The Killer Next Door

Something doesn’t seem right, thought Cindy Plant, as her truck bounced along an old dirt road north of Wichita last

Something doesn’t seem right, thought Cindy Plant, as her truck bounced along an old dirt road north of Wichita last January. Plant, 52, is code and animal control officer for the tiny community of Valley Center, which lies just north of the country road. Valley Center has many paved highways, but Cindy prefers North Seneca Street, a less traveled agricultural route that parts a sea of wheat fields.

She was taking Seneca to Park City, a nearby town where her friend Dennis Rader held the same position she did. They’d met in 1991 when Plant, a sturdy blonde with a soft open face, trained Rader in animal control — teaching him how to recognize and evaluate dog behavior, when to use the tranquilizer gun, and how to deal with sadness when dogs need to be put down.

The back of Plant’s truck is often populated with a barking dog or two, generally in some state of distress, but today what distracted her was litter — specifically a Post Toasties cereal box propped up against a road-curve signpost. As a code officer, Plant pays attention to trash. “If I see tires dumped, or an old freezer, I get out and report it to Environmental Health,” she says. “When you look at trash and debris, it’s flung, it’s thrown, it’s blown, but it’s never propped up.” Plant passed the box for several days, curious yet always too busy to get out and take a look.

As Plant suspected, the cereal box was not trash. It had been weighted with a brick and positioned carefully against the signpost by Wichita’s notorious serial killer, who in a letter to police once referred to himself as BTK — short for “bind them, toture [sic] them, kill them.”

BTK enjoyed corresponding with the cops, sometimes via the media. In a postcard tip sent to a local TV station about the time Plant spotted the cereal box, the killer indicated its location, and said the box contained a doll, some jewelry, and an “acronym list” that may have been a word puzzle.

Months earlier, the reemergence of BTK, who had not been heard from in 25 years, had sent shock waves through Wichita. Police believed he was responsible for some ten deaths, his reign of terror beginning on January 15, 1974, when he murdered Joseph Otero and his family.

After serving 20 years in the Air Force, Otero, 38, had moved with his wife, Julie, 34, and their five children to Wichita, a center of aircraft manufacturing. The killer apparently interrupted a sandwich-making operation when he entered the modest Otero home on that cold winter morning: In the kitchen, a knife coated in peanut butter was found in mid-smear on a slice of bread. The telephone line had been cut. BTK tied up Joseph, Julie and two of their children — Joey, 9, and Josie, 11 — then, according to police reports, slowly strangled them to death with venetian blind cords. Although he did not sexually assault any of the victims, semen was found on young Josie’s inner thigh, indicating the killer was a sociopath who took sexual pleasure in the killing.

He also took souvenirs — a watch and a key chain — leaving the bodies to be discovered by the couple’s other three children, all teenagers, when hours later they returned home from school.

Determined to solve the Otero crime quickly, police mobilized across town, interviewing anyone who had even a remote acquaintance with the victims. They set up a roadblock near the house and quizzed passing drivers. Wichita Police Chief Floyd Hannon even traveled to the Oteros’ native Puerto Rico as well as Panama, where the family had once been stationed, looking for clues. In the ensuing months several arrests were made, but the suspects all had good alibis and were released. Because DNA matching had yet to be developed, the killer’s semen sample was of little help in the investigation.

The Otero family was killed when Dennis Rader was 28 and between jobs. His father, William, who died in 1996, was a former Marine who worked at a Wichita power plant; mother Dorothea was a grocery store bookkeeper and still lives in the Park City bungalow where Dennis and his three younger brothers grew up — on North Seneca Street, a couple of miles south of where the Post Toasties box was found.

John Davis, 59, Rader’s best friend from age five, recalls enjoying a Tom Sawyer-Huck Finn childhood with his pal. “We spent a lot of time at the Little Arkansas River, fishing and swimming,” he says. “We would dig foxholes and build forts. Neither of us ever got into any sort of trouble. Our parents kept a close eye on us. Dennis’s father was a very nice person. He was fair-minded, but you just knew he didn’t put up with any nonsense.” The pair joined the Boy Scouts, regularly taking long hikes and canoe trips.

