Harassed by An Unknown Author of Vicious Rhymes, Ruth Finley Confronts the Stranger Within Herself
Here’s to you tender valentine Red with blood and tied with twine. Nothing too much for a valentine Gone from here by a whim of mine.
—from “the Poet”
Wichita, Kans., in the late 1970s was a troubled city. A serial killer was on the loose. Called the BTK Strangler because he would bind, torture and kill his victims, the man had already murdered seven women in gruesome fashion and might strike again at any moment. So the police were preoccupied when Ed and Ruth Finley appeared at headquarters on Nov. 6, 1978, to report a problem of their own: Someone was taunting Ruth with threatening phone calls and letters containing malevolent rhymes. A sober, middle-class couple married since 1950, the Finleys lived in a quiet neighborhood and seemed unlikely targets for such harassment. But their visit to the police was the beginning of one of the more bizarre cases in Wichita history. It took the police three years and $370,000 to determine the identity of Ruth’s persecutor—who was dubbed the Poet. And it was 6½ years before the citizens of Wichita were given a full explanation of Ruth Finley’s strange ordeal.
The police registered the initial complaint, but the case went no further, though the cops did run a routine background check on the Finleys. Ed, then 50, was a thin, bald man with a quiet sense of humor. An accountant, he painted detailed landscapes in his spare time. Ruth, a modest, soft-spoken 48-year-old woman, worked in the security department at the phone company and dabbled in ceramics. The Finleys had raised two sons who had moved to other cities.
Then, on Nov. 21, Ruth’s husband reported her missing to police. Later the same day, Ruth told police that she had been abducted from downtown Wichita by two men whom she was unable to describe and driven around for four hours before she was able to escape. Meanwhile, the Poet’s missives had continued, becoming more frequent and more scabrous. (The river is searched for the perished/Whores will hate me but by men I will be cherished/Viper thoughts coil round my mind/Torture and agony are unkind.)
After the alleged kidnapping, police immediately placed Ruth under heavy surveillance. When nothing had happened for five weeks, the watch was suspended. Though the letters continued, there were no dramatic developments in the case until August 1979, when Ruth was admitted to St. Joseph Medical Center with three knife wounds, one of which had nearly punctured her kidney, an injury which could have been fatal. Ruth, who was in the hospital for nine days, told police a man had attacked her in the parking lot of a local mall.
Amid pressure from the media, the police investigation accelerated. A $3,000 reward was offered by Ed Finley’s employer. Police sent copies of the Poet’s work to Dr. Murray S. Miron—a psycholinguistics consultant who gained prominence during the Son of Sam case. He identified the writer as “severely psychotic, schizophrenic, wily, pathological, paranoid, and a loner with a deep feeling of persecution.”
Over the next year, the harassment became frenzied. The Finleys’ telephone wires were cut. A knife, wrapped in a newspaper addressed to Ruth, was found near her office. The Health Department was notified that Ruth was spreading venereal disease. A mortuary was informed that Ruth wished to learn more about its services. Urine was left on the Finleys’ front porch, an unignited Molotov cocktail at the rear. The Christmas wreath on the Finleys’ house was set on fire. The Poet’s trademark, a piece of red bandanna, was discovered outside the house. Hair and firecrackers were found in the mail box. Eggs, and later feces, were thrown at the Finleys’ home.
Still, the police had few leads. Sketches were made, based on Ruth’s description of her assailant; suspects were interviewed and released. At one point, speculation arose that the Poet and the BTK Strangler might be one and the same because some of the Poet’s verses referred to a BTK victim. The theory was eventually discarded. (The BTK Strangler has never been caught.) The police even placed a camera in a birdhouse in the Finleys’ backyard. The couple spent several evenings watching their back door on television, but they saw nothing.
By the late summer of 1981, the Poet had branched out, sending letters to more than a dozen people, including one to Sharron LaMunyon, wife of Wichita Police Chief Richard LaMunyon. Up to that point, Chief LaMunyon had not been personally involved in the case; the letters changed all that. Over the weekend of Sept. 5, 1981, LaMunyon hauled all 15 volumes of the Finleys’ police file home and studied them assiduously. As he read, he began to notice some peculiar details about the case: During the abduction, Ruth’s footprints—but no others—were found at the scene. Once the camera was installed in the Finley backyard, the activity switched to the front yard. Only the Finleys knew of the camera.
