Clues Were Clear but Slow to Add Up
Last March, a plain white envelope arrived at the local newspaper. Inside was a single sheet of paper, containing three photocopied pictures of a woman’s strangled body.
After 25 years of silence, the serial killer who had terrorized Wichita in the 1970s was back.
That same spring, a balding, paunchy dogcatcher by the name of Dennis Rader took his family to a tulip festival in Michigan. On the drive up from his home in suburban Wichita, Rader stopped to visit an uncle he used to play ball with as a kid. They spent a peaceful day together, catching up.
Rader’s quiet, ordinary life would soon unravel. Nine days ago, police arrested him on 10 counts of homicide over three decades.
They say that even as he raised his children, volunteered in church, taught Boy Scouts how to cook tinfoil dinners, he was indulging in monstrous sexual fantasies -- taking pleasure in strangling one victim after another and watching them slowly die.
Police say that Rader, 59, is the notorious BTK, named for his methods: bind, torture, kill.
His arrest has stunned and baffled those who know him best.
Rader used to chide his co-workers for telling dirty jokes in front of his secretary. Could he really have written that he longed to strangle three young children: “God oh God what a beautiful sexual relief this would have been.”
He took on countless chores for his church. Could he be the same man who boasted of his body count: “It seems senseless but [I] cannot help it.”
Last week, Paul Carlstedt studied TV footage of Rader, in a red jail jumpsuit, listening calmly as a judge read out the murder counts against him.
“I’ve known Dennis for 30 years,” he said. “The Dennis I know is not the Dennis in the jumpsuit.”
Carlstedt has strained to recall any hint of depravity in the man he prayed with Sundays at Christ Lutheran Church. He can find none.
On a slushy morning in January 1974, a killer snipped the phone line outside a modest frame house in East Wichita.
He presented himself at the front door, perhaps showing the phony ID of a telephone repairman. Julie Otero welcomed him in. He bashed her in the face, then strangled her. He suffocated her 9-year-old son and hung her 11-year-old daughter, nearly naked, from a sewer pipe in the basement. When her husband came home, the intruder strangled him too.
Then he packed up his bag of cords and gags and slipped out of the house.
It was BTK’s first strike.
Just north of Wichita, in the working-class suburb of Park City, a young Air Force veteran by the name of Dennis Rader was looking for a new career.
His four-year hitch with the service had taken him abroad and taught him technical skills; he was an expert at maintaining cables and wires. But as soon as he was discharged, he’d come back to Kansas, where he’d grown up. He and his new wife, Paula, were living in a one-story house on Independence Street, a few blocks from his parents.
Rader loved being outdoors; as a boy, he would hike, hunt and fish with his three younger brothers and their dad, a former Marine. His favorite part of school was recess, especially in winter, when he and his buddies would hurl snowballs with glee. Later, Rader would look for work that wouldn’t keep him indoors.
But in the summer of 1972, just home from the military, he took a job at the Coleman factory. He didn’t last long. Rader left in July 1973, six months before the Otero slayings.
Julie Otero had worked at Coleman. So had another young woman named Kathryn Bright.
Bright was slain in April 1974. She had come home from an errand with her brother, Kevin, to find a man waiting with a gun. He tied them up, then began to strangle them. After a fierce struggle, Kevin got away. He called for help, but it arrived too late for his sister.
It would be some time before authorities connected the Bright and Otero killings. That spring, they had no reason to suspect a serial killer. A troubled youth had confessed to the Otero slayings and implicated two friends.
Then, in October 1974, BTK wrote to set the record straight. “Those three dude you have in custody are just talking to get publicity,” he wrote in a menacing letter pitted with grammatical errors and misspellings. “They know nothing at all. I did it by myself and no ones help.” The letter described the crime scene in such meticulous detail -- down to the location of specific pieces of furniture -- that authorities figured the killer must have stood over the bodies to take notes, or perhaps to sketch his handiwork.
A month after the Otero letter surfaced, Rader took work installing alarm systems for ADT Security Services. It was a job he would hold for 14 years, distinguishing himself with his intricate sketches of clients’ homes.
“There was a lot of detail in his work, almost to the point where it seemed he was a little anal about it,” said Mike Tavares, who worked with him in the Wichita office.
At ADT, Rader was nicknamed -- not so affectionately -- “Blue Book Man,” because he seemed to have memorized every regulation in the policy manual.
“He followed them to the T,” said Denise Mattocks, a longtime co-worker. “That’s the kind of guy he was: Rules were meant for everyone, and rules were not meant to be broken.”
