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The Poet

She escaped a crazed psychopath at 16. Decades later, as the BTK serial killer terrorizes Wichita, she has to run for her life again. The identity of her tormentor is too chilling to believe.

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Why does your fucked up mind think without innocence
You can call your castle kings about my vehemence
Thoughts of me in your fucked up mind makes you perspire
Your fucked up brain wants me to retire….
Your fucked up head nos I will win this war

Late one humid night in Wichita, Kansas, in June 1977, Ruth Finley, a 47-year-old telephone company employee and mother of two grown sons, was startled by the ringing of her phone. She had just endured a traumatic day: that afternoon her husband Ed had collapsed from an apparent heart attack after working in their back yard. Now Ed lay in a hospital bed as doctors searched for a conclusive diagnosis, while Ruth tried to shake off the unease she felt at the unfamiliar experience of being alone in her house at night.

Listening to the radio didn’t provide much help: the airwaves were filled with news of the BTK Strangler, Wichita’s first serial killer, who had been stalking the city’s residents for the past three years, killing seven people. Ruth switched to easy listening instead.

The ring of her telephone pierced the music’s mellow tones, instantly filling Ruth with apprehension. A phone call this late at night could only mean bad news from the hospital.

“Hello?” she answered hesitantly.

Instead of a nurse or doctor, Ruth heard an unfamiliar male voice on the line.

“Is this Ruth Smock from Fort Scott, Kansas?”

The question startled her. Smock was Ruth’s maiden name, and she hadn’t lived in Fort Scott for decades.

“Yes, it is,” she answered.

“I know all about that night.” Hearing the low and ominous tone, Ruth didn’t need to ask the man which night he meant.

Confirming her fear, she listened in shock as the caller began reading out loud from an October 15, 1946 article from the Fort Scott (KS) Tribune: “Branded on both thighs by a hot flat-iron, apparently by a sex maniac, Ruth Smock, sixteen-year-old Fort Scott High school girl…was resting today at the home of her parents…following an attack upon her early last night.”

That night in 1946 Ruth had just returned to her rooming house from buying groceries when she heard the screen door open behind her. Suddenly she felt herself grabbed from behind by a tall man who began tearing at her clothes. The intruder wore dirty bib overalls and looked about 50 years old.

Struggling to break free, Ruth jabbed the man in the eyes with her thumbs. “I’ll fix you so no one will look at you again!” came his enraged reaction. The man shoved a rag doused with chloroform over Ruth’s mouth; she began to fade into unconsciousness. Her final hazy image before passing out was of the man heating a flat-iron on the stove. When she awoke, she had first–degree burns on both thighs. Blood oozed from scratches on her face, arms, and legs.

Now, on the phone, 31 years later, the male caller asked Ruth if she still wore her “brand.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Ruth lied. Her head swam with confusion: Why was this stranger bringing up that terrible incident from so long ago?

The man told Ruth he worked for a construction company that was tearing down old houses in Fort Scott, and he’d found a number of yellowing newspapers in the walls. The article about Ruth was among them. If she didn’t give him money, he said, he would spread the news of her teenage attack. “I know where you work.”

Alarmed, Ruth slammed down the phone. Her temples throbbed and she felt an abrupt need to sleep. Dragging herself to bed, she fell almost immediately into a ten-hour slumber.

Ed remained in the hospital for another week. He hadn’t suffered a heart attack, it turned out, but rather a holdover injury from a car accident the previous year. While Ed lay in his hospital bed, Ruth spent fretful nights alone in the house, waiting with dread for another call. None came. Ed returned home and Ruth did her best to put the man’s threats out of her mind. Life in the Finleys’ modest one-story, wood frame house at 8215 East Indianapolis Street resumed its familiar rhythm.

Later that summer Ruth was sitting in her office — she worked as a secretary at Southwestern Bell Telephone Company — when an envelope landed on her desk. Her name was scrawled in a messy hand across the top. Opening the envelope, Ruth’s stomach clenched as a yellowed newspaper clipping fell to her desk. Picking up the clipping, she was aghast to find it was the Fort Scott Tribune headline from 1946: “Sex Maniac Uses Flat Irons in Branding Local H.S. Girl.” Frightened and unsure of what to do, she tore the headline into pieces and tossed them in her wastebasket.

Throwing away the headline didn’t make Ruth’s trouble disappear, however. She picked up the phone at home to hear the same unidentified male voice repeatedly over the next several months, though Ruth would hang up before he could say more than her name. During the same period Ed answered the phone on multiple occasions to hear only a dial tone at the other end.

Ruth and Ed valued nothing more than normalcy. They were the children of poverty-stricken farmers and homemakers in rural Kansas who had struggled to survive during the Great Depression. Their parents were harsh disciplinarians who taught that emotions were to be repressed, tears were forbidden, and calling attention to oneself was practically criminal. Ruth and Ed’s fondest wish was for neighbors and friends to view them as modest, responsible people, polite and ordinary.

Ruth had sparkling eyes, short brown hair, an attractive square face, and a muted but respectable manner of dress. Ed, an accountant at a construction firm, had a looming frame, a shiny bald head, and plain, friendly features. Ruth’s hobby was ceramics, Ed’s was painting. Their creativity was important to them. In another life, Ruth and Ed might have been artists, but nothing in their hardscrabble upbringings had allowed for that possibility.

In August 1977 Ruth was window-shopping in downtown Wichita when a man popped out of a crowded crosswalk and fell into stride beside her. Ruth barely noticed. She might have been thinking instead of how increasingly hollowed-out the downtown shopping district felt, as store after store went out of business or relocated to one of the malls on the outskirts of town. Ruth and Ed both worked downtown, and each day it seemed to them that fewer of the city’s nearly 300,000 residents walked the sidewalks in the city’s core.

Suddenly Ruth’s reverie was broken. “You’ve done such a good job working this week,” the man said. “You can take the weekend off.”

Ruth, startled, looked over. She took in as many details as she could: the man was in his late 40s, 5’9” and skinny, with a plaid sport shirt, jeans, and white canvas shoes. His black hair was graying at the temples.

“You work for the telephone company, don’t you?” Ruth did her best to ignore the man, but he persisted. “What do you do there? Are you an operator?”

When Ruth didn’t answer, the man told her he’d recently won some money in Las Vegas. “Would you like to go to Las Vegas sometime?”

Ruth held her silence and kept walking.

Switching conversational gears, the man announced, “The camera reflects the true quality of one’s soul.”

Ruth was more annoyed than scared. “I’m waiting for my husband,” she said pointedly.

“Are you still married?” When Ruth failed to respond, the man’s tone grew menacing. “I like your face. I’ll see you again, you can count on that. Some people’s fantasies are other people’s nightmares.”

