In a surprise move, Dennis Rader pleaded guilty Monday to 10 counts of first-degree murder before delivering a chilling matter-of fact account of the BTK slayings that terrorized the city beginning in the 1970s.
Rader, 60, of Park City, entered the guilty pleas as his trial was scheduled to begin Monday.
Referring to his victims as “projects,” Rader laid out for the court how he would “troll” for victims on his off-time, then stalk them and kill them.
“I had never strangled anyone before, so I really didn’t know how much pressure you had to put on a person or how long it would take,” he told the court in describing his first killings in 1974, a couple and two children.
Prosecutors had said before the hearing that no plea deal had been made. Rader was arrested four months ago.
The one-time president of the church council at Christ Lutheran Church and Boy Scout leader, Rader admitted killing 10 people in the Wichita area between 1974 and 1991. The serial killer known as BTK — the self-coined nickname that stands for “Bind, Torture, Kill” — taunted media and police with cryptic messages.
Sentencing was set for Aug. 17. Rader will not face the death penalty because the crimes were committed before the state adopted a new capital punishment law.
Rader, wearing a beige coat and dark tie, told District Judge Gregory Waller that he understood the charges against him and that he was waiving his right to a jury trial.
Rader ‘happy’ with defense
“The defense worked with me real well,” Rader said. “We went over it. I feel like I’m pretty happy with them.”
Asked by Waller if he was pleading because he was guilty, Rader answered, “Yes, sir.”
He then described to the court how he chose his victims.
“If you’ve read much about serial killers, they go through what they call different phases. In the trolling stage, basically, you’re looking for a victim at that time. You can be trolling for months or years, but once you lock in on a certain person, you become a stalker. That might be several of them but you really hone in on one person. They basically become the ... that’s the victim. Or at least that’s what you want it to be.”
One family’s horror
The earliest crimes linked to the BTK strangler date to Jan. 15, 1974, when Joseph Otero, 38, and his 34-year-old wife, Julie, and their 11- and 9-year-old children were found dead in their home.
“The whole family just panicked on me. I worked pretty quick,” he said. “I strangled Mrs. Otero. She passed out. I thought she was dead. I strangled Josephine. She passed out. I thought she was dead. Then I went over and put a bag on Junior’s head.”
He later said about Mrs. Otero: “I went back and strangled her again.”
He later recounted in the same emotionless voice the killings of BTK's next three known victims: Kathryn Bright, 21, in April 1974; Shirley Vian, 24, in March 1977; and Nancy Fox, 25, in December 1977.
He said he told Fox he had “sexual problems,” forced her to strip, then handcuffed her and strangled her with a belt. After she was dead, he said, he removed the handcuffs from her body and masturbated over her.
Victims’ families silent
Victims’ families left the courtroom, escorted by officials into another building, and did not speak to reporters.
Steve Osburn, one of Rader’s defense attorneys, said prosecutors’ evidence against Rader included a confession, DNA and “personal trophies” Rader collected from his victims. “It was a very solid case,” Osburn said.
He said defense attorneys explored an insanity plea but decided not to proceed. “From a legal standpoint, we had nothing to work with,” he said.
Rader did not apologize during the hearing, though Osburn suggested later that Rader may apologize at his sentencing.
“Mr. Rader basically wanted to take responsibility for his actions,” Osburn said.
After the guilty pleas, the Rev. Michael Clark, pastor of Rader’s church, said: “That’s what I hoped he would do.”
After years of silence, the killer resurfaced last year with a letter to The Wichita Eagle that included photos of the 1986 strangulation of Vicki Wegerle and a photocopy of her missing driver’s license. Her case had not been linked to BTK until then.
The messages became increasingly frequent in the months before Rader’s arrest on Feb. 25.
Cryptic messages and packages
That letter was followed by several other cryptic messages and packages. The break in the case came after a computer diskette the killer had sent was traced to Rader’s church.
Rader also is charged with the killings of Marine Hedge, 53, who was abducted from her Park City home on April 27, 1985, and found dead along a dirt road eight days later, and Dolores Davis, 62, who was abducted from her Park City home Jan. 19, 1991. Those deaths were not linked to BTK until Rader’s arrest.
Rader had called the Wichita area home almost his entire life, earning a criminal justice degree at a local university. He worked in suburban Park City as a compliance officer, handling code violations and stray dogs. He had been married for 34 years and has two grown children.
It was only last month that Rader was arraigned, standing mute as Waller entered a not guilty plea on his behalf.
Most observers had expected the trial to be postponed given the complexity of the 10-count, first-degree murder case. Getting a continuance would have been easy; all it usually takes in Sedgwick County is a call to the prosecutors and scheduling clerk rather than a formal motion, Pratt said.