Dennis Rader is a serial killer who terrorized Wichita residents for decades, from 1974 to 1991. He gave himself the nickname of BTK, which he said is what he would do: Bind, torture and kill his victims.
Dennis Rader was arrested Feb. 26, 2005, in Park City, Kansas, and booked on suspicion of 10 counts of first-degree murder for the killings of Joseph Otero, Julie Otero, Josephine Otero, Joseph Otero Jr., Kathryn Bright, Shirley Vian Relford, Nancy Fox, Vicki Wegerle, Marine Hedge and Dolores Davis.
Rader worked for Park City as a compliance supervisor, in charge of animal control and general code enforcement. He was married with two grown children; a leader in his church, Christ Lutheran Church; a former Boy Scout leader; an Air Force veteran; and a 1979 Wichita State University graduate.
Rader went to work for the city three years after he left his job at the Wichita office of a national security company. Officials for ADT Security, based in Boca Raton, Fla., said Rader worked for the Wichita office from November 1974 to July 1988.
Those who knew Rader said he paid attention to detail and appreciated neatness. At his church, he passed out church bulletins and welcomed new members. He was so well thought of, he became president of the church congregation.
He was called by others a control freak. As a compliance officer for Park City, he issued threats and spied on people. He was described as cruel and arrogant, on a power trip.
BTK sent several taunting letters to police, the media and crime victims in the 1970s, when he claimed responsibility for seven killings and suggested he be called BTK for “bind them, torture them, kill them.” The letters stopped in 1979.
Some of the letters and packages that he sent to police and media contained information about the killings that were never made public. Some included pictures of his victims, both as they lived and died, and souvenirs he had taken from crime scenes.
BTK would describe the sexual thrill he got from torturing victims. He wrote that he brought some victims to the brink of death. Then he gave them some air. Then he strangled them again.
Rader’s undoing, perhaps, was a letter he sent to the Wichita Eagle newspaper in March 2004. The letter came 25 years after BTK’s last communication and two months after The Eagle published a story about the 30th anniversary of the first killings -- the murders of four members of the Otero family.
The story that brought BTK back
On the 30th anniversary of the first BTK killings, Wichita Eagle reporter Hurst Laviana wrote a story that ran in the newspaper on Jan. 17, 2004. Here is an excerpt from that story:
“I don’t think people today realize the kind of tension there was in Wichita at that time,” said lawyer Robert Beattie, who was a West High School student at the time. . . .
Although the killings remain firmly implanted in the minds of those who lived through them, Beattie said many Wichitans probably have never heard of BTK.
He said he used the BTK case during a segment of his class last year and was surprised at the reaction.
“I had zero recognition from the students,” he said. “Not one of them had heard of it.”
Rader found the story outrageous and impossible to ignore.
Did they not remember him? Did they no longer feel the fear?
He would show them.
In his March 2004 letter to The Eagle, BTK took credit for the killing of Vicki Wegerle, an unsolved 1986 cold case that was never publicly attributed to BTK.
Police investigation and arrest of Dennis Rader
During their investigation and in their interview of Rader after his arrest, police learned answers to questions large and small that had puzzled BTK investigators and amateur BTK sleuths.
His communications always contained misspellings, typos. People wondered: Was it intentional, or was he trying to make people think he was sloppy or uneducated? Was English not his native language?
“The fact is that Mr. Rader is a very bad speller. He doesn’t know how to write,” Wichita Police Lt. Ken Landwehr said.
DNA played a key role in finally making an arrest.
In 2000, four years before BTK ended his silence, the cold case became hot. Wichita police detectives Kelly Otis and Dana Gouge were assigned to work on the unsolved 1986 killing of 28-year-old Vicki Wegerle, a wife and mother found bound and strangled in her home on West 13th.
Police had found a man’s DNA under her fingernails. In 2003, the profile was entered into a newly developed national database of criminals.
But there was no match.
However, DNA tests showed that the same killer had been in the homes where BTK strangled four members of Otero family in 1974, and Nancy Fox in 1977.
After Wegerle was killed, though, there had been no BTK letters. No taunts. No threats. No communication.
Until March 2004, when BTK re-emerged with a mailing to The Eagle: a photocopy of three pictures the killer had taken of Wegerle, lying on the floor, plus a copy of her missing driver’s license.
The photocopy also had a signature the killer had used in his communications over the years: an odd configuration of “B,” “T” and “K,” sometimes with the “B” drawn to resemble breasts.
Once police saw the photocopy, the hunt was on.
