How the Cops Caught BTK: Playing to a serial killer's ego helped crack the case
Dennis Rader, otherwise known as the BTK killer, thought he had some sort of understanding with Wichita, Kan., police Lt. Ken Landwehr, head of the multiagency task force that was trying to catch him.
In the weeks before his arrest, Rader had asked police whether he could communicate with them via a floppy disk without being traced to a particular computer.
Police responded by taking out an ad in the classified section of the local newspaper, as Rader had instructed, saying “Rex, it will be OK” to communicate via floppy disk.
A few weeks later, such a disk from BTK was sent to a local television station. The disk was quickly traced to Rader through a computer at his church. DNA testing soon confirmed that Rader was BTK, a name he took for himself that stands for bind, torture and kill.
Within days, the serial killer who had terrorized the Wichita area beginning in the 1970s was in custody. BTK had killed a total of 10 people before seemingly vanishing into thin air in 1991. He resurfaced two years before his arrest, communicating with the police and the media, after a news report speculated he was dead or in prison.
Rader, who turned 61 on March 9, is now serving 10 consecutive life sentences in a Kansas state prison after pleading guilty last June to 10 counts of first degree murder.
‘The Floppy Did Me In’
This is the story of how Rader was caught. And of how he almost got away.
“Him sending that disk is what cracked the case,” Landwehr says. “If he had just quit [killing] and kept his mouth shut, we might never have connected the dots.”
Rader was still smarting about the apparent betrayal in the hours after his Feb. 25, 2005, arrest, expressing shock at the fact police would intentionally deceive him and saying he thought he had a rapport going with Landwehr, whom he referred to by his first name.
“I need to ask you, how come you lied to me? How come you lied to me?” Rader asked Landwehr near the start of what would become a 32 hour interrogation-turned-confession.
“Because I was trying to catch you,” Landwehr replied matter of factly.
“He couldn’t get over the fact that I would lie to him,” Landwehr says. “He could not believe that I did not want this to go on forever.” Rader referred to the floppy disk again later in the interrogation, saying he knew he was taking a “big gamble” by sending it to the TV station. “I really thought Ken was honest when he gave me–when he gave me the signal it can’t be traced,” he said. “The floppy did me in.”
The idea going into the interrogation, Landwehr says, was to get Rader talking and keep him talking. At first, Rader tried to play a cat-and-mouse game with detectives, talking in hypotheticals and referring to BTK in the third person. But once he realized the jig was up, he gave a full confession, recounting in chilling, unemotional detail the cold blooded torture and murder of 10 people, including a 9-year-old boy and an 11-year-old girl.
“We couldn’t shut him up,” Landwehr says.
Rader felt a strange bond to him–and to police in general–Landwehr says, even remarking at one point that they were fellow law enforcement officers. Rader was actually a code compliance officer in the Wichita suburb of Park City.
Rader talked about his crimes–and a host of other subjects–in no particular order, according to Landwehr. And he was easily manipulated by his interrogators’ feeding of his incredible egoism. In fact, he displayed such an infatuation with himself that he seemed to believe the police were his friends. Rader got so comfortable during the interview that at one point he told a police officer to “put ‘BTK’ on the lid” of his drinking cup before putting it in the refrigerator.
Aid From the Feds
Landwehr says the case taught him not to be shy about seeking outside help. He singles out the efforts of two agents from the FBI Academy’s Behavioral Analysis Unit who helped devise an overall strategy for dealing with BTK. The agents not only created a personality profile of the killer but also offered the task force ongoing advice on how to keep the suspect talking without antagonizing him further.
They also recommended that one person (Landwehr) be the designated go-between, helped him write his prepared remarks in response to BTK’s communications, and even suggested questions to ask Rader during his interrogation.
“We stuck to the plan we set up, and it eventually worked because [Rader] got caught up in his own game and ended up giving himself away,” Landwehr says.
FBI officials refused to make the two agents available for interviews, citing the possibility they could be called as witnesses in several pending civil suits against Rader by the families of some of his victims.
But two former FBI agents who profiled BTK, both experts in the areas of criminal profiling and violent sexual offenders, say Rader is a lot like other serial killers in some ways, but not in others.
Retired FBI agent Roy Hazelwood, one of the agency’s original profilers and now a researcher, teacher and private consultant in Fredericksburg, Va., says Rader may be the most fascinating serial killer he has ever studied.
