There are two saying that go, ‘you can’t judge a book by its cover’ and ‘looks can be deceiving. That means you can make a superficial judgment about someone just from how they look on the outside.
In the case of Dennis Rader, that couldn’t be truer. One look at the man now, and you might see a killer and one of the sickest minds ever. But there was a time that people viewed him as a community leader and a loving father.
The truth ripped a hole through his family and shocked everyone who’d ever known him. For all his God-fearing, strict, upright, law-abiding, and law enforcing persona, Dennis Rader was a cold-hearted serial killer.
Due to his upbringing and religious beliefs, no one would have suspected that he would be capable of such heinous crimes. But often, if you are in the same room with him, you either came out running or in a body bag.
For those unfamiliar with Dennis Rader is, he is more famously known as the notorious ‘BTK killer,’ BTK is the abbreviation for ‘bind, torture, kill.’ He also loved taunting the police. Rader placed a letter in a public library book in October 1974 after he committed his very first murder in January.
In it, he wrote that “It’s hard to control myself. You probably call me ‘psychotic with sexual perversion hang-up.’ The code words for me will be bind them, torture them, kill them, B.T.K.” Rader’s actions were deliberate, and his words were prophetic. He anointed himself with a serial killer nickname and told the world about it.
Let’s go back to the very beginning, the early life and childhood of Dennis Rader, in an attempt to understand what could have made Dennis Rader the BTK Killer. Dennis L. Rader was born on March 9, 1945, in Pittsburg, Kansas, to Dorothea Mae Rader (née Cook) and William Elvin Rader. He was the eldest of four brothers, Paul, Bill, and Jeff Rader, and as a family, they grew up together in Wichita, Kansas, out in the American mid-West.
With both his parents trying their best to make a living, they often worked long hours, leaving Dennis feeling abandoned. He later admitted those feelings later in his life, especially towards his mother, and even expressed that he resented her for it.
There was never really a light bulb moment for Dennis Rader in relation to his sadistic sexual fantasies. It didn’t come to him in the form of an epiphany or sudden lapses of losing control of himself mentally or psychologically.
Rader always had them and was always consciously aware of them, even as a child. He harbored thoughts of torturing women who were trapped and helpless. Rader would describe that he began unnatural urges at school, and they were like a picture show.
In this picture show, he knew that he wanted to be both the director and producer, which manifested into zoosadism, where he would torture, kill, and hang small animals. Aside from animals, Rader also developed an urge to spy on his female neighbors while dressed in women’s clothing.
Acting out sexual fetishes involving voyeurism, autoerotic asphyxiation as well as cross-dressing, Rader would also masturbate with ropes bound and wound up around his arms and neck. For Rader, playing out these fetishes didn’t satisfy him enough.
After high school, Dennis Rader attended and then dropped out of Kansas Wesleyan University after a year, primarily due to mediocre grades. Soon after, he joined the United States Air Force for four years, from 1966 to 1970, where he served abroad.
After he was discharged from his service, he returned to his life as a civilian in the suburbs of Wichita called Park City. He drifted through a series of average jobs that included working in the meat department of a Leekers IGA supermarket.
Surprisingly, his mother also worked in the same place as a bookkeeper. Around this time, he met and dated Paula Dietz, who described Dennis Rader as a gentleman who would always open doors for her and offer to help her with her coat.
They finally tied the knot and got married on May 22, 1971, and were blessed with a daughter named Kerri and a son named Brian. On the surface, it seemed as though Rader was suppressing his urges and looked like a devoted and loving family man.
Dennis Rader then decided to pursue the elusive college degree. So, he decided to attend night school at the Butler County Community College in El Dorado, upon which he completed his associate degree in electronics in 1973.
Rader then decided to continue studying again at Wichita State University. It took him six years to graduate in 1979 with a Bachelor of Science degree, majoring in Administration of Justice. Meanwhile, he’d already become a killer.
