Dennis Lynn Rader (born March 9, 1945) is an American serial killer who murdered 10 people in Sedgwick County (in and around Wichita, Kansas), between 1974 and 1991. He was known as the BTK killer (or the BTK strangler), which stands for “bind, torture and kill” and describes his modus operandi. He sent boastful letters describing the details of the killings to police and to local news outlets during the period of time in which the murders took place. After a long hiatus in the 1990s, he resumed sending letters in 2004, leading to his 2005 arrest and subsequent conviction.
Rader is the eldest of four sons born to William Elvin Rader and Dorothea Mae Cook. Though born in Pittsburg, Kansas, he grew up in Wichita, attended Riverview School, and later graduated from Wichita Heights High School. In 1957, he was confirmed into the Zion Lutheran Church.
According to several reports, including his own confessions, as a child he tortured animals, one of the warning signs in the MacDonald triad. He also harbored a sexual fetish for women’s underwear, he would later steal panties from his victims and wear them himself.
Rader attended Kansas Wesleyan University from 1965 to 1966. He subsequently spent four years (1966-1970) in the U.S. Air Force, stationed in Texas, Alabama, Okinawa, South Korea, Greece and Turkey.
When he returned to the United States, he moved to Park City, a suburb located seven miles north of Wichita. He worked for a time in the meat department of Leekers IGA supermarket in Park City alongside his mother, a bookkeeper for the store.
Rader attended Butler County Community College in El Dorado, earning an associate’s degree in Electronics in 1973. He enrolled at Wichita State University that same fall. He graduated from there in 1979 with a bachelor’s degree in Administration of Justice. He married Paula Dietz, on May 22, 1971, and they had one son and one daughter.
From 1972 to 1973, Rader worked as an assembler for the Coleman Company, a camping gear firm, as had two of his early victims. He then worked for a short time for Cessna, in 1973. From November 1974 until being fired in July 1988, Rader worked at a Wichita-based office of ADT Security Services, a company that sold and installed alarm systems for commercial businesses during Rader’s years there. He held several positions, including installation manager. It was believed that he learned how to defeat home security systems while there.
Rader was a census field operations supervisor for the Wichita area in 1989, prior to the 1990 federal census.
In 1991 Rader was hired to be supervisor of the Compliance Department at Park City, a two-employee, multi-functional department in charge of “animal control, housing problems, zoning, general permit enforcement and a variety of nuisance cases.” In this position, neighbors recalled him as sometimes overzealous and extremely strict; one neighbor complained that he euthanized her dog for no reason. On March 2, 2005, the Park City council terminated Rader’s employment for failure to report to work or to call in; he had been arrested for the murders five days earlier.
Rader served on both the Sedgwick County’s Board of Zoning Appeals and the Animal Control Advisory Board (appointed in 1996 and resigned in 1998). He was also a member of Christ Lutheran Church, a Lutheran congregation of about 200 people, near his former high school. He had been a member for about 30 years and had been elected president of the Congregation Council. He was also a Cub Scout leader. His son became an Eagle Scout. On July 27, 2005, after Rader’s arrest, Sedgwick County District Judge Eric Yost waived the usual 60-day waiting period and granted an immediate divorce for his wife, agreeing that her mental health was in danger. Rader did not contest the divorce, and the 33-year marriage was ended. Paula Rader said in her divorce petition that her mental and physical condition has been adversely affected by the marriage.
January 15, 1974: Four members of the Otero family
Julie Otero, Joseph’s wife
Joseph Otero II, son
Josephine Otero, daughter
April 4, 1974: Kathryn Bright (he also shot Bright’s brother, Kevin, twice, but he survived)
March 17, 1977: Shirley Vian
December 8, 1977: Nancy Fox
April 27, 1985: Marine Hedge
September 16, 1986: Vicki Wegerle
January 19, 1991: Dolores Davis
He collected items from the scenes of the murders he committed and, reportedly, he had no items that were related to any other killings. He did have other intended victims, notably Anna Williams, 63, who in 1979 escaped death by returning home much later than he expected. Rader explained during his confession that he had become obsessed with Williams and was “absolutely livid” when she evaded him. Rader spent hours waiting in her home but became impatient and left when she did not return home from visiting friends
Rader had stalked two women in the 1980s and one in the mid-1990s. They filed restraining orders against him and one moved away.
Rader also admitted in his interrogation that he was planning to kill again. He had even set a date, October 2004, and was stalking his intended victim.
