Profile of a Serial Killer: Dennis Rader, the BTK Strangler
Born March 9th, 1945, Dennis was the eldest of four boys born to William and Dorothea Rader. His father, who was a U.S. Marine at the time of his birth, moved his family to Wichita, Kansas when Dennis was very young.
From nearly every account, Dennis Rader seemed to have a normal childhood. He joined the Boy Scouts of America, participated in the church youth group, and maintained a C average throughout his scholastic career. But Dennis Rader would later admit that from a very young age, he developed fantasies about the bondage and torture of women. He also admitted to killing and hanging small animals as a child, but he kept this life hidden from everyone that knew him. All of those close to Rader described him as "normal," "polite," and "well mannered."
Dennis would graduate high school with mediocre grades. After a year lapse in enrollment, he attended one year of Wesleyan College in Salina, Kansas. In 1966, at 21 years of age, he dropped out of college and enlisted in the U.S. Air Force.
After four years of service he was discharged and returned to Wichita, Kansas where he served two more years as a reservist. Rader married Paula Dietz in May of 1971 and moved to Park City, only a short drive from Rader's childhood home. There, he spent the next several years bouncing from job to job, and tried to go back to college but never achieved more than a C average. Rader said that in 1974, he was between jobs. So while his wife was at work, he would "troll" for women to look at and fantasized about torturing and killing them.
Noun. A person afflicted with a personality disorder characterized by a tendency to commit antisocial and sometimes violent acts and a failure to feel guilt for such acts.
Fantasy Becomes a Reality
While Rader was in the Air Force, he "maintained" just as he had throughout school and only attained the rank of Sergeant before retiring from the armed services. He got married within a year of his return, but it seemed that something was missing from Rader's life.
In 1974, Rader was jobless and restless. He stated that he began "trolling," which meant that he would walk around certain neighborhoods or school campuses and simply observe. He observed women in particular and fantasized about bondage and death. It wasn't long before he chose a target.
Rader began watching a Hispanic family that had moved into his neighborhood. He watched their patterns — when they left home, when they returned, their work schedules, and their activities. When he began making plans to break into their home and gathered the tools to do so, Rader moved from fantasy into the realm of reality.
The Killings Begin: The Otero Family
Around eight o'clock on the morning of January 15th, Rader snuck around to the back of the Otero house and cut the phone line. He broke in through the back door and found that things were not as he had planned. The entire family of four sat inside along with a rather vicious family dog. At gunpoint, Rader ordered the father, Joe Otero, 38 years of age, to take the dog into the backyard. He told them that he was a wanted criminal on the run and needed food, money, and a vehicle. Rader directed everyone to lie down in the living room, and then herded them into a bedroom. The Otero family allowed Rader to bind them as they believed all he wanted was money.
But they were mistaken. Rader placed a bag over the father's head and used a cord to subdue and kill Joe Otero. He then moved to the mother, Julie Otero, age 34. He tried to strangle her with his bare hands, but it took several attempts before he was successful in murdering her.
9-year-old Joey Otero was next to die. He was found face down on his bedroom floor with a bag over his head. Rader had apparently brought a chair into the bedroom to sit and watch the child die.
11-year-old Josie Otero was taken to the basement and hung from a noose tied around a sewer pipe. She was left partially naked, and police discovered semen on the pipe behind the young girl.
After the brutal murdering, Rader proceeded to clean up and take a few souvenirs with him. He also took the Otero's station wagon and nearly got into an accident backing out of the drive. From there, he drove to a Dillon's supermarket. A woman later testified that she saw Rader get out of the vehicle "shaking like a leaf." He then threw the keys onto the roof of the market, but realized that he had left a knife at the Otero residence. He claimed to have driven his car back to their residence and retrieved the knife from their yard.
Rader was unaware that there were three other Otero children who had left for school prior to his arrival. Charlie (15), Daniel (14), and Carmen (13) found their family dead when they returned home from school.
The morning of April 4th, 1974, Rader broke into the home of 21-year-old Kathryn Bright. He hid in her bedroom until she arrived home at 2:00 PM. She was accompanied by her 19-year-old brother Kevin. They were both taken by surprise when a man came out of the room with a gun. Using the same methods as before, he bound Kathryn in her bedroom.
Her brother Keven was taken to another bedroom and was bound with items found in the room. Rader tried to strangle Kevin using a stocking, but Keven was able to get loose and grabbed Rader's gun. Kevin fought with Rader, but was shot twice in the head and face during the struggle. Apparently, feeling panicked, Rader did not take his time with Kathryn, but instead delivered deep stab wounds to her abdomen and other areas before fleeing the scene. While Kathyrn was being stabbed, Keven had made his way out of the house and searched for help. He quickly found two men on the street, but when they returned home, Rader was already gone. He had fled the house on foot to his car parked a few blocks away,.
