When you hear the words SERIAL KILLER, you instantly think about people like Jeffrey Dahmer, Ed Gein, Ted Bundy, or Charles Manson. You don’t think about a family man with a wife and two children, county board member, President of the church congregation council, or a Cub Scout leader. Dennis Rader possessed all of these shining attributes. He also possessed a dark secret. This secret had festered in him from an early age and grew as he got older. Dennis Rader had fantasies about bondage, control, and torture which eventually led to murder. Rader’s reign of terror began in 1977 and ended with his capture in 2005; almost 30 years later. He labeled his victims as “projects”.3 He hunted his prey in stages he described as the “trolling stage and stalking stage”.3 He even called the tools used for his trade his “hit kit”.3 Dennis Rader was a stone cold killer who had no plans of stopping.
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The letters BTK stands for “Bind, Torture and Kill”, which was Rader’s mode of operation and a name he gave to himself. Throughout the years and in numerous communications with the police, he talked about his need for acknowledgment. In the 1990’s BTK had disappeared from sight when, without explanation, he re-emerged in 2004. This re-emergence was more than likely due to his need for acknowledgment or public attention. In 2004, Rader started sending multiple letters, clues, and photos to the authorities that led to his capture and arrest in 2005.
In the Beginning
Dennis Rader was born on March 9, 1945. His parents were William and Dorothea Rader. His family moved to Wichita Kansas when Dennis was little. While growing up, Rader appeared to be a normal child. He was a member of the Boy Scouts and a church youth group member. He attended “Riverview Elementary School”1 and was described as a student with “withdrawn tendencies”.1 Rader later admitted that he “developed fantasies about bondage, control and torture from an early age, while still in grade school”.1 As he got older, he had “fantasies about tying girls up and having his way with them”.1 He also admitted to “killing cats and dogs as a youth by hanging them”.1 He began to perfect the art of hiding his dark secret from everyone at an early age.
1974-The Killing Begins
It all started when a family of four, the Otero Family, was brutally and maliciously murdered in their home on January 15th, 1974. These four murders, along with six others, would leave the authorities, media, people of Wichita Kansas, and people around the world baffled and in fear for the next 30 years. A killer was on the loose and Bind, Torture, Kill was his mode of operation.
Joseph Sr., Julie, Joseph II, and Josephine Otero were the BTK Killer’s first victims. Their family consisted of the husband, wife, and 5 children. Only two of the children were murdered and they were the children that were home on the day of the murders. These murders occurred in the early morning hours. Dennis Rader invaded their home at gunpoint and ordered everyone into a bedroom where he tied them up. He tried to kill Joseph Sr. first by putting a bag over his head and pulling tight, but somehow a hole was torn in the bag. He later went back and put another bag over Joseph Sr. head and strangling him with a cord. Julie Otero was the second victim to be killed by Rader. He tried to kill Julie with his hands at first but when that didn’t work, he strangled her with a cord. Nine year old Joseph II was the third victim. Joseph was moved to another bedroom and suffocated with two bags placed on his head. The fourth and final victim, on this day, was Josephine Otero. She was eleven years old. Rader took Josephine to the basement of their house and hung her from the drainage pipe. Rader admitted to “having sexual fantasies after she was hung”.3 He masturbated on her legs and a pipe near where she was hung. His DNA left at the scene was later matched to other killings.
BTK’s fifth victim was Katherine Bright. She was killed by Rader in April 1974; just four short months after the Oteros were murdered. She was 21 years old. Radar broke into her house and waited for her to come home but he didn’t expect for her brother (Kevin Bright) to be with her. He made her brother tie her up first, and then he tied her brother up in another room in the house. Kathryn put up a fight for her life and was eventually stabbed several times by Rader. She later died in the hospital. Her brother escaped during Rader’s fight with Kathryn but was shot in the head while he fled. Kevin may be the only person to see the serial killer and live (although his description still didn’t help the police capture BTK in the 70’s).
1977-The Killing Continues
It had been 3 years since the Otero family and Kathryn Bright was brutally murdered by the BTK Killer. His sixth victim was Shirley Vian Relford, 24. Rader admitted in court that “Relford’s murder was completely random”.3 He actually planned on killing a particular person but when he went to knock on the door, no one answered. After continuing to “troll” the neighborhood, he knocked on one other door and got no response. He approached a little boy, watched what house the little boy went into and followed him. When he got inside the house, he put Shirley’s three young children in the bathroom and then tied Shirley up and strangled her. He left his semen on some panties that were found next to her body.
December 1977, BTK struck again. This time his victim was Nancy Fox, 25. She was victim number 7 and Rader labeled her as “Project Fox Hunt”5. He had apparently been watching Fox for a long time, stalking her. He would “go by her house several times, rummage through her mailbox to find out what her name was, and stalked her at her job”.3 On this night in December, he went by her house and knocked on her door but when no one answered, he broke in. He waited in her house in the kitchen and when she got home, he told her he was going to rape her and tied her to the bed. Afterwards, he strangled her. He left semen on a nightgown that was found next to her body. Rader later described Fox’s murder as the “perfect hit”6(pp. 53) because he said that there was no interference in the killing.