Arrest and conviction
By 2004, the investigation of the BTK Killer had gone cold. Then, Rader sent a letter to the police, claiming responsibility for a killing that had previously not been attributed to him. DNA collected from under the fingernails of that victim provided police with previously unknown evidence. They then began DNA testing hundreds of men in an effort to find the serial killer. Altogether, some 1100 DNA samples would be taken.
The police corresponded with the BTK Killer (Rader) in an effort to gain his confidence. Then, in one of his communications with police, Rader asked them if it was possible to trace information from floppy disks. The police department replied that there was no way of knowing what computer such a disk had been used on, when in fact such ways existed. Rader then sent his message and floppy to the police department, which quickly checked the metadata of the Microsoft Word document. In the metadata, they found that the document had been made by a man who called himself Dennis. They also found a link to the Lutheran Church. When the police searched on the Internet for ‘Lutheran Church Wichita Dennis’, they found his family name, and were able to identify a suspect: Dennis Rader, a Lutheran Deacon. The police also knew BTK owned a black Jeep Cherokee. When investigators drove by Rader’s house they noticed a black Jeep Cherokee parked outside.
The police now had strong circumstantial evidence against Rader, but they needed more direct evidence in order to detain him. They controversially obtained a warrant to test the DNA of a Pap smear Rader’s daughter had taken at the University of Kansas medical clinic while she was a student there. The DNA of the Pap smear was a near match to the DNA of the sample taken from the victim’s fingernails indicating that the killer was closely related to Rader’s daughter. This was the evidence the police needed to make an arrest
On February 25, 2005, Rader was detained near his home in Park City and accused of the BTK killings. At a press conference the next morning, Wichita Police Chief Norman Williams announced, “the bottom line… BTK is arrested.” Rader pleaded guilty to the murders on June 27, 2005, giving a graphic account of his crimes in court.
On August 18, 2005, he was sentenced to serve 10 consecutive life sentences, one life sentence per murder victim. This included nine life sentences that each had the possibility of parole after 15 years, and one life sentence with the possibility of parole after 40 years. It meant that, in total, Rader would be eligible for parole after 175 years of imprisonment. This result guaranteed that Rader would spend the rest of his life in prison, without any possibility of parole.
Rader was ineligible for the death penalty, because Kansas did not have a death penalty during the period of time in which he committed his crimes. Kansas reinstated death penalty laws in 1994.
Rader was particularly known for sending taunting letters to police and newspapers. There were several communications from BTK from 1974 to 1979. The first was a letter that had been stashed in an engineering book in the Wichita Public Library in October 1974 that described in detail the killing of the Otero family in January of that year.
In early 1978, he sent another letter to television station KAKE in Wichita, claiming responsibility for the murders of the Oteros, Shirley Vian, Nancy Fox and another unidentified victim assumed to be Kathryn Bright (not identified because her brother survived and could have identified him). He suggested a number of possible names for himself, including the one that stuck: BTK. He demanded media attention in this second letter, and it was finally announced that Wichita did indeed have a serial killer at large. A poem was enclosed entitled “Oh! Death to Nancy,” a botched version of the lyrics of the American folk song “Oh Death.”
In 1979 he sent two identical packages, one to an intended victim who was not at home when he broke into her house and the other to KAKE. These featured another poem, “Oh Anna Why Didn’t You Appear”, a drawing of what he had intended to do to his victim, as well as some small items he had pilfered from Williams’ home. Apparently, Rader had waited for several hours inside the home of Anna Williams, but left when she did not come home until later.
In 1988, after the murders of three members of the Fager family in Wichita, a letter was received from someone claiming to be the BTK killer in which he denied being the perpetrator of this crime. He did credit the killer with having done “admirable work”. It was not proven until 2005 that this letter was in fact written by the genuine BTK killer (Rader), although he is not considered by police to have committed this crime
In March 2004, a series of 11 communications from BTK (Rader) to the local media led directly to his arrest in February 2005. The Wichita Eagle received a letter from someone using the return address Bill Thomas Killman.
The author of the letter claimed that he had murdered Vicki Wegerle on September 16, 1986, and enclosed photographs of the crime scene and a photocopy of her driver’s license, which had been stolen at the time of the crime. Prior to this, it had not been definitively established that Wegerle was killed by BTK (Rader).