While most serial killers exhibit at least one type of paraphilic behavior, or sexual deviation, Hazelwood says, Rader has at least seven–the most he’s ever seen in one person. Hazelwood says Rader also has at least two personality disorders–narcissism and psychopathy–that are common among serial killers, including Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy and David Berkowitz, also known as “Son of Sam.” In layman’s terms, Hazelwood says, that means Rader has, among other things, an exaggerated sense of self, a lack of empathy for others and no feelings of guilt, remorse or fear.
Unlike most serial killers, however, Rader went on a spree that lasted an unusually long time. He started killing in 1974, when he was 29, and was planning another murder at the time of his arrest, when he was 59. Also unusual for a serial killer, according to Hazelwood, was the amount of time that passed between his crimes.
“Most serial killers kill more frequently than he did,” Hazelwood says.
Spotsylvania, Va.-based criminologist Robert Ressler, another retired FBI profiler who specializes in violent criminal offenders, believes that Rader may be responsible for more than the 10 killings that have been attributed to him.
“These people don’t just stop for years at a time,” as Rader supposedly did, Ressler says.
Another unusual feature of Rader’s crimes, according to Hazelwood, is that he communicated so much and so frequently with the police and the media. Rader sent 19 messages in all, 10 of them in the 11 months before his arrest. Most serial killers do not communicate with the authorities, and when they do it is hardly ever to the extent that Rader did.
Hazelwood also finds it odd that Rader interacted with and seemed to trust Landwehr so completely, which he attributes to Rader’s feelings of superiority and invulnerability. “He apparently believed that Landwehr couldn’t afford to lie to him because he knew if he did, [Rader] would cut off communications with him,” Hazelwood says.
Hazelwood, who profiled BTK as an FBI agent in 1984, got some things right and others wrong. He said then, for instance, that BTK had fantasized about committing sadistic acts as a child, had an interest in psychology and criminology, and was an outdoorsman–all of which turned out to be true. But he also said that BTK was articulate, had likely been interviewed by and been cooperative with the task force, and was probably known to the operator of an adult bookstore in the area–all of which proved to be incorrect.
Ressler says that Rader, like many serial killers, is a sexual sadist with a vivid fantasy structure. Rader also shares another character trait with many serial killers, Ressler says, in that he took personal items from several of his victims as souvenirs. “It helped keep his fantasies alive between crimes,” Ressler adds.
The Allure of the Law
Rader also manifested the common serial-killer desire to be involved in law enforcement, according to Ressler. And when he couldn’t become a cop for one reason or another, he got a job as a code compliance officer, which allowed him to carry a badge and gave him authority over other people, as well as access to their homes.
Berkowitz, who shot six people to death and wounded several others in New York City in the late 1970s, had a job as a security guard. And Gacy, who killed 33 young men and boys in the Chicago area in the 1970s, told people he was an undercover police officer and drove a vehicle that resembled an unmarked patrol car, Ressler notes.
Ressler, who was able to view some of BTK’s early communications as an FBI agent in the late 1970s, says it was evident that the killer had a strong interest in the criminal justice system because he was so well-versed in the details of other serial killings. In fact, Ressler, who also profiled the killer at the time, theorized that BTK was a young, unmarried man who was pursuing a career in law enforcement, which, except for Rader’s marital status, turned out to be essentially correct.
Rader’s creation of a “secret symbol” to authenticate his communications with the police–while unusual–was taken directly from Berkowitz, who drew an occult symbol on one of his letters to the media, Ressler says. But, unlike Hazelwood, Ressler says BTK’s penchant for communicating with the police and the media is typical of serial killers, whose egos tend to be so fragile they seek attention for their crimes. To make that point, Ressler cites a passage from one of BTK’s letters in which he asks, “How many do I have to kill before I get a name in the paper or some national recognition?”
“How plain can you get in your cry for attention?” says Ressler.
And while the media would have you believe that serial killers are usually loners who can’t hold a job and do not form interpersonal relationships, Ressler says, that’s not always the case. Serial killers tend to have above-average intelligence and realize they must put up a facade of respectability to help cover up their criminal behavior, he says. Gacy was married. And Bundy, who confessed to more than 30 murders, had a longtime girlfriend.
Nobody who knows anything about the case believes that Rader wanted to get caught. If he had, they point out, he had 31 years to turn himself in.
And he wouldn’t have been planning another murder when he was arrested, as he acknowledged do ing in his confession. Nor would he have realized his grand scheme, also voiced during his confession, to write a book about BTK, place it in a safe deposit box under an assumed name, and have it discovered after his death.
The beginning of the end for BTK came in January 2005, when he sent a postcard to a Wichita TV station describing a package he claimed to have left by the side of the road. In the message, BTK also asked about the status of another package he said he had left at a Home Depot store a few weeks earlier.
