My Father Was the BTK Killer. Here’s Why I Managed to Forgive Him.
Could you ever forgive a serial killer? What if he was your father?
Travis Heying/Wichita Eagle
The man knocked on Kerri Rawson’s door around noon on February 25, 2005. She looked out at him from inside her apartment near Detroit—he was holding an FBI badge.
She almost didn’t answer. Her father, a code compliance officer in Park City, a suburb of Wichita, Kansas, had taught her to be wary of strangers, and this one had sat in his car for an hour outside her home. But she decided to let the FBI agent into her kitchen, where she had made a chocolate Bundt cake. From then on, the smell of chocolate cake would make her queasy.
The man asked if she knew what BTK was. Yes, she did. BTK—Bind, Torture, Kill—was the nickname for the serial killer who had scared her mom decades ago and who was responsible for murdering ten people in Kansas between 1974 and 1991.
The FBI guy was her dad’s age, in his late 50s, wearing glasses and a necktie, nervous. Kerri was a 26-year-old substitute teacher taking a day off, still in her pajamas. The man said her dad had been arrested as a BTK Killer suspect. He needed to swab her cheek for DNA. (Here are the strangest unsolved mysteries in each state.)
At that moment, in Park City, Kerri’s mother, Paula Rader, 56, sat down to lunch at home, waiting for her husband, Dennis. Cops rushed in, guns drawn. A week later, Paula’s lunch still sat uneaten in the house she had shared with Dennis since the early 1970s. She’d never sleep there again.
Cops arrested Dennis as he was driving home for lunch. In Wichita, officers picked up family and friends for questioning. At the police station, Paula defended Dennis. Back in Detroit, Kerri yelled at the FBI agent. The last time she had seen her dad was in Park City at Christmas. He’d looked sad. She remembered his bear hug, how he smelled, his brown uniform. This could not be true, she told the man. Dad had called last night, asking if she’d checked the oil in her car.
At that point, she did something she would do many times over the next seven days: defend and then doubt her father at the same time. She told the agent about Marine Hedge. Hedge, 53, was a grandmother with a silky southern accent, five feet tall, weighing no more than 100 pounds. She’d lived six doors down from the Raders and disappeared in 1985, when Kerri was six. Hedge’s body was later found in a ditch. Paula had been fearful. “Don’t worry,” Dad had said. “We’re safe.”
Kerri remembered that when Hedge disappeared, her dad wasn’t home. “It was stormy, and I didn’t want to sleep by myself. My mom let me in her bed—that’s how I know he was gone.”
After the FBI agent left, she took down a picture of her father from the hallway and stuck it in a closet. She Googled “BTK” for proof that he was innocent but then told her husband she was matching her memories to BTK’s murder timeline, wondering if her whole life might be a lie.
The next day, police and politicians gathered in Wichita’s city hall. “BTK is arrested,” the police chief announced. Kerri was furious when she learned that to link her dad to the BTK Killer, cops had obtained one of her Pap smears taken years before at Kansas State University’s clinic. They used it to confirm that the Rader family DNA closely matched DNA in the semen that BTK left at the scene of a quadruple homicide in 1974. The FBI guy had asked Kerri for a cheek swab so he could double-check her DNA.
The first nights, Kerri and her husband, Darian, slept as if one of them needed to be on watch—she on the couch, he on the floor. TV crews camped outside, and when Darian drove to work, they followed.
Darian watched his wife change. Athletic and nearly five foot ten, she was no girlie girl, and he loved that. She could walk for days carrying a backpack. But now, she was the BTK Killer’s daughter. She even looked like her dad: same dark hair, same eyes. She shared his middle name, Lynn. She felt as if she’d done something wrong.
Courtesy Kerri Rawson
Kerri searched her memories. The night of Hedge’s murder, Dad had taken Brian, her brother, on a Boy Scout campout. Was it an alibi so he could sneak out and murder their neighbor? In 2004, around Christmas, after BTK threatened in letters to the police and news outlets that he would kill again, Dad had driven her to the airport to pick up her brother. But Dad had wandered off. Was he mailing one of those letters? Watching the news to see if he was mentioned? She minutely analyzed her whole life.
