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People Top 5
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PEOPLE Top 5 are the most-viewed stories on the site over the past three days, updated every 60 minutes
- March 21, 2005
- Vol. 63
- No. 11
The BTK Case: the Killer Unmasked?
Boy Scout Leader, Church Elder, Security Systems Supervisor—BTK Serial Killer Suspect Dennis Rader Was Many Things. The Scariest? Neighbor
Since the stunning arrest, Wichita residents have been relieved that the alleged killer who haunted their nightmares since 1974 is behind bars, after being charged with 10 murders. But they are also mystified at how Dennis Rader, 60, could hide among them for so long as the killer who taunted the cops and bragged that he would "Bind, Torture, Kill" his victims. "Dennis always seemed—seems—to be a man of faith and conviction," says the Rev. Sally Fahrenthold, retired pastor of Christ Lutheran Church, where Rader has yet to be replaced as president of the church council. "It's simply not possible to put together the Dennis we know with the charges that have been brought against him." Despite the FBI's belief that BTK was a dysfunctional loner, local police suspected that BTK would turn out to be an Everyman who blended into the community. "A lot of us feel vindicated because he's exactly what we expected him to be," says retired Wichita homicide detective Arlyn Smith, who investigated BTK in the late 1970s. "I hear people say, 'God, he looks like any of us.' I feel like saying, 'What did you expect? If he stood out in a crowd, we'd have caught him 30 years ago.' "
Rader grew up in Wichita with his three younger brothers, the son of William, a utility plant operator, and Dorothea. His childhood pals remember him as friendly but somewhat straitlaced. "He seemed to be more academic than a lot of others we ran around with," says David Grammer. "Some of us would raise a little hell. Dennis wasn't involved with that." After a stint as a sergeant in the Air Force, he started working at ADT Security Services, which installs residential and commercial security systems. Denise Mattocks, 46, started working with him in 1980. She was one of two women in their department. "He didn't like the guys telling bad jokes around me. I really trusted him," she says. So much so that she frequently talked with him about her biggest fear, the BTK killer. "Whenever there was a killing, I would go to work freaking out about it," Mattocks recalls. She says Rader listened but never commented. "Sometimes I wonder why I was spared. It's just weird. I can't imagine this man killing one night and then coming to work the next day. And then I greeted him. He was a good man to me."
Other ADT employees remember Rader less fondly. "Dennis was very staunch for doing things by the book. He wasn't a guy who joked around," says former coworker Mike Tavares, 41. The trait served Rader well in his next job, as a compliance officer for Park City, a Wichita suburb—but his nit-picking won him few friends. He was known to measure lawns with a ruler and give out citations if the grass was too high. "Dennis was arrogant in an I'm better than you' way. I think he liked authority and the little bit of control he had," says Anne Jesseph, who received a number of summonses for her lawn. Barbara Walters challenged four citations in court after she says Rader went into her backyard and tried to shoot her dog—he was allegedly running loose—with a tranquilizer gun. "He was a control freak," says her son Patrick Walters, who ordered Rader to get off the property.
By all accounts, however, Rader was a devoted family man. He and Paula, a bookkeeper for Snacks convenience store, married in 1971. They had two children, Brian, 29, and Kerri, 26, and when his son was old enough to become a Boy Scout, Rader jumped in enthusiastically, rarely missing a camp-out and always wearing his full Scout leader uniform. He was an expert knot tier-and a stickler when it came to proper technique. "He taught us all that stuff, like how to make a rope out of twine," says former Scout Larry Jesseph Jr., 30. "But if you couldn't tie a knot, he'd be a jerk. Then when he was nice, he was real nice. It was like he almost had a split personality."
Experts say that's typical for a serial killer. "John Wayne Gacy was married. He ran his own construction business. More socially competent [serial killers] are more likely to have two lives, one normal and one very pathological," says Gregg McCrary, a retired FBI profiler. Certainly that would describe BTK. His first known murder was in January 1974, when he slaughtered four members of the Otero family. He killed another woman that year, two more in 1977, then he apparently struck again in 1985. His last known killing was in 1991. Initially BTK taunted police and the media with letters and phone calls. But after 1979 he was silent until reemerging early last year, sending letters and packages to several Wichita media outlets. Former detective Arlyn Smith thinks the killer's massive ego caused him to resurface; he was upset by a book that lawyer Robert Beattie has written about the case. "If anyone was going to tell [his story], it was him," says Smith.
James Fox, a criminologist at North-eastern University in Boston, poses another theory. He believes that Rader's compliance officer position satisfied the power trip that the murders had once fulfilled. So why start blabbing again? "He wanted to prove the superiority," Fox says. Indeed, one of the items BTK sent was a definite slap to investigators: a photocopy of the driver's license of Vicki Wegerle, whose 1986 murder wasn't even tied to him.
That same arrogance—or need for recognition—undid him. Last month, after police discovered a package BTK left at Home Depot, Beattie says they checked the security cameras and saw a man driving around the parking lot in a white truck. They were able to trace the vehicle to Rader. BTK also sent a computer disk to a TV news channel. Investigators traced the disk back to a computer at Christ Lutheran Church—and discovered Rader was one of the few people who had access to that computer. Beattie says police were then able to get a warrant to collect DNA from medical records of Rader's daughter. It was apparently a familial match to DNA the killer had left at crime scenes. Police arrested Rader Feb. 25.
The Rev. Michael Clark of Christ Lutheran has been in regular touch with Rader's family, who remain in seclusion. One of Rader's public defenders, Sarah McKinnon, says her client isn't depressed, despite news reports to the contrary. "He's tired for sure. He's not sleeping too well," McKinnon says, but he has adjusted to the daily routine at Sedgwick County jail as he awaits a scheduled March 15 preliminary court hearing. Clark denies reports that Rader has claimed responsibility for the murders. "Dennis has not confessed to anything," the Reverend says. "But I will say this. The Dennis Rader I know, if he's guilty, he'll step up to the plate."
If Rader confesses, it probably won't make a difference to Charlie Otero. He was just 15 in 1974, when he returned home from school to find his mother and father in bed, garroted. Two younger siblings, Joseph III and Josephine, were dead in other rooms. Otero, now 47, had been an A student until that day. After seeing the carnage, "I went from altar boy to atheist in about half a second," says Otero, who blames much of his troubled life on BTK. He became paranoid, fearing the killer would come back to finish him off. "I was a very angry boy and a very angry man," Otero says. He served 2½ years in prison for aggravated battery, getting released almost two months before Rader was arrested. Looking at Rader's photo, Otero says, "I see someone who used the public trust to further his own evil. I know I'm supposed to forgive and all that, but that ain't happening."
By Bob Meadows. Kate Klise, Lauren Comander and Lorna Grisby in Wichita and Michael Haederle in Albuquerque
- Kate Klise,
- Lauren Comander,
- Lorna Grisby,
- Michael Haederle.
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