A Look at the Case of the BTK Killer
Dennis Lynn Rader was arrested in 2005 for the BTK killings that terrorized Wichita, Kansas, from 1974 to 1991.
It was an abbreviation that, for a terrorized Kansas community preyed upon for decades, invoked horror and carried with it unspeakable pain.
It was the moniker of a monster who made sure everyone in Wichita knew what it stood for, what it implied happened to those he had killed and what to expect if they were the next he happened upon: Bind. Torture. Kill.
Between 1974 and 1991, BTK, or the BTK Strangler, killed 10 people. He was not picky in choosing his victims and didn’t appear to have a “type," leaving one man, seven women and two children dead.
It would take 14 years after he murdered his last victim for BTK to be unmasked, but on Feb. 26, 2005, police announced they had finally caught the man responsible: Dennis Lynn Rader.
Below is a look at the murders connected to the BTK Strangler and the investigation that police launched to catch the killer.
Charlie Otero was 15 years old when he became an orphan. On Jan. 15, 1974, the 10th-grader returned home from school to find the bodies of his mother, his father, and two of his siblings.
His father, 38-year-old Joseph, and his 9-year-old brother, also named Joseph, had both been suffocated with a plastic bag. His mother, 34-year-old Julie, was strangled with a rope, and his 11-year-old sister, Josephine, had been strangled and then hanged.
Police at first questioned if Joseph Otero Sr. was responsible for the slaughter, according to Charlie Otero, who immediately shot down any suspicion of his departed dad.
“I can’t explain to you how intense my emotions were at the time,” Charlie Otero told The Wichita Eagle in 2013.
Less than four months later, 21-year-old Kathryn Bright and her brother were attacked as they returned home on April 4, 1974. The intruder forced Bright’s 19-year-old brother, Kevin, to tie her up in the front bedroom and then forced him into another bedroom. After rummaging through the house, the attacker tried to strangle Kevin, and the pair fought over the attacker’s gun.
“He jerked it away from me and shot me,” Kevin Bright told CNN years later. But the attack wasn’t over, as the man shot Kevin a second time. “I played like I was dead. He left.”
Kevin Bright managed to make it to the street and approach two men who brought him to the hospital. It was there that he learned his sister had been killed.
Kathryn Bright was found partially dressed, stabbed several times in the abdomen and strangled. She was rushed to Wesley Medical Center but could not be saved.
The killer struck again when he murdered 26-year-old Shirley Vian on March 17, 1977. Vian’s son, Steve Relford, had gone to a store to get soup for his mother, who wasn’t feeling well. As he returned to home, the 5-year-old boy was approached by a man who showed him a photo of a woman and a child.
“I told him, ‘No sir,’” Relford told CNN in 2005.
He made it home, but a few minutes later, there was a knock at the door. Relford and his brother raced to the door and opened it, unwittingly allowing in the man who would kill their mother.
The man forced his way inside and started “pulling blinds, turns off the TV, reaches in his shoulder holster and pulls out a pistol," Relford said.
He ordered Vian to put toys and blankets into the bathroom for her three children, he locked the children inside and threatened to kill them if they came out. He then murdered their mother.
“My mother laying face down with a plastic bag over her head, a rope tied around her neck, all the fingers in her hand broken, her hands taped behind her back,” Relford said. “That’s what I remember.”
Then on Dec. 8, 1977, Nancy Fox was attacked by a man holding a gun and waiting in her kitchen when she returned home from her job at a jewelry store. She would become his seventh victim.
“She was very outgoing, very friendly,” Nancy Fox’s sister, Beverly Fox, told "20/20." “She was one to speak her mind. She didn’t keep quiet.”
The following day, police received a disturbing phone call.
“You will find a homicide,” the man’s voice said. “843 South Pershing. Nancy Fox.”
Emergency responders rushed to Fox’s home, but it was too late. Authorities had those close to Fox listen to a recording of the call, which they were able to determine came from a pay phone, but no one recognized the voice.
The Games Begin
BTK first began bragging of his killings in 1974, when he slipped a letter into a library book detailing how he killed the Otero family. The two-page missive included how he took their lives, the knots he used to tie each victim’s noose, the clothes in which they took their last breaths and the items from their lives he took as macabre souvenirs.
“I needed one, so I took it,” he said of Joseph Otero Sr.’s watch. “Runs good.”
Police were tipped off to the letter and kept it private, but the media was able to obtain a copy.
“When this monster enter my brain, I will never know,” the poorly worded and spelled letter said. “But, it here to stay … Society can be thankfull that there are ways for people like me to relieve myself at time by day dreams of some victim being torture and being mine. It a big compicated game my friend of the monster play putting victims number down, follow them, checking up on them waiting in the dark, waiting, waiting … Maybe you can stop him. I can’t. He has already chosen his next victim.
“Yours, Truly Guiltily,” he signed it, before adding what he would be called: “BTK,” for “Bind, Torture, Kill.”
In 1978, BTK started directly taunting police, the media and those connected to his victims.
He claimed responsibility for the murders of the Oteros, Bright, Vian and Fox and promised there would be more.
