Dennis Rader: The BTK Killer

Dennis Rader documentary

Dennis Rader may be America’s most evil serial killer. If Ed Gein is the most influential and Ted Bundy is the most famous, Rader could be considered the most evil simply by virtue of the way in which he carried out his crimes. The people he killed were his “projects” and the level of torture and planning that went into each project would make most horror film producers blush. Rader was not nearly as prolific as Bundy, nor has had the influence on popular culture like Gein, but he will probably claim his rightful place somewhere in the top 5 or so most important serial killers in American history. Unlike the other two, Rader’s confession about his atrocities gives us a greater understanding of the mind of this dangerous serial killer. Ted Bundy was never forthcoming with the information in the way that Rader was. Rader loved the spotlight of the courtroom and to this day still relishes his place in the pantheon of serial killers.

Dennis Rader arrested
When Rader was arrested he was asked if he knew why he was going down to the police station. Rader replied, “Oh, I have suspicions why”

That is probably the most appropriate place to start. Dennis Rader became known as the “BTK” killer, or the “bind, torture, kill” serial killer. The way that he gained that nickname is that he gave it to himself! The only thing greater than his desire to kill was was his own ego. Apparently he has not changed since receiving his life sentence of 175 years in prison without parole. Criminologist Scott Bonn spent two years corresponding with Rader and Son of Sam killer, David Berkowitz, in order to receive inspiration for his novel “Evil Guardian.” Bonn has noted that Rader is easily one of the most narcissistic megalomaniacs he has ever spoken to in all of his years of studying true crime. Rader remains obsessed with his own fame and relevance as a serial killer.

Rader killed 10 people in and around Wichita, Kansas, over a period from 1974-1991. His first four kills occurred all at once when he slaughtered four members of the Ortero family in Wichita in 1974. The family’s bodies were discovered by the three older children of the family who had been at school all day. Rader wrote a detailed letter of how the killings were conducted and placed it in an applied engineering book in the local public library. Why did Rader do this? Why would he take a chance of leaving any clues? Again, Rader’s ego is the primary determining factor. After the slaying of the Ortero family, news got out and several felons already in prison claimed to have something to do with the crime. In order make sure he got credit for the crime, Rader placed the letter at the library and then alerted the police as to where it could be found. Rader made sure that they knew that the murders had been done by “BTK.”

The Ortero murders occurred in January 1974. Dennis Rader would kill again a few short months later when he killed Kathryn Bright (April 4, 1974). Dennis Rader would then go dormant for about a three year period, finally killing again in 1977 when he murdered Shirley Vian Relford (March 17, 1977), and Nancy Fox (December 8, 1977). Rader would then disappear again until 1985 and would kill his remaining victims over a period from then until 1991. Following the Ortero family slaughter, Rader would focus all of his attention on killing one woman at a time.

Aside from claiming his own serial killer moniker, BTK gained notoriety because of his tendency to contact the media or even self-report a murder after committing it. Why? Again, with Rader it was all about his own power, over the media and over law enforcement. By 2004 the BTK Killer case was considered a “cold case.” Rader could not stand for that, so he began a series of communications with the local media, providing additional information about his modus operandi. This series of communications would be the beginning of the end for the BTK Killer; Rader slipped up several times providing useful clues that allowed the police to put together enough circumstantial evidence to arrest him.

In a series of communications with a local police, Rader asked whether or not the information he had deleted off of a floppy disk would be able to be seen. He wanted to send them something on a disk he had recently formatted but was hesitant because he used the disk before. When the police indicated to him that he would be safe, Rader sent them a purple 1.44-Megabyte Memorex floppy disk. Little did he know that the police had lied to him; they were able to retrieve some personal information from the disk’s deleted files that connected him to Christ Lutheran Church, where he served as president of the church council. This was another instance in which Rader’s ego overrode his common sense, resulting in his arrest. Rader believed that he actually established a relationship of sorts with one of the detectives on the force. When later asked by Rader why he lied about being able to extract data from the disk, the detective whimsically replied “so we could catch you.” Apparently, Rader had established in his own mind what he foresaw as a different outcome of this relationship, an opportunity to toy with the inferior police department.

dennis rader mugshot
Dennis Rader mugshot

Up until his arrest, Rader had alluded police with a game of cat and mouse akin to the elusiveness exhibited by Ted Bundy. Rader foolishly believed himself to be superior to law enforcement officials and always one step ahead. He probably could have gotten away with all of it and faded into obscurity, but that is exactly what he didn’t want to happen. When the case went “cold,” BTK suddenly emerged with all of the new information that eventually led to his downfall. Rader would never be obscure again.

Assessing the BTK killer’s place in American crime history is no easy task. He wasn’t the first, nor the most famous. He was certainly among the most heinous, which is why we’ve designated him as possibly the most evil. He resembles Ted Bundy in that he attributes his actions to a voice or force within him that he had no control over. Rader called this force “Factor X.” We don’t really know what Factor X is, but Rader himself believed it to be a supernatural force, the same force that led others like Jack the Ripper and David Berkowitz to kill. Factor X invited and even commanded him to “bind, torture and kill” each of his “projects.”

Rader was a stalker. He would often spend weeks or even months getting to know his projects. He would watch them and learn everything he could about them before making his move. Once he was locked in on a target, it was only a matter of time before he pounced like a cat stalking its prey. He knew when they went to work, when they came home and even what they got in the mail. He attempted to leave no stone unturned, but he sometimes miscalculated. These miscalculations cost him a few victims who were able to evade him. He had learned an important lesson in the Ortero murders. Rader had wrongly believed that the father, Joseph Ortero, had gone to work because his car was gone. Little did Rader know that Joseph’s car was gone because it had been damaged in a wreck and that Joseph had stayed home sick on the day that Rader decided to make his move. This forced Rader to make adjustments to his M.O. for his future murders. Rader would have to be more careful and, over time, he was more thorough. It was his post-murder activities that got him in trouble.

As he exhibited more caution, though, Rader gained more confidence which fed his arrogance. The growing sense of arrogance and overinflated sense of self-importance led to the series of communications in 2004. Up until then, he had all the power, which is what he wanted. He had power over the media, law enforcement and his victims. Little did he know that he was surrendering that power by feeding his ego. It was far more important to him to remain publicly relevant than it was for him to remain free.


Scott Bonn’s Why We Love Serial Killers available for free audio download here:

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