After graduation from Wichita’s Heights High School in 1963, Davis saw less of Rader, but the friends remained loyal. “He would lend me his car so I could pursue my girlfriend,” says Davis, who is a staff member at the University of Washington in Seattle. When that girlfriend became Davis’s wife in 1966, Rader was best man. The same year, Rader joined the Air Force. After an honorable discharge in 1970, he married Paula Dietz and settled down in Park City to raise a family in a small ’50s ranch house they purchased on Independence Street, a crescent-shaped lane with no sidewalks.

Until July 1973, Rader worked as an assembler at the local Coleman camping supply factory. In November 1974 he landed a position as an installer for ADT, the nationwide home security company. The job was the first in a series of positions that gave Rader access to Wichita homes in an official capacity.

Three months after the Otero murders, the killer struck again — stabbing to death 21-year-old Kathryn Bright, a worker at Coleman, and shooting her brother Kevin, who escaped with serious head injuries. It was just a few months after the Bright murder that the killer first identified himself as BTK in a grammatically challenged, typewritten letter to police. “I’m sorry this happen to society,” he wrote. “They are the ones who suffer the most. It’s hard for me to control myself. You probably call me ‘psychotic with sexual perversion hang-up.’ When this monster enter my brain, I will never know.”

To prove his authenticity, the killer related details of the Otero murders that had not been released to the public: “All victims had their hand s tie nehind [sic] their backs. Gags of pillow case material. Slip knotts [sic] on Joe and Joseph … Purse contents south of the table. Spilled drink in that area also, kids making lunches.”

More grim killings, and letters, were to come. On Saint Patrick’s Day of 1977, BTK entered the tidy cottage of a 24-year-old church choir singer named Shirley Vian, locked her three children in the bathroom, and then tied Vian to a bed and strangled her as the children wailed. “They were very lucky,” BTK wrote in a letter. “A phone call save them. I was going to tape the boys and put plastics bag over there [sic] head like I did Joseph [Otero] and Shirley. And then hang the girl. God-oh God what a beautiful sexual relief that would [have] been.”

In December of the same year, not far from Vian’s home, BTK bound and strangled Nancy Fox, a 25-year-old secretary; then he used a downtown pay phone to report the homicide. “You had to have lived here to know the fear that gripped this city,” recalls Plant. “The Otero killings happened on my 21st birthday. I was a young mother and just scared to death.” Robert Beattie, a local lawyer and author of a book about BTK called Nightmare in Wichita, says a generation of Wichita women took to checking their phone lines the moment they entered their homes.

In 1975, after BTK had killed five people, Rader’s son, Brian, was born. When Paula Rader was pregnant again, in January 1978, BTK claimed responsibility for killing Shirley Vian in a poem called “Shirleylocks,” based on the nursery rhyme “Curley Locks,” that he sent to the Wichita newspaper. Ten days later he sent another poem to a local TV station in which he described killing Nancy Fox. “Seven down and many more to go,” he warned. Four months later, Kerri Rader was born.

During those years, Rader attended Wichita State University — graduating in 1979 with a degree in administration of justice, which typically leads to a career in law enforcement.

At the same time, Arlyn Smith, a young Wichita detective, hoped to trace the killer through the physical evidence of his letters. BTK usually sent police poor photocopies of the original letters, to distort the typewriter’s “fingerprint.” But Smith figured even photocopies must have some identifiable characteristics. The Xerox Corporation, along with paper and toner manufacturers, agreed to help. Thanks to their efforts, some of BTK’s letters were traced to two copy machines on the Wichita State campus.

Police had located the haystack, but they still had to find the needle. Then, after seven victims, the letters and killings stopped. As the years went by, many assumed BTK had died, moved away or been imprisoned, but Wichita’s new police chief, Richard LaMunyon, wasn’t so sure. In 1984, LaMunyon launched a task force to investigate the crimes. To avoid tipping off the complacent killer, the force was kept secret and named Ghostbusters after that spring’s hit movie. It included local psychologist John Allen, who began poring over the history of the case.

“When I reviewed the 1970s investigations,” recalls Allen, “it became apparent that they were looking for an obvious madman — someone who would act so bizarre that he drew attention to himself. But I believed you could be next to this guy in an elevator and have no idea. I felt he was thoroughly ensconced in a social network — his job, his church.”