By the end of the weekend, LaMunyon decided he knew who the Poet was: Ruth Finley. “It didn’t make sense otherwise,” LaMunyon remembers. “I didn’t say it out loud, but I thought she had to be crazy.”
LaMunyon ordered a full-scale, 24-hour secret surveillance of the Finleys. On Sept. 17, 1981, a helicopter observer spotted the couple driving to a mail box into which Ruth Finley dropped five letters. Two turned out to be bills. A third was addressed to a private party. The other two were letters from the Poet. A short time later, police saw Ruth post a similar batch of mail. When police checked the fracture marks on the stamps, it was determined that they had all come from the same book. A search of Ruth’s workplace revealed more evidence—including a fragment of red bandanna.
On Oct. 1, Ed Finley was summoned to police headquarters, and after voluntarily submitting to a polygraph exam, he was cleared of having any connection with the Poet. Ruth, brought in the same day, was confronted with the evidence. According to the police transcipt, after more than an hour of conversation, Detective Mike Hill finally said, “Ruth, it’s time you tell me why. Ruthie, look at me…. I am not mad at you. Ruth, I don’t know why you are doing this, but we got to find out why.” To which Ruth responded, “No.” Hill then asked her if she needed help.
Ruth broke down. “Yes,” she said. “I wasn’t sure I was guilty,” she says, recalling that moment now. “But I did know something was very wrong with me.”
At the time, her answer was darker and more direct.
“I wish I were dead,” she said. “I guess I am just crazy.”
The police filed no charges against Ruth because she agreed to enter St. Joseph Medical Center voluntarily for psychiatric help.
The case of the Poet was solved, but a mystery remained: Why would anyone do such a thing to herself?
Hickory, Dickory, Dock
The hands fell off the clock
Run from the man, and get away
My legs are gone, so I have to stay
The potty was warm and red.
Hide the mess on the bed
I hate him, he feels like a railroad track.
On Nov. 2, 1981, Ruth entered psychotherapy with Dr. Andrew Pickens, a local psychiatrist. Like many newcomers to psychotherapy, Ruth found it difficult to express her feelings in the doctor’s office, but at home she was able to write long poems about her past. Verse, which had for so many years been the vehicle for Ruth to express her fear and rage, now became the key to understanding her strange behavior as the Poet. “At first Dr. Pickens discouraged me from bringing in my poetry,” Ruth says. “But only when I read [the poems] out loud did my feelings come out.”
In early sessions, Ruth told Pickens her Depression-era childhood in rural Missouri had been a normal one. Her father, Carl Smock, had been a farmer; her mother, Fay, a homemaker. But her poetry about her childhood told a different story, one of violence and recurring images that filled her with terror. One was the red bandanna. “Whenever I thought about a bandanna,” Ruth says, “I became scared. I knew something was wrong.”
As Dr. Pickens listened, Ruth tried to pin down her childhood associations with this scrap of cloth. Finally, she remembered a neighbor, a family friend, who had begun to pay Ruth special interest when she was about 3½ years old. First he complimented her on her dress. Then he started to play a kind of hide-and-seek game with her. Soon he had her tied up to the bed with a red bandanna.
Ruth tried to fight off this chain of memories, but they flowed anyway and she burst into tears in the analyst’s office. She remembered the day the neighbor took the red bandanna and stuffed it in her mouth. He then tried to rape her. After repeated attempts at vaginal intercourse, he took the bandanna from her mouth and forced her to perform fellatio. There were several other assaults over a period of months. Ruth, who had been threatened by the man, told no one.
As a child, Ruth had been given a book of poetry: “This was ‘a little girl who had a little curl’ type of poetry,” she says. After the attacks, she began to fantasize that these innocent poems were evil, written to inform others what a bad girl she was. Ruth hid the book in a barn to prevent anyone from finding out her secret—and poetry became, for her, a private language about strong emotions, to be used only in times of trouble.