Ruth was deeply unsettled by these last words. Is this the man who’s been calling me? she wondered.

When Ed came out to meet her, Ruth told him about the “creep” who had followed her. Ed assured her that it was probably just a guy looking to pick someone up.

Ed’s evaluation seemed correct. Ruth saw nothing more of the man for almost a year. But in June 1978 she was once again shopping downtown when, as she passed an alleyway between stores, she felt someone reach out and grab her wrist. It was the man from the previous summer.

“Ruth! Get back here, you stupid bitch, and talk to me!” he cried.

Ruth yanked free and dashed across the street into Macy’s, where she rode the escalator to the fifth floor before realizing where she was. When her breathing finally settled, she called Ed and asked him to pick her up immediately.

When Ed met her at Macy’s, Ruth told him about the assault. She also told him, for the first time, about the harassing phone calls. Ed, deeply worried, said he would contact the police. He went to the station and filed a report, but the police took no follow-up action.

That October Ruth received in the mail an otherwise unmarked envelope with her name scrawled on the front in tall black letters. Uneasiness gripped her as she sat at her kitchen table with a cup of coffee and opened the envelope. Inside Ruth found a single sheet of paper with the words “Fuck you. Fuck the police. Fuck the telephone company” scribbled messily at the top. Give me money, the writer threatened below, or you will be hurt. A frightened Ruth jumped to her feet and paced the floor until Ed came home.

“This is bad,” Ed told Ruth after he read the letter. He insisted they make another visit to the police.

On November 6, Ruth and Ed drove to the Wichita Police Department headquarters, where they were directed to the Criminal Investigation Division on the fifth floor. Lieutenant Bernie Drowatzky, a seasoned, balding detective whose experience as an officer stretched back 34 years, greeted the couple in his office.

Normally Drowatzky’s division would not handle a case like Ruth’s, but the BTK Strangler, now three years into his reign of terror over Wichita, was also known for sending threatening letters, and the police were taking no chances.

Ruth told Drowatzky about the menacing phone calls and the two times she had been approached on the street. She had no enemies that she knew of, Ruth said. She and Ed were empty nesters living on a quiet street, and they were friendly with all their neighbors. Nor could she think of anyone she had wronged in the past.

Though he didn’t say so out loud, Drowatzky was underwhelmed by Ruth’s report. His caseload was filled with far more violent crimes — not to mention the dozens of BTK tips he received every week — and he simply didn’t have the time to pursue such a seemingly minor case.

The following week another letter appeared in the Finley’s mailbox, this time demanding that Ruth pay the writer $100. “I can tell if anybody is watch [sic] me,” the letter warned. “Don’t be a dum bitch agin and blow this…I will try to be yur friend but when you are a dum bitch I don’t like you…. This time you talk to me when I call you soon.” The writer finished off with a crude poem: “Where ever you go on water or land/ You still got to pay or I tell about yur brand/ I am smart & no things to do/ You talk to people I dispise/ Like police Lt & tele spies.”

Ruth brought the letter to Lt. Drowatzky at police headquarters. As more letters began appearing in the Finley’s mailbox, Ed delivered them to Drowatzky, who passed them on to the police laboratory for fingerprinting. The letters grew more indecipherable over time, a jumble of misspellings and abbreviations and rare, tongue-twisting words like “consentaneous,” “prolegomenous” and “rodomontade,” or made up words like “sanchused” and “psychosthenia.” Ruth began typing up clean copies of the letters for Drowatzky to make them easier to decode. The writer talked frequently of wanting to see Ruth’s “brands.” He seemed to find her burns fascinating.

The phone calls continued as well, though when Ed answered he was usually greeted only by a dial tone, the caller having hung up, or by a male voice that asked “Ruth?” and then hung up. But the calls finally stopped, and Ruth and Ed became hopeful that Ruth’s stalker had moved on.

On November 21, 1978 — a cold day, wet and misty — Ruth spent her lunch break running errands downtown. She wore a red print blouse, a black jacket, and black pants. As she crossed North Market Street after leaving a greeting card shop, her path was suddenly blocked by a blue-green 1964 Chevrolet Bel Air that screeched to the curb. The only other person she could see was an elderly woman walking far up the street. Ruth froze in horror as the same man who had confronted her twice previously leaped from the car. This time he wore black frame glasses, a jean jacket, and a sweater. “Have you got my money?” he asked, delivering a sharp kick to Ruth’s shin. As she folded over in pain, the man grabbed her and shoved her into the car’s tattered, junk-filled backseat. He climbed in next to her and slammed the door.

In the driver’s seat sat a man swigging from a bottle wrapped in a paper bag. Ruth’s attacker called him “Buddy.” Ruth looked frantically for a means of escape, but the door handle on her side was broken. On the floor she saw a gas can, pieces of concrete, chains, and rags. The car’s rear left window was covered with plastic, and the torn up dashboard was criss-crossed with white tape.

Ruth’s abductor told her to give him her purse. Pawing through it, he found Ruth’s money and her safe deposit key. “We’ve struck it rich!” he cried. But his mood turned grim as he came across Drowatzky’s business card, which he showed to Buddy. Then, cursing, he picked up a chunk of concrete and slammed it into Ruth’s head. “You damn stupid bitch!” he said. Dazed, Ruth collapsed in her seat.

The car sped off, headed northwest, the two men jabbering back and forth so rapidly that Ruth found it difficult to follow their conversation. At one point Buddy stopped at Twin Lakes Shopping Center and yammered on about Sears’ inability to properly fix his car. “We’ll get rid of her but not here,” her abductor said at another time, sending an added jolt of fear through an already terrified Ruth. She thought of the Mace can she had hidden in her purse, but she felt too scared to reach for it.

Outside the car, the weather grew increasingly colder as the afternoon turned to dusk and dusk to night. Buddy continued driving a seemingly random route around the city. “Do you like beer?” her abductor leered. “We’ll get some beer and have a party. I’ll be real nice to you.”

Finally, four hours into her ordeal, Ruth summoned the courage to speak. “I have to pee,” she said, but the men just laughed. Ruth forced herself to gag. “I’m going to throw up if I don’t go to the restroom!” she said.

“You won’t do that,” Ruth’s abductor replied, but he told Buddy to stop next to a small park near West 21st Street and Salina. Before the men let Ruth out of the car they made her remove her shoes and sweater so she wouldn’t run away.

“This is going to be fun,” Ruth’s abductor said as he escorted her down into the park. “I’ll watch you and you’ll watch me, don’t that sound like fun?” Ruth, walking next to him, dug her hand inside her purse until she found her can of Mace.

