Dennis Rader, who took 10 innocent lives in the area of Wichita, Kansas, as the BTK Killer – for Bind, Torture, Kill – seemingly had his twisted modus operandi figured out to a “T.”
A family man, government worker and church leader by day, Rader was smart enough to blend into his community and avoid detection for the string of victim stalking and killings that fulfilled his sexual desires. And while he relished the headlines that announced his grotesque acts and the taunting messages he relayed to the media, he also controlled his impulses enough to suddenly stop the killings and disappear before authorities could get too close to his trail.
Yet it was his insatiable lust for attention that ultimately proved to be his Achilles heel. BTK reemerged years later to remind police that he remained at large, but got too careless with his cat-and-mouse games, providing investigators with an opening to crack the once-unsolvable case—and bring the killer to justice.
Watch the special three-night event, ‘Invisible Monsters: Serial Killers in America,’ beginning Sunday, August 15 at 9/8c on A&E.
January 15, 1974: Rader kills four members of the Otero family
A 28-year-old married Air Force veteran, Rader makes the plunge into infamy after severing a phone line and entering the East Wichita home of Joseph and Julie Otero, the latter a former co-worker at the Coleman equipment company. Along with strangling the two homeowners, Rader kills two of their young children, leaving three older siblings to discover the bodies when they arrive home from school later in the day.
April 4, 1974: Rader strikes again
Kathryn Bright, another Coleman employee, returns home with her brother Kevin to find Rader waiting with a gun. Kevin somehow survives a gunshot to the head, but he is unable to save his sister, who Rader stabbed to death.
October 1974: The killer introduces himself to police
After one young man allegedly confesses to killing the Oteros with two friends, an editor at The Wichita Eagle receives a strange phone call that directs him to a mechanical-engineering book at the Wichita Public Library. Police find the book and a letter wedged inside, which reads, in part, “Those three dude you have in custody are just talking to get publicity… The code words for me will be…Bind them, torture them, kill them, B.T.K., you see he at it again. They will be on the next victim.”
Along with including then-unknown details of the Otero killings, the letter is filled with what authorities come to recognize as the killer’s peculiar brand of misspellings and grammatical errors, along with a distinct, sexually suggestive signature.
March 17, 1977: BTK murders a mother of three
Entering a home by way of the 5-year-old child who opens the door, Rader barricades the boy and his two siblings in the bathroom before strangling their mother, Shirley Vian. The children eventually escape and provide police with a vague description of the intruder.
December 8, 1977: BTK reports his next victim
After binding and strangling 25-year-old Nancy Fox, Rader heads to a pay phone to point police to his handiwork. “You will find a homicide at 843 South Pershing,” he bluntly tells the 911 dispatcher.
January 31, 1978: The killer reaches out with a poem
The Wichita Eagle receives an index card imprinted with a poem that begins with “Shirley Locks, Shirley Locks, wilt thou be mine.” Unaware of the connection to Shirley Vian, and believing it to be a Valentine’s Day note, the mail clerk forwards the card to the paper’s classified department.
February 10, 1978: The BTK threat is made public after another letter
Apparently angered by the lack of response to his last attempt, the killer sends a more direct message to Wichita-based KAKE-TV. “How many people do I have to kill before I get my name in the paper or some national attention?” he writes, before reeling off a list of suggested nicknames, including “The BTK Strangler,” “The Wichita Hangman” and “The Asphyxiator.”
Wichita Police Chief Richard LaMunyon subsequently calls a news conference to reveal, for the first time, the presence of the “BTK Strangler” in the area. “We have no reason but to believe the individual has the capability to kill again,” he warns.
April 28, 1979: Another target narrowly misses becoming the next victim
Rader lies in wait for Anna Williams, but gives up and leaves when the 63-year-old woman takes too long to return home. Less than two months later, Williams learns of her brush with death when she receives several of her personal items by mail, along with a poem titled, “Oh, Anna, Why Didn’t You Appear.”
Dennis Rader in court on August 17, 2005.
Photo: Bo Rader-Pool/Getty Images
August 14, 1979: BTK’s phone call is broadcast
Seeking help from the public, authorities release the recording of BTK’s December 1977 phone call to report the death of Nancy Fox. Tips come pouring in from listeners who think they recognize the voice, though no relevant information emerges.
1984: The ‘Ghostbusters’ are formed
Chief LaMunyon establishes a task force devoted to BTK’s crimes, nicknamed the “Ghostbusters” after the popular Bill Murray movie. The task force—which includes a young officer named Ken Landwehr, who will spearhead later efforts to track down the killer—takes pains to carefully organize and preserve valuable evidence.
April 27, 1985: Rader’s neighbor is strangled
After an evening of bingo and dinner with her boyfriend, 53-year-old Marine Hedge is taken from her home in the Wichita suburb of Park City, just down the street from Rader’s house. She is found dead by strangulation eight days later, though police fail to connect her murder to BTK at the time.
September 16, 1986: A husband takes the blame for the work of BTK
Bill Wegerle returns home for lunch to find his 2-year-old son sitting by himself and his wife, Vicki, dead in their bedroom. In the absence of other credible evidence, the husband becomes the primary suspect in Vicki’s death.
January 19, 1991: BTK kills for the final time
BTK throws a cinderblock through a sliding door at the home of retiree Dolores Davis, strangles her to death and leaves her body by a bridge. Seemingly preoccupied by his day-to-day duties as a Park City compliance officer and father of two, Rader ceases killing and BTK drops off the map.
January 2004: ‘The Wichita Eagle’ runs a 30th anniversary piece on BTK
Three decades after the killer first killed the Oteros, The Wichita Eagle prints an article recalling the terror BTK wielded in the 1970s and suggesting that he had faded from memory after so many years. Rader later admits that this article spurs him to revive his deadly alter ego.
March 19, 2004: BTK announces his return
The Wichita Eagle receives an envelope from a “Bill Thomas Killman” containing a copy of Vicki Wegerle’s missing driver’s license, photos of her body and BTK’s distinctive signature, a chilling message that links her unsolved murder to BTK and declares the Wichita terror to be very much alive.
May 5, 2004: BTK teases with a puzzle
BTK’s next outreach, mailed to KAKE-TV, includes a phony ID, chapter titles for a BTK biography and a find-the-word letter grid spelling out clues like “prowl” and “fantasies,” though investigators note the lack of his usual signature. Puzzle sleuths later realize the letters R-A-D-E-R are grouped around the numbers 6220 – the author’s street address.
READ MORE: How the BTK Killer Got His Name — and the Paper Trail He Left Behind
December 13, 2005: BTK leaves another disturbing package
After BTK leaves more messages in various public locations, a man walking though Wichita’s Murdock Park stumbles on a garbage bag containing Nancy Fox’s driver’s license and a Barbie doll with a hood over its head and arms tied behind its back.
January 25, 2005: A postcard points to more clues
Acting on instructions from a postcard mailed to KAKE-TV, police find a cereal box on a road outside Wichita containing a graphic description of BTK’s first murders and another doll fashioned in a death position. However, it’s another section of the postcard, which inquires as to whether his package was found at the local Home Depot, that proves more interesting to authorities.
After poking around the store, investigators learn that one employee had found a cereal box in the bed of his pickup truck. A search of his trash produces the box and a message asking if BTK could communicate via a computer floppy disk without being traced; if so, the police are instructed to run a newspaper ad with the message: “Rex, it will be OK.”
January 28, 2005: Police signal BTK through the newspaper
After an undercover detective makes arrangements with The Wichita Eagle, the paper runs a classified ad that reads: “Rex, it will be ok, Contact me PO Box 1st four ref. numbers at 67202.” Six days later, BTK confirms his receipt of the message through another postcard sent to KAKE.
February 16, 2005: A computer disk breaks the case open
A computer disk arriving by mail is relayed to cybercop Randy Stone, who uncovers BTK’s message about checking an index card for more information, along with the hidden metadata that reveals the disk to have been used by a “Dennis” at “Christ Lutheran Church” and “Park City Library.” Within seconds, an internet search for Christ Lutheran Church reveals the name of its president: Dennis Rader.
Already armed with DNA evidence carefully preserved by the Ghostbusters, Lieutenant Landwehr and his team learn that Rader’s daughter, Kerri, had been in the hospital for a pap smear. The hospital soon turns over a sample of her DNA, which matches that of BTK.
February 25, 2005: Rader is arrested
Heading home from the office to have lunch with his wife, Rader is pulled over by the line of police cars trailing him and taken into custody. He confesses after being confronted with the DNA evidence, and enjoys what he believes is a bonding session with law-enforcement agents—although he is plainly irritated that Landwehr lied to him about the security of communications via computer disk. BTK’s arrest is announced at Wichita City Hall the following day, drawing applause from the audience gathered.
April 19, 2005: Rader waives his right to a preliminary hearing
The scheduled hearing ends after a few short minutes, an acknowledgment from the defense that the state possesses enough evidence to send the case to trial. Two weeks later, a silent Rader has the judge enter a not guilty plea for him.
June 27, 2005: Rader pleads guilty to the BTK killings
Catching prosecutors off-guard by pleading guilty to 10 counts of first-degree murder, Rader provides the court with explicit details on how he selected, stalked and finally killed each of his victims. His lawyer later notes that they went with the guilty plea due to overwhelming evidence against their client and the lack of firm legal footing on which to enter an insanity plea.
August 18, 2005: Rader is sentenced to 10 consecutive life terms in prison
The two-day sentencing hearing features testimony from investigators who describe Rader’s documentation of his torture-fueled sexual fantasies, emotional pleas from the victims’ families and an apology from the convicted killer, who expresses hope that the families will one day forgive him.
Having committed his murders before Kansas reintroduced the death penalty in 1994, the BTK Killer received a sentence of 10 consecutive life terms in prison, for a minimum of 175 years without the possibility of parole.