In May 2004, a word puzzle was received by KAKE. On June 9, 2004, a package was found taped to a stop sign at the corner of First and Kansas in Wichita, containing graphic descriptions of the Otero murders and a sketch labeled, “The Sexual Thrill Is My Bill.” Also enclosed was a chapter list for a proposed book entitled “The BTK Story,” which mimicked a story written in 1999 by Court TV (now truTV) crime writer David Lohr. Chapter One was entitled, “A Serial Killer Is Born.”.
In July, a package was dropped into the return slot at the downtown public library containing more bizarre material, including the claim that he was responsible for the death of 19-year-old Jake Allen in Argonia, Kansas earlier that same month. This claim was found to be false and the death has been ruled a suicide.
In October 2004, a manila envelope was dropped into a UPS box in Wichita containing a series of cards with images of terror and bondage of children pasted on them. Also included was a poem threatening the life of lead investigator Lt. Ken Landwehr and a false autobiography containing many details about Rader’s life. These details were later released to the public.
In December 2004, Wichita police received another package from the BTK killer. This time the package was found in Wichita’s Murdock Park. It contained the driver’s license of Nancy Fox, which was noted as stolen from the crime scene, as well as a doll that was symbolically bound at the hands and feet with a plastic bag tied over its head.
In January 2005, Rader attempted to leave a cereal box in the bed of a pickup truck at a Home Depot in Wichita, but the box was at first discarded by the owner. It was later retrieved from the trash after Rader himself asked what had become of it in a later message. Surveillance tape of the parking lot from that date revealed a distant figure driving a black Jeep Cherokee leaving the box in the pickup.
In February, more postcards were sent to KAKE, and another cereal box left at a rural location that contained another bound doll, apparently meant to symbolize the murder of 11-year-old Josephine Otero. In his letters to police, Rader asked if his writings, if put on a floppy disk, could be traced or not. The police answered his question via a newspaper ad posted in the Wichita Eagle saying it would be OK to use the disk.
On February 16, 2005 he sent a floppy disk to Fox TV station KSAS in Wichita. Forensic analysis quickly determined that the disk had been used by the Christ Lutheran Church in Wichita, as well as a reference to the name “Dennis”. An internet search determined that a “Dennis Rader” was president of the church council. He was arrested on February 25.
The following is purportedly the text of a 1978 letter, including spelling and grammatical errors:
I find the newspaper not writing about the poem on Vain unamusing. A little paragraph would have enough. Iknow it not the media fault. The Police Cheif he keep things quiet, and doesn’t let the public know there a psycho running around lose strangling mostly women, there 7 in the ground; who will be next?
How many do I have to Kill before I get a name in the paper or some national attention. Do the cop think that all those deaths are not related? Golly -gee, yes the M.O. is different in each, but look a pattern is developing. The victims are tie up-most have been women-phone cut- bring some bondage mater sadist tendencies-no struggle, outside the death spot-no wintness except the Vain’s Kids. They were very lucky; a phone call save them. I was go-ng to tape the boys and put plastics bag over there head like I did Joseph, and Shirley. And then hang the girl. God-oh God what a beautiful sexual relief that would been. Josephine,when I hung her really turn me on; her pleading for mercy then the rope took whole, she helpless; staring at me with wide terror fill eyes the rope getting tighter-tighter. You don’t understand these things because your not underthe influence of factor x). The same thing that made Son of Sam, Jack the Ripper, Havery Glatman, Boston Strangler, Dr. H. H. Holmes Panty Hose Strangler OF Florida, Hillside Strangler, Ted of the West Coast and many more infamous character kill. Which seem s senseless, but we cannot help it. There is no help, no cure, except death or being caught and put away. It a terrible nightmarebut, you see I don’t lose any sleep over it. After a thing like Fox I ccome home and go about life like anyone else. And I will be like that until the urge hit me again. It not continuous and I don;t have a lot of time. It take time to set a kill, one mistake and it all over. Since I about blew it on the phone-handwriting is out-letter guide is to long and typewriter can be traced too,.My short poem of death and maybe a drawing;later on real picture and maybe a tape of the sound will come your way. How will you know me. Before a murder or murders you will receive a copy of the initials B.T.K. , you keep that copy the original will show up some day on guess who? May you not be the unluck one!
How about some name for me, its time: 7 down and many more to go. I like the following How about you? ‘THE B.T.K. STRANGLER’, WICHITA STRANGLER’, ‘POETIC STRANGLER’, ‘THE BOND AGE STRANGLER’ OR PSYCHO’ THE WICHITA HANGMAN THE WICHITA EXECUTIONER, ‘THE GAROTE PHATHOM’, ‘THE ASPHIXIATER’.