When they reached a little lake, the man let go of Ruth’s arm, saying he would pee first. As he unzipped his fly, Ruth withdrew her can of Mace and pressed the nozzle. The man collapsed coughing as Ruth bolted off barefoot into the park.

Spotting a large bush behind which she could hide, Ruth crouched, fearful and shivering, thinking she could hear the man tracking her. “You’ll freeze if we leave you here!” she heard the man shout. “Come get your shoes and your coat and we won’t bother you anymore!”

Though her feet were turning numb from the cold, Ruth stayed crouched in the dark until long after the man stopped shouting. When her discomfort grew overwhelming, she scrambled to the top of a small rise. Looking down, she saw no sign of the men’s car. Had they finally driven off?

Exiting the park, Ruth dashed into a liquor store across the street. “Someone’s after me,” she told the store’s owner between gasping breaths. The owner immediately called the police. “Please, can you call my husband too?” Ruth asked him.

When Ed picked up the phone and heard a strange man on the line, he demanded to speak with Ruth. Ed had spent the past hours feeling panicked and helpless after Ruth had been reported missing from work. Now, on the phone, Ruth reassured him that she was out of harm’s way, that the store owner was helping her, but Ed remained wary. By the time he arrived at the liquor store 30 minutes later, the police had already taken Ruth to headquarters.

Ed found Ruth hunched in a chair at the station, her eyes and cheeks red from crying, her hand still gripping her Mace can, though she was doing her best to project an aura of calm. Her mother had always taught her that tears were a waste of time.

Ruth remained seated as Lt. Drowatzky told Ed that the kidnappers had stolen her $315 paycheck and a $100 dollar U.S. savings bond. Not wishing to further alarm Ruth and Ed, Drowatzky kept private his growing suspicion that Ruth’s tormentor might be the BTK Strangler after all. Overlaps of key words between the BTK’s letters and the letters received by Ruth had the police fretting that Ruth might be the killer’s next victim.

The next day Detective Richard Zortman drove to the park where Ruth had escaped her kidnappers. He found Ruth’s shoes and sweater and traced her footprints, but was unable to recover any additional clues. Zortman and Drowatzky then ran a check of every 1964 Chevy Bel Air in the city, doggedly locating each vehicle, but no plausible suspects emerged from their work.

For the next five weeks, detectives in the downtown area threw a blanket of protection around Ruth during her lunch hours, but they observed no suspicious activity. Detective George Anderson, with Ruth and Ed in tow, drove 155 miles east to Fort Scott for a two-day investigation into Ruth’s teenage assault there, hoping to uncover a possible suspect. Ruth examined all the mug shots on file at the Fort Scott police department. Later that month Anderson returned to Fort Scott for another two-day visit, but neither trip provided any leads regarding the possible identity of Ruth’s tormentor.

Looking to establish contact with the suspect, Lieutenant Drowatzky participated in a talk show sponsored by KEYN radio. He described for the audience Ruth’s strange tale. As the show progressed, Ruth and three detectives listened in on the studio telephone line to all incoming callers. None of the voices sounded to Ruth like that of the man who had been stalking her.

During this same period Ruth found herself plagued by daily headaches and wrenching stomach cramps, and while she knew the symptoms might be psychosomatic, she never considered requesting help. Her mother had taught her that asking for help was a sign of weakness, something to be avoided at all costs. Ruth also hated to be an object of gossip or speculation; in her world, calling special attention to one’s self was tantamount to a sin.

Ruth’s discomfort only grew in December, when Drowatzky received a letter from her attacker accusing the detective of “protecting a whore from death.” Drowatzky, for his part, was enraged. He felt that Ruth was a good, kind woman, and his inability to find her attacker was proving a source of deep frustration.

Meanwhile, Ruth and Ed’s nights reflected their new reality. While Ruth slept — or, rather, attempted to sleep — in their bed, Ed would drag his 12-guage shotgun into their backyard. There he would lie behind the bushes and wait for hours, fantasizing all the while that Ruth’s attacker would make an appearance.

As the weather warmed and spring turned to summer, the letters for Ruth kept piling up. The words were written in rhyming verse — Ed called the writer “The Poet” — and the messages were violent, enraged, grotesquely sexual. “The whore bore her guilt in her bed of slime/ From selling her ass & not charging a dime/ Slept with strangers in evil bed/ Enraged demon hunters saw blood was red/ All bitchs shuld keep there names and faces secret….”

In July 1979 the letters stopped, however, and Ruth and Ed again grew hopeful that The Poet had moved on. They even felt comfortable enough to plan their annual summer trip to a dude ranch in Colorado. Ruth wanted a new pair of jeans for the trip, and so on August 13, after work, she told Ed she was heading to Dillard’s department store at the Towne East Mall. Ed felt nervous about Ruth venturing out by herself, but Ruth said she would be fine.

By the time Ruth walked out of Dillard’s with her new jeans, the summer dusk had settled in, casting shadows over the enormous, nearly deserted mall parking lot. Ruth, aware of her vulnerability, hurried to her vehicle, eyes scanning the lot for potential danger. She was almost to her 1979 Oldsmobile two-door when she heard a male voice call, “Hey, Ruth, I didn’t know you were going to make this so easy!”

She turned around and recognized with horror the man who had kidnapped her one year earlier. Ruth ran for her car, but before she could unlock the door the man came up from behind and grabbed her wrist, then shoved her head against the window. “Get in,” he ordered, saying he wanted to take her to a bridge near August Airport Road. He threw a brown paper shopping bag through the partially open rear window onto the back seat. The bag held clothesline rope, white tape, a red bandana, and a half empty bottle of wine. “We’ll go to a nice little place where it says ‘Keep Out,’” he said.

Ruth broke free and tried to step around the car. The man withdrew an 8-inch boning knife and stabbed her — twice in the back and once in the side. On the third stab, the knife stuck in Ruth’s flesh and she felt the man lose his grip. She ran to the passenger side seat, slammed the door, and began rolling up the window.

To her horror, Ruth saw the man reaching in after her. His hand got caught in the window; as he withdrew it, his brown cotton glove remained stuck between the window and the doorframe. Ruth drove off with the glove still dangling there. In her rearview mirror she could just make out the man staring after her in the twilight.

Ruth felt woozy as she turned from the parking lot into the street’s steady traffic. When she stopped at a red light she finally noticed a burning pain in her left side; looking down, she saw the knife still jutting from her side. Her energy was slipping. Blood from her wounds dripped down onto the car seat.

At the corner of Douglas and Rock Road, Ruth spotted a gas station and pulled sharply into its driveway, stopping in front of the station’s pay phone. Staggering from the car, she dialed 268–4181, the only police number she knew.