Kerri remembered how he spoke sharply if she sat in his chair or failed to put her shoes away. Cops said BTK made strange marks in his communications to them. She recalled weird marks Dad made on newspaper stories. “Code,” he’d called it.
Three days after her dad’s arrest, Kerri flew back to Kansas City. On the plane, she escaped by reading Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. But on her layover, she saw her father’s face on the airport’s TV screens.
Mike Clark, the family’s pastor, visited Dennis Rader in jail a week after his arrest. Clark called Paula afterward, and Kerri watched her mother take the call, with a yellow legal pad in her hand. Paula wrote, “He’s confessing,” and underlined it as they talked.
It was true. He had murdered the Oteros: a mom, a dad, and two children, ages 11 and 9. He had tortured victims, sexually defiled several. He had taken Hedge’s body inside Christ Lutheran Church, where he was congregation president. He posed her and took photos. BTK had started his crimes in 1974, before Kerri was born.
Everybody assumed the BTK Killer was a sadistic genius. But the real BTK is an ordinary, inarticulate doofus, Darian thought. And a good dad, Kerri said. With Paula, he’d taught the kids’ godliness. Kerri had two college degrees; Brian, her older brother, had been an Eagle Scout and was training to serve on U.S. Navy nuclear submarines.
Dennis couldn’t understand why no family members visited. Kerri wrote him: “You have had these secrets, this ‘double life’ for 30 years; we have only had knowledge of it for three months … We are trying to cope and survive … You lied to us, deceived us.”
The family dreaded a trial, where his crimes would be described. Dennis pleaded guilty to spare them. Kerri felt relieved until the plea hearing. Her dad told a TV audience at length how he had killed people, lingering over how he’d murdered the Otero kids. He seemed to enjoy the story. He even brought up Kerri. “Joseph Otero had a daughter; I had a daughter.”
One night the next year, while Darian slept, Kerri lay beside him and wrote her father.
“Should I tell you that I grew up adoring you, that you were the sunshine of my life … true, even if it is coming out jaded and bitter now … Sometimes I just want to go out and buy the biggest, buttery tub [of popcorn] I can find and wave it in your face and say, ‘Ha, you won’t ever have this again’ and ask was it worth it? In the next breath I want to ask if you’re staying warm at night … I’m so sorry that you’re alone in that small cold concrete cell and sometimes I just wish I could give you a hug.”
She never sent that letter. And when her dad wrote, his letters sometimes went into the trash, where she dumped cat litter on them. Other times she’d write, and he would not reply, later telling her he’d been busy.
Dennis committed his first murders at age 29. At age 29, Kerri became a mother, and suddenly she truly despised her dad. In 1974, he had killed two children. In 1977, he had strangled Shirley Vian while her six-year-old son watched through a keyhole. In 1986, he killed Vicki Wegerle as her two-year-old stood in a playpen. “Man hurt Mommy,” the child told police. Kerri stopped writing to her father and cut him out of her life.
Sue Parker, a therapist, treated Kerri for five months in 2007. Parker saw a woman with above-average intelligence, poise, and post-traumatic stress. (Kerri gave permission for Parker to be interviewed for this story.) Many factors determine how well people can recover. “It’s about the severity of the trauma and how long it goes on, but it also depends on the coping mechanisms the victims have … their support system, who they have around them,” Parker said.
Kerri had had good people around all her life, Parker thought. A loving husband. Church. Friends. And good parents. Not just Mom. Dad too.
Courtesy Kerri Rawson
The cops said Dennis Rader fancied himself a James Bond character with cover stories—Boy Scout volunteer, congregation president. But the BTK Killer had also been a good dad, Parker said. “Maybe it was all a cover story,” she added. “But if it was, it was a cover story that actually worked.”
While betrayed on a level only God can understand, Parker said, Kerri seemed healthy and strong when she left Parker’s care. After her daughter, Emilie, was born, Kerri clung to teachings about God’s love. But when a sermon on forgiveness was announced at church, she stayed away. She had a second child, Ian, in 2011, but her dad’s betrayals kept poisoning her life. When Emilie was five, she asked her mother where her grandfather was.
“In a long time-out,” Kerri replied.
Could Kerri see him? Emilie asked.
“It’s a really long time-out,” Kerri answered.
