Was The Killer Next Door?


    NEIGHBORS Dennis and Paula Rader's house on Independence Street

    (3 of 3)

    In 1991, he became a code-compliance officer in Park City, the working-class Wichita suburb where he, Paula and one of BTK's victims lived. It seemed an ideal job for a lover of rules, and he held it until last week, when the city council fired him. "He'd come by and measure your grass, and if it was too long, he'd give you a warning and tell you, 'You got 10 days to mow it or get a fine,'" says James Reno, who lived a few doors down from the Raders. No permit for your garage sale? He would follow you to city hall to make sure you got one.

    Some afternoons he would wander through backyards in the neighborhood, tranquilizer gun ready, chasing stray pets. He did it as if he were the action hero in a hunt-'em-down video game, tracking the creatures with an aggression that for a 7-year-old boy might have been charming, if a bit creepy. In a grown man, it was just weird.

    The true 7-year-olds knew it too—kids in the area made up a game called Hide from Dennis, taking cover whenever they saw his white van approach.

    But you don't suspect someone of murder because he is nitpicky or hates stray pets—you probably just decide he is annoying. In fact, Rader's mix of good and bad traits makes him human and relatively normal—which is what experts, though perhaps not the rest of us, expect serial killers to seem. BTK "has done such monstrous crimes, so we want the guy to be a monster, drooling and with one eye in the middle of his forehead," says former FBI profiler Gregg McCrary, author of The Unknown Darkness: Profiling the Predators Among Us.

    "But we look right through them because they fit in society well." If Rader is convicted, he would go down in the annals of crime as "an evil Walter Mitty," says Robert Beattie, author of the forthcoming BTK history Nightmare in Wichita. "His external life was a mask of sanity. His internal life was one of violent fantasies."

    How could BTK have juggled two lives for more than three decades? Perhaps the answer is that there wasn't such a dichotomy after all. Serial killers "like to have authority over others," says McCrary.

    Rader's life—from his city job to his community roles—"was about dominating others. He was smooth enough to do it in socially acceptable ways, when it was at church or Cub Scouts. But in his pathological life, he did it in a very abnormal way."

    Experts suggest the murderer had a couple of reasons to resurface over the past year. Thirty years after the Otero killings, he may have wanted to remind everyone of his handiwork. Also, the local media were reporting on Beattie's forthcoming Nightmare in Wichita.

    "He couldn't stand somebody else writing his story," says psychologist Samuel Harrell, who consulted on the BTK case in the 1970s. "He's all ego." But he was not trying to get caught—he didn't think he could be caught. All the poems and puzzles he created over the years to taunt the police were peppered with clues to his identity, like a word search he sent to a TV station last May packed with terms like "lost pet" and "6220"—his house number on Independence Street in Park City. But he was just showing off, a peacock fanning out its feathers. "If he wanted to get caught, he would have hung out at the crime scene," says profiler McCrary. "He just thought he was smarter than everybody else."

    That made Wichita police all the more exultant when they announced on Feb. 26 that "BTK is arrested." But Harrell says the declaration was part of "such an orgy of self-congratulation and excessive publicity that I wonder if Rader can get a fair trial in this county." Rader's lawyers, who will not confirm reports that their client has confessed to all 10 killings, wonder the same thing. A change of venue "is one of the things we'll be looking at," says counsel Steve Osburn.

    The discovery process has just begun, and Rader is not scheduled to appear in court until March 15. In the meantime, he has to try to get used to prison food. One night at dinner, he found a pebble in his potatoes and told his lawyers that he considered it "extra protein."

    His only regular human contact, apart from his lawyers and the prison guards, is with the characters of the book he is reading. It is a detective novel.

    1. 1
    2. 2
    3. 3
    4. Next Page