At police headquarters Captain Al Thimmesch, Drowatzky’s boss, picked up the phone. Ruth began to introduce herself.

“I know who you are,” Thimmesch cut her off. “What’s going on?”

“I’ve been stabbed.”

An alarmed Thimmesch said he would send an officer over immediately. Ruth, however, was frightened that her attacker might show up at the gas station. After hanging up the phone, she returned to her car and, feeling increasingly weak, drove the five minutes back to her house, certain that at any minute her attacker might pull behind her. She was so distracted and in so much pain that she almost missed her street.

In the meantime Captain Thimmesch had called Ed and told him the shocking news. When Ruth pulled to the curb, a panicked Ed was waiting in front of the house. Ruth nearly fainted as she opened the car door. She urged Ed to remove the knife from her side, but Ed feared that would increase the bleeding. As gently as possible, he moved Ruth into the passenger seat. Then he jumped behind the wheel and sped for St. Joseph’s Hospital.

Lt. Drowatzky met the Finleys at the hospital, where he found Ruth lying quietly on an emergency room bed. When he asked what happened, Ruth lifted her body to show him the long knife sticking from her side. Drowatzky whistled at the size. A minute later, as he discussed the situation with the emergency room doctor, the knife slid from Ruth’s body and clattered on the floor.

The doctors found deep gashes on Ruth’s back and left arm, and a two-inch deep wound where the knife had been lodged. Any deeper and the knife, the doctors said, would have killed her. After the doctors sutured the wound, Drowatzky commandeered a nearby room in which to station a guard while Ruth recovered.

That night the local TV news stations blared the story of Ruth’s stabbing, while the Wichita Eagle-Beacon featured the headline “Woman Stabbed Resisting Abduction.” A follow-up article in the Eagle-Beacon included a police sketch of the suspect and a warning that he was “extremely dangerous.” Drowatzky told the newspaper that the suspect had been writing letters to at least one other woman in the Wichita area.

Ruth remained in the hospital for nine days. The day after she was released a nurse told police that a man fitting the description of Ruth’s attacker had visited the nurse’s station to inquire about her. An alarmed Drowatzky was positive this was their suspect. He stayed at the Finleys’ house for the next 48 hours in case the man showed up, but to no avail.

That September Ed hit upon the idea of trying to contact Ruth’s attacker by leaving messages in the newspaper. In the classified section of the Eagle-Beacon he placed an ad that read, “Poet: Tell me what I owe you. R.S.F.” Local reporters quickly picked up on the nickname “The Poet,” employing it from then on in their coverage of Ruth’s case. Even the suspect appropriated the name: he began signing his letters “The Poet.” He also began communicating with Ed through the classifieds — “To R.S.F.: The price of my service/ To stay alive/ Can now be settled at 5” — though he never shared any personal information. To The Poet it seemed little more than a game. He called Ruth “the seventh and hardest to find,” raising further speculation that he might be the BTK Strangler.

In October the Eagle-Beacon revealed that The Poet had been sending the newspaper taunting letters for the past six months. “If any had a brain no one wold have pain/ Good or evil my secret shall not be known/ I unnoticed go my way/ I may just prosper for 1 day,” The Poet wrote. In an apparent reference to BTK, he warned, “Make sure you don’t confuse the executioners again.” The paper also printed another composite sketch of The Poet, resulting in 25 calls from local citizens who said they had seen or knew the man in the sketch. Ruth’s story had transfixed all of Wichita, eclipsing for the moment even BTK.

In response to the public outpouring, the police redoubled their efforts to catch The Poet, combing their files for any suspects who had committed kidnappings or knifings. They also surrounded Ruth with eight undercover officers while she shopped at Towne East, and they wired her for sound whenever she walked in potentially risky areas. Still they failed to turn up any plausible suspects.

Meanwhile The Poet appeared to be stalking the Finley’s house. One morning Ruth found a letter from The Poet on their front porch, and at night loud noises seemed to emanate from their garage. “A fucked up childhood causes anger and hate,” The Poet wrote, “Players of games are forced to wait.”

With no other leads, the police decided to try hypnosis, setting up two sessions between Ruth and Dr. Donald Schrag, a Wichita psychologist and police consultant who had also worked on the BTK case. Ruth found the experience of being hypnotized wonderfully calming, though she grew agitated when recalling her kidnapping, repeatedly yelling, “I want out of the car! I want out of the car!” Few new details about her attacks emerged from her sessions, however. The Poet “has serious, serious emotional and mental problems,” Dr. Schrag announced. “It’s likely he’s had psychological treatment and possibly been in a state institution.” He added that The Poet’s letters showed signs of high intelligence.

In January 1980, Ruth’s case was taken over by Captain Mike Hill, while Drowatzky was promoted to vice and organized crime. Drowatzky and his wife had grown close with Ruth and Ed over the previous two years, and the two couples frequently socialized. Their shared Republican politics and dry senses of humor meshed easily and well.

The dark-haired Captain Hill was built like a football player and had the previous year taken over the department’s Special Investigations Section, which was spearheading Ruth’s case. He’d also put in long hours on the BTK Strangler case. Unlike Drowatzky, Hill had no personal connection with either of the Finleys, and so, as he reviewed the files on The Poet, he couldn’t help but wonder if Ruth or Ed might be the culprit. But he quickly changed his mind after reading the medical report, which established firmly that Ruth couldn’t have stabbed herself with such force at that angle. Meanwhile Drowatzky and the other detectives assured Hill that the devoted Ed would never hurt his wife. The Poet quickly took notice of the change in command, writing a letter to Hill that began with the line, “There once was a Capt who had a asshole for a heart.”

On Christmas Eve the Finleys’ phone lines were cut for a second time, leading Southwestern Bell to bury the replacement lines underground. Ruth and Ed fitted their back gate with an alarm system, while Captain Hill installed a surveillance camera in their backyard and assigned detectives to watch the monitors 24-hours a day from the Finleys’ dining room. Ruth, feeling guilty that the detectives had drawn such a dull assignment — though the $1,200 in overtime pay the officers earned each weekend made up for the boredom — plied them with homemade desserts. She also entertained the detectives by reading aloud from The Poet’s letters, though it gave her a powerful headache to do so.

On January 25, 1980, Ruth reported an afternoon phone call at work from The Poet, who told her he had left a surprise in her office lobby. When detectives arrived, they found a 12-inch butcher knife wrapped in a red bandana in the lobby’s phone booth. Two witnesses reported seeing a man at the phone booth who resembled the police sketch of The Poet. “Shut your eyes and think of the 12-inch blade,” The Poet wrote Ruth. “Will you remember the hole it made?/ Dream of me and obey my commands/ Think of me with a knife in my hands.”

