Table of Contents
The BTK serial killer (Dennis Rader) has become one of the most infamous serial murderers in the history of the U.S. criminal justice. The psychological, social, and biological roots of Rader’s criminal deeds were extensively explored. This case study is just another attempt to reconsider the causes, nature, and implications of BTK’s crimes. The paper includes a description of Rader’s crimes and their identifiable patterns. Circumstances that have led to the killer’s arrest are described. A detailed family and childhood history of the BTK Killer is provided. Factors that led to the crimes are analyzed. The case study includes a profile of the BTK Killer and an explanation of his psychological characteristics. The main question to be answered is whether or not Dennis Rader can be considered a psychopath.
Keywords: BTK Killer, Dennis Rader, serial killer, crime, psychopath, ASPD, family, sexual, violence, abuse.
The BTK Serial Killer: Psychopath or Not?
The U.S. system of criminal justice knew numerous serial killers and repeated abusers, but the BTK Killer has become one of the most dangerous offenders in the history of the U.S. For more than three decades, Rader kept his murderous intentions in secret from everyone, including his family. Between 1974 and 1991, Rader had committed 10 well-organized murders. As of today, Rader is serving ten life sentences – one life sentence for each murder. The psychological, social, and biological characteristics of the BTK Killer have been extensively explored. More often than not, the BTK Killer is claimed to be a psychopath. For this reason, Rader’s psychological profile deserves particular attention.
The BTK Killer: Crimes and Identifiable Patterns
Dennis Rader, the BTK Killer, is believed to be one of the most popular and media-fixed serial murderers in the history of the U.S. (Wolcott & Head, 2010). He has pled guilty to 10 counts of murder, having killed two men and eight women between 1974 and 1991 (Wolcott & Head, 2010). Rader’s first victims were found dead on January 15, 1974: the Otero family was hog-tied and strangled in their suburban home (Newton, 2006). All victims lay their faces down; none of them had been sexually assaulted, although traces of semen were found on the crime scene (Newton, 2006). The killer’s modus operandi was obviously ritualistic and, given that all phone lines in front of the house were cut, the murderer had planned his actions in advance. A few months later, the first letter from BTK was found at a local public library. The letter was intended to become a boaster written by a man who had actually committed the crime and did not want to share his fame with anybody (Newton, 2006).
Three years later, on March 17, 1977, Shirley Vian, a 26-year-old woman, was found stripped and strangled in her house. She had a plastic bag on her head and a familiar cord around her neck. The same year, another woman was murdered in her Wichita apartment. Eventually, a total of 6 victims were found. Many years later, another four victims were included in the BTK series (Newton, 2006). All victims had been strangled. The sexual implications of each murder could hardly be ignored. The BTK Killer was a sexual sadist, who experienced a huge sexual arousal while torturing his female victims and watching them die (Wolcott & Head, 2010). The main distinguishing pattern of BTK’s crimes was binding victims with a cord and strangling them repeatedly, until he decided they could die. Another remarkable feature was in Rader’s conscious striving to boast about his crimes. Rader left a personal signature on all communications he had ever sent to the media: the BTK acronym meant “bind, torture, and kill” (Wolcott & Head, 2010, p.243). Rader asserted that he had a hidden talent and possessed a peculiar factor X feature, which could make him as notorious as his criminal predecessors (Wolcott & Head, 2010).
Circumstances Leading to Arrest
During all those years, Wichita residents could find little comfort in their homes. For all those years, “BTK was an oddity among other serial killers in that he regularly engaged police and the media in cat-and-mouse type games involving cryptic messages, puzzles, and other forms of communication threaded with half-truths, lies, and false leads” (Simons, 2005, p.1). In the middle of the 1980s, police organized a task force to deal with the growing amount of evidence in the BTK series. Members of the task force eventually found that all murders had been committed within 4 miles from one another, meaning that the serial killer knew the area and lived there (Simons, 2005). In 1997, the first solid profile of the BTK Killer was created, although the quality and validity of the data included in that profile was questionable and severely criticized. The BTK Killer continued his distance communications with the media and police until, in 2004, he made a tragic mistake sending his index card and computer disc to the local TV station (Simons, 2005).
The disc had only one file containing one sentence, but the data recovered by forensic specialists was enough to identify the criminal and arrest him. The local forensic computer crime staff identified the last person to use that disc and uncovered residual information on the computers where the disc had been used. The two local organizations owning those computers were the Park City Library and Christ Lutheran Church; a simple search led detectives to the conclusion that the person who had used the disc was Dennis Rader, the congregation’s president (Simmons, 2005). While approaching Rader’s house, detectives found a Jeep Cherokee, a car very similar to the one captured by the surveillance cameras in a place where the BTK Killer had left one of his messages. The DNA analyses confirmed that Rader was the one to have kept the entire community in terror for nearly 30 years (Simmons, 2005).
Childhood and Family History
Rader’s childhood and family history provide abundant information regarding his personality. Actually, it looks quite surprising that, for so many years, Dennis Rader managed to preserve his image of a mentally healthy, decent, and social personality. Rader was born on March 9, 1945, in Kansas, in his family’s farm home (McClellan, 2010). Rader was the first of the four boys to be born to his parents. At the time of Rader’s childhood, Park City, Kansas, was a small farming community; as a result, Rader had few opportunities to entertain himself, while his father was working at the Kansas Gas and Electric Company, and his mother was nursing his younger brothers (McClellan, 2010). Not until she took her first job in 1960, Dorothea Rader, Dennis’s mother, stayed at home with her children. Unfortunately, she failed to notice changes in Dennis’s behaviors and personality.
