The Serial Killer Next Door?

updated 03/14/2005 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/14/2005 AT 01:00 AM EST

When four police officers arrived at Christ Lutheran Church in Wichita with a search warrant on Feb. 25, Pastor Michael Clark was surprised. Then came the real shock: They suspected congregation leader Dennis Rader, a member for nearly three decades, was the notorious BTK serial killer who had haunted the city since the 70s. "It took me about 10 minutes to realize what they had said to me," says Clark of hearing the news that Rader, who had served as an usher the previous Sunday, could be the strangler who earned his nickname by binding, torturing and killing his victims. "It's betrayal if the truth is what they say it is."

Police certainly seemed confident at an emotional press conference the next day. "The bottom line: BTK is arrested," said Wichita police chief Norman Williams, to cheers and tears from victims' family members. In making the announcement Williams added two names to BTK's tally: Marine Hedge, 53, killed in April 1985, and Dolores Davis, 62, slain in January 1991. According to authorities, Rader, 59, has been linked to 10 murders in the area, and they are exploring the possibility of additional victims. (By one press account, Rader has confessed to some of the killings, a report police have called "speculation.") "We knew someday it would come," says a teary- eyed Ruth Fox, whose stepdaughter Nancy Fox, 25, was strangled in 1977. "It's a relief, yet again, it's hurting."

Most of Wichita is resting easier. "I'm sure there are some women in this community who will sleep well tonight for the first time in 31 years," says Robert Beattie, a local attorney who's writing a book about the case. BTK is believed to have claimed his first victim in 1974, when he killed four family members in their home. Over the next five years, he strangled at least three more people, causing widespread panic. "He'll be right up there with Dahmer, Gacy, Son of Sam," says former FBI profiler Rob Ressler.

Through the years, investigators found some physical evidence, including a thumbprint, partial palm print and semen-but were unable to make a match, despite performing DNA tests on about 4,000 men. While evading capture, BTK taunted them and the local media, including one letter that asked, "How many people do I have to kill to get my name in the paper?" But after 1979, the contact—and the killings—seemed to end.

Then, in January 2004, the Wichita Eagle ran a story about the 30th anniversary of the first murder, including an appeal from author Beattie that if BTK had died, relatives discovering an unfamiliar driver's license, watch or keys should come forward. Two months later the newspaper got a package containing a photocopy of a woman's driver's license and three grisly pictures of a woman's body. All identified Vicki Wegerle, 28, victim of a previously unsolved 1986 Wichita murder. "Obviously BTK read the article," says Jackie Williams, former U.S. Attorney for Kansas, "and said, 'Okay, I'll prove I'm here.' " At least eight more letters and packages followed.

Investigators have been tight-lipped about what put Rader on their radar, although several sources, including former Wichita police chief Richard LaMunyon, say that DNA provided the decisive link. Police reportedly received a sample from Rader's daughter Kerri, 26, and found a match. Despite the monstrous nature of his crimes, many BTK investigators "thought all along that he was somebody who went to work and church," says Arlyn Smith, 53, a former Wichita homicide detective. "The killer could be your neighbor. He was vanilla enough to blend in."

That description fits Rader. He served in the Air Force, graduated from Wichita State University in 1979 with a degree in administration of justice and worked as a compliance officer for Park City, a middle-class Wichita suburb in which he and his wife, Paula, lived in a modest one-story house. Some of his neighbors say Rader was a nuisance who cited them for violations like letting their lawns grow too long and unlicensed dogs. Others, like Gary VanDusen, say Rader "talked all the time and was friendly. He could have fooled anybody." Including, it seems, his family, whom Pastor Clark described as devastated. "The family is in a bewildered stage," he said, "trying to make sense and understand what is happening."

So is Jeffrey Davis, 53, whose mother, Dolores, is BTK's last known victim. The killer threw the retired administrative secretary's keys onto the roof, piled her shoes into a pyramid and left his partially eaten bowl of cereal in the sink. Her body was found 13 days later under a bridge, hands, feet and knees bound with pantyhose. "The death penalty would be too easy," says Davis. "Hopefully he'll live to be 90, and every day will be a total hell."

Lauren Comander and Darla Atlas in Wichita, Kate Klise in St. Louis and Noah Isackson in Chicago

From Our Partners