Did the 'BTK Killer' have more victims? Oklahoma sheriff and district attorney spar over cold case
“BTK Killer” Dennis Rader’s former Kansas property near Park City, Kansas, is searched Aug. 22 for clues pertaining to two new potential cases. Photo from the Osage County sheriff’s office via the Associated Press.
Imagine your child disappears. The authorities get involved, but your baby is nowhere to be found. Days go by without a word. Days turn into months. Months turn into years. Years turn into decades.
You hold out hope that something—anything—might present even the slightest link to information explaining why your child left without a trace. Or evidence as to who stole your heart from your chest.
It’s a reality the family of Cynthia Dawn Kinney has suffered since she disappeared in 1976, from Pawhuska, Oklahoma. She was 16 years old and has never been found.
Now, imagine law enforcement relaying information that could solve your child’s disappearance, only to have any dreams of closure ripped away, perhaps due to a petty dispute between elected officials. For Kinney’s family, a county sheriff has been determined to tie her death to Dennis Rader, a convicted murderer also known as the “BTK Killer,” but the district attorney declined to bring charges.
A man named Dennis
Rader, who in 2005 pleaded guilty to committing 10 murders, is famous for writing taunting letters. The former U.S. Air Force enlistee, ADT Security Systems installation tech and dog catcher crafted correspondence that contained so much bravado that he even suggested his moniker, “BTK,” which stands for “Bind, Torture, Kill.”
Toward the end, Rader fell into a self-spawned snare. A floppy disk that he sent to a news station contained encrypted metadata, and law enforcement traced the disk to the Christ Lutheran Church in Wichita, Kansas, where Rader was the church council president.
According to the pastor, Rader had recently used the office computer to print a council meeting agenda. DNA evidence from Rader’s daughter later linked him to the crimes.
A streaming sense
While watching a recent Netflix program about Rader, it occurred to Osage County, Oklahoma, Sheriff Eddie Virden that the killer could have been involved in Kinney’s death. Virden’s office checked Rader’s journals and found that he worked as a regional ADT installer at the same time that a bank was built near the teenager’s workplace.
Virden and Rader met in August, at the El Dorado Correctional Facility in Kansas. Virden questioned Rader about his possible guilt in Oklahoma, but Rader denied killing anyone other than the people he had already been convicted of murdering. Virden thinks that Rader is reluctant to admit to new murders in jurisdictions that allow the death penalty, such as Oklahoma. He skirted death in Kansas, which did not allow capital punishment when Rader committed his murders.
Most of what led Virden and his office to Rader was circumstantial. But that’s understandable based on the time that has passed since Kinney’s disappearance. Also, while the position of sheriff is mostly political and administrative in my experience, Virden’s almost two-plus-decade history investigating the case helps explain why he would still be so involved in his current position.
However, we can’t overlook the political aspect. The publicity surrounding the BTK Killer investigation, along with the Osage County sheriff’s office’s reported attempts to secure a television contract in relation to a reality series, raised a few eyebrows.
In September, Osage County District Attorney Mike Fisher made it clear that there isn’t enough evidence in his estimation to move forward with charges against Rader.
Then Virden sued Fisher in the Osage County District Court. The complaint alleges that the district attorney made “uninformed and ignorant comments” regarding the investigation into Rader’s guilt.
Virden also claims that Fisher contacted Kansas authorities to warn them that the investigation was only “being done only for publicity and political purposes.” And according to the complaint, Fisher “publicly endorsed his own political ally and chosen candidate to replace Sheriff Virden in the 2024 election.”
Likewise, Fisher accused Virden of having a vendetta against him, according to the Pawhuska Journal-Capital. Fisher also told the Pawhuska Journal-Capital that he was disappointed by the lawsuit.
Virden is the one who actually met with Rader, and he’s recounted many of the details of their discussion. One specific aspect of the conversation sticks out, though, and I find it hard to move past. Although Rader denied involvement in murders or kidnappings in Oklahoma, he asked Virden, unprompted, whether he wanted to know one of his fantasies. Virden replied that he did, and Rader told him: “I always wanted to kidnap a girl from a laundromat.”
Kinney was last seen leaving a Pawhuska, Oklahoma, laundry business where she worked.
Adam R. Banner is the founder and lead attorney of the Oklahoma Legal Group, a criminal defense law firm in Oklahoma City. His practice focuses solely on state and federal criminal defense. He represents the accused against allegations of sex crimes, violent crimes, drug crimes and white-collar crimes.
The study of law isn’t for everyone, yet its practice and procedure seems to permeate pop culture at an increasing rate. This column is about the intersection of law and pop culture in an attempt to separate the real from the ridiculous.
This column reflects the opinions of the author and not necessarily the views of the ABA Journal—or the American Bar Association.