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BTK killer: Hiding in plain sight

A former FBI profiler goes inside the mind of BTK suspect Dennis Rader.

We now find that 59-year-old Dennis L. Rader, the man suspected of being the notorious serial killer known as “BTK,” will be charged with at least 10 known murders in the Wichita, Kansas, area from January 1974 to September 1991.  As the death penalty was not reintroduced to Kansas until 1994, should Rader be found guilty of these murders, he would not be eligible for the ultimate sentence. 

Investigative update
The current task facing law enforcement is to confirm the facts and insure their ability to prove Rader guilt of these 10 known murders, as well as to compare the dozens of unsolved murders in the local, state, and surrounding area that took place during at least the past 30 years. 

To do this, they need to compare the background and the known physical evidence related to these crimes to Rader in an attempt to determine if he was responsible for any of these unsolved homicides.  We’re told that he has at least confessed to six murders and should he continuing talking (more likely bragging) to law enforcement, he may well confess to other suspected and unsuspected similar crimes.

BTK’s known victims ranged in age from a 9-year-old boy (strangled with three hoods left over his head when he was murdered with his parents and sister in 1974), to his last known victim, a 62-year old woman who was bound and strangled in 1991.  Other victims were bound, gagged, stabbed, suffocated, and/or strangled or left hanging by the neck from a basement pipe (an 11-year old girl). Two victims were abducted from their homes, with their bodies dumped at other locations.  Every cold homicide case in the area will now need be revisited and compared to Rader/BTK’s MO and the signature aspect of each crime, as well as to the physical evidence gathered at each crime scene.

The mind of a monster
While law enforcement considers that likelihood that Dennis Rader is BTK, others ask what could have happened in his life (or in the life of any person), that would allow him to become such a vicious killer. How could one of four Rader brothers (Dennis being the older), a son of a loving mother and “a tough but decent and strict” father who was a former Marine who died in 1996; a former Boy Scout; a U.S. Air Force veteran; a former home alarm installer; the married father of two grown children; the president of his local church; and, a local sworn code enforcement officer— be connected to these brutal crimes?

When we consider criminals— especially killers, and particularly serial killers— we look for individuals considered to be sociopaths, psychopaths, or antisocial personalities, the title of such a person related to whether you are a cop, a lawyer, or a psychiatrist. No matter the name you give such a person or personality, you are basically talking about the same individual. 

In the case of BTK, how could someone could commit such heinous crimes and still live with himself? 

Let’s go behind the mask and into the mind of a serial killer:

To begin with, you must first consider living life without a functioning conscience. You never experience real concern, real shame, and any feeling of guilt or responsibility for any action that you take.  Society and the people within it are constrained by conscience, but you are not.  Therefore those around you are weak and locked into their politically and socially correct behaviors, but not you.  You can do anything you want to anyone you choose, and your only concern is not getting caught.The pain and suffering of others means nothing to you. You are smart, power hungry, and you love to dominate and control others. You are responsible to no one but yourself, and you are bored easily, therefore you like to take chances and risks and your other special life and personality—one that you’ve successfully hid from those around you, is built on risk taking and out smarting others.  You have read about other serial killers, you have watched all the cop and CSI shows on television and the movies, you know all the right moves, and you could have been a cop, a damn good cop, but you chose otherwise (or you couldn’t get in).If you are employed, you seek a job that gives you power over others, because power is the ultimate drug, and you can’t get enough of it.  In the case of a serial killer, you know that ultimate power is the power of life and death over others, and that’s you.  You take special satisfaction that you are able to carry on your diabolical activities in your same community, even denying your wife and family (also ultimate victims of your nefarious activities) any knowledge of your secret identity.  You wear the mask of society and responsibility well.  It is only when the mask is removed that the killings begin, and you don’t want them to end.  There will be some leakage of your personality though.  You are overconfident to a fault.  Some will believe that you are power hungry, call you a jerk, or believe that you are so scary that they will not want to be around you.  But for others, your mask stays in place—they’ll never guess who you and, and of what you are capable.  It’s your secret alone.Something may eventually be missing in your life though.  What’s missing is the credit, the special attention that you should be due.  After all, who else could have done what you’ve done; who else is as smart and cunning as you?  How do you get the attention that is surely due you after all these years? 

The results of this desire for recognition and attention may well be what drove BTK to re-contact the media and law enforcement after this long period of time.  He couldn’t just retire and buy a small home in Florida and take his secret to the grave, for to do so would deny him the ultimate credit he believed he was due. Thinking himself smarter than all who pursued him, he gave more and more clues to his identity— taunting law enforcement, the media, and his neighbors, until one name rose above all other suspects.

Then we witnessed the arrest of Dennis Rader— husband, father, community official, and now suspected serial killer. Although his local community can now sleep with their lights turned out, they will still lie awake at night wondering why he did what he did, and what makes him different from any of us.

Clint Van Zandt is an MSNBC analyst. He is the founder and president of