By the mid-’80s, DNA was beginning to be used in criminal forensics, so the Ghostbusters began voluntary DNA testing of suspects. They used computer databases to scan records at Wichita State, hoping to cross-reference a suspect. They even convinced the Pentagon to let them view top-secret military satellite photos of Wichita on crime days. Still no killer. LaMunyon disbanded the Ghostbusters in 1986, and the trail went cold.

In 1988, Dennis Rader left ADT. The following year he became the Wichita field operations supervisor for the 1990 Census. Among his jobs was verifying new residential addresses around town. In 1991 he became the uniformed code officer for Park City. He also wore the uniform of a Scout leader, working with a local pack of which his son, Brian, was a member.

In Park City, Rader gained a reputation as a stickler for the rules. “He came out and measured my grass and said it was too long,” remembers Cheryl Hooten, owner of Auntie C’s, a local restaurant. “He fined me for putting up [restaurant] signs around town. I had no inkling they weren’t allowed.”

Cindy Plant says Rader’s personal appearance reflected his attention to detail: “You never saw him in blue jeans; he wore Dockers and nice shirts. His desk was immaculate, everything hung up on a pinboard.” Plant traveled all over the state with Rader, organizing training seminars. They stayed in hotels and spent hours in the car and over meals, but Rader never talked much about his personal life. “One time he had just taken his kids on a vacation and seemed to be thrilled about it,” she says. “I could tell he really cared about his family.” Although Plant never saw him lose control, there were stories. She once heard that Rader “blew up at the Wichita animal shelter manager for changing their billing practice.”

George Martin, a fellow Cub Scout leader, says that Rader was a stickler with his young Scouts. He recalls that Rader took his outdoor skills seriously. “He taught the boys knots,” Martin says. “He was very strict that they learn; he wouldn’t let them slack off.”

In January 2004 The Wichita Eagle ran a story marking the 30th anniversary of the unsolved Otero murders. Two months later, the newspaper received a letter with a return address of Bill Thomas Killman (initials BTK). In the envelope was a photocopy of a driver’s license belonging to Vicki Wegerle, a 28-year-old Wichita mother who’d been strangled in 1986, and three photos of the death scene apparently taken by the killer. The unsolved Wegerle murder had not been linked to BTK, but based on characteristics of the letter, police were certain this was no copycat. After 25 years of silence, BTK was back.

While a new generation of Wichitans checked their phones and nervously eyed strangers, the killer fired off at least eight separate communications over the next 11 months — daring police with word puzzles, dolls, and chapters of his proposed autobiography. With his taunting letters and sick poems, “he seemed to take a special enjoyment out of proving the cops couldn’t catch him,” says Dr. Allen, the Wichita psychologist. “He was obviously a very narcissistic guy who sought a lot of attention.”

Assuming BTK was at least in his 20s when he killed the Oteros, he would have to be more than 50 by now. But if he had changed over the years, so had the tools to catch him. On February 16, 2005, a local TV station received a padded envelope from BTK containing a necklace and a copy of the cover of a novel about a killer who bound and gagged his victims. The package also contained a computer disc. Investigators were able to recover deleted files on the disc that suggested it had been used at the Christ Lutheran Church near Park City. The recently elected president of the church council at Christ Lutheran, police learned, was Dennis Rader, 59-year-old married father of two grown children — a balding, bespectacled Cub Scout leader and former Wichita State University student.

At some point, police had secretly obtained a sample of 26-year-old Kerri Rader’s DNA, probably through medical lab records. It was reported that the sample closely matched DNA from one or more of the original crime scenes.

Rader was arrested on February 25, 2005, as he drove near his home. He is said to have confessed to a total of 10 murders, including the 1985 killing of Marine Hedge, a 53-year-old widow who lived on Rader’s block. The last known murder was in 1991, when BTK abducted 62-year-old grandmother Delores Davis from her home, just up the road from Christ Lutheran Church.

Carmen Montoya was in her Albuquerque office when a Wichita detective called with the news. Montoya is a 45-year-old mother who works for a nonprofit group that mentors school kids. Her maiden name is Otero. On a winter day in Wichita in 1974, 13-year-old Carmen skipped home from school to discover her strangled parents in their bedroom. She was raised by family friends.

