Dennis Rader is a serial killer who terrorized Wichita residents for decades, from 1974 to 1991. He gave himself the nickname of BTK, which he said is what he would do: Bind, torture and kill his victims.
Dennis Rader was arrested Feb. 26, 2005, in Park City, Kansas, and booked on suspicion of 10 counts of first-degree murder for the killings of Joseph Otero, Julie Otero, Josephine Otero, Joseph Otero Jr., Kathryn Bright, Shirley Vian Relford, Nancy Fox, Vicki Wegerle, Marine Hedge and Dolores Davis.
Rader worked for Park City as a compliance supervisor, in charge of animal control and general code enforcement. He was married with two grown children; a leader in his church, Christ Lutheran Church; a former Boy Scout leader; an Air Force veteran; and a 1979 Wichita State University graduate.
Rader went to work for the city three years after he left his job at the Wichita office of a national security company. Officials for ADT Security, based in Boca Raton, Fla., said Rader worked for the Wichita office from November 1974 to July 1988.
Those who knew Rader said he paid attention to detail and appreciated neatness. At his church, he passed out church bulletins and welcomed new members. He was so well thought of, he became president of the church congregation.
He was called by others a control freak. As a compliance officer for Park City, he issued threats and spied on people. He was described as cruel and arrogant, on a power trip.
BTK sent several taunting letters to police, the media and crime victims in the 1970s, when he claimed responsibility for seven killings and suggested he be called BTK for “bind them, torture them, kill them.” The letters stopped in 1979.
Some of the letters and packages that he sent to police and media contained information about the killings that were never made public. Some included pictures of his victims, both as they lived and died, and souvenirs he had taken from crime scenes.
BTK would describe the sexual thrill he got from torturing victims. He wrote that he brought some victims to the brink of death. Then he gave them some air. Then he strangled them again.
Rader’s undoing, perhaps, was a letter he sent to the Wichita Eagle newspaper in March 2004. The letter came 25 years after BTK’s last communication and two months after The Eagle published a story about the 30th anniversary of the first killings — the murders of four members of the Otero family.
The story that brought BTK back
On the 30th anniversary of the first BTK killings, Wichita Eagle reporter Hurst Laviana wrote a story that ran in the newspaper on Jan. 17, 2004. Here is an excerpt from that story:
“I don’t think people today realize the kind of tension there was in Wichita at that time,” said lawyer Robert Beattie, who was a West High School student at the time. . . .
Although the killings remain firmly implanted in the minds of those who lived through them, Beattie said many Wichitans probably have never heard of BTK.
He said he used the BTK case during a segment of his class last year and was surprised at the reaction.
“I had zero recognition from the students,” he said. “Not one of them had heard of it.”
Rader found the story outrageous and impossible to ignore.
Did they not remember him? Did they no longer feel the fear?
He would show them.
In his March 2004 letter to The Eagle, BTK took credit for the killing of Vicki Wegerle, an unsolved 1986 cold case that was never publicly attributed to BTK.
Police investigation and arrest of Dennis Rader
During their investigation and in their interview of Rader after his arrest, police learned answers to questions large and small that had puzzled BTK investigators and amateur BTK sleuths.
His communications always contained misspellings, typos. People wondered: Was it intentional, or was he trying to make people think he was sloppy or uneducated? Was English not his native language?
“The fact is that Mr. Rader is a very bad speller. He doesn’t know how to write,” Wichita Police Lt. Ken Landwehr said.
DNA played a key role in finally making an arrest.
In 2000, four years before BTK ended his silence, the cold case became hot. Wichita police detectives Kelly Otis and Dana Gouge were assigned to work on the unsolved 1986 killing of 28-year-old Vicki Wegerle, a wife and mother found bound and strangled in her home on West 13th.
Police had found a man’s DNA under her fingernails. In 2003, the profile was entered into a newly developed national database of criminals.
But there was no match.
However, DNA tests showed that the same killer had been in the homes where BTK strangled four members of Otero family in 1974, and Nancy Fox in 1977.
After Wegerle was killed, though, there had been no BTK letters. No taunts. No threats. No communication.
Until March 2004, when BTK re-emerged with a mailing to The Eagle: a photocopy of three pictures the killer had taken of Wegerle, lying on the floor, plus a copy of her missing driver’s license.
The photocopy also had a signature the killer had used in his communications over the years: an odd configuration of “B,” “T” and “K,” sometimes with the “B” drawn to resemble breasts.
Once police saw the photocopy, the hunt was on.
DNA and BTK’s daughter
Investigators, without the knowledge of Kerri Rawson, Rader’s daughter, used a subpoena to gain a DNA sample from her medical records.
Her DNA told them that her father was BTK.
