From 1974-1991, Kansas serial killer Dennis Rader — better known as the BTK Killer — murdered ten people in the Wichita metro. He was the one to give himself the nickname, which stood for Bind, Torture, and Kill. He relentlessly taunted the media and police, it was this cry for attention that would eventually lead to his arrest.
But the scariest part about Dennis Rader isn’t his serial killer proclivities and the manner in which he chose to do his victims. Rather, the most terrifying thing about the BTK Killer is that for much of his adult life and certainly for the duration of his killing spree, he lived his life as a completely normal person.
There were some signs of trouble in his early life, he was said to torture stray cats and dogs as a child. But besides being a C student and being somewhat shy, Rader grew up to be an outwardly-normal Air Force veteran, college graduate, husband, and father.
While the town he called home was growing increasingly frightened at the prospect of a killer in their midst, Rader was walking among them setting off zero alarm bells. Speaking of alarms, he was even an installer at ADT for a period, installing security systems for people afraid of the murderer in town they never would have guessed was him.
If you think about it, that’s way scarier than an axe-wielding maniac going around chopping people up in public.
15. When He Joined The Air Force
Killers Jeffrey Dahmer, Lee Harvey Oswald, David Berkowitz, Timothy McVeigh, and countless others have at least one thing in common: a history of military service. The BTK Killer is no exception.
He joined the Air Force in 1966, some say to avoid the Vietnam War draft. He served four full years, eventually reaching the rank of sergeant before he left the military. While stationed in Japan, he frequently utilized the services of prostitutes and tried to get them to indulge his growing choking and strangling fantasy but they totally weren’t into that. Probably for the best as far as they were concerned, their prostitution careers might have been cut short had they let the soon-to-be Bind, Torture, Kill Strangler get his hands on their necks.
14. When He Was In A Fraternity
Two years after he graduated from Wichita Heights High School in 1963, Dennis Rader enrolled at Kansas Wesleyan College in Salina, about 90 miles from his home. He returned home on weekends to work his job in the meat department at a local grocery store.
He wasn’t ever really good in school, and college was no exception. A year after enrolling in college, he joined the Air Force. But while at school, he at least tried to break out of his shell and be outwardly more outgoing. Part of this attempt at a transformation was to join a fraternity. It’s a pretty safe assumption that the pre-murderous BTK likely wasn’t a hot, tan, Zac Efron a la Neighbors during that time. Although if there were any strangling of pledges while they were being hazed, perhaps he excelled at that.
13. When He Worked In The Meat Department Of A Grocery Store
You likely would never suspect your grocery store butcher of being a crazed lunatic, especially if his mom also works there as a bookkeeper. Granted, it would be a few years before Dennis Rader claimed his first victims, but it wasn’t like he was a perfectly normal guy inside and out until the five minutes leading up to his first killing.
While away at college about an hour and a half from home, young Rader would return home to work at the meat department of Leeker’s IGA. As far as we know, no one ever complained that he stiffed them on a beef brisket or that their chicken breast had weird strangle marks all over it. He worked at the grocery store until 1971, when he married his wife Paula Dietz.
12. When He Made Camping Gear
For a brief period of time, Dennis Rader worked in a factory as a Coleman assembler. If your dad has an old Coleman cooler sitting around in the attic somewhere, it may have just been touched at some point by the BTK Killer. He spent a year there, from 1972-1973.
Two of Rader’s victims — his first victim Julie Otero and fifth victim Kathryn Bright — also worked at the Coleman factory. He killed Julie Otero, her husband Joseph, and their two children in January of 1974, while Bright was killed three months later in April. The following October, Rader sent a short note to the Wichita Eagle-Beacon letting them know that he left a note for them in a book at the public library; in it, he says he wants his name to be BTK for Bind Them, Torture Them, Kill Them.
11. When He Took His Son Camping
As a Scout leader and average dad, it isn’t all that weird to find out that Rader took his son camping. There are snaps, now public, available of the two Rader children out with their dad, fishing, camping, and generally doing totally normal things that kids do with their dad.
But one camping trip in particular is disturbing in the context of Rader’s terror spree. On April 27, 1985, Rader killed his neighbor Marine Hedge. When on the stand at his trial, the judge asked him to describe the events of that evening. “On that particular day, I had another commitment. Came back from that commitment, parked my car over at Woodlawn and 21st Street, bowling alley at that time. Before that, I dressed into — I had some other clothes on — I changed clothes, went to the bowling alley,” Rader recounted.
In a 2015 interview with The Wichita Eagle, Rader’s daughter Kerri recalled that her dad had taken Brian on a campout that very night, and surmises that he used it as a cover to sneak out and murder Hedge.
10. When He Installed Security Systems
From 1974 until he was fired in 1988, Dennis Rader worked in various capacities for ADT Security Services. This meant he had access to homes, and the implied trust of his customers. However, when he made his confession in June of 2005, Rader failed to acknowledge that this job gave him special access to potential victims.
What’s odd about this is that Rader was known for stalking his victims well in advance of the crime. One in particular was a neighbor, who he chose as a victim because he could so easily keep track of her comings and goings without setting off any alarm bells (no pun intended). He did say, however, that for one murder he posed as a telephone repairman. Perhaps having open access to potential victims through his legitimate position as a security system installer did not give Rader the same thrill as gaining nefarious access did.
9. When He Married
By all appearances, Dennis Rader was a completely normal husband and father. He married his wife Paula in 1971, just three years before he would commit his first murders.