The BTK killer’s last known communication with the media and police was a padded envelope which arrived at FOX affiliate KSAS-TV in Wichita on February 16, 2005. A purple, 1.44-MB Memorex floppy disk was enclosed in the package. Also enclosed were a letter, a photocopy of the cover of a 1989 novel about a serial killer (Rules of Prey) and a gold-colored necklace with a large medallion.
Police found metadata embedded in a deleted Microsoft Word document that was, unbeknownst to Rader, still on the disk. The metadata, recovered using the forensic software EnCase, contained “Christ Lutheran Church”, and the document was marked as last modified by “Dennis”. A search of the church website turned up Dennis Rader as president of the congregation council. Police began surveillance of Rader.
Sometime during this period, police obtained a warrant for the medical records of Rader’s daughter. A tissue sample seized at this time was tested for DNA and provided a familial match with semen collected at an earlier BTK crime scene. This, along with other evidence gathered prior to and during the surveillance, gave police probable cause for an arrest.
Rader was stopped while driving near his home and taken into custody shortly after noon on February 25, 2005. Immediately after, law enforcement officials, including a Wichita Police bomb unit truck, two SWAT trucks, and KBI, FBI and ATF agents, converged on Rader’s residence near the intersection of I-135 and 61st Street North. Once in handcuffs, he was asked by an officer, “Mr. Rader, do you know why you’re going downtown?” to which he replied, “Oh, I have my suspicions, why?” Police searched Rader’s home and vehicle collecting evidence, including: computer equipment, a pair of black pantyhose retrieved from a shed, and a cylindrical container. The church he attended, his office at City Hall and the main branch of the Park City library were also searched that day. Officers were seen removing a computer from his City Hall office, but it is unclear if any evidence was found at these locations.
After his arrest, Rader talked to the police for several hours. He stated he chose to resurface in 2004 for various reasons, including David Lohr’s feature story on the case and the release of the book Nightmare in Wichita: The Hunt for the BTK Strangler by Robert Beattie. He wanted the opportunity to tell his story his own way. He also said he was bored because his children had grown up and he had more time on his hands.
On February 26, 2005, The Wichita Police Department announced in a press conference that they were holding Rader as the prime suspect in the BTK killings,
Rader was formally charged with the murders on February 28, 2005.
Kansas reinstated the death penalty in 1994. The last known BTK killing was in 1991, making all known BTK murders ineligible for the death penalty. Even if later murders are linked to the BTK killer, it was originally unclear whether the death penalty would come into play, as the Kansas Supreme Court declared the state’s capital punishment law unconstitutional on December 17, 2004. That ruling from the Kansas Supreme Court, however, was reversed by the United States Supreme Court on June 26, 2006 in the case of Kansas v. Marsh, and the Kansas death penalty statute was upheld. The Sunday after his arrest, Associated Press cited an anonymous source that Rader had confessed to other murders in addition to the ones with which he was already connected.
When asked about the reported confessions, Sedgwick County District Attorney Nola Foulston said “Your information is patently false”, but she refused to say whether Rader had made any confessions or whether investigators were looking into Rader’s possible involvement in more unsolved killings.
On March 5, news sources claimed to have verified by multiple sources that Rader had confessed to the 10 murders he was charged with, but no additional ones.
On February 28, 2005, Rader was formally charged with 10 counts of first degree murder. He made his first appearance via videoconference from jail. He was represented by a public defender. Bail was continued at $10 million.
On May 3, District Court Judge Gregory Waller entered not guilty pleas to the 10 charges on Rader’s behalf, as Rader did not speak at his arraignment.
On June 27, the scheduled trial date, Rader changed his plea to guilty. He unemotionally described the murders in detail, and made no apologies.
On August 18, Rader faced sentencing. Victims’ families made statements, followed by Rader, who apologized for the crimes. He was sentenced to 10 consecutive life terms, which requires 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.
On August 19, Rader was moved from the Sedgwick County Jail to the El Dorado Correctional Facility, a Kansas state prison, to begin serving his life sentence as inmate #0083707 with an earliest possible release date of February 26, 2180.
According to witnesses, while travelling the 40-minute drive from Wichita to El Dorado, Rader talked about innocuous topics such as the weather, but began to cry when the victims’ families’ statements from the court proceedings came on the radio. Rader is now being held in the EDCF Special Management unit, also known as solitary confinement, for “the inmate’s own protection”, a designation he most likely will retain for the remainder of his incarceration. He is confined to the cell 23 hours a day with the exception of voluntary solo one-hour exercise yard time, and access to the shower three times per week.