DNA and BTK’s daughter
Investigators, without the knowledge of Kerri Rawson, Rader’s daughter, used a subpoena to gain a DNA sample from her medical records.
Her DNA told them that her father was BTK.
The FBI man knocked on Rawson’s door on Feb. 25.
She looked out from her tiny apartment near Detroit. He was holding an FBI badge.
She almost didn’t answer. Her father, a code compliance officer in the Wichita suburb of Park City, had taught her to be wary of strangers, and this one had sat in his car next to her trash dumpster for an hour. She’d called her husband.
But after the FBI guy knocked, she let him into her kitchen, where she’d made chocolate bundt cake. From now on, the smell of chocolate cake would make her queasy.
He asked whether she knew who BTK was.
Yes. BTK – Bind. Torture. Kill. – was the serial killer who scared her mom decades ago. The FBI guy was her dad’s age – late 50s, wearing glasses and a necktie, nervous. She was a substitute teacher taking a day off, still wearing mint-green pajamas, though it was past noon.
Her dad had been arrested as a BTK suspect, the man said.
He needed to swab her cheek for DNA.
After Dennis Rader’s arrest, BTK’s trial
After police arrested Rader, they found the original Wegerle photos and driver’s license taped to a sheet in a locked file cabinet at his work office. He worked as a Park City compliance officer from 1991 until his firing a few days after his arrest.
Rader was so detail-oriented, he kept binders to hold his communications.
Rader had hidden some evidence in his home, including something Lt. Ken Landwehr called a “Vian package.” But most of his communications were either in the locked work cabinet or on the work computer.
One question that lingers is whether Rader killed more than the 10 people. “I’ll never say never,” Landwehr said. But investigators don’t think there are more BTK murders, he said.
After his arrest on Feb. 25, 2005, Rader was held in the Sedgwick County Adult Detention facility on $10 million bond.
His first court appearance was March 1, 2005, before Sedgwick County District Judge Greg Waller. He appeared on closed-circuit television from the jail, standard practice for the initial court hearing for prisoners in custody in Sedgwick County.
He spoke fewer than two dozen words during the hearing.
A high-profile case such as Rader’s, covering 31 years, 10 victims and seven different homicide scenes, was estimated by legal experts to cost the state of Kansas millions of dollars.
News organizations from around the world followed the case; the Sedgwick County Courthouse had to make accommodations for broadcast and print news media to disseminate information across the globe.
Court documents, sealed by Judge Waller, left the public and media wondering what evidence and proof authorities had that led to the arrest of Rader that fateful February day.
Rader waived his preliminary hearing on April 19, and asked to postpone his plea for 10 days. After the Wichita Eagle and five other news organizations asked a judge to open the court files in the BTK case, Judge Waller lifted seals on nearly all the motions and orders in the multiple murder case.
At Rader’s brief arraignment, May 2, 2005, the charges were formally read. He stood silent while District Judge Greg Waller entered a not-guilty plea on his behalf. At that time, District Attorney Nola Foulston served notice that she intended to pursue a Hard 40 prison sentence.
On June 27, 2005, Dennis Rader, the former church leader and Boy Scout leader, pleaded guilty as Wichita’s notorious BTK serial killer. He then gave a detailed recount of how he selected, stalked and strangled 10 people.
In the courtroom, family members of victims could only listen in silence as they heard what happened to their loved ones.
“I called them projects,” Rader said of the 10 murders.
He divided each into steps.
“If you’ve read much about serial killers, you know they go through phases,” Rader told Judge Waller. “Trolling is one of the phases they go through, looking for victims.”
For Rader, they were women, for whom he harbored violent sexual fantasies.
After Rader finished, Waller set sentencing for Aug. 17.
At his sentencing, Foulston, who had a reputation as a thorough trial lawyer, wanted to make a complete record of the way Rader “bound, tortured and killed” 10 people from 1974 to 1991. She wanted the record to be accurate in case of a review by higher courts.
Information she presented included graphic testimony and photographs of the torture Rader inflicted.
Coverage of the sentencing
“Rader’s evil for all to see,” Aug. 17, 2005 - https://www.kansas.com/news/special-reports/btk/article1003771.html
“Families Confront BTK in Court,” Aug. 18, 2005 - https://www.cbsnews.com/news/families-confront-btk-in-court/
DA Nola Foulston interview with CNN, Aug. 18, 2005 - http://www.cnn.com/2005/LAW/08/18/cnna.foulston/
BTK sentenced to 10 life terms, CNN, Aug. 18, 2005 - http://www.cnn.com/2005/LAW/08/18/btk.killings/
Where is Dennis Rader now?