Kathryn Bright died in the hospital several hours later. Kevin Bright survived the attack, but was left with permanent damage.
In October of that year, the Wichita Eagle newspaper got a phone call. The man who took the call told police that the caller informed him that there was a letter hidden in an engineering book at the Wichita Public Library. There, police found a detailed description of the unsolved Otero murders. It was noted that the writer of the note used very poor grammar and spelling, but had obvious knowledge of the crime. The writer stated, "I did it myself with no one's help," and "the code words for 'em will be...Bind them, torture them, kill them, B.T.K."
From his own testimony, Rader stated that he found steady work in 1974, had his first child in 1975, and was going to school. According to Rader, his life was so busy that he committed no crimes for the next two years. However, he did admit that he had never stopped "trolling" for victims.
In March of 1977, Rader allegedly cased two different women's homes but found both to be empty. Canvassing the neighborhood on foot and posing as a detective, Rader approached a 5-year-old boy and showed him a picture of his own wife. He asked the boy if he had seen her. After answering no, Rader tailed the boy back to his house. Rader knocked on the door and was allowed entry by the three children in the home, the oldest of which was 8-years-old. Rader proceeded to draw the shades and turn off the television when, suddenly, the mother, 24-year-old Shirley Vain, entered the room in her bathrobe. Rader barricaded the children in the bathroom, bound Shirley Vain, and strangled her do death with a cord. Rader left the children alive in the bathroom. Detectives later found seminal evidence near the victim.
December of that year, Rader also targeted Nancy Fox, a single 25-year-old jewelry store clerk. Rader gained entrance to her empty apartment via the bedroom window. He then severed the phone line and waited for her to arrive home. Nancy Fox entered her apartment to find an armed man inside. She didn't resist when ordered to disrobe and allowed him to bind to her bed. After she was tied up, Rader explained to her that he was the man who had committed the recent murders and announced that she was his next victim. Semen was left on a nightgown next to the body.
The next morning Rader phoned the police stating,"Yes, you will find a homicide at 843 South Pershing. Nancy Fox...That is correct." Rader then walked away from the phone, leaving the receiver dangling. Although the 911 tape was played repeatedly on the news, no one recognized Dennis Rader's voice. Early the next year, Rader sent a sarcastic poem on a postcard to the Wichita Eagle newspaper entitled "Shirley Locks," but no one realized the connection until days later when it was followed by a much more serious letter. The writer, apparently angered that his previous work had not been shown, sent a letter claiming responsibility for the murders of the Otero family, Shirley Vian, and Nancy Fox.
Wichita police publicly released the information announcing that there was a serial killer in their quiet little town. Citizens were advised to be diligent in checking doors and windows and to check their phones for a dial tone whenever entering their homes.
Anna Williams, a recently widowed 63-year-old woman was Rader's next intended target. He broke into the home in April of 1979. While waiting for her to come home, he rummaged through her belongings and took a few small items, but left before Anna returned home. Two months after the break-in, Anna received a package with a poem titled, "Oh Anna Why Didn't You Appear."
A similar package arrived at the doorstep of KAKE-TV. Terrified that the serial killer had her in his sights, Anna quickly moved out of the area and far away from Kansas.
Poem: Oh, Anna Why Didn’t You Appear
T’ was perfect plan of deviant pleasure so bold on that Spring nite
My inner felling hot with propension of the new awakening season
Warn, wet with inner fear and rapture, my pleasure of entanglement, like new vines at night
Oh, Anna, Why Didn’t You Appear
Drop of fear fresh Spring rain would roll down from your nakedness to scent to lofty fever that burns within,
In that small world of longing, fear, rapture, and desparation,the game we play, fall on devil ears
Fantasy spring forth, mounts, to storm fury, then winter clam at the end.
Oh, Anna Why Didn’t You Appear
Alone, now in another time span I lay with sweet enrapture garments across most private thought
Bed of Spring moist grass, clean before the sun, enslaved with control, warm wind scenting the air, sun light sparkle tears in eyes so deep and clear.
Alone again I trod in pass memory of mirrors, and ponder why for number eight was not.
Oh, Anna Why Didn’t You Appear
Dennis Rader dropped off the radar for the next 15 years. Either life got in the way of his murderous habit, or perhaps he felt police were getting close to catching him. The only "contact" was a letter to police in 1988, but it was never verified to be from the BTK killer.
How many days, weeks, moths, years did the city of Wichita live in fear of the BTK killer? His disappearance from activity, without capture, closure, or vindication was perhaps the cruelest thing the citizens of Wichita had to experience.