1985-Eight Years Later
Eight years after Nancy Fox was murdered, BTK was back on the scene and ready for his next victim. That victim was Marine Hedge, 53. Rader labeled her as “Project Cookie”.6(pp. 92) The sad part about this murder is that Hedge lived on the same street as Rader; only six doors down to be exact. He broke into her house and waited for her. When she came home, she was not alone. She had a male friend with her so Rader hid out in the house and waited for her male friend to leave. Once her male friend left, Rader strangled her in her bed with his bare hands. Hedge was the first victim where Rader moved the body from the house after killing them. He took her body to his church’s basement and posed it for photographs. Her body was later found in a ditch on the roadside.
On September 16, 1986, Vicki Wegerle became BTK’s ninth victim. She was 28 years old. Rader used trickery to get in to Wegerle’s house. He posed as a “telephone repair man”3 with a uniform and a hard hat. He called his outfit for this murder his “hit clothes”.3 When he got into her house, he pulled a gun on her and attacked her. She put up a fight for her life but he eventually overpowered her and strangled her with a nylon sock. He also posed her body for photographs as he had previously done to Hedge. It was later found out that Vicki was not dead when Rader left her house; he only thought she was dead. She later died when the paramedics couldn’t revive her.
1991-Final Victim-5 years later
BTK’s last and final victim was Delores Davis, who was murdered on January 19, 1991. She was 62 years old. By this time, a decade had passed since BTK began his killing spree. Rader had previously “cased the place before”3 and this time she was in the house. It appears as though Rader had gotten lazy by the 10th murder because he threw a concrete cinder block through Davis’s patio glass door and bombarded his way into her house. He made no attempt to conceal the noise that the shattering glass made. He pretended to be a wanted criminal and eventually strangled Davis. She was the second victim that Rader had moved from the location of the murder. Her body was dumped under a bridge. She too was posed and photographed after being killed. Rader’s mask was left by her face.
The BTK investigation began in the mid 1970’s, spanned the length of 30 years, and concluded with the arrest and conviction of Dennis Rader in 2005. In the early 1980’s, the Wichita Police Chief created a “secret task force”6(pp.86) of special investigators to work on the BTK case. They were the team that hunted BTK. This team was called the “Ghostbusters”.6(pp. 85) There were tons of calls and tips throughout the BTK investigation. Investigators came up with lists to eliminate and compare suspects. They put together a list with “tens of thousands of names” 6 (pp.88) This list included men who went to the local college, men who worked with any of the victims, men who were “between 21 and 35 years of age in 1974 and lived in the county”6(pp. 88), and mostly men with any kind of sex/torture/perverse/stalking behavior on their criminal record. Several of the detectives went door-to-door to most of these suspects’ houses and asked outright if they would submit to DNA testing. Suspects who were unwillingly to be tested were placed under surveillance. In the Otero murders, police “interviewed more than 1500 people”6(pp. 31) to no avail. Police originally thought that organized crime families or drugs may have been involved in the family murders. Some police didn’t want to accept the fact that a serial killer may have been on the loose or that there were similarities in the Otero and Bright killings. It wasn’t until BTK starting sending the police clues about the murders that they put it all together and realized that a serial killer was on the loose. Three of the victims worked at the same location; Colemans. Even when Kathryn’s brother Kevin (who survived the attack) gave the police a description of his attacker, they never caught him. Even with all of the man hours and leg work put into the investigation, BTK was not caught back then. From 1991 until 2004, when BTK resumed communication with the police, the trail for the serial killer had gone completely cold.
Search and Arrest Warrants and Subpoenas
There were several search and arrest warrants issued in the BTK case in the later years. In the beginning, there was mostly list compiling and DNA tests done to eliminate suspects but no definite leads as to who BTK was. There were too many suspects and police kept hitting dead ends. In December 2004, the television station KSN reported that Roger Valadez had been arrested in connection with the BTK killings. The report was based on an anonymous tip that was inaccurate. Mr. Valadez was arrested early that morning on charges of “criminal trespassing and housing code violations”12 but it was somehow leaked that he was a suspect in the BTK murders. A search warrant was executed on his home. He was cleared by DNA tests of any criminal activity related to the BTK killer.6(pp. 227) Valadez later sued the television station and won. In 2005, police obtained a warrant for the medical records of Rader’s daughter (Kerri Rader) which was a familial match with semen collected at an earlier crime scene.13 His daughter’s DNA match and other evidence that police had accumulated while surveilling Rader gave them probable cause for a search warrant. Rader’s home, vehicle, church and office were also searched for evidence after the warrant was executed. Also, a search warrant for Rader’s DNA was executed after he was arrested. He was cheek swabbed while in police custody. “Four swabs were taken; two were immediately sent to the county forensic lab and the other two went to the forensic lab in Topeka, Kansas”. 6(pp. 269)
Rader was interviewed by the police in 2005. He talked in the third person as though Dennis Rader was someone else. He ducked questions for many hours. Rader gave away nothing during his interview. He spoke to the detectives as equals, noting that he too was in law enforcement.6
In September 1986, Bill Wegerle was interrogated by the police and suspected of killing his wife Vicki Wegerle. He was given two lie detector tests and “he failed both”.6(pp. 102) He was interrogated for hours and asked a lot of probing questions about his and his wife’s relationship. Wegerle told the police that on his way home from work, he saw his own car ride right by him and he saw someone else driving it but he didn’t think anything of it at the time.16 They mainly wondered how he sat in the house for forty-five minutes before he found her body.6(pp. 101) The police did not believe Bill initially but later contributed him failing both lie detector tests to the stress of a grieving husband.