Dennis Lynn Rader, born March 9, 1945, was sentenced on Aug. 17, 2005, on 10 convictions of first-degree murder, for deaths on Jan. 15, 1974 (4 counts), April 4, 1974, March 17, 1977, Dec. 8, 1977, April 28, 1985, Sept. 16, 1986 and Jan. 19, 1991.
He is incarcerated in El Dorado Correctional Facility in south-central Kansas.
The Kansas Department of Corrections lists a parole eligibility date for Rader of Feb. 26, 2180 - 175 years from the date of his arrest. According to the KDOC website, Rader’s custody level is “Special Management,” which means he is segregated from the general prison population.
He is not eligible for the death penalty. Kansas didn’t have a death penalty on the books between 1972 and 1994. Rader committed his first four murders, of the Joseph Otero family, in 1974 and his final one in 1991.
Books written about BTK:
▪ “Bind, Torture, Kill: The Inside Story of the Serial Killer Next Door,” May 31, 2007, written by Hurst Laviana, Roy Wenzl, Tim Potter, L. Kelly
▪ Robert Beattie, Wichita lawyer, “Nightmare in Wichita: The Hunt for the BTK Strangler” - came out in March 2005
Two things drove BTK, a detective said: the perversions that led to the murders, and the hunger for attention that prompted him to send letters to the media.
Learning of Beattie’s book prompted Rader to resurface, after years of silence. Police have no doubt that Rader’s resurfacing, ultimately led to his arrest.
▪ “Confession of a Serial Killer: The Untold Story of Dennis Rader, the BTK Killer,” written by Katherine Ramsland
“Dateline NBC” - Aug. 12, 2005, an interview with Rader, conducted by Harvard neuropsychologist Robert Mendoza
“BTK: Out Of the Shadows,” an interview with the Wegerle family, CBS 48 Hours, Sept. 29, 2005
“The Hunt for the BTK Killer” - CBS movie, Oct. 9, 2005
“My father BTK” - 2020 News Special, Feb. 1, 2019
Kathryn was a member of the Valley Center Class of 1971. She went to the University of Kansas for a semester, then returned to Wichita, where she got a job at Coleman. She was 21 when she was killed.
There were five kids in the Bright family, and 18 cousins who would gather often. It was a close family, her cousin Marcia Brown said.
Kathryn was joyful, beautiful, memorable, Brown said. She would have made a great mom.
“If she wasn’t making me laugh, she was laughing herself. She was such a free spirit.”
Amy Davis remembers the nutty things Grandma did.
The way she carried wet wipes everywhere to scrub any surface - faces included - that might possibly be germy.
The way she “hid” matches on top of the fridge, even after her children were grown.
The way she rolled the car windows down just an inch or two, no more, for fear her grandkids might get sucked out by the vacuum.
“Roll it down, Grandma!” the kids would yell from the back seat. “Can you roll it down some more?”
“No, that’s enough,” she’d say. Then she’d hum a tune and keep driving.
Dolores “Dee” Davis was funny that way, Amy said.
Davis was born June 6, 1928, in Stella, Neb., and grew up on a farm.
Dee worked more than 25 years as a secretary for Lario Oil & Gas Co. She retired in 1990, just months before she died.
She also sold Mary Kay cosmetics. She liked that the company didn’t test its products on animals, Amy said.
Most people who knew Nancy Fox from South High School recalled she was smart, but she also liked to crack jokes.
She was a hard worker. She held a job as a full-time secretary at The Law Co. construction business, and also worked two nights a week and some Saturday’s at Helzberg Jewelers in the Wichita Mall.
At the store, she worked in the office alongside Cindy Duckett, filling out paperwork to resize rings and watches or put items on layaway. Duckett recalls Fox was professional, and always wanted to work even more hours.
“She smiled a lot, she joked a lot,” Duckett said. “She did have worries. She had bills to pay, and she was responsible for herself. She was more mature than the rest of the girls.”
In a sweet Southern voice reminiscent of her Arkansas roots, Marine Hedge always prefaced each sentence with “says well.”
“And then she’d just start talking,” her daughter-in-law, Phyllis Hedge, said. “She talked like Dolly Parton. She was amazingly sweet.”
A petite woman, Hedge loved shopping and jewelry. She was always meticulously dressed, her shoes matching her clothes.
“She was very stylish,” said Phyllis Hedge, who knew her for 18 years. “Just a perfect, meticulous little person. She was under five feet tall.”