The college education provided him insight into being an officer of the law, which was the career and profession he truly desired. Around the same time, he was getting a college education, Rader’s wife expected their firstborn son.
While still studying and expecting his first child, Rader worked as an assembler for the outdoor supply enterprise called the Coleman Company. He didn’t yet have quite the career he was hoping for.
Later, in 1974, he took up a job at ADT Security Services as a residential and commercial security installer until 1988. In 1989, he took up a job as a census field operations supervisor for Wichita, coinciding with the 1990 US federal census.
In May 1991, Rader was employed as a compliance officer and dog catcher in Park City. Residents would complain about his behavior; he was overzealous, extremely strict, and enjoyed harassing single women.
One of the Park City residents even filed a complaint about killing her pet dog for no reason. Most were unaware of these complaints. Rader was elected president of his local church called the Christ Lutheran Church and a Club Scout leader.
What has been described from the point where Dennis Rader got married to the point where he became president of a church council was the public façade of Dennis Rader. He mostly portrayed a venerated image.
1974 was a big year for Dennis because it was the year he committed his first murder. It was not just one murder; it was a vicious quadruple murder of the Otero family. Those urges he was able to suppress had just exploded out.
On that fateful day of January 15, 1974, Dennis Rader made his fantasies a reality by killing 38-year-old Joseph and 33-year-old Julie Otero and their children, 9-year-old Joseph Otero Junior and 11-year-old Josephine Otero, in Wichita, Kansas.
Before leaving the family’s home, Rader took a watch and a radio as a souvenir while leaving behind semen at the scene of the crime. His sick mind had started a thirst for blood which was never going to stop.
The then 15-year-old Charlie Otero, the eldest son of the Otero family, came home from school and found his parents and two younger siblings brutally murdered. An unimaginable painful thing to see.
Then, on April 4, 1974, Dennis Rader, a.k.a. The BTK Killer, struck again. With only three months since his last murder, it was clear that the thought of killing must now have been consuming him. There would be many more victims to come.
He murdered Kathryn Bright by waiting for her in her apartment before stabbing and strangling her the moment she got home. Rader then shot Kathryn’s brother, Kevin, twice, and amazingly, he survived.
Kevin later described his sister’s murderer as “an average-sized man with a bushy mustache and psychotic eyes.” Unfortunately, his description wasn’t enough for Rader to be found, and the killings would continue.
Then for some reason, in October of the same year, Dennis Rader made the presence of the BTK Killer felt, after leaving a note about the murders in a letter inside a book in a public library.
That letter was the BTK Killer’s calling card to the world. Surprisingly, after the local newspaper, called the Wichita Eagle-Beacon, published his letter and his story, making everyone aware of a presence of a psychotic serial killer in Wichita, the BTK Killer disappeared.
The reason for his disappearance was unknown, but coincidentally, the year 1975 was the year Rader’s son, Brian, was born. In other words, Rader may have decided to take a paternal leave from killing as his focus was elsewhere.
On March 17, 1977, he resurfaced again by murdering Shirley Vian and locking her children in the bathroom. Whatever the reason for his hiatus, he was ready to kill again. Vian was just the next victim on his list.
Then on December 8 of the same year, the BTK Killer took the life of Nancy Fox in her own home before calling the police using the telephone of his victim’s home. It showed how he loved to play games with the law.
In January of 1978, Dennis Rader sent a poem to a local newspaper giving details about the murder of Vian, and this was followed up several weeks later with a letter to Wichita’s KAKE television station where he described the murders of Bright, Vian, Fox, as well as the Otero family.
Amazingly, at the exact moment, Rader was studying in college and was working with ADT Security Service, while also being an attentive husband and father to his wife and two children since Rader’s daughter was born in 1978. Just like that, Dennis Rader turns the demonic side of himself off.
The BTK Killer made a sudden appearance again on April 28, 1979, but instead of a murder, it was only a note that he left in the house of his intended female victim. A note that would send the chills down any spine.
