Few cases in recent memory send a chill down the spine quite like the crimes of Dennis Rader, the serial killer next door better known as the BTK killer. A family man, church council president, and scout leader, Rader led a double life in the Wichita, Kansas area as a depraved sadist and murderer, claiming ten known victims between 1974 and 1991. For decades, he eluded capture, taunting authorities and the media with letters that outlined his brutal acts. It wasn’t until early 2005, in the wake of the 30th anniversary of his first murder, that Rader’s mocking habits backfired—and led to his arrest.
The Early Life of Dennis Rader
Dennis Lynn Rader was born on March 9, 1945, in Pittsburg, Kansas and raised in Wichita. He is the oldest of four boys born to Dorothea Mae and William Elvin Rader. By all accounts, young Dennis enjoyed a typical upbringing in the American heartland—though he would later admit to torturing and killing animals as a boy.
Rader graduated from Wichita Heights High School in 1963. After a brief stint at college, he joined the U.S. Air Force in 1966, serving four years before his discharge in 1970.
Afterward, Rader returned to Wichita. In May 1971, he married Paula Dietz, a twenty-three-year-old woman who had graduated from Wichita Heights High School. The newlyweds settled in Park City, a suburb just ten miles north of downtown Wichita, and set about building a life together.
In the fall of 1971, Rader enrolled at Butler County Community College in El Dorado, studying electronics. He found assembly line work at the Coleman Company constructing heating and cooling units. After earning his associate’s degree in 1973, he began taking classes at Wichita State University. His major? Administration of justice.
But brutality lurked behind the honest façade.
1974: The First BTK Murders
On the morning of January 15, 1974, Dennis Rader, just shy of his 29th birthday, murdered four members of the Otero family in their Wichita home. Joseph Otero, 38, a retired Air Force officer, Julie Otero, 34, a former Coleman employee, and their son Joseph II, 9, were bound and strangled to death in an upstairs bedroom. Daughter Josephine, 11, was found hanged from a pipe in the basement. Rader masturbated in the basement, leaving behind DNA evidence that would later link him to the crime scene. He then pocketed a few souvenirs—a watch, a radio—and left the Otero household. Later that afternoon, 15-year-old Charlie Otero returned home from school and found the bodies of his murdered family.
The Otero slayings shocked the Wichita community. And just three months later, Rader killed again. On April 4, 1974, he broke into the residence of 21-year-old Kathryn Bright, another former Coleman employee. Rader expected only Kathryn to return home that afternoon—but Kathryn’s brother Kevin was with her. Armed with a gun, Rader ordered Kevin to tie up his sister. He then took Kevin to a separate room and bound and gagged him. But when Rader tried to strangle Kevin, Kevin broke free and fought back. In the ensuing struggle, Rader twice shot Kevin (a third shot grazed his skin). Kevin collapsed to the floor. Rader presumed the man dead; in fact, Kevin was pretending to be dead and soon escaped the house to get help. Meanwhile, Rader returned to Kathryn. He stabbed her multiple times in the abdomen and then fled the scene.
Kathryn Bright later died from her wounds at the hospital. Amazingly, Kevin survived the assault, and is the only known person to have survived a BTK attack.
"Waiting in the dark…" - The First BTK Letter
Wichita authorities searched for clues in the wake of the Otero family and Kathryn Bright slayings. Then, in October 1974, an alarming letter surfaced. Originally tucked inside a book at Wichita's downtown public library, the letter soon made its way into the hands of journalists and police. Typewritten and riddled with errors, the letter’s author took credit for the Otero slayings, revealing details that only the killer could have known. He threatened that he was "waiting in the dark, waiting, waiting," and claimed he had already selected his next victim. The author then signed off—"Yours, Truly Guiltily"—with the following postscript: "The code words for me will be Bind them, torture them, kill them, B.T.K."
It was the first of Rader’s taunting missives to the public, and the first appearance of his self-appointed nickname. The sobriquet would stick.
1975 - 1978: BTK Goes Quiet and then Kills Again
After claiming five lives in 1974, Rader went quiet for three years. He and Paula had their first child, a boy, in 1975. Rader also began work at ADT Security Services, a security and alarms systems company that serviced homes throughout the Wichita area. Rader would keep the job for well over a decade.