But just because he stayed out of the public eye does not mean that he had stopped killing. In April of 1985, Dennis Rader, now 40-years-old, was a busy family man with a full time job, a position as scout leader of his son's Boy Scout troop, and was very active in the church. But despite all this, by Rader's own admissions, he had never stopped "trolling" for victims.
Once while attending a Boy Scout camp with his son, Rader left camp in the evening, stating that he had a headache. But that night, Rader chose to visit Marine Hedge, the 53-year-old neighbor who had lost her husband about a year prior. After stopping for a beer and leaving his car at the bowling alley, Rader took a cab to Park City to the home of Marine Hedge. Rader severed the phone line and entered the house, but found no one at home. He decided to hide in the bedroom closet and watched as Marine and a male friend entered the home several hours later. He waited patiently until the male friend left at about one in the morning. When Marine turned out the light and went to bed, Rader crept out of the closet and turned on the bathroom light. Without hesitation, he jumped onto the woman and strangled her in her bed.
He then proceeded to drag the body along with the bedding to her car and placed her in the trunk. He took the body to the church he attended (which he had keys to), and dragged Marine's lifeless body into the basement of the church. He proceeded to tape black plastic over the windows and then posed the body in various positions while he took photographs of her. When he was finished, Rader took the body and dumped it in a shallow grave outside of Park City. He then returned to his vehicle and wiped down the car for prints before taking it back to camp.
His next victim was Vicki Wegerle who was 28-years-old. In September of 1986, he arrived at her doorstep dressed as a telephone repairman. Apparently fooled by the ruse, she allowed Rader into her home. Rader then proceeded to tie her up, strangle her, and take photographs of the body.
Bill Wegerle observed his own car going in the opposite direction when he returned home a short time later. Upon entering his house, he found his wife behind the bed on the floor. He called 911 and paramedics rushed Vicki to the hospital but were unable to revive her. Bill Wigerle faced an uphill battle when police decided that this was not a BTK crime and pursued Bill as a suspect for several years. Fortunately, he was never formally charged with a crime.
Rader was 45 years of age in 1991 when his sights fell on Dolores Davis. Davis was 62-years-old, single, and lived alone only a half mile from his home. Rader planned for his attack to happen during his next boy scout camp. Again, making an excuse to leave camp, he headed back to his neighborhood. He used a cement block to smash his way through the sliding glass door in the back of the house and found Dolores reading in bed. He fed her a line about being a vagrant in need of money, and then tied her up in her bedroom before strangling her to death. After this, he made a sketch documenting the end of her life. He then dragged the body outside and placed it into the trunk of her car. He drove the car to a lake near the interstate and left the body and other evidence under some trees.
Later, he returned to the scene of the crime to wipe down any fingerprints he may have left. He then retrieved his own vehicle, and went back to pick up the body. He relocated the body to a remote area under a bridge in northern Sedgwick County. The following night he left camp again to pose and photograph the body. Rader also took a polaroid of himself wearing a mask in the hole he had dug for Dolores Davis. Rader would later state that he had an encounter with a police officer that evening at the place where he went to change his clothes, but was let go after a few questions.
A New Job for Rader
Four months after the death of Davis, Rader was hired on as Park City's animal control officer and code enforcer. He used this position to harass and gain information about local residents. He issued petty citations for trivial things like grass being over 6 inches in height, having the wrong color garden hose, etc. Several residents moved out of the area due to his mistreatment, but he was never disciplined for any incidents. He also received complaints from female co-workers about his degrading and demanding behavior towards women. A lawsuit was filed in federal court stating that his ongoing disruptive and disturbing behaviors were dismissed by supervisors.
By all appearances, Dennis Rader was a fine and upstanding member of society. He served on two local boards, was vice president of the church council, and was a member of the local law enforcement.
BTK Is Back
Robert Beattie, a Wichita lawyer, was concerned that the BTK case had gone cold, and had been forgotten by local residents. So he began to write a book about the crimes as well as the ongoing investigation. He would later be accredited with the renewed interest in the case in early 2003. On the 30th anniversary of the Otero murders (Wichita's first exposure to the BTK killer), the Wichita Eagle ran an article about the crime. It came at the same time as the announcement of Beattie's book on the killer.
Rader, apparently bothered by the renewed interest in his killings, sent an envelope to the Wichita Eagle. Inside were photocopies of pictures taken of Vicki Wegerle as she was being killed. He also included a copy of her missing driver's license. The FBI verified its authenticity, and they were able to at least dismiss Vicki Wegerie's husband as being the killer.