Beginning April 23, 2006, having reached “Incentive Level Two”, Rader has been allowed to purchase and watch television, purchase and listen to the radio, receive and read magazines, and have other privileges for good behavior. The victims’ families disagreed with this decision.
According to Rader’s record in the Kansas Department of Corrections database, he had a Class Two disciplinary report concerning “mail” on April 10, 2006.
Police in Wichita, Park City, and several surrounding cities are looking into unsolved cases before, during, and after 1974 and 1991 in cooperation with the state police and the FBI. In particular they are focusing on cases after 1994 when the death penalty was reinstated in Kansas. Moreover police in surrounding states such as Missouri and Oklahoma are also investigating cold cases which fit Rader’s pattern.
The FBI, Air Patrol, and local jurisdictions at Rader’s former duty stations are checking into unsolved cases during Rader’s time in the service. As of November 2009, no other murders have been discovered that can be attributed to Rader.
Evidence pertaining to the murders
Because Rader did not contest his guilt, most evidence was not tested in court. However, physical and circumstantial facts that would have corroborated Rader as the BTK killer include:
DNA analysis of BTK’s semen and material taken from underneath the fingernails of victim Vicki Wegerle match the DNA profile of Dennis Rader.
Rader’s grammar and writing style matches letters and poems received from BTK, though none of his communications were handwritten, but typed, stenciled, stamped with a stamp set or computer generated.
A pay phone that the killer used to report a murder in 1977 was located a few blocks from ADT Security (Rader’s workplace at the time).
Rader had attended Wichita State University in the 1970s. Wichita Police Detective Arlyn G. Smith II and his partner George Scantlin traced BTK’s photocopied communications to two photocopy machines, one at Wichita State University and a second copier at the Wichita Public Library. BTK murder victim Kathryn Bright’s brother Kevin, who was shot twice by BTK, reported that the killer had asked him if he had seen him at the university. A poem in one of the killer’s letters was similar to a folk song taught by a professor on that campus in that time period, though Rader himself dismissed any connection.
Rader lived on the same street as Marine Hedge, just houses away. The BTK killer’s other victims were in and around central Wichita, except for his final victim Dolores (Dee) Davis, who lived a half-mile east of Park City.
Two of the victims (Julie Otero and Kathryn Bright) worked at the Coleman Company, though not during the same period that Rader worked there. Rader worked at Coleman only a short time and not at the same location as the victims.
Rader’s 16 plus hour confession, given fully and freely after receiving multiple Miranda warnings and recorded on over 20 DVDs, in which he alluded to all 10 known murders in remarkable (and grisly) detail.
Semen found on Josephine Otero or near the bodies of his victims Josephine Otero, Shirley Vian and Nancy Fox was critical evidence linking Rader to the crimes, and DNA obtained from fingernail scrapings of Vicki Wegerle’s left hand matched Rader’s DNA, eliminating any doubt that he was her murderer. Rader also sent trophies to police in his letters, and others were discovered in his office. 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
Post-arrest notoriety and profit
On July 22, 2005, a controversy erupted on CNN’s Nancy Grace show over a poem that Dennis Rader had written that was passed on to someone who then sold it on an auction site that specializes in serial killer memorabilia. The poem was titled “Black Friday”, an ode to the day he was arrested. The poem expressed Rader’s unhappiness about being caught, with one of the verses proclaiming, “The dark side of me has been exposed.”
On August 12, 2005, Dateline NBC aired Confessions of BTK.
Massachusetts psychologist Robert Mendoza was hired by Rader’s court-appointed public defenders to conduct an interview after he pleaded guilty on June 27. NBC claimed Rader knew the interview might be on TV, but that was a false statement according to the Sedgwick County Sheriff’s department. Rader mentioned the interview during his sentencing statement.
On October 25, 2005, the Kansas Attorney General filed a petition to sue Robert Mendoza and Tali Waters, co-owners of Cambridge Forensic Consultants, LLC, for breach of contract, claiming they intended to benefit financially from the use of information obtained from involvement in Rader’s defense. On May 10, 2007, Mendoza settled the case for $30,000 with no admission of wrongdoing. The Kansas Attorney General’s office arranged for the settlement money to be distributed to families of the victims.