Rader was too brusque to be well-liked around the office. He would pull the all-male installation crews aside and scold them if they swore in front of Mattocks. He didn’t waste time on small talk; he preferred to stay busy.
Working for an alarm company in Wichita in those days, that wasn’t hard to do.
In 1977, BTK struck twice: In March, he stripped, bound and strangled Shirley Vian, a mother of three in her mid-20s. Nine months later, he called police from a pay phone to report his next victim: Nancy Fox, 25.
By then, police knew a serial killer was on the prowl, but they didn’t alert the public until February 1978 -- after BTK had sent a rambling letter to KAKE-TV bragging that he had killed seven people, with “many more to go.”
The threat set off a panic.
“Women would come home at night, look at their house, think something didn’t look right and call 911, asking us to come check it out. That’s just about all we did, night after night after night,” retired Lt. Charles Liles said.
The alarm company was swamped with calls. Mattocks, then a single mother, remembers asking Rader whether he thought she should install an alarm system in her home.
He told her not to bother. BTK, he pointed out, usually cut the phone lines before entering a house, disabling the alarm system.
Rader, by then, had two children -- a son, Brian, and a daughter, Kerri, born four months after the threatening letter was sent to KAKE-TV. He was also taking classes at Wichita State University, graduating in the spring of 1979 with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice.
Authorities have long suspected that BTK had some connection to Wichita State, because one of his letters was traced to a photocopier often used by students. Also, a poem he included in his letter to KAKE-TV was patterned after an obscure ballad taught in a college folklore workshop.
Police developed a profile of the killer: He was likely a white male of unremarkable appearance. Someone who wanted to be a cop, to wear a badge and flaunt his authority. Perhaps a loner. Definitely someone meticulous. BTK kept his crime scenes neat. And he prepared carefully, bringing ropes, gag, gun and everything else he might need in a little black bag. BTK did not ransack the homes he invaded; he took only a small souvenir from each victim, such as a driver’s license, a watch or a necklace.
By the early 1980s, the killer had gone silent, and police dared hope that the killings had stopped.
Police would later connect the 1985 slaying of Marine Hedge -- who lived just a few doors from Rader -- and the 1986 strangling of Vicki Wegerle to the serial killer. But at the time, they did not think those homicides matched BTK’s method. The terror in Wichita subsided.
Rader, meanwhile, had settled into life in Park City with Paula. He took the kids camping and enrolled Brian in Cub Scouts. He brought flowers from his garden to his secretary, Mattocks. “I really liked the guy,” she said. “He was always good to me.”
When his son became a Boy Scout, Rader volunteered as a troop leader. He soon earned a reputation as a stickler for making sure his boys mastered every knot in the handbook.
“He was very strict that the boys actually learned to do the knots. He wouldn’t let them slip by,” said George Martin, a co-leader of Troop 491.
“He went very strongly by the book in everything,” Martin added. “He was very methodical that way. He was one of those people who, when you went camping, you could always depend on to have brought all the equipment you needed.”
Rader left ADT in July 1988. The following year, he worked as a field operations supervisor for the U.S. Census Bureau, verifying home addresses in the Wichita area. He stuck with the Boy Scouts and remained active in Christ Lutheran Church. But it would be a few years before he settled on a new career.
During this period, in January 1991, Delores Davis, 62, disappeared from her home near Park City. Her body was discovered under a bridge three weeks later.
Authorities briefly considered BTK a suspect, but decided it didn’t fit his pattern because Davis’ body had been moved from her house. Only after Rader’s arrest did authorities list Davis as the 10th -- and as far as they know, final -- BTK victim.
Shortly after the Davis slaying, Rader took the job that he would hold until the city fired him last week: compliance officer for Park City.
In his tan uniform and white animal-control pickup truck, he cruised the quiet streets, enforcing municipal ordinances. He cited residents for failing to trim their lawns properly (verifying with a ruler that the grass was too long). He fined them for posting illegal garage sale signs and fixing roofs without permits.
Many of his neighbors saw him as arrogant and domineering; some called him the “compliance Nazi.”
Barbara Walters had several run-ins with Rader over her dog, a little mutt named Shadow. In 1998, she went to court to fight several tickets Rader had given her for letting Shadow run loose. Rader prepared for the case with his characteristic attention to detail, cross-referencing his incident report with a typed evidence log.
