For 30 years, the Boy Scout troop leader and church council president committed unspeakable horrors against his neighbors, all the while completely unsuspicious to even his own wife.
Dennis Rader was the president of his church congregation, he was a loving husband, a doting father, and altogether seemed to be a reliable and responsible man. Not even Dennis Rader’s wife had any idea that he could be the BTK Killer: a man who’d tortured and murdered 10 people.
Indeed, when the police came to arrest him, Dennis Rader’s wife and his daughter Kerri refused to believe it. “My dad was the one who taught me my morals,” his daughter would later say. “He taught me right from wrong.”
She had no idea that for 30 years her father preyed on girls just like her.
Dennis Rader’s Background
Rader was born on March 9, 1945, as the oldest of four in Pittsburgh, Kan. He would grow up in a fairly humble home in Wichita, the same city which he would later terrorize.
Even as a teen Rader had a bloodlusty streak in him. He would allegedly hang and torture stray animals and as he explained, “When I was in grade school, I sort of had some problems.” He continued in a 2005 audio interview that he had, “Sexual, sexual fantasies. Probably more than normal. All males probably go through some kind of, uh, sexual fantasy. Mine was just probably a bit weirder than other people.”
Rader went on to describe how he would bind his hands and ankles with rope. He would also cover his head with a bag — actions he would later employ on his victims. He cut out photos of women from magazines whom he found arousing and drew ropes and gags on them. He imagined how he could restrain and control them.
But Rader continued to maintain an ordinary outward appearance, and he attended college for a time before he dropped out and joined the U.S. Air Force. When he returned home from duty, he took up work as an electrician in Wichita. He then met his wife Paula Dietz through church. She was a bookkeeper for Snacks convenience store and he proposed after just a few dates. They wed in 1971.
The BTK Killer’s First Murder
Rader was laid off from his job as an electrician in 1973 and shortly afterward killed his first victims on Jan. 15, 1974.
While his wife Paula was sleeping, Dennis Rader broke into the home of the Otero family and murdered every person inside of the house. The children – 11-year-old Josie and 9-year-old Joseph – were forced to watch while he strangled their parents to death.
Josie cried out, “Mommy, I love you!” while she watched Rader strangle her mother to death. Then the little girl was dragged down into the basement where Rader pulled off her underwear and hung her from a sewer pipe.
Her last words were to ask what would become of her. Her killer, stoic and calm, told her: “Well, honey, you’re going to be in heaven tonight with the rest of your family.”
He watched the girl choke to death, masturbating while she died. He took pictures of the dead bodies and gathered up some of the little girl’s underwear as a memento of his first massacre.
Then Dennis Rader went home to his wife. He had to get ready for church, as he was, after all, church council president.
Dennis Rader’s Wife
While her husband massacred a family, Dennis Rader’s wife Paula prepared to start one of her own.
Rader took his next two victims just a few months after the Oteros’ 15-year-old son discovered his family. Rader stalked and waited in the apartment of a young college student named Kathryn Bright before he stabbed and strangled her. He then shot her brother, Kevin, twice though he survived. Kevin later described Rader as having “‘psychotic’ eyes.”
Paula was three months pregnant with Rader’s first child when, unknown to her, her husband began to advertise his crimes covertly.
After describing how he killed the Oteros in a letter he stashed inside an engineering book at the Wichita Public Library, Rader called a local paper, the Wichita Eagle and let them know where they could find his confession. He added that he intended to kill again and named himself BTK which was an acronym for his preferred method: Bind, Torture, and Kill.
Rader allegedly took some time off his murder streak after his wife told him that she was pregnant, “I was so excited, for us and our folks. We were now a family. With a job and a baby, I got busy.”
This lasted only a few short years, though, and BTK struck again in 1977. But shortly before her husband raped and choked his seventh victim, Shirley Vian, to death while her six-year-old son watched through the keyhole of a door, she found an early draft of a poem entitled Shirley Locks in which her husband writes “Thou shalt not screem…but lay on cushion and think of me and death.”
But Paula did not ask questions, even when the clues added up.
She didn’t say anything when her husband marked-up newspaper stories on the serial killer with what he called his own secret code. When she noticed that the taunting letters the BTK Killer sent to police were full of the same horrendous misspellings as the letters she got from her husband, she didn’t say anything more than a gentle ribbing: “You spell just like BTK.”
Nor did she ask him about the mysterious sealed box he kept in their home. She never even once tried to look inside.
If she had, she would have found a treasure chest of horrors, which Rader referred to as the “mother lode.” It contained mementos from her husband’s crime scenes: dead women’s underwear, driver’s licenses, also pictures of him dressed up in his victims’ underwear, choking himself and burying himself alive, re-enacting the ways he’d killed them.