Since the age of 8, the future killer had become preoccupied with reading detective magazines and watching pictures of the true crime scenes (McClellan, 2010). He was looking for sexual excitement. Since then, Dennis would steal detective magazines from his parents and hide with them in the basement of their farm home, trying to imagine what could have happened to the deceased women in the crime scene pictures (McClellan, 2010). That was also the time when he started to catch and kill small animals: animal tortures became one of the brightest memories of his childhood. He would strangle animals to death, until they looked almost like the dead bodies in the pictures and detective stories he found in magazines (McClellan, 2010).
At school, Rader was known as a social isolate. His academic performance was poor, and he spent hours drawing women in murderous subjugation or cutting their pictures out of detective magazines (McClellan, 2010). With time, he became a petty burglar – a man who broke into houses and stole women’s underwear (McClellan, 2010). Rader grew bored with fantasies and animal tortures and decided to switch to autoeroticism (McClelland, 2010).
Of a particular importance are Rader’s relationships with his mother. It is not until his arrest and the first interrogations that Rader confessed his mother had been the primary disciplinarian in their family (McClellan, 2010). Rader also confessed that, when being spanked by his mother, he experienced sexual pleasure (McClellan, 2010). Because of his mother’s influence and his own personality, he never joined any child communities and did not participate in any extracurricular activities. The only two places Dennis attended after school were the Boy Scouts and the church (McClellan, 2010). The Boy Scouts taught him to tie various knots, whereas religious adherence added to his public image of decency.
Factors Leading to Crime
Definitely, it was due to a combination of environmental and constitutional factors that Dennis Rader became the BTK Killer. The roots of his crime addiction can be found in his antisocial personality. Dennis Rader began as an antisocial person, later turning into a dangerous psychopath. Since his early years, he had been egocentric and insensitive to the needs of others (Carpenter & Huffman, 2009). The lack of sympathy and conscience made his personality profile even more challenging (Carpenter & Huffman, 2009). At the same time, his unusual relationship with mother almost predetermined the discussed changes in Rader’s psychology later in life (LaBrode, 2007). Not surprisingly, eight out of ten Rader’s victims were women.
Rader’s ego was the primary driver of his cruel intentions. He sought power and publicity. BTK’s victims were tied and strangled, since he wanted to keep a high level of control over them (Douglas & Dodd, 2007). He did not want quick satisfaction; his victims died slowly and in tortures. At times, he arranged their bodies in ways that reminded him of some detective magazine stories. Eventually, it is due to his ego that he was identified and arrested (Douglas & Dodd, 2007). His search for public recognition and fame finally led him to the downfall.
The BTK Killer: Classifying Behaviors
Psychologicalprofiling can shed some light on the most controversial aspects of Dennis Rader’s psychology and behaviors. Apparently, all crimes committed by the BTK Killer were well-organized (Douglas, Ressler, Burgess & Hartman, 1986). He acted like a socially adequate person, had a college degree and good family skills. His murders were planned. He enjoyed playing games with police. BTK’s aggressiveness was instrumental, used to gain a higher social status and exercise power (McClellan, 2010). His murder behaviors fell into the categories of lust, hedonism, and power-control (Holmes & Holmes 2009). The sexualization of power, the presence of a strong connection between violence and sexuality, the power and control over victims, strangling and psychological tortures, as well as the eroticization of crime scenes, suggest that Dennis Rader is a rare example of the serial killer, whose behavioral categories overlap (McClellan, 2010).
Based on Keppel and Walter (1999), Rader committed anger-excitation rape-murders. Keppel and Walter (1999) describe this type of murderers as those, who are either married or maintain a strong interpersonal relationship with one person. These criminals create a vision of being socially stable and appropriate, skilled, and sexually extrovert (Keppel & Walter, 1999). It would be fair to assume that cognition was the definitive element of Rader’s behaviors (Godwin, 2000). He was not attached to his victims but used them merely as instruments to achieve the goals of fame, popularity, power, and control. He was a rapist serial sexual murderer (Kocsis, Cooksey & Irwin, 2002). “He considered himself powerless to attack the sources of his humiliations and could only attack the symbols of those subjects of power he could not achieve” (McClellan, 2010, p.187).
Conclusion: Psychopath or Not?
The roots of Dennis Rader’s criminal history can be readily traced to his childhood. His preoccupation with animal tortures and stories from detective magazines, coupled with his mother’s strong character, played a huge role in the development of his antisocial personality. Definitely, the BTK Killer was a psychopath: he used a mixture of personal charm, intimidation, manipulation, and violence to exercise control over his victims and satisfy his selfishness and desire for fame (U.S. Department of Justice, n.d.). The results of a complex psychological expertise confirmed that Rader did not suffer from any known mental illness but killed people simply because he wanted to kill (McClellan, 2010). His confessions, the realization of what he had done, and the rationalization of his actions and deeds do not leave any further doubts: Dennis Rader, the BTK Killer, was a violent sexual murderer, a serial rapist, and lust offender, who used his victims as the only way to power and public recognition.