Then on May 5, 1985, authorities discovered the body of 53-year-old Marine Hedge, who had last been seen alive April 27 eating dinner and playing bingo with her boyfriend. BTK abducted her from her home that night and killed her before dumping her body in a remote ditch. Investigators would later learn that she lived just six doors down Rader, who confessed to photographing her body in bondage positions at his church before disposing of her.
BTK struck again on Sept. 16, 1986. Vicki Wegerle, 28, was found strangled in the Wichita home she shared with her high school sweetheart-turned-husband, Bill, and their two young children. Bill discovered his wife’s body on the floor of their bedroom after coming home to their 2-year-old son sitting by himself on the floor of another room. For years, the community and investigators had all but made their mind up that Bill was responsible for his wife’s murder.
"I knew there was an individual out there that did this," Bill Wegerle told "48 Hours" in 2005. "But to me, it just seemed like they weren't looking for anybody else."
BTK claimed the life of his final victim on Jan. 19, 1991, 17 years after he began his reign of terror.
Dolores Davis, 62, was retired and living alone when a cinder block came crashing through her sliding glass door. She ran to see what caused the damage and came face-to-face with a man standing in the back of her home. He took her into her bedroom and strangled her before dumping her body near a lake near Park City. He used Davis’s own car to transport her body.
“My mother had been a beautiful person inside and out, and she’s disregarded like a bag of garbage,” Davis’s son, Jeff Davis, told "20/20."
And then, the killings stopped.
Quiet, but Not for Long
The investigation into the BTK Strangler went cold not long after Davis’s killing. The killings, letters and calls had stopped, and Wichita had begun to breathe easy.
Then, in 2004, he resurfaced.
Apparently spurred by a report in the Wichita Eagle that speculated the monster behind the attacks had died or gone to prison, BTK sent a letter to the paper claiming responsibility for Wegerle’s murder. It was the first in a series of dispatches made by someone authorities quickly realized was the real deal.
“He broke his silence, sending letters again to the media and leaving packets around the city – one in a Post Toasties box by a roadside – containing trinkets taken from his victims: a driver’s license, jewelry, photos of a victim before and after her death, and finally, chapters of a book he was writing about his life titled ‘The BTK Files,’” wrote reporter Cathy Henkel, who covered the case from the beginning. “In all, nearly a dozen communications from a serial killer who had not gone away.”
In early 2005, BTK sent a floppy disk to KSAS-TV. Investigators had assured BTK that communicating through floppy disk would be secure, and the serial killer had apparently not realized material saved on the disk could point police in his direction.
Detectives discovered a file on the disk had last been saved by someone named Dennis and used at the Christ Lutheran Church and the Park City library. They then learned the president of the congregation of the church was named Dennis Rader.
A Long-Overdue Arrest and the Chilling Confessions That Followed
After police confirmed his DNA was a match for the BTK Strangler, Dennis Lynn Rader was arrested on Feb. 25, 2005.
Rader was involved in the church and served as a Cub Scout leader. He spent four years in the United States Air Force and held jobs at the outdoor supply company Coleman, at ADT Security Services, where he installed alarms for many homeowners concerned about the BTK killings, and as a census field operations supervisor.
He was also a married father of two. His wife was granted an emergency divorce after his arrest in 2005.
On June 27, 2005, he pleaded guilty to 10 counts of first-degree murder. Cold and detached, Rader described in detail the murders for which he was responsible.
“Potential hits,” he called the people he considered targeting. “In my world, that’s what I called them. They were called projects, hits … I had a lot of them. So if just, if one didn’t work out, I just moved to another one.”
His victims were apparently chosen at random.
At one point, Rader spoke of his crimes in an almost scholarly way, saying: “If you've read much about serial killers, they go through what they call different phases.
“In the trolling stage, basically, you're looking for a victim at that time," he said. "You can be trolling for months or years, but once you lock in on a certain person, you become a stalker."
The Legacy That Endures
Rader was sentenced to 10 consecutive life sentences, with a minimum of 175 years. Kansas had no death penalty at the time the murders occurred.
He is reportedly in solitary confinement for his own protection. He is granted one hour of exercise per day and three showers per week. In 2006, he was given access to television, radio and magazines.
After Rader’s arrest, law enforcement launched exhaustive investigations to determine if he killed any additional people. Authorities were confident he had no other victims but believed he had plotted the deaths of many others.
Though the case of the BTK Killer was officially solved in 2005, closure for many affected by his murders is still a long way away.
“It’s always been an open sore, and always will be,” Jeff Davis, the son of Rader’s 10th victim, told WREG-TV in 2005. “But at least now I’ve got the name, the person, and the satisfaction of knowing that he’s going to get part of what’s coming to him.”
Rader’s own family is also on the path to healing as they work to put back the pieces of a life shattered when he was arrested in 2005.
“Nobody wants to believe their father could be capable of such monstrous things,” Kerri Rawson, Rader’s daughter, told People.
Rawson’s book, "A Serial Killer’s Daughter: My Story of Faith, Love and Overcoming," was published Jan. 29. In it, Rawson, now 40, chronicled how she has rectified the love she has for her father and the unspeakable crimes she has committed.
“I'd do anything to not be the daughter of a serial killer, but I am.”
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