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Dennis Rader was interrogated by FBI profiler Bob Morton and Wichita Police Lt. Ken Landwehr shortly after his arrest in 2005. He was arrested on February 25, 2005 as a suspect in the BTK killings. He was formally charged with the murders on February 28, 2005.9 It was during this interrogation that Dennis Rader confessed to being the BTK killer. “His 16 hour confession was given in full and of his own free will and recorded on over 20 DVD’s”.9 Rader knew that he was going to kill again and he told the officers who interrogated him this. He was already in the process of stalking his next victim when he was arrested.
Seizure and Analysis of Forensic Evidence
There was a ton of evidence and more than enough to get a conviction once BTK was captured. Due to his sexual perversion, he left semen at most of the locations of his killings. Although BTK wasn’t caught until 3 decades later, the case was never closed and police had evidence stored from all of the crime scenes. Rader stayed in contact with police through the years taunting them and sending them clues that would later be used to catch and convict him. For example, Rader was so pleased with himself after he killed Nancy Fox that he called the police the next morning to gloat about it. “He spoke 15 words during a three-second span of a seven second recording. The audio quality of the call, taped at a slow speed, so was poor it was not released to the public until August 1979. The tape was sent to the Washington DC, FBI laboratory but it was too brief and distorted by background noise to make a comparison voiceprint”.5 This tape was kept as evidence and more than likely presented during Rader’s trial. Semen was found on or near the bodies of his victims Josephine Otero, Shirley Vian and Nancy Fox; all of the semen was matched to Rader. Also, DNA obtained from fingernail scrapings of Vicki Wegerle’s left hand matched Rader’s DNA, eliminating any doubt that he was her murderer.
High tech forensic computer detection was used to get evidence off of the disk Rader mailed to a Wichita television station in February 2005. This is how Rader was caught. Using this high tech computer, residual information left over on the disk identified the last person who had used the disk: someone named “Dennis”. It was also learned that the disk had been used on computers registered to two local organizations, Christ Lutheran Church and Park City Library. An “internet search” on the church’s name provided the name of the congregation’s president: Dennis Rader.14
It’s sad to say that if he had maintained his silence after his last murder in 1991, BTK would still be a free man today, writing citations and catching dogs for the city of Park City. He probably would have never been caught. But his ego was way too big for his own good, and he just had to let everyone know he was still at large. He wanted to taunt the police with the fact that BTK was still on the loose after 3 decades. His cockiness led to his downfall. Had these murders occurred today, I believe that he would have been caught before he got the chance to kill ten people. Today, we have much more advanced technologies than investigators had in the 70’s and ways to gets results faster. Rader left entirely too many clues and had entirely way too much correspondence with the police over the years for them to not have caught him long ago. Some of his murders were way too sloppy and although he had a college education, he didn’t appear to be intelligent enough to outsmart 3 decades worth of police investigators. That is probably the reason why as soon as he re-emerged in 2004, he was caught. Although he planned to kill others, that same year, he never got the chance.
Dennis Rader pled guilty to 10 counts of first degree murder and was found guilty and sentenced on August 18, 2005. He was sentenced to 10 consecutive life terms, which require a minimum of 175 years without a chance of parole. Because Kansas had no death penalty at the time the murders were committed, life imprisonment was the maximum penalty allowed by law. His earliest possible release date is February 26, 2180. Rader, 60, will spend the rest of his life at the maximum-security El Dorado Correctional Facility near Wichita. “Other cold cases in Kansas were reopened to see if Rader’s DNA matched crime scenes, but Rader’s confession was limited to the 10 known victims and police and prosecutors do not believe there were any more victims because of the extensive records and memorabilia he kept on each of his victims”.9
During Rader’s sentencing hearing, the families of the victims were given the chance to give victim impact statements describing how the murders have effected and continues to effect their lives. The families got a chance to speak on behalf of their loved ones who are no longer here because of BTK.
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