When the detective called, “I was speechless,” Montoya says in a soft, clear voice. “I felt relieved, angry and sad. I thought [the killer] would be a really big, mean-looking man. It blows me away that this was a man who was so active in his church.”

She wasn’t alone. Cindy Plant has a hard time forming complete sentences when she talks about Rader now. Standing outside the animal shelter in Valley Center, on a late winter afternoon, she ignores a chorus of yelping dogs and scans the sky, as if the right words might flash like falling stars. “We stayed in hotels, had dinner together. And to find out that the person I’ve lived in fear of all these years was … My God, I haven’t just known a killer. I think I could deal with that. But I’ve known someone who was a serial killer. You wonder what makes these types of people tick.”

Like many who knew Rader, childhood friend John Davis speculates that he had more than one personality, each unaware of the others. But Dr. James Alan Fox, co-author of Extreme Killing: Understanding Serial and Mass Murder, says that assumption, while comforting to those who knew the “good” Dennis, is probably off the mark. “Lots of people have multiple sides of the same personality,” he says. “It’s not schizophrenic, but they are able to compartmentalize. Serial killers can be good husbands and fathers and neighbors, but strangers mean nothing to them.”

Davis wants to visit Rader in the Sedgwick County jail, where he is being held on $10 million bond. “If I sat down with him I would say, ‘I’m here to see the Dennis that I know and care about, but there’s another part of you that I don’t understand.’ ” He fumbles and fights back tears. “And I would just ask him, ‘What the hell were you thinking?’ ”

Fox says a killer like BTK is typically obsessed with power and control. “It’s probably not a coincidence that the killings stopped when Rader got the position as compliance officer,” he explains, adding that the motivation for serial killers is fairly straightforward. “Lots of people take pleasure in other people’s pain. At lower levels we see it in people who are sarcastic.” Serial killers take that to the extreme, of course, and understanding why is not so easy. Fox speculates that such killers have particularly vivid sexual fantasies that they feel compelled to pursue. Once they kill, says Fox, “the fantasies become crystallized and more demanding.”

It’s all academic to those who know Rader. “I try not to understand him,” says Christ Lutheran Pastor Michael Clark, “because then I might judge him.”

On May 3, Rader, now 60, stood mute at his arraignment and allowed the judge to enter a plea of not guilty on his behalf. He awaits trial on charges that would bring life in prison. (Because the BTK murders were committed before 1994, when Kansas reinstated the death penalty, the charges are not capital-punishment offenses.)

Two Sundays before Easter and two weeks after Rader’s arrest, bright morning sun streams through the high windows of Christ Lutheran Church. Paula Rader’s seat in the choir remains empty; until recently a bookkeeper for a local convenience store, she remains in seclusion. Their daughter, Kerri, is married to a Web designer and lives in Michigan. Son Brian is in the Naval Submarine School in Connecticut.

Assisting Minister Donn Bischoff offers a prayer “for the Rader family and for the victims of BTK and their families.” The Gospel reading is the story of Lazarus, whom Christ brought back from the dead. Jesus tells his disciples, “Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.”

After the service, Pastor Clark removes his vestments and sighs wearily. “Nothing in the seminary prepared me for this,” he says. Clark is a year older than Rader. Three times a week, he drives down to the jail and speaks with his congregant from the other side of a glass wall. “He needs a pastor,” adds Clark. “And the family is devastated. Paula’s life is turned upside down. I’m afraid she may have to move away, because people will take it out on her.”

Or they may take it out on Clark himself. “Some people want me to get up on that pulpit and condemn Dennis to hell,” he remarks. “But that’s not why I was called into the ministry.”

All the while, Cindy Plant can’t stop thinking about the cereal box. “Now BTK was a puzzle and a game person,” she says. “And you know how that box was against a road-curve sign? Well, the arrow on that sign points to Park City. I keep wondering if that was a clue.”

Carmen Montoya is looking toward the future; she plans to attend Rader’s trial. “At this point I don’t even know if I could face him, but I feel I need to,” she says. “He got gratification ruining people’s lives. He needs to know that he didn’t ruin mine.”

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest