Dennis Rader Biography

Murderer (1945–)
Known as the 'BTK killer,' Dennis Rader murdered 10 people in the Wichita, Kansas, area from 1974 to 1991, often leaving clues to taunt authorities.

Who Is Dennis Rader?

Born in 1945 in Pittsburg, Kansas, Dennis Rader went on to live a double life: Devoted family and company man by day, he also terrorized the Wichita, Kansas, area as the "BTK killer"—for "bind, torture, kill"—with 10 murders and brazen correspondence with authorities between 1974 and 1991. Rader's alter ego resurfaced in 2004, but his penchant for leaving clues led to his arrest and life imprisonment the following year.

Ordinary Upbringing

Dennis Lynn Rader was born on March 9, 1945, in Pittsburg, Kansas, and grew up in Wichita. The oldest of four sons, he enjoyed a seemingly normal childhood, reportedly masking such disturbing behavior as hanging stray animals.

Rader dropped out of college and joined the U.S. Air Force in the mid-1960s. After returning to Wichita, he married his wife, Paula, in 1971, and worked for an outdoor-supply company for about a year. In 1974, he began a lengthy stint as an employee of ADT Security Services.

First Murders

On January 15, 1974, Rader strangled to death four members of the Otero family in their Wichita home—parents Joseph and Julie, and two of their children, Josephine and Joseph Jr.—before leaving with a watch and a radio. Strangulation and souvenir-taking would become part of his modus operandi, or pattern of behavior. He also left semen at the scene and later said that he derived sexual pleasure from killing. The Oteros' 15-year-old son, Charlie, came home later that day and discovered the bodies.

Rader struck again a few months later: On April 4, 1974, he waited in the apartment of a young woman named Kathryn Bright, before stabbing and strangling her when she returned home. Rader also twice shot her brother, Kevin, though he survived. Kevin later described Rader as "an average-sized guy, bushy mustache, 'psychotic' eyes," according to a TIME magazine article.

'BTK' Goes Public

In October 1974, Rader placed a letter in a public library book in which he took responsibility for killing the Oteros. The letter ended up with a local newspaper, and the poorly written note gave authorities some idea of who they were dealing with. Rader wrote, "It's hard to control myself. You probably call me 'psychotic with sexual perversion hang-up.'" He warned that he would strike again, noting, "The code words for me will be bind them, torture them, kill them, B.T.K." The initials stuck, and the murderer came to be known by variations of the "BTK killer" moniker, or simply "BTK."

Rader's next known crimes occurred in 1977. In March of that year, he tied up and strangled Shirley Vian, after locking her children in the bathroom. In December, he strangled Nancy Fox in her home, and then called the police to report the homicide. Shortly afterward, in January 1978, Rader sent a poem to a local newspaper about the Vian killing. Several weeks later, he sent a letter to a local television station stating that he was responsible for killing Vian, Fox and another unknown victim. He also made allusions to several other notorious killers, including Ted Bundy and David Berkowitz, also known as the "Son of Sam."

Despite his cat-and-mouse game with authorities, Rader was able to keep the lid on his secret, murderous life. Reportedly an attentive husband, he and his wife had a son in 1975 and a daughter in 1978. The next year, Rader graduated from Wichita State University with a degree in administration of justice. Still, he continued to taunt authorities and appeared to be poised to strike again.

In April 1979, Rader waited in an elderly woman’s home, but left before she returned. He sent her a letter to let her know that BTK had been there. In an effort to catch him, the authorities released the 1977 recording of his phone call to police, hoping that someone might recognize the voice.

After several years without a known crime, Rader killed his neighbor Marine Hedge on April 27, 1985. Her body was found days later on the side of the road. The following year, he killed Vicki Wegerle in her home. His final known victim, Dolores Davis, was taken from her home on January 19, 1991.

Return, Arrest and Imprisonment

Over the next several years, BTK dropped off the map as Rader focused on work and family life. He had left ADT in the late 1980s and started working for the Wichita suburb of Park City as a compliance supervisor in 1991. In his new position, Rader was known to be a stickler for the rules. He measured the height of people's lawns and chased stray animals while toting a tranquilizer gun. According to reports, Rader took pleasure in exerting his limited authority over his neighbors and other members of the community. He was also a Boy Scout troop leader and president of his church council.

With many news stories marking the 30th anniversary of the Otero murders, BTK resurfaced in 2004. Rader sent local media outlets and authorities several letters filled with items related to his crimes, including pictures, a word puzzle and an outline for the "BTK Story." He also left packages with clues, including a computer disk that ultimately led authorities to Rader's church. Investigators also noticed his white van on security tapes of some of the package drop-off areas, and cemented their case by obtaining a DNA sample from Rader's daughter.

Rader was arrested on February 25, 2005, and later charged with 10 counts of first-degree murder. His neighbors and fellow church members were stunned by the news, unable to believe that the man they knew was the serial killer that had haunted the area for so long.

Rader pleaded guilty to all of the charges on June 27, 2005. As part of his plea, he gave the horrifying details of his crimes in court. Many observers noted that he described the gruesome events without any sign of remorse or emotion. Because he committed his crimes before the state's 1994 reinstatement of the death penalty, Rader was sent to El Dorado Correctional Facility to serve his 10 life sentences.

Depictions in Pop Culture

Rader's story inspired the Stephen King novella A Good Marriage, which was published as part of the 2010 collection Full Dark, No Stars and later became a feature film. In 2016, forensic psychology professor Katherine Ramsland published Confession of a Serial Killer: The Untold Story of Dennis Rader, the BTK Killer, which revealed that the notorious murderer had planned to claim an 11th victim before he was arrested.

In October 2017 Netflix's crime drama, Mindhunter, was released to critical acclaim. One of the serial killer characters — known as ADT Man on the show — is based on Rader. 

Fact Check

We strive for accuracy and fairness. If you see something that doesn't look right, contact us!