In his report on Shadow, Rader made many grammatical errors, including switching tenses midsentence. That same quirky mistake shows up often in BTK’s letters. Former Police Chief Richard LaMunyon sees another clue in Rader’s aggressive code enforcement.
“That fits BTK’s pattern,” he said. “He always wanted us to know he was in charge.”
Last spring was busy for Dennis Rader.
He was vice president of his congregation. He also ran a church committee charged with finding new space to accommodate the growing demand for Sunday school classes. He cared for his elderly mother. And from his trim white home, he planned family outings, such as the trip to the tulip festival -- with a detour to visit his uncle on the way.
“He seemed fine to me,” said Wallace Rader, who lives in Mitchell, Ind. “They seemed like a normal, happy family.”
That spring, Wichita was once again buzzing about BTK.
The gruesome photos of Vicki Wegerle mailed to the Wichita Eagle in March told police two things: that her slaying in 1986 had been committed by BTK. And that BTK was back.
Over the next 11 months, the killer led police on a very public chase.
In May, the month of the tulip festival, he sent KAKE-TV a package. It included phony identification cards, proposed chapter headings for his autobiography, and a word-find puzzle that contained scores of phrases that refer to his killings, including “prowl,” “details,” “telephone” and “fantasies.”
No one realized the significance at the time, but the word-find puzzle also included the string of numbers 6220 -- Rader’s house number. Tightly grouped around those numbers were the letters R-A-D-E-R.
“He was working his way through a process of telling us who he was and how he did this,” LaMunyon said. “I truly think his goal this past year was to get identified. Toward the end, he even started giving us back his trophies.”
In June, BTK sent a letter to police.
In July, he left a package at the public library in downtown Wichita.
In October, he placed another package in a shopping center.
Two months later, a man walking through Murdock Park saw a bundle wrapped in a white trash bag. It included the driver’s license of BTK victim Nancy Fox and a Barbie doll with its arms tied behind its back and a hood over its head. Police asked local media not to air pictures of the doll, lest they stir up BTK’s deadly lust. They were afraid he might kill again.
In Park City, meanwhile, Rader had completed his report on expanding the church Sunday school. He gave a speech to the Methodist Men’s Club on identifying wildlife. He indulged in his favorite pie at Auntie C’s restaurant -- the peanut butter cream.
In January, Rader became president of the congregation. When his printer at home broke, Rader used the church computer to print out an agenda for an upcoming meeting.
As the weather turned frosty, BTK left more packages, some containing jewelry thought to have been stolen from his victims.
He sent the media chatty postcards directing them to his drops, as though he were organizing a neighborhood treasure hunt. “Let me know some how if you or Wichita PD received this,” he wrote to one TV station. And later: “Thank to the News Team for the efforts. Sorry about Susan’s and Jeff’s colds.”
On Feb. 16, local station KSAS received a manila envelope containing a computer disk. FBI analysts examined it and were able to piece together chunks of data tying it to a computer at Christ Lutheran Church. They asked Pastor Michael Clark who had access to the computer.
Dennis Rader was on the list.
As authorities closed in on Rader over the last two weeks, some of his Park City neighbors reported seeing unusually heavy police patrols. But friends said Rader appeared as unruffled as usual. He reported to work. He volunteered to fill in as church usher. He took his wife to lunch at Taco Bell.
Rader did not know that authorities executing a search warrant had obtained a DNA sample from his daughter’s medical records, according to the Wichita Eagle. Presumably, they compared the DNA to semen left at BTK crime scenes.
On Friday, Feb. 25, Rader was driving along East Kechi Road in Park City just after noon when police pulled him over.
All that night, rumors flew. Authorities did not release Rader’s name, but news stories noted a flurry of police activity around Independence Street. At home in Topeka, Denise Mattocks heard that report. She immediately thought of her old boss, Dennis Rader.
“I was thinking, poor Dennis, he must really be freaking out about this,” Mattocks said.
In one of his early letters, BTK had told police that when he wasn’t in the grip of what he called “the monster,” he was a normal, everyday guy. “I come home [from a kill] and go about life like anyone else,” he explained.
Police had always believed that was true. For years, they’ve said BTK was a friend, a neighbor, a colleague. Now they vow, with relief, that he will be brought to justice.
“We prayed in church for a conclusion to this crime spree,” Carlstedt said. “Our prayers were ... not answered in the way we expected them to be answered. But they were answered.”
Rader remains -- for now, at least -- president of Christ Lutheran.
