Was The Killer Next Door?


    NEIGHBORS Dennis and Paula Rader's house on Independence Street

    Like all young moms in Wichita, Kans., in the late 1970s, Paula Rader had every reason to be afraid. A killer was on the loose. He was known as BTK—for "bind them, torture them, kill them," from a note sent to the local newspaper after he murdered four members of the Otero family in 1974. By 1979, when Paula's daughter Kerri was born and her son Brian was 4, BTK had killed three more female victims.

    But years later, BTK would send the cops a photocopy of a book cover with the adage "Never kill anyone you know," confirming that Paula might have been the safest woman in Wichita all along. As it turned out, she had been sleeping in the same bed as the man now suspected of being the serial killer.

    Thirty-one years after the first BTK attacks, Dennis Rader, 60, was charged last week with 10 counts of first-degree murder. Paula had been envied by women at her church for the way her husband doted on her, helping with her coat and always opening the car door. The possibility that her husband of 34 years might be BTK has left her "in quite a lot of shock," says Brent Lathrop, a friend of hers since elementary school and co-owner of the Snacks convenience store, where Paula has worked as a bookkeeper since 1985. She is not alone in her distress. Any sense of righteous satisfaction that a brutal killer might be off the streets came with questions about how Rader—a former scout leader, a pillar of his church, a devoted husband and dad—allegedly could be so skillful at leading a double life.

    Rader's lawyers are trying to find out if, in fact, he did. They have been spending as much as five hours a day, every day, with Rader at the Sedgwick County detention facility, sessions during which their client takes copious notes, complains about sleepless nights and growing depression, and asks repeatedly after his wife and kids, who haven't spoken to him and are believed to be in seclusion together outside Kansas. "He has so far been easy to deal with," public defender Sarah McKinnon tells TIME. "At times he seems weary. But I have seen him smile."

    The horrific tally of 10 murders attributed to BTK began with that of Joseph Otero, his wife Julie and two of their five children, who were strangled in their home. The killer masturbated on 11-year old Josephine Otero, leaving evidence that, in the 1970s, investigators did not have the technology to analyze. Later, when the man claiming to be BTK took responsibility for the Otero murders in a letter to the Wichita Eagle, he referred to himself as a "monster" with a "sexual perversion hang-up." The toll grew to include six more women—all but two in their 20s—killed from 1974 to 1991.

    Had the statute of limitations not expired, Rader would also be facing a charge of attempted murder, in the case of the lone person attacked by BTK to have survived, Kevin Bright, whose older sister Kathryn was stabbed and strangled to death three months after the Otero murders. After lunch on a warm April day in 1974, the Brights came home from taking their sister Karen to the bank. A man in a black stocking cap, camouflage jacket and black gloves was waiting, gun in hand, in the front bedroom. "He told us he was wanted in California and was headed for New York," Bright recalls. "He said all he wanted was money and a car, and he wouldn't hurt us."

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