• Facebook
  • Twitter

Dennis Rader

Residents of Wichita, Kansas, were ill prepared to cope with monsters in the early days of 1974. Their lives were by and large conservative, well-ordered, purposeful. They had no previous experience to help prepare them for the coming terror, and it took them absolutely by surprise.

On January 15, four members of the Otero family were found dead in their comfortable suburban home, hog-tied and strangled with cords cut from old Venetian blinds. Joseph Otero, 38 years old, lay face down on the floor at the foot of his bed, wrists and ankles bound with samples of the same cord that was wrapped around his neck. Close by, wife Julie lay on the bed she had once shared with her husband, bound and strangled in similar fashion. Joseph II, age nine, was found in his bedroom, mirroring his father’s placement at the foot of the bed, with a plastic bag over his head. Downstairs, 11-yearold Josephine Otero hung by her neck from a pipe in the basement, clad only in a sweatshirt and socks. None of the victims had been sexually assaulted, though police found semen at the crime scene.

Aside from the killer’s ritualistic modus operandi, police knew the crime had been planned in advance. Phone lines were cut outside the house, and the killer had brought ample cord from some other source for binding and strangling his victims. Several neighbors filed reports of a “suspicious-looking” stranger in the area, but published sketches of the unknown subject led police nowhere. A local teenager confessed to the murders, naming two accomplices, but none had any knowledge of the crimes beyond stark details published in the press. Still, their arrests served a purpose, prompting the killer to clamor for credit. In October 1974, Wichita’s bogeyman penned the first of several letters to the media, placed in a book at the public library. A phone call directed an editor of the Wichita Eagle to the hidden letter, filled with numerous misspellings, which advised police: “Those three dude[s] you have in custody are just talking to get publicity for the Otero murders. They know nothing at all. I did it by myself and no one[’]s help.” The slayer proved his point by describing the murder scene in detail, down to the color of each victim’s clothing. He added a clincher, informing detectives of a fact they had not recognized—the theft of Joseph Otero’s wristwatch. “I needed one so I took it,” the killer explained. “Runs good.” Signing himself the “BTK Strangler,” the killer provided his own translation in a postscript. He wrote: “The code words for me will be . . . Bind them, Torture them, Kill them.”

Police released their young suspects while requesting that the letter be suppressed against the possibility of further false confessions in the case. No one came forward. No new evidence materialized. Twenty-nine months elapsed before the killer showed his hand again. On March 17, 1977, 26-year-old Shirley Vian was murdered in her home, stripped, bound and strangled on her bed, left with a plastic bag over her head and the familiar cord wrapped tight around her neck. Vian’s three children, locked in a closet by the armed intruder who had invaded their home, managed to free themselves and called police. Again, the crime was clearly premeditated: the killer had stopped one of Vian’s sons on the street that morning, displaying photographs of an unidentified woman and child, asking directions to their home.

On December 9, 1977, 25-year-old Nancy Jo Fox was found murdered in the bedroom of her Wichita apartment, left with a nylon stocking tied around her neck. Unlike previous victims, she was fully clothed. An anonymous caller directed police to the crime scene, and officers traced the call to a downtown phone booth, where witnesses vaguely recalled “someone” perhaps a blond six-footer—using the booth moments earlier.

The killer mailed a poem to the Wichita Eagle on January 31, 1978, but it was routed to the advertising department by mistake and lay undiscovered for days. Disgruntled by the absence of publicity, the slayer shifted targets, firing off a letter to a local television station on February 10. “How many do I have to kill,” he asked, “before I get my name in the paper or some national attention?”

In his latest note, the BTK Strangler claimed seven victims, naming Vian and Fox as the latest. That left one still unaccounted for, as he closed with a taunting punch line: “You guess the motive and the victims.” Unable to prove their correspondent’s latest claim, authorities still took him at his word, announcing theoretical acceptance of the body count. The killer’s last letter in 1978 was addressed to an elderly Wichita woman who eluded him by staying out late on the night he had chosen to kill her. “Why didn’t you appear?” he asked.