The frequency of The Poet’s letters increased over the following weeks. On February 19 he sent Ruth a chilling Valentine’s Day message that read, “Here’s to you a tender valentine/ Red with blood and tied with twine/ Nothing too much for a valentine/ Gone from here by whim of mind.” A strip of red bandana was included in the envelope, along with a letter that said, “I am about ready to start telling about you now….It will just be yur word against mine.” Ed drove Ruth to and from work every day as a measure of protection.

By this point the police had investigated over 300 people, but they still had no plausible suspects. Frustrated with playing a passive role, detectives developed a risky plan to draw The Poet out into the open: They would put Ruth in a bulletproof vest and let her stroll around downtown Wichita, shadowed by six to eight plainclothes officers. More detectives would cruise the streets in unmarked cars. But the elaborate ruse failed to turn up any suspects. Disguised as a wino, Detective Richard Vinroe then spent the next several weeks lurking downtown, in a futile attempt to spot The Poet on the street.

Local media remained riveted by Ruth’s case, and on the Fourth of July the story broke nationally with a detailed — and remarkably accurate — story in the National Enquirer titled, “She’s Living a Nightmare: The Victim of a Crazed Tormentor” that included an interview with Captain Hill. Apparently Ruth’s story needed no exaggeration to enthrall the Enquirer’s regular readership.

The Poet continued his barrage of Wichita businesses, sending out more than fifty letters in a six-month period. One letter told a local mortuary to contact Ruth about its services, saying she would be requiring them soon. Letters to the gas and electric company instructed them to turn off the Finleys’ utilities. The health department was told that Ruth was spreading venereal disease. A construction company was solicited to tear up the Finleys’ driveway, and the DMV was asked to confiscate Ruth’s license because of her “hazardous” and “dangerous” driving habits. Ruth’s bank was ordered to transfer all of her money. A local florist received a five dollar bill with the request that one black flower be sent to Ruth.

Still seeking a break in the case, the police grew innovative, installing a camera camouflaged in a birdhouse in the Finleys’ backyard. Two vice and narcotics officers were given the mind-numbing assignment of combing through all of the Kansas Gas and Electric Company’s letters to see if any other envelopes bore similar handwriting to The Poet’s, a task that consumed four days. Lt. Drowatzky also sent copies of The Poet’s letters to Dr. Murray S. Miron , a prominent psycholinguist at Syracuse University who had gained national attention for his work on the Son of Sam case in 1977. Dr. Miron wrote a profile stating that The Poet was “clearly and severely psychotic,” “virulently pathological,” “schizophrenic,” “extremely dangerous,” “a wily and elusive quarry,” and “a loner.” He also said that while “the style and pathology” of The Poet and the BTK Strangler were “highly similar,” he did not believe they were the same person.

Yet BTK speculation continued to be fed by The Poet’s repeated references to a “fox” he had killed, an apparent allusion to Nancy Jo Fox, BTK’s most recent victim, slain in December 1977. “Mingled with blood and tears from my stormy life,” The Poet wrote Ruth at around this time, “tortured oppression needs death to end the strife/ With no repentance I will be free/ Locked in her grave I will return to being me.”

At the beginning of June Ruth received a letter from The Poet postmarked from Oklahoma City, the first letter to be sent from outside Wichita. Captain Hill grew hopeful when the Oklahoma police then received an anonymous call from a woman regarding a man who resembled The Poet. Police discovered the man had worked in Wichita and had been fired from his job about seven months earlier, after which he had moved to a trailer west of Oklahoma City. His psychological profile also matched that of The Poet. Hill and his team were thrilled — surely they had their man. The suspect was flown back to Wichita for a police lineup at the Sedgwick County Courthouse, but Ruth, after careful consideration, declared that he was the wrong person, despite the physical similarities.

The Poet’s harassment continued at a frenzied pace. He left an ice pick and a bottle of urine on the Finleys’ front porch, followed by a bag of feces. He left Molotov cocktails and broken glass on the Finleys’ steps, broke the lock on their gate, and sliced their garden hose. He left firecrackers, cigarettes, hair, matches, and trash in their mailbox. Ruth found a rock wrapped in The Poet’s signature red bandana in the back yard, along with a pair of wire cutters.

“’Twas the night befor Xmas/ and all through the house/ Ruth wasn’t stirring/ Yur as quiet as a mouse/ Yur stocking was tight/ around yur neck with care/ I hoped the Lt./ wuld not soon be there.” At Christmas, as Ruth and Ed watched television in their basement, the wreath hanging outside their front window was set on fire; the heat of the flames cracked open the window with a boom. Running upstairs, Ed knocked the wreath to the ground with a baseball bat. After stomping out the flames, he grabbed a pair of garden shears and tore off into the night, yelling that he was going to kill The Poet.

In March The Poet wrote that he was going to kill Ruth at the St. Patrick’s Day parade, and on April Fool’s Day pieces of concrete were flung on the Finleys’ front porch. But neither the neighbors nor Ruth and Ed saw anything suspicious.

Despite the hundreds of hours of diligent police work that Hill, Drowatzky, and the other officers had put into Ruth’s case, the winter and spring of 1981 found them no closer to identifying a suspect. Chief Richard LaMunyon, a highly respected and well-liked administrator who gave his detectives free reign over their cases, faced a constant barrage of questions from the media: Why haven’t you caught The Poet? Are The Poet and the BTK Strangler the same person? How could this be happening in Wichita? But despite the pressure, LaMunyon resisted any calls to intervene; he had full faith in his detectives’ capabilities. Unlike his men, who had formed close personal bonds with Ruth and Ed, LaMunyon kept both the case and the Finleys themselves at a remove.

Then, on Friday, September 4, 1981, Drowatzky approached LaMunyon with an update. The Poet had sent a new letter in which he announced that after taking care of Ruth, he was going after LaMunyon’s wife, Sharron. He knew the make of Sharron’s car and the path she drove home from work. Angry and offended, LaMunyon decided the time had come to step away from his preferred administrative role and take a personal interest in the case.

That evening LaMunyon took the voluminous case files back to his house. He spent the weekend poring over every document, visualizing every incident, making detailed notes. By the time he finished he knew the identity of The Poet.

On Friday, September 11, LaMunyon called a meeting of sixteen of his officers in a windowless basement room at the county courthouse. The Civil Preparedness room had been specifically designed to keep city officials safe in case of natural disaster. LaMunyon wanted to keep the meeting confidential.

Not one for drama or formalities, LaMunyon took his seat at the head of the table. “The Poet,” he announced with little preamble, “is Ruth Finley herself.”