The roadside package turned out to be a cereal box containing a document. It described in gruesome detail his first crime–the 1974 murders of a couple and two of their five children. The box also held some jewelry and a doll with a rope around its neck; the doll was tied to a curved PVC pipe, apparently representing one of the victims, an 11-year-old girl.
But it was BTK’s reference to a package at the Home Depot that gave police their first big break in the case.
An initial search of the premises turned up nothing from BTK. But a store employee told police that his girlfriend had found a cereal box with writing on it in the bed of his pickup truck about two weeks earlier. The employee, thinking it was a joke, threw the box away.
Police recovered the trash and found the box, which contained several documents, including the one asking police whether BTK could communicate with them via a floppy disk without being traced. If so, he asked police to place the newspaper ad saying “Rex, it will be OK.”
Police ran the ad. They also reviewed the store’s security videotapes, which showed an unidentified man in what appeared to be a black Jeep Grand Cherokee pulling alongside the employee’s pickup truck and walking around the vehicle.
The Data Trail
Two weeks later, a disk arrived in the mail at another TV station, along with a gold chain, a photocopied cover of a novel about a killer who bound and gagged his victims, and several 3-by-5 index cards, one of which gave instructions for communicating with BTK through the newspaper.
The disk contained one valid file bearing the message “this is a test” and directing police to read one of the accompanying index cards with instructions for further communications. In the “properties” section of the document, however, police found that the file had last been saved by someone named Dennis. They also found that the disk had been used at the Christ Lutheran Church and the Park City library.
Landwehr says Rader had taken pains to delete any identifying information from the disk. But he made the fatal mistake of taking the disk to his church to print out the file because the printer for his home computer wasn’t working.
“It’s pretty basic stuff,” Landwehr says about the reconstruction of the deleted information. “Anybody who knows anything about computers could figure it out.”
A simple Internet search turned up a Web site for the church, which identified Dennis Rader as president of the congregation. Police quickly determined that Rader was a code compliance officer in Park City, located his address, drove past his house and saw a black Jeep Grand Cherokee registered to his son, Brian, in the driveway.
From there, prosecutors subpoenaed a tissue sample from a Pap smear done on Rader’s daughter, Kerri, at a student clinic near Kansas State University in Manhattan, which she had attended five years earlier. DNA tests on that sample showed that Kerri Rader was the daughter of BTK.
Any lingering doubts were erased after Rader’s arrest, when he proudly described, in a bone chilling, matter of fact way, the torture and murder of 10 people, including the 11-year-old girl and 9-year-old boy. His recorded confession, which lasted more than 30 hours, filled 17 DVDs.
After his arrest, Rader also directed police to what he called his “mother lode,” a drawer in a locked file cabinet at his City Hall office where he kept newspaper clippings about the case; copies of all of his communications; photographs and other mementos of his victims; and several chapters of the book he was writing, which he called “The BTK Story.”
Sedgwick County Deputy District Attorney Kevin O’Connor, one of three prosecutors in the case, says the evidence against Rader was overwhelming.
“We had the DNA, we had his confession, and we had the so-called mother lode,” O’Connor says. “This case was airtight.” Computer experts say Rader inadvertently gave himself away. When a computer user deletes data from a floppy disk, the data itself doesn’t disappear, says Mark Rasch, senior vice president and chief security counsel for Solutionary, a computer security and forensics firm based in Omaha, Neb. While the link to the data disappears, the data itself remains on the disk until it is overwritten with new data.
“It’s the electronic equivalent of removing a card from the card catalog at the library,” he says. “The card may be gone, but the book is still there.”
A more sophisticated user could probably do a better job of covering his tracks. But a qualified expert with the right set of tools can usually follow even the savviest user’s electronic trail almost to the point of the original iron molecules, Rasch says.
“You have to be pretty good to follow that type of trail, but you have to be really good to get rid of it,” Rasch says. “That’s why there’s an entire field of science devoted to computer forensics.”
But O’Connor says police–and Landwehr–in particular deserve a lot of credit for bringing the case to a successful conclusion. They collected and preserved DNA evidence when nobody knew anything about DNA. They kept BTK communicating, knowing that he might eventually slip up. They resisted pressure to test the DNA evidence they had until they had a suspect to compare it with. And they figured out a way to get a profile of Rader’s DNA without tipping him off that they were zeroing in on him as a suspect.
“To me, that’s all a testament to good, old fashioned police work,” O’Connor says.
Mark Hansen is a senior writer for the ABA Journal. His e mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.