Alternately blaming his crimes on “a demon” and a mysterious internal “Factor X,” the strangler compared his work to that of London’s “Jack the Ripper,” New York City’s “Son of Sam,” and the “Hillside Strangler” in Los Angeles. “When this monster enter[ed] my brain,” he wrote, “I will never know. But, it [is] here to stay. Maybe you can stop him. I can’t. It seems senseless but we cannot help it. There is no help, no cure except death or being caught and put away.” Psychiatrists who analyzed the letters felt the killer saw himself as part of some nebulous “grand scheme,” but they were unable to pinpoint his motive or predict his next move. In fact, there would be none for 26 years, until the Wichita Eagle received another BTK letter on March 19, 2004. The envelope contained a one-page letter infamiliar style, together with a photocopy of murder victim Vicki Wegerle’s driver’s license and three snapshots of her corpse, each with the clothing arranged in slightly different positions. Police informed the media that no official photos had been taken of Wegerle’s body in situ, when she was found on September 16, 1986, thus proving that her killer was the cameraman. Predictably, the letter’s return address—from a fictitious Bill Thomas Killman—led detectives to a long-vacant apartment house in Wichita.

Another BTK letter arrived in early May 2004, this one posted to Wichita television station KAKE, Channel 10. It was delivered to police, who passed it on to the FBI laboratory for handwriting analysis. G-men confirmed the killer’s authorship of that communication on June 28, after a third letter arrived at Wichita police headquarters. Authorities were mum on the contents of the last two notes, but Lieutenant Ken Landwehr told reporters, “I’m 100 percent sure it’s BTK. We do believe that BTK is in Wichita. We truly feel that he is trying to communicate with us. We are specifically interested in talking to anyone who was approached at their residence between 1974 and 1986 by a man presenting himself as an employee of a school or a utility company. Obviously we are not interested in legitimate encounters. We want to know about situations where a man attempted to get into your house under suspicious circumstances.”

Thousands of fruitless tips followed announcement of the latest BTK correspondence, and all were tracked by police to frustrating dead ends. Meanwhile, detectives staked their hopes on modern DNA technology (unavailable during the killer’s crime spree in 1977–86) and on the content of his cryptic letters. “I don’t think they’re just ramblings,” said retired captain Bernie Drowatzky. “I’ve always thought there was a key in there. I just never was able to find it.”

Eleven months after the final rash of letters, on February 25, 2005, Wichita police announced the arrest of a BTK suspect. Dennis L. Rader was a 59-year-old city employee, married father of two, a popular Cub Scout leader and longtime deacon at Christ Lutheran Church. Friends and relatives were stunned on February 27, when authorities announced that Rader had confessed six murders, doubly amazed when he was charged with 10 slayings on March 1. While only seven homicides were previously linked to the BTK series, detectives now listed three more victims, including:

• Kathryn Bright, age 21, bound and stabbed to death in her home on April 14, 1974. Her brother Kevin, shot and left for dead in the same incident, was a coworker of Rader’s at a local camping-gear factory.

• Marine Hedge, age 53, kidnapped from her suburban Park City home on April 27, 1985, later found strangled with a pair of pantyhose and discarded on a rural road. At the time of her murder, Hedge lived on the same street as Rader.

• Delores Davis, age 62, snatched from her home outside Park City on January 19, 1991. When found beneath a bridge on February 1, she had been bound and strangled with pantyhose.

Police remained tight-lipped about their means of targeting Rader after three decades. Some reports mention a computer disk enclosed with one of the BTK letters in March 2004, which police allegedly traced back to Rader’s church. All accounts include mention of DNA samples obtained from Rader’s 26-year-old daughter, but details surrounding that evidence were hopelessly confused at press time for this volume. Some stories claim Rader’s daughter was suspicious of him and approached police; others say she volunteered DNA in an effort to clear her father’s name; yet a third version states that DNA samples were subpoenaed by FBI agents over the daughter’s objections. In any case, the physical evidence and Rader’s supposed confessions were enough to see him held in lieu of $10 million bond, pending trial. Ironically, detectives noted that during the height of the BTK panic, from 1974 to 1988, Rader worked for a local security firm, installing home-intrusion alarms throughout Wichita. On June 27, 2005, after several refusals by local prosecutors, Rader was finally permitted to plead guilty on 10 murder counts. In a chilling, deadpan opencourt confession, he described the slayings in detail, explaining that he murdered his victims to satisfy sexual fantasies. At the Otero massacre, because he wore no mask, Rader declared, “I made a decision to go ahead and put ’em down.” He kept Polaroid snapshots of his “projects” as trophies, and planned “potential hits” with care. “If one didn’t work out,” he explained, “I just moved on to another one.” At the end of Rader’s recitation, prosecutors recommended a sentence of 175 years to life, thus making sure that Rader would die before attaining eligibility for parole. On August 19, 2005, he was sentenced to 10 life terms.