Lust and a desire for fame and power drove the BTK serial killer to murder 10 people in Wichita from 1974 to 1991.
So says professor of forensic psychology Katherine Ramsland, a research scholar who trains detectives and other criminologists, and who has written 58 nonfiction books, many about criminals and crime. Her latest book, “Confession of a Serial Killer: The Untold Story of Dennis Rader, the BTK Killer,” goes on sale Aug. 30.
It won’t surprise those familiar with Rader’s story that lust drove him. In this book, Ramsland guides the narrative but often lets Rader describe in his own words (and sometimes at great length) how abnormal sexual desires led him to kill 10 people. The BTK serial killer literally wrote most of this book. He wrote Ramsland letters and answered her questions in phone calls.
Ramsland constructed the book not as a textbook for criminologists but as a page-turner narrative.
“There is something powerful about the raw experience of having someone freely describe something that most of us find odious, and yet this person doesn’t mind doing this,” she said. “I felt like I’d hit on something.”
That something is a core explanation, she said, backed by years of her research about how and why Rader, Ted Bundy and other serial killers became who they are, and why they do such terrible things.
Wichita natives familiar with Rader say he made up details in the book. A detective who helped capture him says Ramsland didn’t do enough to challenge Rader’s version of events.
For Rader to reappear like this is not new, no matter how much his ego and deeds appall people. He has drawn international attention nearly every year since his arrest 11 years ago. There have been books, multiple film documentaries both foreign and domestic, and at least two movies, including one based upon author Stephen King’s novella “A Good Marriage.”
From Ramsland’s book, people interested in true crime and Rader’s deeds may learn two words:
Paraphilia: Abnormal sexual desire coupled with a penchant for carrying out reckless deeds.
Erotophonophilia: A sub-paraphilia – abnormal sexual desire, coupled with murder fantasies and sometimes real murders. Forensic psychologists also call it “lust murder.”
Rader and several of his serial killer heroes shared the desire for lust killing, Ramsland said, among them Bundy, John Wayne Gacy and Jack the Ripper. She goes into some depth, quoting Rader (and Bundy), to help people understand what drives these deviants.
Rader, in a letter from prison to The Eagle, said there may be no understandable reason why he or others kill people. Life is mostly chaos, he wrote.
“Every one of us will be touch(ed) with Bad news or Bad luck in our own lifes (sic), more to some than others. There seems to be no reason for why it happens … some humans are going to turn evil or bad, and they may be like me, a ‘Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing.’ ”
He hopes the book “will help others to understand part of that ‘Dark Chaos,’ and shine a light on ‘why.’ ”
With Rader concurring, Ramsland made a deal with lawyers representing families of Rader’s victims. “And so the majority of the proceeds from the book will go to them,” she said.
Rader’s daughter, Kerri Rawson, said her father cooperated because he’s proud of his murders – and glad to come back into public view.
Reopening of wounds
Some who remember BTK’s terror period in Wichita’s history already regard this book as a reopening of wounds, and a chance for Rader to pose once again as the dangerous alpha male he fancies himself to be.
“He’s a selfish, egotistical bastard,” former Sedgwick County District Attorney Nola Foulston said. “If what he did weren’t so terrible, he’d be laughably funny, with his ego and his pseudo-intellectual commentary.”
“He’s not Hannibal Lecter (a fictional serial killer from the movie ‘The Silence of the Lambs’),” said Kelly Otis, one of the BTK task force detectives who helped capture Rader in 2005. “He’s an idiot who is a sexual pervert who does nothing but fantasize when he was out, and certainly now that he’s in prison, fantasizing is all he does.”
Tim Relph is a Wichita homicide detective and also a former BTK task force investigator.
“I think time and loneliness has allowed him to fantasize and make himself much more of a master criminal than the facts or history would show,” Relph said.
After they all realized what a clumsy and stupid man Rader was, Otis said, police and prosecutors decided to show the public what he was really like.
“That’s why Nola arranged at his plea hearing to show everyone the photos he’d taken of himself all tied up and wearing women’s clothing,” Otis said. “He’s a freak.”
“Some of the things that it seems like (Ramsland) takes his word on … it’s almost like she takes everything he says as being the truth, when in actuality Dennis Rader’s whole life is fantasy,” Otis said. “And she never confronts him on any of this.”
None of these criticisms trouble Ramsland.
“I don’t think he necessarily told me the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” she said. “I’m better than that.”
“I can’t go back and prove any of it, but that wasn’t the point. The point is to have him tell the story the way he wants to tell it, with the idea that he wants to create impressions. I don’t have any investment in whether he’s telling the truth, but in the behaviors he shows us,” she said.