Hedge, whose maiden name was Wallace, moved with her husband to Kansas from Arkansas. He worked for Beechcraft. She worked as a second-shift supervisor at the Wesley Medical Center coffee shop for more than a dozen years.
They lived at 6254 Independence Street in Park City. They had one son and three daughters together, in addition to grandchildren.
Her husband died a year before she did. At the time of her death, neighbors recalled she enjoyed bingo, working in her yard and attending the Park City Baptist Church.
There was Joseph Otero the dad - sometimes stern with high expectations for his five children. Report cards with B’s required explanations.
Then, there was Joseph Otero the man - obsessed with aviation and cars, a talented bongo player, a flirt, a cut-up.
Charlie Otero remembers both sides of his father. As a 15-year-old, he was just beginning to bond with his dad when Joseph died in 1974 at the age of 38.
“He was the life of the party,” Charlie said. “If there were 20 guys in a room, he’d be in the middle making them all laugh, telling stories, joshing with people, flirting with girls. He was not a shy person.”
Born in Puerto Rico, Otero immigrated to the United States as a boy.
He grew up in New York City’s Spanish Harlem, where he became a champion boxer and fell in love with Julie, a girl from the neighborhood and another Puerto Rican transplant.
As soon as he was old enough, Otero joined the Air Force, where he served for 20 years. He retired as a master sergeant just before moving his family to Wichita in the fall of 1973.
Julie Otero, a 34-year-old mother of five, was petite, weighing in at only about 100 pounds. And she was as sweet as an angel, her son Charlie said.
But her angelic exterior hid an inner fighter - literally.
A longtime Air Force wife, Julie Otero signed her entire family up for summer judo classes being offered on the base. She saw the classes as something she and her kids could do together.
In no time, Julie was a brown belt and her children were winning trophy after trophy.
“But she was a lady all the way.”
Born in Puerto Rico, Julie came to the United States on a banana boat as a child, her son said.
Outgoing, social and popular, she quickly caught the eye of Joseph Otero, who chased her for years. The two were married in a big church wedding in New York City, and Charlie was born “almost nine months later to the day.”
When the family moved to Wichita, Julie took a job on the assembly line at Coleman. She was laid off about a month later in a labor force reduction. She was recommended for rehire.
Eleven-year-old Josephine Otero was known as “the new girl” among her sixth-grade peers at Adams Elementary School in the fall of 1973.
She started school after the term had begun - something that tends to draw attention from a room full of 11- and 12-year-olds.
They called her Josie.
Josie was quiet and shy, but easygoing, remembers classmate Bill Partridge.
She would just laugh when some of the other kids would sing her the theme song from the “Josie and the Pussycats” cartoon, which was popular at the time.
Charlie Otero remembers his younger sister as pretty and thin with long dark hair.
She was the best student in the family. Despite holding a yellow belt in judo, she was deeply entrenched in her “girlie life.” She liked her Barbie dolls. She wrote poetry. She painted and drew.
She was inseparable from her older sister, Carmen, the only other girl in the family.
Joseph Otero II
Joseph Otero II was the baby of the family, but he wasn’t babied.
Known as Joey, he was rarely left alone by his four older siblings.
“Joey was the darling of the family,” his brother Charlie remembers. “Everybody played with Joey, used him for judo practice. We’d make the dog drag him around the house. But it was all in love.”
At age 9, Joey quickly became one of the most popular boys in his fourth-grade class at Adams Elementary.
He started the school year late, and the girls in his class immediately became enamored of him.
“He was good looking - Hollywood good looking,” said Charlie, six years Joey’s senior. “He had all kinds of girlfriends already. He had droves of them following him around.”
The family dog, Lucky, was a gift to Joey on his fifth birthday. Though the shepherd mix could be ferocious to strangers, Joey loved him.
“All we had to do was sic Lucky on Joey,” Charlie said, “and he’d grab him by the pant leg and drag him all over the house.”
What Shirley Vian’s son Steven Relford remembers about his mother is that she sang in a church choir. She liked to sing.
“She was a good mother,” said Relford, who was just 5 when she died. “She always seemed happy.”
Vian had three children, Bud, Steven and Stephanie.
Vicki Wegerle loved children - her own as well as others - say those who knew her.
Vicki Wegerle volunteered as a baby sitter both at St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church, which she regularly attended, and at Asbury United Methodist Church, which was in her neighborhood.
The Rev. Arno Meyer was pastor of St. Andrew’s in 1986, when Wegerle was killed.
“She was a wonderful woman,” said Meyer, now retired and living in Topeka. “She was just a mild-mannered mother, quiet and loving.”
