For more than 30 years, he terrorized the Wichita, Kan., area, killing at least 10 people and taunting police and local media from 1974 until earlier this year. In June, Dennis Rader stood in court and confessed to being the BTK killer. On Wednesday, a Kansas judge began hearings to determine his sentence.
As Rader calmly described that day in June how he chose, tracked and killed his victims, many people were asking the same thing: How could this man be the cold-blooded murderer who had eluded police for so long?
Rader was married in 1971, three years before the first murders (His wife, Paula, was granted an emergency divorce in July). The killings and taunting letters to the police and media continued as his two children were born. He was president of his church and a leader in his son’s Cub Scout troop.
Before the murders of the Otero family in 1974, Rader spent four years in the Air Force and a brief stint at the Coleman Co. His first two adult victims also worked at Coleman. He held positions at a security services company, installing alarm systems during his tenure there from 1974 to 1988. From 1991 until he was taken into custody earlier this year, he worked as a compliance officer in his hometown of Park City, Kan.
Although some neighbors and acquaintances described him as rude and arrogant, Rader was able to keep his murderous side secret. No one said they suspected him of any criminal activity.
Serial killer personality
MSNBC analyst and former FBI profiler Clint Van Zandt describes Rader as, “someone who has no conscience, no guilt, someone who takes no responsibility for his actions.” These are the characteristics of antisocial personality disorder or the more severe psychopathic personality disorder.
According to J. Reid Meloy, a forensic psychologist who has written extensively on criminal behavior, antisocial personality disorder affects around 2 percent to 5 percent of the population. Only about 1 percent of the population can be described as having psychopathic personality disorder. “They tend to be very cruel and aggressive, detached, grandiose (they have a very high opinion of themselves), chronically manipulative and often have histories of criminal behavior,” Meloy said. Many are highly socialized and are able to keep their psychopathic personalities separate from their public daily lives, Meloy said. He added that they often try to get into positions of authority.
Desire for recognition
As the years passed and leads grew cold, Rader continued working right under the noses of the investigators who were looking for him.
"He wanted credit for the killings," Van Zandt said, explaining the letters, poems and clues Rader sent over the years. "He wanted people to know who BTK was. He wanted to unveil his ultimate personality," Van Zandt added.
His desire for recognition may explain why he suddenly resumed contact with the media and police in 2004, 25 years after the last official communication from BTK — the nickname he gave himself, short for “Bind, Torture, Kill.” Wichita resident and lawyer Robert Beattie was preparing to release the book "Nightmare in Wichita: The Hunt for the BTK Strangler." "He (Rader) knew the book was coming out. He wanted to sell it, to sell himself as BTK, to be back in the spotlight," Van Zandt said. Also, contact in 2004 began just two months after local newspapers and television stations marked the 30th anniversary of the first murders.
Compulsion or choice?
After his capture, Rader said he couldn’t control himself. He blamed his behavior on “demons” or “Factor X.” He also claimed to have been dropped on his head as a child. Was Rader able to control himself, or was he controlled by an insane compulsion at the time of the murders? “Insanity in criminal cases is usually defined by the inability to understand the wrongfulness of the crime,” Meloy said.
"Serial killers tend to know what they're doing. They'll try to pin it on a compulsion, but they are very careful about choosing their victims and the situation," Meloy said. The planning and execution of the crime make for a difficult insanity plea, he added. "Would BTK have killed if there was a cop standing in the room? No," said Meloy.
Van Zandt says he doesn't believe Rader wanted to be caught. "He was so used to getting away, literally, with murder that he thought, 'They're never going to catch me,'" Van Zandt said. Eventually, however, technology did catch up with him. A disk sent to a TV station containing a letter from BTK was traced to the computer at Rader's church.
Proud of his work
But who is the real Dennis Rader? Was the outward life he built an attempt to quiet those inner demons? Meloy doesn't think so. He said he believes BTK is the real persona and Dennis Rader — family man, church leader, compliance officer — is the mask. He added that seeing through that facade is impossible. "These guys are so good at lying, there's no real way to spot them," Meloy said. "But worrying about whether you have a serial killer living next door is unrealistic. Psychopaths like the BTK killer are extremely rare."
Attention is something that Rader obviously wanted from the beginning. And now, as he sits in jail awaiting sentence, he’s getting more than ever. “I think he’ll revel in this for the rest of his life,” Van Zandt said. “He will wear 'BTK killer' like a medal of honor. I think he’s proud of what he’s done and how he got away with it for so long,” he added.
“He wanted a reputation. These guys hunger for notoriety. They tend to follow the (crime) literature and have knowledge of other serial murderers,” Meloy said. "The biggest favor we can do for BTK is to give him publicity. That's exactly what he wants."