“If Rader totally made up the items about Paula (his wife), he’s really quite cruel,” Ramsland added. “Yes, he has that side, but he speaks of her with care. Such a cubed individual.”
For a full year, Rader called Ramsland once a week from the El Dorado Correctional Facility, and the two of them would talk for an hour each time, Ramsland said.
They are still in touch. The chess game they are playing has lasted more than a year, with Rader and Ramsland mailing their next moves to each other.
Ramsland says she learned much from Rader and her research that should intrigue police who hunt killers and readers who try to understand why people kill.
Detectives need to know that serial killers don’t fit the patterns of media and movie portrayals, or the common assumptions of many veteran police investigators, she said.
Rader didn’t fit the supposed profiles of other serial killers, and he killed victims at random – a tactic that Otis and other detectives said was key to how he got away with murder for 31 years. There were no connections between his 10 victims, no patterns in the murders that could have provided clues or leads for detectives to run down.
Ramsland teaches forensic psychology at DeSales University in Pennsylvania.
“Investigators sometimes make the mistake of locking in on tunnel vision,” she said. “So they sometimes don’t see things that are right in front of them.”
“The number one thing (for law enforcement investigations) is to not get bogged down in stereotypes and simplified formulas,” Ramsland said. “The idea that there is a common profile for serial killers – that’s a media notion.”
What creates serial killers
How to stop a BTK or a Bundy is hard; learning what created them, or what they say created them, is easier.
Serial killers ruled by the kick of lust murder start by surrendering themselves to a fantasy world, Ramsland said. Besides sexual arousal, Rader was ruled by two other drives.
He wanted a sense of power over his victims; and there is a third drive: He also wants to be famous.
Author Katherine Ramsland
“He wanted a sense of power over his victims; and there is a third drive: He also wants to be famous,” Ramsland said.
It all played out in a sequence and involved dopamine, the human chemical neurotransmitter that affects the pleasure centers of our brains. Rader says he began fantasizing as a young boy. This led to killing chickens and cats, then to stalking women. Those deeds increased his internal dopamine levels, Ramsland said.
Stalking led to burglaries, and the theft of women’s underwear. Eventually it led to murder, which released more dopamine but subsequently required more murderous acts to get the dopamine boost.
Bundy killed perhaps 40 women, a number that appealed to Rader. He says in Ramsland’s book that 30 to 40 murders was his goal, never achieved.
Bundy, as Ramsland reports in the book, said the predatory urge is like the addiction of an alcoholic: It “can be demanding.”
The fantasy life that led to BTK’s murders started early, Rader says in the book.
He knew as a child that he’d become a killer, he told Ramsland.
“Sins pick us according to our weaknesses, and sometimes it run (sic) in the family line,” he wrote Ramsland. “Mine were selfishness, sex and control.”
As a boy, Rader would go off alone near a cattle water tank; he’d bind himself, which aroused him. Already fascinated with suffocation, “I did drown a cat or two,” he said.
One day, Rader wrote Ramsland, his mother beat him with a belt. It sexually aroused him.
He was fascinated by the dual life of H.H. Holmes, a respected 19th-century Chicago hotel owner who trapped and tortured women. In fifth grade, while the other kids were at recess, Rader drew pictures of castles of doom on the chalkboard. He read his father’s true crime magazines, which had photos of women, tied up, on the cover. In high school he was fascinated by the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoon show, where Snidely Whiplash tied Nell to a train track.
He became a peeping Tom at age 10 or 11. He began breaking into houses and stealing women’s underwear at age 14 or 15.
The reward mechanism for doing those things was greater than the reward he got for being a good person. It was exciting. It made him feel alive.
Author Katherine Ramsland
The more he did such things, Ramsland writes, the more he wanted it. “The reward mechanism for doing those things was greater than the reward he got for being a good person,” she said. “It was exciting. It made him feel alive.”
Rader said the killings started in 1974, after he was laid off from Cessna and had time to indulge his fantasies.
He studied other serial killers. He saw himself as a spy. When he stalked victims, he said, he wore his “James Bond” tweed jacket. He called his murders “hits” and nicknamed the women he stalked “projects.” He had hundreds of projects – Project Crest, for a woman who lived near the Crest Theater; Project Steaks and Ale, for someone who lived near the restaurant on East Kellogg; Project Waco; Project Delano; Project West Lincoln.
In 1989, when he worked for the U.S. Census Bureau, he traveled the state. He stalked women in Newton, Topeka, Manhattan, Dodge City, Pittsburg, Great Bend, Hays and Salina.
Police asked him why he killed five people in 1974 and then stopped for three years. Rader wrote that he was busy with his family and work but never quit stalking. He equated it to going fishing and not being lucky. “Bottom line,” he wrote, “I was always on the prowl.”