The tulips in the garden he tended with pride are just about to bloom.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Timeline of the case
Dennis Rader, 59, a dog-catcher for Park City, a suburb of Wichita, Kan., is in custody on suspicion of being the BTK serial killer, who tortured and killed seven women, one man and two children from 1974 to 1991.
March 9, 1945: Dennis L. Rader, the oldest of four brothers, is born.
1963: Graduates from Wichita Heights Valley Center high school.
1968-1972: Active duty Air Force. Serves in Japan. Discharged as a sergeant.
June 1972-July 1973: Employed at the Coleman Co. as an assembler in what was then the Heating and Air Division.
November 1974-July 1988: Employed by ADT Security Services in Wichita branch office, installing alarm systems.
July 27, 1975: Rader’s first child, Brian, is born.
June 13, 1978: Rader’s daughter, Kerri, is born.
Spring 1979: Rader graduates from Wichita State University with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice.
1989: Rader works as a field operations supervisor in the Wichita area for the U.S. Census Bureau.
1991: Rader begins working as a compliance officer supervisor for the suburb of Park City.
Feb. 25, 2005: Rader is arrested and held in the deaths of
10 people. His bond is set at $10 million.
Crimes linked to BTK killer
Jan. 15, 1974: Joseph and Julie Otero are strangled in their home in East Wichita, along with two of their children. Julie Otero, 34, worked at the Coleman Co.
April 4, 1974: Kathryn Bright, 21, is found stabbed and strangled in her home. She worked at the Coleman Co.
March 17, 1977: Shirley Vian, 24, is found tied up and strangled in her house. Her three children were home at the time of her murder but were unharmed.
Dec. 8, 1977: Nancy Fox, 25, is found tied up and strangled in her home. BTK’s voice is captured on tape when he calls a 911 dispatcher to report the homicide.
April 28, 1979: The killer waits inside a home late into the night, but leaves before the 63-year-old homeowner returns. He later sends the woman a letter letting her know he was there.
April 27, 1985: Marine Hedge, 53, is abducted from her home in Park City, a few doors down from Rader’s home. Her body is found May 5 in a roadside ditch.
Sept. 16, 1986: Vicki Wegerle, 28, is strangled in her home at 2404 W. 13th St. Her 2-year-old son was at home but not harmed.
Jan. 19, 1991: Delores Davis, 62, disappears from her home near Park City. Her body is found Feb. 1, 1991.
October 1974: Wichita Eagle is directed to a letter hidden in a mechanical engineering textbook in a public library. In it, a killer who calls himself BTK for ‘bind torture kill’ takes credit for the Otero murders.
Dec. 9, 1977: BTK calls police from a pay phone to report a homicide. He gives the victim’s name Nancy Fox and her home address.
January 1978: BTK sends the Eagle an index card with a poem printed in rubber stamps. It’s an ode to victim Shirley Vian. The Eagle mistakes it for a Valentine’s Day classified ad and does not publicize it.
Febuary 1978: BTK writes a two-page letter to KAKE-TV announcing he has killed seven people with ‘many more to go.’ He includes a poem ‘Oh Death to Nancy’ about murder victim Nancy Fox.
June 1979: He sends a poem, sketch and jewelry to a woman whose home he apparently invaded and hid in for many hours, waiting in vain for her to return. A similar package arrives the next day at KAKE-TV.
January 17, 2004: The Eagle publishes an article about BTK on the 30th anniversary of the first killings.
March 19, 2004: A letter arrives at the Eagle containing a photocopy of Wegerle’s driver’s license and three pictures of her body that could only have been taken by the killer. The name on the return address: Bill Thomas Killman.
May 2004: Television station KAKE receives a letter containing chapter headings for a ‘BTK Story,’ false identification cards and a word puzzle.
June 2004: Police receive a letter from BTK.
July 17, 2004: A package from BTK is found at a Wichita library.
Oct. 22, 2004: A package from BTK is found at a Wichita shopping center.
Dec. 14, 2004: A package containing a bound Barbie doll and Nancy Fox’s driver’s license is found in Murdock Park.
Jan. 25, 2005: Television station KAKE receives a post card detailing the location and contents of a Post Toasties cereal box. BTK has scrawled a ‘B’ above and a ‘K’ below the ‘T’ in the cereal box logo.
Feb. 16, 2005: TV station KSAS receives a small manila envelope with a computer disk and other items from BTK.
Sources: Associated Press; Wichita Eagle; questionnnaire filled out by Rader for his 1984 class reunion. Graphics reporting by Nona Yates
Times staff writer Lynn Marshall contributed to this report.