In it, he wrote about how he almost killed her in her home and how she was lucky not to return home sooner because she came so close to losing her life at the hands of the BTK Killer. Thankfully this murder didn’t happen.
Right after this particular incident, Rader took another hiatus from killing. Only on April 27, 1985, did the BTK Killer strikes again with the murder of his 53-year-old neighbor, Marine Hedge.
He named this particular kill as ‘Project Cookie’ and, in some ways, a very risky move since the victim was so close to his public persona and lives in such proximity to him.
Another oddity to the murder was the situation. Hedge brought a man to her house when Rader had already broken in, and he patiently waited until the man left Hedge’s house after midnight.
He then took her life by strangling her with pantyhose before taking her body to the church and photographing her body in sexually explicit poses. After taking five hours to clean up all the mess to evade any detection from law enforcement, Rader dumped her body on a dirt road.
His next kill was on September 16, 1986, and his victim’s name was Viki Wegerle, who was only 28 years old. Rader opted for a different method of approaching his victims now, by dressing up as a telephone repairman and pretending that he needed to enter her home.
Wegerle had a 2-year-old son at the time, who was thankfully not harmed by the killer. While she was not looking at the ‘repairman,’ the BTK Killer pulled up a pistol on her.
She did put up a fight and had dug her nails into him, but Rader was able to tie her up with leather shoelaces and used her stockings to strangle her to death. It was a different approach but one that had the same outcome.
Again, similar to the previous victim, Rader rearranged her clothes, photographed her body, and then took her driver’s license as a trophy.
The BTK Killer vanishes without a trace yet again. And only re-appeared five years later on January 19, 1991, with the murder of Dolores “Dee” Davis, who was 63 years old. This time, his methods had less finesse in which he pretended to be a fugitive and broke into Davis’ house by throwing a concrete block through her window.
Once in her house, Rader handcuffs her and ties her with pantyhose before slowly choking her to death. He has said that he feels so alive when his victims lay on the edge of death in those few minutes.
What was so incredible was that throughout the BTK Killer’s killing career, he was always in correspondence with the press and the police. Most of the time, the content of his communication would include allusions of himself with Jack the Ripper and the Son of Sam, David Berkowitz.
Aside from his sadistic need to kill for satisfaction, Rader’s other fetish was his need to communicate. Be it in the form of letters, telephone calls, or dropping off packages, Rader utilizes these means of communication to terrorize and to ensure he is credited and acknowledged for his murders.
This narcissistic urge was what finally led to him being caught. Initially, the cracks in his plans began after he sent the photos and driving license of Vicki Wegerle to the news simply because Vicki’s husband, Bill, was being suspected of the murder.
Of course, not wanting others to steal his spotlight, Rader sent the evidence proving Bill’s innocence, retaining his notoriety. He even used the pseudonym “Bill Thomas Killman” or “BTK ” when submitting the papers.
Rader continuously taunted the law enforcement agencies. As with many serial killers, just the act of killing wasn’t enough for him. He wanted everyone to know who good he was at it and to become famous.
His downfall came when a floppy disc he sent as one of his means of communication contained undeleted metadata that revealed his church and his name. It was a crucial mistake.
The police made a check and found that the Jeep Cherokee he owned was the same vehicle in footage of him driving off after dropping off one of his latest communications before the floppy disc metadata reveal.
The nail to the coffin was issued a search warrant that allowed law enforcement to use the DNA test obtained from Rader’s daughter, which she did for a pap smear exam and compared that to semen left by the BTK Killer in a previous murder. The DNA matched and proved once and for all that Dennis Rader was indeed the BTK Killer.
February 25, 2005, Dennis Rader, AKA The BTK Killer, was arrested, and on June 27, 2005, he pleaded guilty to all ten murder charges without any remorse and offered no apologies. Upon his capture, Rader revealed that he keeps a secret box, which he tastelessly called ‘the motherload.’