For 31 years, it remained one of the most closely guarded secrets in the BTK serial murder case.
Wichita police used it to help verify that communications sent to the police and media actually came from the killer. They kept it secret so it wouldn’t be used in hoaxes.
It was the serial killer’s signature - a sexually suggestive configuration of the letters “B,” “T” and “K” still etched into the memories of some former detectives.
Instead of writing the letters in a line from left to right, the killer stacked the “B,” “T” and “K” from top to bottom, with the “B” shaped to look like a woman’s breasts.
Tony Ruark, a Wichita psychologist who consulted with police on the BTK case from 1979 to 1981, recalls that he was told to keep the unique signature a secret.
“This is the one thing that couldn’t get out,” he said.
Only a limited number of detectives laid their eyes on it.
“I’ve never ever described that to anybody,” he said.
The signature appeared in two of five known communications from the killer from 1974 to 1979, according to research by Robert Beattie, the Wichita man who has written a book about the case.
The signature also showed up on a letter that arrived at The Wichita Eagle in March 2004.
At the request of Wichita police, The Eagle agreed at the time not to describe the signature. If it became public, police said, it would be much harder to weed out copy-cat letters.
Jan. 15, 1974 - Joseph and Julie Otero are strangled in their home at 803 N. Edgemoor along with two of their children, Josephine, 11, and Joseph II, 9. The family car is later found at the Dillons store at Central and Oliver.
April 4, 1974 - Kathryn Bright, 21, is found stabbed to death in her home at 3217 E. 13th St. Police later conclude she was a BTK victim.
October 1974 - The Wichita Eagle-Beacon receives a letter from a person claiming to have killed the Oteros. The letter included details of the crime scene that only the killer could have known.
March 17, 1977 - Shirley Vian, 26, is found tied up and strangled in her house at 1311 S. Hydraulic.
Dec. 8, 1977 - Nancy Fox, 25, is found tied up and strangled in her home at 843 S. Pershing. BTK’s voice is captured on tape when he calls a dispatcher to report the homicide.
Jan. 31, 1978 - A poem written with a child’s printing set on an index card arrives at The Wichita Eagle-Beacon. The poem, which is patterned after a “Curley Locks” nursery rhyme, refers to the Vian homicide.
Feb. 10, 1978 - A letter from BTK arrives at KAKE claiming responsibility for the deaths of Vian and Fox, as well as another unnamed victim. At a hastily arranged news conference, Police Chief Richard LaMunyon announces that a serial killer is at large and has threatened to strike again.
April 28, 1979 - The killer waits inside a home in the 600 block of South Pinecrest, but leaves before the 63-year-old woman homeowner returns. He later sends the woman a letter letting her know he was there. Police think the killer was targeting the woman’s daughter.
Aug. 15, 1979 - Wichitans listen to repeated radio and television broadcasts of the voice of the BTK strangler from the 1977 phone call. Police receive 110 tips during the first day the broadcasts air.
Mid-1980s - A new BTK investigation is opened by a group known as “The Ghostbusters,” who spend three years employing new techniques including DNA testing, computer database searches and psychological profiles.
April 27, 1985 - Marine Hedge, who lived just down Independence Street from Dennis Rader in Park City, is tied up and killed in her home.
Sept. 16, 1986 - Vicki Wegerle, 28, is strangled in her home at 2404 W. 13th St. The family car is found two blocks away in the 1300 block of North Edwards.
January 1988 - The wife of murder victim Phillip Fager receives a letter from a man claiming to be BTK. The letter talked about the killing of Fager and his two daughters, but BTK experts disagree whether it actually was from BTK.
Jan. 19, 1991 - Rader kills Dolores “Dee” Davis and leaves her body in a ditch
March 19, 2004 - A letter arrives at The Wichita Eagle containing a photocopy of Wegerle’s driver’s license and three pictures that apparently were taken by the killer. Relatives say the license was the only thing missing from Wegerle’s home.
LINKS TO PAST COVERAGE
Special online Eagle section: https://www.kansas.com/news/special-reports/btk/
BTK case unsolved, 30 years later: https://www.kansas.com/news/special-reports/btk/article1003802.html
Exclusive interview with BTK’s daughter: https://www.kansas.com/news/special-reports/btk/article10809929.html
Transcript of BTK’s testimony: https://www.kansas.com/news/special-reports/btk/article225087595.html
Book by daughter of BTK to be published: https://www.kansas.com/news/special-reports/btk/article202592224.html
Historic photos of the BTK murders and the trial: https://www.kansas.com/news/special-reports/btk/article10767731.html