Before his men could reply, LaMunyon began listing his reasons: 1) There had never been a single witness to any of Ruth’s encounters with The Poet, though they all occurred in public places. 2) The Finleys lived on a dead end street with little traffic, yet none of the neighbors or stationed police officers had ever spotted The Poet, nor were any footprints ever discovered. 3) Detectives found only a single set of footprints — Ruth’s — in the park where she had supposedly Maced her kidnapper. She also said her kidnapper had struck her in the face with concrete, but her face showed no injury. 4) Ruth called the Central Investigations office in the police department when she was stabbed. Why not emergency dispatchers? And she got out of the car to make the call, then back in the car to drive home. How could she do that with a knife in her back? 5) Captain Hill received a letter from The Poet as soon as he took over Ruth’s case, but only Ruth, Ed, and police knew Hill had assumed command. 6) As soon as the recording camera was placed in the birdhouse — a camera of which only the Finleys and the police were aware — The Poet stopped appearing in Ruth and Ed’s backyard. 7) The Poet’s messages to Ed in the Eagle-Beacon’s classified section stopped whenever the Finleys were on vacation, and resumed as soon as they returned.

Ruth was the only suspect who made any sense, LaMunyon told his men. “Unless it’s Ed, and I don’t think it is,” he said. LaMunyon felt that his lack of a personal relationship with Ruth provided him with the emotional distance to identify her as the suspect. The friendship that his detectives had developed with the Finleys had blinded them to reality. In person, Ruth was too kind, too gentle, too modest — too normal — to suspect of such outrageous behavior. The question of whether Ruth was genuinely “crazy” or just conniving remained to be answered.

During the three-hour meeting LaMunyon told his officers they would spend the next two weeks performing around-the-clock surveillance on the Finleys, with narcotics and vice officers providing additional support. The officers would work 12-hour shifts; a van situated at the service station in Eastgate Mall Shopping Center, two blocks from the Finleys’ house, would serve as the command center. LaMunyon warned his men not to breathe a word of the surveillance to anyone, including their spouses. If the media received any tips, he would fire every person in the room.

The detectives were stunned by the news that Ruth might be The Poet, but they kept their faces impassive. (Drowatzky, in particular, was devastated, given how close he and his wife had grown with the Finleys.) Privately, many of them thought LaMunyon was deluded. What about all the experts — the doctors, the psychologists, the linguists — who had sworn Ruth and The Poet could not be the same person? But LaMunyon, an enormously self-confident man, thought the experts were wrong. “I don’t believe any of them, and I don’t believe anything [Ruth] says either,” he said.

After the meeting, LaMunyon, for the sake of procedure, again asked Dr. Schrag if Ruth could be The Poet, but Schrag responded with a vehement “no.” LaMunyon then gave the medical reports to his own personal physician, who agreed with Ruth’s doctors that it was physically impossible for Ruth to have inflicted her stab wounds. Still LaMunyon remained convinced that Ruth and The Poet were one and the same.

Dear Ruth
The game is over
The players are dead
I play any part
Coming out of my head

On Monday, September 14, the surveillance of Ruth and Ed began. For the next two weeks, the police would document the Finleys’ every move. At least one police car and one helicopter would follow them at all times. Inside the command center van at Eastgate Mall, two officers watched through a camera with a long-range lens. The lens was trained on the mailboxes just opposite their vehicle.

Three days later, the police helicopter provided the first break. At 8:30 am, Ed steered his black Oldsmobile into the Eastgate Mall parking lot and stopped at a mailbox. Ruth reached out the passenger side window, placed some mail in the slot, and Ed drove off. The helicopter pilot didn’t know what he had just witnessed — his instructions had specified only that he should follow the Finleys’ car at all times — but he notified officers nonetheless. At 1:30 pm, 30 minutes before the mail was to be picked up, a postal inspector called by police opened the mailbox and retrieved its contents. He took the mail to the downtown post office and presented it to Drowatzky and a detective from vice and narcotics.

The detectives focused on five pieces of mail lying on top of the mailbag. One was a personal letter from the Finleys. Two were bill payments from the Finleys. And two were letters from The Poet — one addressed to Ruth, and one to KAKE-TV. “Hickory, dickory, dock,” the latter message read. “The name on this face is Smock/ Heat the iron for the brand/ Cooperate for games planned/ Hickory, dickory, dock.” Police had seen Ruth place letters in the mailbox, and they had discovered Poet letters in the mailbox. Still, this did not provide incontrovertible proof. “What if somebody came along after them and mailed those letters?” LaMunyon asked.

Several days later, on Saturday, Sept. 26, the Finleys returned to the Eastgate Mall mailbox at 4:15 pm. Detectives snapped color photographs as Ruth’s arm extended out the passenger window and dropped letters in the slot. As soon as Ed drove away, an undercover police car pulled in front of the mailbox to block anyone else from accessing it. Detectives popped the car’s hood and feigned engine trouble in order to avoid suspicion. Again the postal inspector was called, and the process of retrieving the mail repeated.

Four letters from the Finleys were grouped together on top of the pile: a utility company bill, a payment to J.C. Penney’s, a personal letter, and a Poet letter addressed to Ruth. “No dumb-ass bitch will get the fucking law to get me,” the letter read. When the detectives had finished, the postal service resealed the envelopes and delivered the letters on to Ruth and Ed. The two bills were sent to their destinations, where the police then retrieved them in order to establish a chain of evidence.

The next morning the Finleys found The Poet letter, and Ed, following long-established procedure, brought it to the police.

Events launched into overdrive.

Detectives rushed to the post office and pored through thousands of envelopes at the businesses to which the Finleys had mailed their payments, looking for a match with Ruth’s handwriting. Police also swarmed the drop box located in the located in the lobby of Ruth’s employer, Southwestern Bell. Several Poet letters were recovered from the box.

That same day, detectives — tipped off by a suspicious employee and armed with a waiver from Ruth’s boss, Joe Horvat — searched her office at the phone company. They discovered a book of poetry, a sheet of torn carbon paper with The Poet’s handwriting, and a red bandana, one of The Poet’s trademarks, wrapped in a used yellow Kleenex in Ruth’s desk. Torn pieees of Big Chief tablet paper covered with The Poet’s writing were found in the trash.

On Monday, Sept. 28, the police began the process of obtaining search warrants for the Finleys’ house. Although the police were now certain that Ruth was The Poet, there was still no physical evidence to tie her to the letters. That evidence would be needed if any charges were to be filed.