The FBI man knocked on Rawson’s door on Feb. 25.
She looked out from her tiny apartment near Detroit. He was holding an FBI badge.
She almost didn’t answer. Her father, a code compliance officer in the Wichita suburb of Park City, had taught her to be wary of strangers, and this one had sat in his car next to her trash dumpster for an hour. She’d called her husband.
But after the FBI guy knocked, she let him into her kitchen, where she’d made chocolate bundt cake. From now on, the smell of chocolate cake would make her queasy.
He asked whether she knew who BTK was.
Yes. BTK – Bind. Torture. Kill. – was the serial killer who scared her mom decades ago. The FBI guy was her dad’s age – late 50s, wearing glasses and a necktie, nervous. She was a substitute teacher taking a day off, still wearing mint-green pajamas, though it was past noon.
Her dad had been arrested as a BTK suspect, the man said.
He needed to swab her cheek for DNA.
Dennis Rader’s arrest, BTK’s trial
After police arrested Rader, they found the original Wegerle photos and driver’s license taped to a sheet in a locked file cabinet at his work office. He worked as a Park City compliance officer from 1991 until his firing a few days after his arrest.
Rader was so detail-oriented, he kept binders to hold his communications.
Rader had hidden some evidence in his home, including something Lt. Ken Landwehr called a “Vian package.” But most of his communications were either in the locked work cabinet or on the work computer.
One question that lingers is whether Rader killed more than the 10 people. “I’ll never say never,” Landwehr said. But investigators don’t think there are more BTK murders, he said.
After his arrest on Feb. 25, 2005, Rader was held in the Sedgwick County Adult Detention facility on $10 million bond.
His first court appearance was March 1, 2005, before Sedgwick County District Judge Greg Waller. He appeared on closed-circuit television from the jail, standard practice for the initial court hearing for prisoners in custody in Sedgwick County.
He spoke fewer than two dozen words during the hearing.
A high-profile case such as Rader’s, covering 31 years, 10 victims and seven different homicide scenes, was estimated by legal experts to cost the state of Kansas millions of dollars.
News organizations from around the world followed the case; the Sedgwick County Courthouse had to make accommodations for broadcast and print news media to disseminate information across the globe.
Court documents, sealed by Judge Waller, left the public and media wondering what evidence and proof authorities had that led to the arrest of Rader that fateful February day.
Rader waived his preliminary hearing on April 19, and asked to postpone his plea for 10 days. After the Wichita Eagle and five other news organizations asked a judge to open the court files in the BTK case, Judge Waller lifted seals on nearly all the motions and orders in the multiple murder case.
At Rader’s brief arraignment, May 2, 2005, the charges were formally read. He stood silent while District Judge Greg Waller entered a not-guilty plea on his behalf. At that time, District Attorney Nola Foulston served notice that she intended to pursue a Hard 40 prison sentence.
On June 27, 2005, Dennis Rader, the former church leader and Boy Scout leader, pleaded guilty as Wichita’s notorious BTK serial killer. He then gave a detailed recount of how he selected, stalked and strangled 10 people.
In the courtroom, family members of victims could only listen in silence as they heard what happened to their loved ones.
“I called them projects,” Rader said of the 10 murders.
He divided each into steps.
“If you’ve read much about serial killers, you know they go through phases,” Rader told Judge Waller. “Trolling is one of the phases they go through, looking for victims.”
For Rader, they were women, for whom he harbored violent sexual fantasies.
After Rader finished, Waller set sentencing for Aug. 17.
At his sentencing, Foulston, who had a reputation as a thorough trial lawyer, wanted to make a complete record of the way Rader “bound, tortured and killed” 10 people from 1974 to 1991. She wanted the record to be accurate in case of a review by higher courts.
Information she presented included graphic testimony and photographs of the torture Rader inflicted.
Where is Dennis Rader now?
Dennis Lynn Rader, born March 9, 1945, was sentenced on Aug. 17, 2005, on 10 convictions of first-degree murder, for deaths on Jan. 15, 1974 (4 counts), April 4, 1974, March 17, 1977, Dec. 8, 1977, April 28, 1985, Sept. 16, 1986 and Jan. 19, 1991.
He is incarcerated in El Dorado Correctional Facility in south-central Kansas.
The Kansas Department of Corrections lists a parole eligibility date for Rader of Feb. 26, 2180 – 175 years from the date of his arrest. According to the KDOC website, Rader’s custody level is “Special Management,” which means he is segregated from the general prison population.
He is not eligible for the death penalty. Kansas didn’t have a death penalty on the books between 1972 and 1994. Rader committed his first four murders, of the Joseph Otero family, in 1974 and his final one in 1991.