“Part of my M.O. was to find and keep the victim’s underwear,” Rader explained in an interview. “Then in my fantasy, I would relive the day, or start a new fantasy.”
Nonetheless, his wife would later insist to the police that Dennis Rader was “a good man, a great father. He would never hurt anyone.”
A Proud Father
Not even Dennis Rader’s own children suspected him. Their father was, at his worst, a strictly moral Christian. His daughter, Kerri Rawson, would recall how once her father did angrily grab her brother by the neck, and she and her mother had to pull him off to save the boy’s life.
“I can still picture it clearly and I can see the intense anger in my dad’s face and eyes,” Kerri reported. But this instance appeared isolated. When she learned of the BTK killer, it was her own father, ironically, who soothed her late-night worries.
Her father waved every morning to 53-year-old Marine Hedge while on his way to church. When she became the BTK killer’s eighth victim, tied up and choked to death, it was Dennis Rader himself who had been the one to comfort and reassure his family, “Don’t worry,” he told them. “We’re safe.”
In truth, Rader had murdered the woman the night before, after sneaking out of the campsite he was chaperoning on his son’s cub scout retreat. He returned by morning to the group of young boys with no suspicions.
In 1986, he killed his ninth victim, 28-year-old Vicki Wegerle while her two-year-old watched from a playpen. Her murder would remain unsolved until the BTK killer unknowingly brought himself to justice.
Arrest And Sentencing
Rader in some respect fell into domestic life and in 1991 began working for the Wichita suburb of Park City as a compliance supervisor. He was known to be an exacting officer and often unforgiving with clients.
That same year he committed his 10th and final crime. Rader used a cinderblock to break through the sliding glass door of a 62-year-old grandmother, Dolores Davis, who lived just a few miles from his own family. He dumped her body by a bridge.
In his last year as a free man, Dennis Rader came across a story in the local paper which marking the 30th anniversary of the Otero murders. He wanted to make the BTK killer known again and in 2004, sent nearly a dozen taunting letters and packages to the media and the police. Some were full of mementos from his massacres, some of dolls bound up and gagged like his victims, and one even contained a pitch for an autobiographical novel he wanted to write called The BTK Story.
The one that got him, though, was a letter on a floppy disk. Inside, the police found the metadata of a deleted Microsoft Word Document. It was a document for the Christ Lutheran Church, authored by the church council president: Dennis Rader.
DNA samples were taken from one of his victim’s fingernails and police accessed his daughter’s pap smears to confirm a match. When they received a positive match, Rader was taken from his home in front of his family on Feb. 25, 2005. The father tried to keep up a reassuring face. He gave his daughter one last hug, promising her it’d all be cleared up soon.
In the police car, though, he didn’t try to hide a thing. When the officer asked him if he knew why he was being arrested, Rader gave a cold smirk and replied, “Oh, I have suspicions why.”
He confessed to all 10 murders, seeming to take a twisted joy in describing all the brutal details of how the women had died in court. The BTK killer was sentenced to 175 years in jail without the possibility of parole. He escaped the death penalty only because Kansas did not have the death penalty instated during the 17 years of his rampage.
He was 60-years-old when he was sentenced to 10 consecutive life sentences.
A Fractured Family
Dennis Rader’s wife left her meal half-eaten on the dinner table when her husband was arrested. She would never come back to finish it. When the horrible truth of what Dennis Rader had done came out, she refused to ever step foot at that home again. She divorced Rader when he confessed to the crimes.
The Rader family tried to stay quiet during the trial. There was no explanation as to his rampage besides Denni’s supposition that: “I actually think I may be possessed with demons.”
The media accused Paula of knowing more than she let on, of protecting her husband and of ignoring evidence. BTK’s daughter at first hated him, especially when he sent a letter to the newspaper about her, saying that “She reminds me of me.”
It didn’t escape the kids that they shared their father’s blood or that some part of him might live on within them. Nor did it escape them that, if their father had been stopped when he’d first killed, they would never have been born. “That really messes with your head,” Kerri said. “There is almost a guilt there, for being alive. They died. And you got to live.”
But the hardest part of all was that, for all he’d done, Dennis Rader was still their father.
“Should I tell you that I grew up adoring you, that you were the sunshine of my life?” Kerri wrote in her autobiography, A Serial Killer’s Daughter. “I just wished you were sitting next to me in the theater, sharing a tub of buttered popcorn. But you’re not.”
“You won’t ever have this again,” she wrote her father. “Was it worth it?”
After this look at Dennis Rader, the BTK killer, check out another covert killer with a double-life, Ted Bundy. Then, read up on serial killer Edmund Kemper, who as a child stalked his teacher with a bayonet.