On Wednesday, Chief LaMunyon and his wife Sharron returned from a police convention in New Orleans to find another Poet letter waiting for Sharron in their mailbox. The letter had been mailed from Southwestern Bell on Friday, one day before police began monitoring the mailbox in the company’s lobby. The lower half of the page was torn.

The next day, microscopic fracture analysis proved that the bottom of the letter perfectly matched a ripped piece of paper found in Ruth’s office trash. Analysis also showed that the stamps on the envelopes retrieved from the businesses where Ruth and Ed had sent their bills came from the same cardboard container as the stamp on The Poet’s recent letter to Ruth.

The investigation was complete. The only remaining question was whether Ed Finley had been involved.

On Thursday, October 1, at 1:15 p.m., Ed came to the fifth floor of City Hall, where he had been told there was another Poet letter to pick up. (The police had always returned The Poet’s letters to the Finleys.) Ed was taken to an office in the special investigations section, where he was met by Captain Hill and Detective Jack Leon, a newcomer to the case. The police hoped Detective Leon’s fresh perspective would bring an element of objectivity to the questioning. Hill and Leon brought Ed to a drab, cramped interview room, where they read him his rights. Ed was puzzled but obliging; in his world, the police were always correct, and if they wanted to read him his rights and question him, he wouldn’t object.

Hill and Leon began the interview by asking Ed to detail his early years: his childhood, his family, his career as an accountant. Ed’s answers were truthful and concise. He was equally plainspoken as Hill and Leon took him step-by-step through the events involving The Poet, beginning with Ed’s stay in the hospital in 1977 and culminating with The Poet’s most recent letter. Hill felt confident that Ed had been wholly unaware of his wife’s activities.

Two hours into the interview, it was time to reveal the truth. “It’s coming down today,” Hill told Ed. “I know who The Poet is.”

Ed was thrilled; he had waited years for this moment. “I hope the hell you do,” he told Hill, a joyful expression on his face. “Let’s go get him.”

“First we want you to look at some pictures.” Hill presented Ed with the color photographs of Ruth mailing four letters from the Finleys’ black Oldsmobile at Eastgate Mall. “One of those is a Poet letter,” he said. “I can verify she has mailed five Poet letters in the last two weeks.”

“You have to be kidding,” Ed said.

“No, I’m not kidding. I wish the hell I was.” Hill told Ed about the materials the police had found in Ruth’s office.

Ed sat silently, stunned by the news.

“The Poet is Ruth,” Hill said, prodding him.

“Oh my God,” Ed answered, his voice nearly a whisper. Nothing in his life had prepared him for a moment like this. What was the proper response? “Oh my God.”

Hill assured Ed that the police weren’t mad at Ruth. They simply wanted to make sure she received the help she so clearly needed. “I’ve hit you with a lot, haven’t I?” Hill asked.

“You certainly have.” Ed’s mind was whirling: The Poet is Ruth? The Poet is Ruth.

“I have to eliminate you,” Hill said, “and the only way I can do that is for you to take a polygraph.”

“That’s fair.” Maybe Ruth had written the letters, Ed was thinking, but what about the kidnapping and the stabbing? What about the men who had called the house?

Hill drove Ed to the Kansas Bureau of Investigation’s headquarters on East Third Street for a lie detector test. Ed’s only request was to stop at a gas station along the way to buy cigarettes.

The test lasted nearly an hour. Ed, as Hill expected, easily passed.

With the polygraph complete, a group of detectives, accompanied by Ed, converged on the Finleys’ house. They discovered a string of items tied to The Poet: a book of poems titled Maniac and Other Poems, pencils, pens, letters, carbon paper, a ruler guide, a writing tablet, and pieces of red bandana. Ed’s shock was tempered with relief: if Ruth was The Poet, if no crazed stalker was out to harm her, then at least she was safe.

At 5 p.m. that afternoon, Lt. Drowatzky greeted Ruth in the lobby of Southwestern Bell. He asked if she would come to the station to examine mug shots, a ritual she had performed many times in the past. As always, Ruth readily agreed. Drowatzky delivered her to the same room where Ed had been questioned just hours before. Hill and Leon were waiting.

Hill, his tone affable, began by explaining to Ruth her legal rights, and then, as he had with Ed, asking her to walk him through her life, from her childhood up through the events of The Poet case. Although Ruth, like Ed, didn’t understand why Hill had recited her rights or why he wanted her to rehash such familiar material, she immediately obliged.

“Ruth,” Hill interrupted, as she described The Poet’s activities, “either you or Ed could have done every one of these things.”

“We’ve discussed that,” Ruth said mildly. “We’ve said, ‘You know, they probably suspect one of us.”

After Ruth finished her narrative, Hill decided to change tack. Up until this point he had played the friendly, helpful questioner. Now he placed a pile of Poet letters on the table. “Have you ever written any of these?” he asked Ruth. She said she had not.

“What if I called you a liar?” Hill said coldly. “Because I got evidence that shows you have.” His expression was grim.

“Mike!” Ruth cried, shocked by his change in attitude.

Hill pressed on. “Now do you want to keep playing your game? You got a problem, lady.”

“When did I mail those letters?” Ruth asked plaintively.

Hill showed her the surveillance photo. Ruth, astounded, said nothing. I’m The Poet? she thought. Ruth’s body sagged and a vacant look washed over her face. An image appeared in her mind: she was sitting in her basement writing a letter. The image was only a fragment, not a full memory. She wasn’t sure it was real.

Hill softened. He listed the items police had recovered from her office wastebasket. “Ruthie, why?” he pleaded. “It’s time, it’s time to tell me why. I’m not mad at you, Ruth; I want to know why you are doing this.”

“No….” Ruth replied, her voice barely audible.

“Do you need some help?”

“Yes.” Ruth’s mind was racing, but her thoughts seemed out of reach. Occasionally a lucid image surged into view; the rest was confusion. Had she known she was The Poet? Hill seemed so confident — surely he wouldn’t lie to her. Ruth had a flash of a red bandana in her hands.

Hill pressed on. “Why did you make up a story about the abduction? Sweetheart, why did you do it?”

“I don’t know,” Ruth answered, her eyes wet.

“Why did you stab yourself?”

“I don’t know.”

Hill asked about the assault in Fort Scott when she was sixteen years old, when a man had branded her legs. Had she made that up, too?

Her tears now flowing, Ruth insisted that attack had been real.

Hill assured Ruth that she wasn’t a criminal. “I’m not mad at you,” he said. “I just want an explanation.”

“I don’t have one,” she said.

As Hill continued his questioning, Ruth admitted she had written The Poet’s letters, she’d placed the butcher knife in her office’s lobby phone booth, she’d left the ice pick and urine and feces on her porch, she’d siphoned gas for Molotov cocktails from her car. She said that on the day of her supposed abduction she’d taken a bus to Twin Lakes, then walked to the river to leave her sweater and shoes for the police to discover.