She sang in the church choir, and her husband served as the congregation president for many years. After Rader’s arrest in 2005, their pastor spoke out to the media in order to protect the innocent, and let’s be honest, victimized wife. “Right now, Paula has to take care of herself in the best way she can,” Pastor Clark told reporters. “She needs to do more healing before she can stand on her feet.” She fled Kansas after his arrest, but later returned after his plea deal and resumed her job as a bookkeeper at a convenience store.
8. When He Had Two Children
Dennis Rader fathered two children, daughter Kerri and son Brian.
On February 25, 2005, FBI agents showed up at the home of Rader’s daughter Kerri and, after some hesitation, she let them inside. They asked her if she’d heard of the BTK Killer, to which she said of course she did, everyone in that area had. And then they dropped a bomb on her: they needed to swab her cheek for DNA, her father was the main suspect. She would later find out that authorities already had her DNA, they had subpoenaed it from a pap smear she had at the Kansas State University health clinic years before.
7. When He Was President Of Church Council
Rader served as president of Christ Lutheran Church in Park City, and it was this position that would later lead authorities straight to the elusive BTK Killer.
On the first Sunday service after Rader’s arrest, the church pastor stood in front of the congregation, struggling to find the words. “This is a difficult day, a difficult time. We’re moving into a phase of life we do not understand,” he said. It had been only days since his arrest, and just the Sunday previous the now-suspected BTK Killer had helped collect the offering at the church’s 10:45 a.m. service. “I can’t believe what they are saying is the Dennis Rader I’ve known for 30 years,” said the man who took Rader’s place as president of the church board.
6. When He Was A Scout Leader
Going along with his whole “I’m just a totally normal dad definitely not a serial killer fond of strangling people to death” theme of his adulthood, Dennis Rader served as a Scout leader; his son Brian would later reach the rank of Eagle Scout. Rader often participated in all sorts of outdoor fun with his two children, and built a treehouse in their backyard. Whereas other serial killers such as Jeffrey Dahmer had difficulty forming lasting bonds or even maintaining relationships, Rader fooled his wife, children, church, neighbors, and obviously the Scout troop he served.
A February 2005 headline shortly after Dennis Rader’s arrest was announced reads in big letters: “Police: Scout Leader Is BTK Killer” — a former neighbor quoted in the article said “A part of me was scared when I heard, because I talked to him. It’s a little creepy.”
5. When He Received A Degree In Administration Of Justice
In the fall of 1973, a year before he would commit his first murders, Dennis Rader enrolled at Wichita State University to pursue a degree in justice administration. At that point, he already had an associate’s degree in electronics from Butler County Community College. He was working for Cessna at the time and attending night classes, it would take him a whole six years to complete his bachelor’s degree at Wichita State.
Rader was never a very good student, and it’s said that getting laid off from Cessna shortly after he started school made him a bit depressed. It was during this time that he began to seriously entertain thoughts of strangling someone to death. Safe to say his college performance was less than stellar.
4. When He Was A Census Worker
Census workers go door-to-door every ten years to collect data on the citizens of the United States so they can find out exactly how many of us there are populating the country. In 2010, it took over 600,000 census workers to complete that year’s census.
For a short period after he left his job installing security systems for ADT and a brief stint of unemployment, Dennis Rader was field operations supervisor for the 1990 census in the Wichita area. This job — much like his ADT security job before it — gave him the chance to travel, meet new people, and even enter their homes in the course of his duties. He had long been engaged in serial killing by that time, though surely no one who opened their door to him realized it. When the temporary job ended, he sought work as a city compliance officer.
3. When He Was A City Compliance Officer
Beginning in 1991, Dennis Rader took a job as supervisor of the Compliance Department at Park City, a small city department in charge of “animal control, housing problems, zoning, general permit enforcement and a variety of nuisance cases.” So Rader was basically the dogcatcher and the guy who tickets you if your lawn is too tall. Some say he was a bit mad with authority due to the position and would often go a bit too far in “enforcing” code. One neighbor accused Rader of euthanizing her dog for no reason. Rader committed his last murder in 1991, though after his arrest said he’d planned out others, they just never materialized for whatever reason.
2. When He Was A Mediocre Student
Although he would go on to complete several college degrees — electronics and administration of justice — Dennis Rader was historically a totally mediocre student. In fact, it took him several years longer than normal just to complete his bachelor’s. Friends described him as studious, so his lack of exceptional performance in school likely didn’t have much to do with ambition or motivation, but he was terrible at grammar and spelling. It is believed Rader may have had a learning disability of some sort.
Going further back, he said he was an average to mediocre student at Riverview Elementary School as a child. This theme fits in well with just about every other aspect of Dennis Rader’s life; from childhood through adolescence through his military service and career life, he was simply average. All while being obsessed with bondage, strangulation, torture, and women’s underwear.
1. When He Collected Stamps
On top of being a loving husband, father, Scout leader, security system installer, church president, and dog catcher, Dennis Rader collected stamps.
In a 2015 interview with the Wichita Eagle, Dennis Rader’s daughter Kerri walked the paper through her old neighborhood, pointed to the home of one of her father’s victims, and talked about the man she grew up with. “He liked to do hobbies, because it kept him out of trouble,” she said. “He turned my bedroom into a nursery for plants when I was 3, and I’d sleep with my brother in the bunk bed. So it was plants – or murder. Later it was stamps.”
She said that her mother kept his collection in tubs, and that every time she uses one of his stamps to mail off a check to the electric company, “it’s like making part of the evil go away.”