Inside this box are cut-out pictures of child swimsuit models with Rader’s sexual fantasies written on the back of each of those cut-out pictures. It was yet another insight into his dangerous and warped mind.
Other items in ‘the mother load’ include various self-shot photographs of him wearing pantyhose and bra in different bondage positions. It showed to the world the side of him that he’s always managed to keep a secret.
The mementos from the last moments of his murder victims were also kept inside ‘the motherload.’ In the end, Dennis Rader was sentenced to 10 consecutive life sentences and 40 years without any possibility of parole.
Aside from inflicting trauma on his victims and his victim’s families, Dennis Rader also inflicted huge pain on his own family. They immediately cut him out of their lives and tried to move on with their lives.
His wife, Paula, was granted an emergency divorce and maintained a stance of not mentioning anything regarding the BTK Killer or his murderous ways. The same goes for his two children, Brian and Kerri.
Kerri Rawson, who is now married with a family and children of her own, has written a memoir in 2019 titled “A Serial Killer’s Daughter: My Story of Faith, Love, and Overcoming” about life and trauma of being the daughter of a notorious serial killer.
The book became a best seller. She had described how the first 26 years of her life, Dennis Rader was just an ordinary man and an ordinary father. Like many others, she saw her father as a president of his church, a Boy Scout troop leader, and an Air Force veteran.
By the time Kerry was 26, her father was almost 60 years old, balding, and was wearing glasses. In her world, he was a loving father. She had no idea about what was going on and thought he was a good father.
The revelation that her father was the BTK Killer was extremely traumatizing for her, her brother, and her mother. It shook her entire family to its core. He wasn’t the type of personality anyone would suspect of such crimes.
Kerri described in an interview with 20/20 that the fact her father murdered a young woman when her mother was still three months pregnant with her made her feel like she was a victim of a crime herself because it meant all her life, she was living with a criminal.
Not only faced with the trauma of such a revelation, but it also caused her to develop PTSD, which is now a constant battle, and in her statement has said that she has been in an extended period of trying to recover.
Although he’s behind bars, Kerri’s father still watches and takes an interest in the things that publicly happen in her life. From the point when her father was incarcerated, Kerri has not spoken with her father. That was until 2012 when she started to re-connect with him by writing him letters.
When asked about that, Kerri insisted that she had forgiven her father and that the person she wrote to was not BTK but a father. Dennis Rader was nothing more than a father to her in the context of her childhood and growth.
However, in 2021, Kerri has remarkably withdrawn Rader from her life by filing for a no-contact order against her father “due to his creepy behavior towards her.” The olive branch extended by Kerri to her incarcerated father in 2012 was not returned in kind.
Rader became a cyberstalker of his daughter. Rader has even sent Kerri disturbing drawings of animals with gaping mouths, a far cry from the desire to reconcile with his daughter. He once again damaged his family.
Other than that, her father had also signed his name of crime scene photos of his victims and even went as far as signing over Kerri’s signature in her book.
The extent of his self-loathing went a step further when, without any remorse, Rader wrote to the Wichita Eagle newspaper and told them that Kerri reminds him so much of himself, especially on the way “she uses the media.” That was the last straw, and Kerri took legal action.
In stark contrast to her relationship with her father, Kerri still communicates with her mother, Paula, and has even shared talking about the book with her.
As much as her mother is fearful about what the book’s contents might be and what may appear or manifest in print, both Kerri and her mother feel like it is part of trying to make peace in oneself and one’s past.
All they can do now is move forward and build a new life as best as they can. At the end of it all, Kerri summed up her father in just one word, narcissist. Many others would use different types of words for him.
In the end, Dennis Rader is perhaps the most horrible example of how you can’t judge a book by its cover. Many saw him as a good father and a great man, and no one suspected a thing. Perhaps that’s why he got away with killing for so long.