But even as she was recounting these details, Ruth wasn’t sure they were real. She was just telling Hill the most logical possibilities. She had no memory of the acts she was describing. But Hill was angry, and Ruth was terrified of anger. She wanted to please him. The only thing she knew for sure was that she had done horrible things, because Hill was telling her so.

Ruth said she stabbed herself in her car that summer night at Towne East Mall.

“Did you mean to hurt yourself as bad as you did?” Hill asked.

“I don’t know.” She also didn’t know what was going through her mind when she wrote The Poet letters, and she didn’t know how long it took her to write them. The only memories she had felt like they belonged to someone else.

“Ruth, there’s no hard feelings between you and me,” Hill said.

“There should be.”

Ruth shook her head when Hill asked if she had ever intended to hurt anybody. She said Ed never knew. “There is not a nicer person anywhere than he is,” she insisted. “I can never face him again.”

“How do you feel, Ruth?” Hill asked, reaching over to lift her head so she would look at him.

“I wish I was dead.”

Hill dropped her head so abruptly that it banged the table. “Ruth, right now the world has come to an end, but it hasn’t,” he said. “Do you think you need to see a doctor now?”

“I am sure I do,” Ruth said, her voice breaking. “I must be crazy.”

“You are just ill,” Hill said. “You only have a disease, just like any other disease in the body.”

Hill briefly left the room. When he returned, he was accompanied by Dr. Schrag, the psychologist who two years earlier had hypnotized Ruth. As Schrag entered the room, Ruth dropped her head.

“Hi, gal, would you look at me?” Schrag asked. “What would you like to do now?”

Ruth’s voice was flat: “Go home. Just die.”

“My feeling is that if you let someone help, in a few months you will be back at work and you will live a very normal happy life,” Schrag told her.

Ruth was silent. Then she said she wished Schrag knew the good side of her, because she was really a good person. Schrag promised her he knew that.

“I tried to figure out what was wrong,” Ruth said. “But I couldn’t stop it.”

At 9 p.m. that night, Ruth was put in a squad car, with Ed nestled beside her. She was whisked to St. Joseph’s Hospital and placed under 24-hour-a-day psychiatric watch.

Meanwhile Wichita authorities were deciding whether to press charges. The case of The Poet had cost the police department the enormous sum of $370,000, and while some detectives were sympathetic to Ruth’s psychological struggles, others — Chief LaMunyon prime among them — thought she was a criminal, and wanted to punish her. But after reviewing Ruth’s psychological report, the Sedgwick County district attorney announced he would not be pursuing criminal prosecution, because her actions as The Poet were “not malicious.”

On Friday, October 26, 1981, Ruth gave her first public statement since confessing to the police. “I think I may have died and gone to hell,” she said. “I think I’m coming back, though.” Seven days later, Ruth entered twice-a-week therapy with Dr. Andrew T. Pickens, a 38-year-old graduate of St. Louis University medical school who was an ardent practitioner of psychoanalysis. Dr. Pickens, who sported an enormous black mustache, viewed the role of the psychiatrist as akin to that of a detective; both searched for clues, for hidden pieces of a puzzle, which would solve a larger mystery, whether psychological or criminal.

Under Dr. Pickens’ care, Ruth began the painful, laborious process of excavating her Depression-era childhood on a farm in rural Richards, Missouri. As part of her therapy, Ruth composed lengthy poems, which she initially found a more comfortable vehicle for expressing her emotions than speaking about them face-to-face. At first Ruth told Dr. Pickens that her childhood had been impoverished but normal, and yet the poems she wrote about those years were suffused with images of violence. She kept having visions of a red bandana, which for unknown reasons filled her with revulsion.

After three months of repeated attempts Ruth and Dr. Pickens uncovered the source of Ruth’s terror: When she was a girl, an adult neighbor and family friend had used a red bandana to tie her up. Later he took her to his barn and shoved the bandana in her mouth as he sexually abused her.

The neighbor continued abusing her for almost a year, producing in Ruth enormous feelings of guilt. Her taskmaster parents punished her whenever she ran away or sobbed during the man’s visits to the farm. Ruth grew convinced the abuse was her fault; she was a “bad girl,” evil at heart, and she deserved it. The man threatened to kill her if she told anyone about their “secret.”

During the assaults, Ruth dealt with her horror by, as she put it, “floating off to heaven.” She could see what was happening to the girl down below, but “somehow it wasn’t so bad if it wasn’t me. I was just watching it.” This is a common occurrence among victims of childhood trauma, known clinically as dissociative disorder. Sufferers experience a disconnect between their identity, consciousness, actions, and surroundings. This dissociative state allows them to escape reality, to hold the traumatic experiences at bay.

Ruth had kept the memories of her childhood sexual abuse buried for forty-three years, until, Dr. Pickens believed, the stress of Ed’s hospitalization for a possible heart attack and the background specter of the BTK Strangler had forced her repressed trauma to the surface. (The branding attack in Fort Scott, Ruth always maintained, had been real as well.) Ruth had dealt with the emotional deluge by creating another self, The Poet. It wasn’t split personality disorder — The Poet was not a fully developed personality, nor an entirely separate identity — but an alternate consciousness, one Ruth had no memory or awareness of when in her regular conscious mind.

Ruth spent the next seven years in intensive therapy with Dr. Pickens, slowly working through the torment of her childhood. During these raw, emotionally devastating years, Ed stuck fiercely by her, as did her children and siblings. Though Ruth lost some friends, many others expressed only sympathy for her suffering. (Chief LaMunyon, however, remained doubtful: “I think she’s lying,” he said. “She knew everything she was doing. Maybe something happened in her childhood, but not what she says.”) Eventually Ruth felt healed enough to allow her story to be told by a local news station, hoping it would help other survivors.

Her hope was well placed: The outpouring from viewers was overwhelmingly positive, erasing for Ruth the lingering disgrace she felt for her actions as The Poet. She had, with prodigious effort, and after years of struggle, triumphed over her abuse and achieved the stability she was seeking. Her story had a happy ending. She never wrote poetry again.

Author’s Note: GENE STONE served as a source for this story. For more, read Little Girl Fly Away by author and consultant, Gene Stone.

COREY MEAD is the author of The Lost Pilots, Angelic Music, and War Play. He is an Associate Professor of English at Baruch College, CUNY.

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Corey Mead

Corey Mead

Corey Mead is the author of THE LOST PILOTS, ANGELIC MUSIC, and WAR PLAY. He is an Associate Professor of English at Baruch College, CUNY.

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