One day at church, Darian and Kerri listened to a woman describe being raped. She said she forgave not to help the rapist, but to lighten her own suffering. Kerri talked about that idea for days. In August 2012, she announced at church that her father was a serial killer and told her story. “I have not forgiven him,” she said. Marijo Swanson, a friend, talked to her. “If we choose not to forgive or not work at healing from the betrayal,” she told Kerri, “we continue to give the other person power to control us and our feelings.”
That fall, Kerri suffered a fracture in her tibia. She was laid up for weeks. Shortly afterward, forgiveness poured over her one day. She sobbed so hard while driving that she had to pull the car over. The anger was gone. In December, Kerri wrote to her dad for the first time in five years. She told him she would never forget his crimes or be at peace with them, but she was at peace with the man who had raised her. Then she wrote of her life and of the grandchildren he would never meet. “I don’t know if I will ever be able to make it for a visit but know that I love you and hope to see you in heaven someday.”
After that letter, Kerri changed. “Before she forgave him, she thought of herself as BTK’s daughter,” Darian said later. “But as soon as she forgave him, she was Kerri again.”
In February 2013, Kerri spoke at church. “[God] told me, ‘You have a dad problem; you have a trust and obedience problem. You trusted and obeyed your earthly father, and he hurt you, so now you’re holding out on me. Let’s fix that.’”
She said, “I told Him that ‘I love you.’ He said, ‘Then show me.’”
Courtesy Kerri Rawson
And so she had done it, she told them. She had forgiven him. She wrote again to her father, telling him once more that she forgave him. Her father was stunned. “Forgiveness is there between the lines,” he wrote in his rambling style. “She recalls all that we did as a family—many good memories, and that helps her make the day. That is true love from a daughter’s heart. What else can a father ask for.”
That was not the end to Kerri’s struggles. In September 2013, Stephen King said in a TV interview that he’d written a story inspired by the Rader family called “A Good Marriage,” about discovering a monster in the house. Furious, Kerri gave her own interview, lashing out at King. Among people giving her rave reviews: Dad.
“She reminds me of me,” he wrote to the Wichita Eagle. “Independence, fearless, uses the media. I was touch[ed] by it … People reading … will see we had a ‘good Family.’ Nothing to hide; Only me with my ‘Dark Secrets.’ Like she said, I was a good Dad, (but only did bad things).”
Memories came back to Kerri. In 1996, the Raders had lost a cousin to a car wreck and were losing a grandfather to illness. To comfort the family, her mom made manicotti, but the Raders got into a fight at dinner. “We had this old rickety table and someone—I don’t remember who—pounded on it, and the legs broke and all the dinner came crashing down … My dad was so angry at my brother, he put his hands around my brother’s neck and started to try to choke him. I can still picture it clearly, and I can see the intense anger in my dad’s face and eyes. Close to manic.”
For Kerri, life continued to be complicated. “I fight my dad sometimes in my dreams, never understanding who let him out of prison,” she said. “I’m always very fearful of him and very angry in my dreams. Sometimes I’m even fighting for my life or frantically trying to convince others of the truth.”
On a bitter morning in January 2015, Kerri is in Wichita. “Coming back here to Wichita is like stepping into enemy territory,” she says. She wonders whether people might recognize her, and she talks about forgiveness. “I feel bad for the 30 years of … bad things because of one man, my dad … I forgave him. But I didn’t do that for him,” she says. “I did it for me.”
She returns to her old block and points. “There’s my grandma’s house, and there’s where Mrs. Hedge lived … And here is where our house was.”
It is a vacant lot. The city razed the house to discourage gawkers. “To get to my grandma’s house, I had to walk past Mrs. Hedge’s house, and now [at age six] I was afraid. And the guy who killed her was living in our house.”
She shows where a tree house stood, built by her dad. She indicates with her arms how big his garden had been. “He turned my bedroom into a nursery for plants when I was three, and I’d sleep with my brother in the bunk bed. I was so annoyed with my dad. But now you realize that kept him out of trouble. He was trying to stop. So it was plants—or murder.”
She points to a depression in the grass: the grave of Patches, a pet dog long dead. The cops were so suspicious of the BTK Killer that they had dug up the dog’s remains to see whether BTK had buried any secrets with them. He had not.
But nothing about her life was spared, Kerri says. Not even the graves of long-dead dogs.
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