the way to create and produce a film.
The film might not have happened if the killer, who called himself BTK – for bind, torture, kill – had not broken his years of silence in 2004. That happened after The Eagle published a story about the 30th anniversary of the then-unsolved Otero murders.
The killer announced his presence in 2004 and 2005 through a series of communications to the media, triggering a massive – mostly behind-the-scenes – police hunt. In February 2005, the task force caught him.
The mysterious killer, it turned out, was a balding Park City animal control officer and church leader named Dennis Rader. He confessed and is serving 10 consecutive life sentences for each of 10 killings from 1974 to 1991.
Levitz felt drawn to the unfolding story when the killer re-emerged. He started communicating with Otero in 2004.
In 1974, Otero discovered his parents’ bodies after walking home from school. He had been a good student at Southeast High, but his life would never be the same after the killings.
In 2004, the killer was still on the loose and taunting the media and police. At the same time, Otero was nearing the end of his New Mexico prison sentence for aggravated battery.
Levitz started filming Otero behind bars, and some of the documentary’s early scenes show Otero in his prison garb, recalling his grisly discovery and how it had caused him “to hate everything.”
The film, which lasts almost 90 minutes, can be blunt, disturbing, graphic and generally not appropriate for younger viewers. As the main narrator, Otero uses some rough language, and viewers see some of the crime-scene photos and other evidence against Rader, including photos of the Oteros’ bodies and a photo of an essentially nude Rader in self-bondage.
Otero said of the disturbing content, including what he encountered the day he found his parents’ bodies: “I didn’t want any sugar coating. I wanted it told the way it went down.”
The film lets people who lived in Wichita during the killings flash back to that time through old TV footage, including a police official saying, “Very honestly, we have no solid leads at all.”
The scenes take viewers through the days in 2004 and early 2005 when the city was gripped with fear again because the killer had broken his silence and was leaving strange packages around Wichita. There are clips from the nationally covered news conference where police Chief Norman Williams announced, “Whew! Today is a very historic day. The bottom line: BTK is arrested.”
But much of the documentary comes through Otero’s eyes and words.
The viewer rides along with him through New Mexico’s hills and mountains after he has been released from prison. He visits some interesting characters, including a gruff, expletive-spewing, heavily bearded and tattooed man named Animal, who keeps his eyes shrouded by dark sunglasses.
There is a poignant moment in 2005 when the surviving Otero siblings – Charlie, his younger brother Danny and younger sister Carmen – return to the little house on North Edgemoor where the murders happened. They stand out front and clasp hands.
Carmen remains with her back to the house, where most of her family was slaughtered while she was at school. She bows her head. Danny sobs. “Lord!” he cries out.
Later, Charlie tells TV news crews: “We’re here for some closure.”
At another point in the narration, in a comment echoing the film’s title, Charlie says, “I am a survivor,” and, referring to himself and his surviving siblings, continues: “He (BTK) missed the three of us.”
One of the currents running through the story is that Otero can’t accept that Rader single-handedly attacked, bound and killed his parents and two youngest siblings.
And in the midst of the BTK story, a new tragedy in Otero’s life unfolds: His son is critically injured in an accident. Otero let the film crew be in his face at some of his most difficult times, but he did it willingly, he said.
“I started the documentary with the idea of doing anything I could to catch BTK.”
Early on, “I asked Marc (Levitz), ‘What do you want me to do?’ and he said, ‘Just be yourself.’?”
Information from: The Wichita (Kan.) Eagle, http://www.kansas.com