A second letter came to the KAKE TV in May of 2004 and consisted of a lengthy word puzzle. The FBI was again able to validate that it came from BTK, but they were unable to make any sense of the puzzle. The next month a package containing a collection of evidence from multiple homicides was taped to a stop sign in the middle of town. It also included a letter from the killer detailing the killings.
In July, a package marked BTK was found in a book return at the public library containing a message from the killer.
I have spotted a female that I think lives alone and/or is a spotted latchkey kid. Just got to work out the details. I'm much older (not feeble) now and have to condition myself carefully. Also my thinking process is not as sharp as it used to be...I think fall or winter would be just about right for the HIT. Got to do it this year or next!...time is running out for me.— Message from BTK
The fifth package didn't come until October 22nd. A UPS worker found a manila envelope containing a collage of pictures of children with bindings drawn across their bodies and faces. The killer also included an "autobiography" listing a number of details about his life. Most of these details were later found to be untrue.
BTK Mystery Solved
An arrest was made on the 1st of December 2004, but the suspect was cleared after DNA testing. The police would continue taking approximately 1,300 DNA samples from men in the Wichita area to try to connect someone to the crime, but they were unsuccessful. Later that month a man in a park found yet another BTK drop. He took the package home and opened it to find a "PJ" doll with its head wrapped in plastic and its hands tied behind its back (PJ stood for project or a person that the BTK killer had his sights on). Its feet were bound together and tied to the feet was the real driver's license of Nancy Fox who was killed in December of 1977.
The next month, Dennis Rader was named president of the church council.
On January 8th, Rader left a package in the back of a man's pickup truck in a Home Depot parking lot. It was several days before the man realized that BTK was written on the box. Because of that drop, the police were above to review the security tape in the parking lot, and they were excited that they would finally get their first real look at the killer. Unfortunately, the camera was too far away and too blurry to make any kind of identification. However, they were able to ascertain that the killer had been driving a black Jeep Cherokee. Inside the box was information about alleged future targets as well as more misleading information about the killer. He made comments about living in a three-story apartment building, and said he had the elevator rigged with explosives should the police try to attempt to capture him.
Rader continued communicating with the police by using serial boxes, dolls, and nonsensical letters. Drop number eleven arrived at KSAS-TV on February 16th. It contained a letter, a piece of jewelry, and a floppy disk. On the disk, detectives found software from Christ Lutheran Church and the name Dennis. A quick search on the Internet showed Dennis Rader as the president of the church council. The police quickly started surveillance on Rader, and a DNA sample was taken from his daughter's medical records. Detectives were able to get a familial match to the BTK crime scenes.
On February 25th, 2005, Rader left the office to head home for lunch. Upon arriving home, he noticed that his house was surrounded by police. Dennis Rader surrendered without incident.
Interrogation and Trial
As soon as Dennis Rader was confronted about the computer disk with his name on it and the DNA match to multiple crime scenes, he proceeded to take detectives on a grueling 30-hour confession. It seemed to detectives that he was almost bragging about his exploits. The State's summary of evidence is publicly available. The 92-page document lists some excerpts from Rader's initial confession, along with the charge of 10 counts of first degree murder.
Rader's family, church community, and neighbors were all in complete shock when the charges were given. Not one of them believed that Dennis Rader could possibly be a serial killer.
Rader first stood in front of a judge on April 19th, 2005, after having waved his right to a preliminary hearing. His lawyer entered a plea of not guilty. District Attorney Nola Foulston notified the defense that he was being charged under Kansas' "hard 40" law, which stated that any crime considered cruel or heinous would earn a mandatory minimum of 40 years. Unfortunately, this law was created in 1991, meaning that only one of the ten counts of murder would be covered. All the others held a minimum sentence of 15 years.
At the onset of the trial on June 27th, 2005, Rader stood and pleaded guilty to all charges before millions of viewers watching around the world.
Aftermath and Sentencing
Lawsuits were filed against Rader by most of the victims' families. It is said that their goal was not to collect monetary damages, but to prevent Rader from ever profiting from the killings. His wife also quickly filed for divorce after the confession.
The sentencing of Dennis Rader was held on August 17 and 18, 2005, and the prosecution was for able to lay down their case against Rader for the first time. The courtroom listened intently for two full days as the prosecution displayed all the evidence, crime scene photos, and autopsy evidence, as well as allowed the victims' families to speak.
Nearing the end of the second day, the courtroom listened to a rambling 20-minute apology by Rader. Afterwards, Judge Waller sentenced the BTK killer to the maximum that Kansas state law allowed. Rader was sentenced to 175 years in prison. Rader would be eligible for parole in 2180 when he turns 135.