Anyone reading this book will get the impression that Rader, for all his protestations of being an apologetic Christian now, is proud of the crimes he committed.
“He’s a narcissist,” Ramsland said. “There is some kind of arrested development with narcissism. The person involved becomes very centered on childish things, becomes very ego-driven, unaware of how they affect others – and not caring.”
Dennis Rader of Park City, Kan., was a husband and a father of two, a code enforcement officer, a Boy Scout volunteer, president of the congregation at Christ Lutheran Church – and a serial killer who tortured, strangled or suffocated 10 people from 1974 to 1991. Two victims were children.
After a public silence of 25 years, BTK resurfaced in 2004 with taunting notes to The Wichita Eagle and Wichita police. Police tricked him into revealing clues to his identity 11 months later, in February 2005.
“My main theme was to hang someone,” he wrote in the book. “The act of hanging was sexually exciting to me – the elements of being bound or straining with the rope or noose around the neck, legs bound, and no escape. For self-gratification, I’d hanged myself, to the point of almost passing out.”
He killed no one after 1991, and police thought then that he might be dead or in prison. But in 2004, irritated by a Wichita Eagle story that implied he was being forgotten, he resurfaced, with a cryptic message to the newspaper.
Police, led by Lt. Ken Landwehr, hunted him for the next 11 months. Landwehr made public statements that deliberately played to BTK’s considerable ego. Their fear, which Rader later said was justified, was that he’d kill again to show he could still do it. Their hope was that playing to his ego would encourage him to send more messages, and that in those messages he’d reveal clues to his identity.
It worked; they caught him in February 2005.
BTK, or Dennis Rader, or whoever he was, could no longer kill with impunity, be unknown, command terrified audiences to listen and watch and check under their beds when they came home at night. He no longer got to play God and decide who lives and who dies.
BTK would probably fail as a serial killer today, said Otis, one of the task force investigators: His signature move was to cut the phone line so his victim couldn’t call for help. Nearly everyone has a cellphone now.
Women today, Otis said, are far more prone to carry handguns or pepper spray or own big dogs. When Rader saw the paw prints in the snow outside the Otero house, where he killed four people in 1974, he nearly walked away. Had he known about the dog, he wrote, “I probably would not have pursued the Oteros.”
After he got locked up in the El Dorado Correctional Facility in 2005, women began to write Rader. And he wrote back.
“He has groupies – I don’t know how many,” Ramsland said. “He tells me he is very busy writing people.”
Bad guys exert an appeal to the subconscious minds of some people, she said.
A bad guy is an alpha male, she said. “Those who get obsessively attached – they are responding to what he represents to them. He makes them feel like they are coming near a strong person. They want that strength to radiate outward, to them.”
If he really was the Minotaur he says he is, we’d have hundreds of dead women here.
Kelly Otis, BTK task force
The irony is that Rader is not a strong person, Otis said. “If he really was the Minotaur he says he is, we’d have hundreds of dead women here,” he said. There were only 10 dead, “because he was scared.”
Far from being a clever and careful planner, Otis said, Rader was a klutz, frequently sloppy:
He targeted Kathryn Bright as a female victim living alone, but her brother, Kevin, came home with her. Rader murdered Kathryn, but Kevin fought to save her and himself, and escaped.
Rader got away with all of it for three decades in spite of what a clumsy killer he was, Otis said. This has bothered two generations of Wichita police investigators, who have wondered how a man as stupid as Rader could elude them.
“He did two smart things,” said Detective Relph. “He was absolutely random about who he killed – and he kept his mouth shut. That’s key, because 86 to 88 percent of all murder victims are killed by someone they know by name. With his murders, there was no connection, no methodology, no commonality in anything he did.”
Killers at random are extraordinarily hard to track down, he said.
“But he’s no Hannibal Lecter,” Otis said. “He’s a sex pervert, and a pedophile. He used to cut photos of women wearing underwear or swimsuits out of JC Penney advertisements in the newspaper, and glue them to index cards, and put them on the seat of his truck. He’d name them. And then he’d drive around at work and fantasize all day.
“I wish people would stop trying to talk to him,” Otis said. “In his mind, that’s an honor.”
Some quotes in this story were excerpted from “Confession of a Serial Killer: The Untold Story of Dennis Rader, the BTK Killer” by Katherine Ramsland, published by ForeEdge, an imprint of University Press of New England.
Katherine Ramsland book signing
Who: Katherine Ramsland, author of “Confession of a Serial Killer: The Untold Story of Dennis Rader, the BTK Killer”
When: 6 p.m. Sept. 19
Where: Watermark Books, 4701 E. Douglas, Wichita