At some point the Smocks’s visits to their neighbor dropped off sharply. Ruth’s brother, Carl, a Wichita resident who is one year older than Ruth, told Dr. Pickens of a conversation between his and Ruth’s parents in which they seemed to be discussing the neighbor. As he remembered it, their father had said, “He wouldn’t do anything like that.” But it was after this conversation that Ruth’s visits to him stopped. Ruth never saw her neighbor alone again.
Ruth’s reaction to the rapes at the time was, says Dr. Pickens, similar to that of other sexually abused children. In her own words, she remembers “floating off to heaven” during each assault. “I could see what was happening to this little girl beneath me,” she says. But “somehow it wasn’t so bad if it wasn’t me. I was just watching it.” In clinical terms, this is called a dissociative reaction, a split in the conscious mind in which one group of mental activities breaks off to function as a separate unit, as if belonging to another person. Unlike schizophrenia, a dissociative reaction will often not be evident to another individual; it comes into being only when the subject is alone at a time of great emotional trauma.
For nearly 50 years, Ruth Finley had no cause to fall back on this psychological defense mechanism. But in 1978 a series of events combined to make her feel especially scared and vulnerable. Ed Finley was hospitalized for a possible heart attack (it proved to be a false alarm) and the BTK Strangler was stalking the community and may have triggered subconscious fears in Ruth. “Like a weakened bridge,” says Pickens, “Mrs. Finley’s defenses held up until an oversized truck came along and the bridge couldn’t handle the weight anymore.”
Suddenly, emotions that Ruth had repressed since her childhood began breaking through, and she reacted to them as she had as a girl: She dissociated, creating a fictitious person, the Poet, to help her deal with her threatening feelings. “It’s like riding a bicycle,” Pickens says of the dissociation. “She learned how to do it as a child, and it just clicked back into place.”
When Ruth was in the thrall of this other self, she had no awareness of her actions. Ruth was able to seriously stab herself, Dr. Pickens explains, because her conscious mind was not present for the attack and felt no pain. The figure of the Poet also served several sometimes contradictory purposes in Ruth’s troubled psyche. By drawing police attention to herself, Ruth may have been subconsciously trying to protect herself from further assault. And the Poet gave Ruth a convenient contemporary explanation for her roiling emotions so that she could continue to ignore their true source, the trauma buried deep in her past.
Ruth required just three months of psychotherapy to make the leap from the image of a red bandanna to the recollection of the first rape. It took five more years of treatment for her to come to terms with the memories. Both her job and her marriage survived the ordeal. “It’s been hard on Ed,” Ruth admits. “But he’s the kindest person I know. He has been very supportive.” Friends and neighbors also rallied to her side. “Ruth told me her story and gave me the option of cutting off our friendship,” says neighbor Emma Dillinger. “But all I wanted to do was comfort her.”
Still, Ruth felt she owed some explanation to the community. She also hoped that telling her story might help others who had suffered through similar experiences. So recently, Ruth, accompanied by Dr. Pickens, told her story on a local TV show. The station was deluged with calls and mail, 98 percent sympathetic.
Ruth’s family was similarly awed by her courage. “It’s turned out well. I’m real proud of her,” says son Bruce, 34, vice-president of a Denver-based computer firm. “She went from tragedy to triumph.” Ed had originally argued against the television program. “I was wrong,” he says. “It worked.” Both Finleys agree that the entire episode has put some strain on the marriage, “but,” says Ed, “we’ve been working out our differences well.” Says Ruth, now 58, “I was a person who hit rock bottom. I just want to climb back to a normal life.”
So, is the Poet dead?
“This part of her life is over,” says Dr. Pickens. “She won’t forget, but she’ll be all right.” Not everyone in Wichita is so convinced. “The case may be a closed issue as far as we are concerned,” says Chief LaMunyon. “But I think she’s lying. Maybe something happened in her childhood, but not what she says.”
One of the last poems Ruth wrote during psychotherapy included these lines:
You all sat idly by and stared.
If you were forced to eat your own
blood would you have cared?
Remember she was little and her sins
might have been less
If someone had taken her dirty hand in
her time of distress.
She judged the world as not too fair.
Full of people who didn’t want to care
Maybe someone will notice she was
absent from the human race.
Never there but always in her place.
Today, Ruth Finley says, she no longer
feels the need to write verse.