The Smithsonian Channel series: Catching Killers have created an informative video to show when BTK started killing, using DNA evidence wasn’t the norm. But 20 years later, tiny traces of DNA left on his first victims could be enough to bring him to justice.
Born in 1945 in Pittsburg, Kansas, Dennis Rader committed his first murders in 1974, strangling four members of the Otero family in their home. Later that year he began seeking fame for his killings, writing letters and reporting his crimes. His final crime was in 1991, but he resurfaced in 2004 and again sought media attention. This eventually led to his arrest. He pled guilty and was ordered to serve 10 life sentences in prison.
Dennis Lynn Rader was born on March 9, 1945, in Pittsburg, Kansas. From the 1970s to the 1990s, the “BTK Killer”—which stands for “bind, torture, and kill”—terrorized the Wichita, Kansas area. In 2005, he was finally caught and revealed to be Dennis Rader, a seemingly average married father of two.The oldest of four sons, Rader grew up in Wichita, Kansas. There may have been signs of trouble early on as a Los Angeles Times report stated that he used to hang stray cats as a child. Rader served in the U.S. Air Force from the mid to late 1960s. He married his wife Paula in 1971 and worked for a camping gear company for a few years. He went to work for ADT Security Services in 1974.That same year, Rader committed his first crime. On January 15, 1974, Rader killed four members of the Otero family in their home—Joseph and Julie Otero and two of their children, Josephine and Joseph Jr. They died by strangulation, and Rader took a watch and a radio from the home. Strangulation and taking souvenirs would become part of his modus operandi, or pattern of behavior. He also left semen at the scene and later said that he derived sexual pleasure from killing. The Oteros’ 15-year-old son, Charlie, came home later that day and discovered the bodies.
The BTK Killer struck again a few months later. Waiting in their apartment on April 4, 1974, Rader killed Kathryn Bright by stabbing and strangling, and attempted to kill her brother, Kevin. Kevin was shot twice, but survived. He described Rader as “an average-sized guy, bushy mustache, ‘psychotic’ eyes,” according to a TIME magazine article.
Desire for Fame
In October 1974, Rader sought fame and attention for his crimes, placing a letter in a public library book in which he took responsibility for killing the Oteros. The letter ended up with a local newspaper, and the poorly written note gave authorities some idea of who they were dealing with. Rader wrote, “It’s hard to control myself. You probably call me ‘psychotic with sexual perversion hang-up.'” He went on to describe the urge to kill as a monster inside him, but he clearly wanted to control his image: He requested to be called the “BTK Strangler,” explaining that BTK stands for “bind them, torture them, kill them.”Rader’s next known crimes occurred in 1977. In March of that year, he tied up and strangled Shirley Vian after locking her children in the bathroom. Rader’s desire for attention led him to report his next crime himself. On December 8, 1977, he strangled Nancy Fox in her home and then called the police to tell them about the homicide. Shortly after Fox’s murder, Rader sent a poem to a local newspaper about the Vian killing in January 1978. Several weeks later, he sent a letter to a local television station stating that he was responsible for killing Vian, Fox, and another unknown victim. He also made allusions to several other notorious killers, including Ted Bundy and David Berkowitz, also known as the “Son of Sam.”
Despite his cat-and-mouse game with authorities, Rader was able to keep the lid on his secret, murderous life. He continued to work at ADT. On the surface, Rader was reportedly an attentive husband and father. He and his wife had their first child, a son, in 1975 and a daughter in 1978. The next year, Rader graduated from Wichita State University with a degree in administration of justice. Still he continued to taunt authorities and appeared to be poised to strike again.In April 1979, Rader waited in an elderly woman’s home, but he left before she came home. He sent her a letter to let her know that the BTK Killer had been there. In an effort to catch him, the authorities released the 1977 recording of the phone call to police, hoping that someone might recognize the voice.After several years without a known crime, Rader killed his neighbor Marine Hedge on April 27, 1985. Her body was found days later on the side of the road. The next year, he killed Vicki Wegerle in her home in September. His final known victim, Dolores Davis, was taken from her home on January 19, 1991.
Arrest and Imprisonment
It is not known why Rader seemed to stop killing. He had left ADT in the late 1980s and started working as a Park City compliance supervisor in 1991. In his new position, Rader was known to be a stickler for the rules. He measured the height of people’s lawns and chased stray animals while toting a tranquilizer gun. According to reports, Rader took pleasure in exerting his limited authority over his neighbors and other members of the community. He was also a Boy Scout troop leader and an active member of his church.With many news stories marking the thirtieth anniversary of the Otero murders, the BTK Killer resurfaced in 2004. Rader sent local media outlets and authorities a number of letters. These were filled with items related to his crimes, including pictures of one of the victims, a word puzzle, and an outline for the “BTK Story.” During 2004 and 2005, he also left packages with more clues around, including a computer disk. That disk helped lead authorities to Rader’s church. They also noticed his white van on security tapes of some of the package drop-off areas. Authorities were also able to obtain a DNA sample from Rader’s daughter, which helped cement their case against him.Rader was arrested on February 25, 2005, and later charged with 10 counts of first-degree murder. Some neighbors and members of his church, where he served as president of the church council, were stunned by the news and could not believe that the man they knew was the serial killer that had haunted the area for so long.
To the surprise of many, Rader pled guilty to all of the charges on June 27, 2005. As part of his plea, he gave the horrifying details of his crimes in court. Many observers noted that he described the gruesome events without any sign of remorse or emotion. He escaped the death penalty because he committed his crimes before the state’s 1994 reinstatement of the death penalty. Rader is currently serving 10 life sentences in a Kansas prison.