In 1977, however, Rader claimed more lives. On March 17, he entered the home of twenty-six-year-old Shirley Vian. Vian’s three young children were present at the time. Rader ordered the children into the bathroom, and secured the door. He then bound their mother and strangled her to death with a rope. On December 8, 1977, Rader broke into the home of twenty-five-year old Nancy Fox and strangled her to death with a belt. Not long after killing her, Rader called 911, reporting the crime he just committed.
Related: 16 Crazy Facts About Serial Killers
The taunting letters escalated as well. In January 1978, The Wichita Eagle-Beacon received a poem modeled after a nursery rhyme that referred to the murder of Shirley Vian. In early February 1978, Wichita station KAKE-TV received a mailing from BTK that included a poem called "Oh! Death to Nancy" and a rambling letter wherein the killer claimed responsibility for a number of his murders, namechecked other serial killers, and menacingly asked how many more people he’d have to kill before he received national attention.
The threat had its intended effect. On the evening of February 10, 1978, Wichita Police Chief Richard LaMunyon held a press conference, warning the public that a serial killer was on the loose in Wichita. The killer called himself BTK—and he intended to strike again.
Fear swept through the community. The days of leaving the front door unlocked were gone, replaced by anxious days peering out from behind drawn curtains and restless nights questioning every creak.
1978 - 2004: Back into the Shadows
Not long after LaMunyon warned of an active serial killer and BTK entered the public lexicon, the Rader family welcomed their second child into the world—a girl, born in 1978. The following April, Rader broke into the home of a 63-year-old woman named Anna Williams, intending to murder the woman once she returned. But Williams stayed out far later than Rader had anticipated. After hours spent crouching in the darkness, he left. Afterward, he sent her a disturbing poem entitled "Oh, Anna, why didn’t you appear?" that lamented his failed attempt.
And then, just like that, BTK dropped off the radar. The provocative letters and brazen phone calls ceased. Fresh investigative efforts turned up little to no new information. The murder spree—it seemed—was over.
During this time, Rader completed his studies at Wichita State University, graduating with a degree in administration of justice. He served as a scout troop leader and was an active member of Christ Lutheran Church. Sadly, he also claimed three more lives: Marine Hedge, 53, in 1985; Vicki Wegerle, 28, in 1986; and Dolores Davis, 62, in 1991. Yet the taunting theatrics were absent. After Wegerle's murder, for instance, many wrongly assumed that her husband was the killer. By the end of the 1990s, the BTK case had gone cold.
2004: The End
In January 2004, on the 30th anniversary of the Otero family slayings, The Wichita Eagle published a story about BTK. For many in Wichita, the case was a nightmare of the past. The article suggested the killer may have moved or passed away.
Two months later, Rader revealed that BTK was alive by mailing to media outlets proof he had murdered Vicki Wegerle. What followed was a flood of correspondence that stretched through 2004 and into 2005. Rader sent numerous packets stuffed with letters, sketches, and puzzles. Other dispatches took the form of packages hidden throughout Wichita that contained souvenirs from prior killings or dolls arranged to mimic murder victims.
In early 2005, Rader asked in one letter whether he could communicate securely using a floppy disk. He requested that the police be honest in their response. Using a classified ad in the local paper, authorities assured BTK that he could indeed send out a disk.
In February 2005, a floppy disk arrived TV station KSAS-TV. Upon acquiring the disk, investigators scoured its metadata for clues. The disk pointed back to Christ Lutheran Church. The last person to edit the document? “Dennis”. A quick search through the church's website turned up the name of its church council president Dennis Rader. Armed with fresh evidence, the FBI obtained a warrant to access a DNA sample from Rader’s daughter’s medical file, and then compared the sample to DNA collected from BTK crime scenes. It was a match.
Dennis Rader was arrested on February 25, 2005, and soon charged with ten counts of first-degree murder. On June 27, 2005, Rader entered a guilty plea to all of the charges. Two months later, he was sentenced to 10 consecutive life sentences. Today, he sits in the El Dorado Correctional Facility. He will spend what remains of his life behind bars.
Featured photo: Murderpedia