Confessions of a serial killer
In 1974, Dennis Rader, who would later be known as the BTK Killer (Bind, Torture, Kill), stalked and
murdered a family of four in their home in Wichita, Kansas. These were the first of ten murders over
three decades, which came to a climactic end in 2005, when a cat-and- mouse game with the police
resulted in his arrest.
In her book, “Confession of a Serial Killer: The Untold Story of Dennis Rader, the BTK Killer,” forensic
psychologist Dr. Katherine Ramsland pieces together how this hard-working church council president and
dedicated family man developed a gruesome parallel life. Over the past several years, Dr. Ramsland
exchanged letters and phone calls with Rader from his cell in a Kansas maximum security prison, where
he’s serving ten consecutive life sentences. They developed a code to safely write about his victims, his
methodology, and his expansive fantasy life that led him to commit these murders. The result was what
she calls a “guided autobiography,” allowing Rader to reveal himself in his own words.
Early in their correspondence, Dr. Ramsland asked Rader to describe one of his torture fantasies. Instead,
she received a 14-page letter with a thick packet filled with newspaper clippings, photographs and
recipes, all marked with individual letters. It was accompanied by a key to help decipher his clues. "This
collection of writings and clippings offered a glimpse into Rader's mind," she wrote. "It was his way of
retaining control, playing word games with curious guards and feeling as if he were still important enough
to hide his secrets.” Ultimately, the code helped to reveal some of his "innermost fantasies." He fixated on
anything bound or knotted. He loved abandoned silos and referred to them as castles, fantasizing about
torturing women within them. He loved the number three. He referred to books about murders that he
found stimulating and the farm cats that he hanged or strangled when he was a child. Most importantly, he
created the image of himself as a hunter or predator.
Like many serial killers, Rader compartmentalized his life into "cubes," as he called it. He drew a distinct
line between his normal life, and the times when he "went dark." As a kid, the sight of chickens waiting to
be slaughtered excited him. All these traits belonged to "The Minotaur," his personification of the
impulses and violent tendencies that made a serial killer. That divide was apparent even in the way that he
wrote his letters. "Most of the correspondence was boring, daily log kind of stuff," says Dr. Ramsland,
"and all of the sudden you can feel that you're suddenly in 'minotaur' territory. It's almost like you're
paddling at the surface of the water and suddenly something pulls you down."
Part of Rader's fantasies revolved around women's lingerie that belonged to his victims. At every victim's
home, he took the time to rummage through the house, stealing jewelry, IDs, underwear, and other
trinkets. He kept them in hiding places throughout the county, some in his home and church, others buried
or taped to bridges. He called them "hidey holes," and while investigators uncovered many of the
souvenirs he took from his victims, even Rader doesn't remember exactly where all of them are anymore.
Media played a vital role in Rader's conception of the Minotaur. First, the coverage of other serial killers,
which gave him role models like Ted Bundy and Jack the Ripper, and a desire to achieve their level of
recognition and notoriety. Second were the true crime and detective magazines of the 1950s and 1960s.
"He's reading stories about guys who have control over their victims and see the terror on their faces. That
was already part of his fantasy and now he has the media confirming it." He created a distinct, almost
professional language around his murders. His victims were "projects," a murder was "a hit," and the act
of killing someone was "putting them down." His narcissistic personality led to him imagining himself as
“some kind of spy," says Dr. Ramsland, which contributed both to his need for secrecy and layers in their
For her part, Dr. Ramsland is confident that "Factor X" is less of a mystery than Rader imagines. "I call it
the trajectory toward violence," she explains. It's the combination of his unique sexual impulses, desire
for fame, and delusions of a spy-like double life, she says, intersecting with his fantasy life and, most
practically, the opportunity to commit the murders. Crucial, though, was that first family of four.
“He wanted to think of himself as a prolific stalker, but as he watched the Otero family come and go, he
failed to notice they had a guard dog and five children, not two. He murdered what he thought was a
family of four, leaving three other children to return home to a massacre,” Dr. Ramsland said.
When the police announced they had a suspect in custody, Rader was infuriated because their attention
went elsewhere. To regain the attention, he purchased cereal boxes, emptied the contents, and placed a
Barbie doll inside, wearing similar clothing to his latest victim, bound with rope, and mailed the boxes to
the police department. His play on words of being a “serial killer.” He successfully mailed in two boxes,
Special K for the letter K and Toasties for the letter T, but would be arrested before he could mail in Bran
Flakes for the letter B.
In the weeks before his arrest, Rader placed an anonymous ad in the classified section of the local
newspaper and asked police whether he could communicate with them via a floppy disk without being
traced to a specific computer. Police responded by also taking out an ad, saying “Rex, it will be OK” to
communicate via floppy disk.
The beginning of the end came in January 2005 when a 3.5 inch purple floppy disk from Rader was sent
to a local television station. The disk was quickly traced using its stored metadata and linked to a
computer at a church where Rader was president of the congregation. Police also quickly determined that
Rader was a code compliance officer in Park City, located his address, drove past his house, and saw a
black Jeep Grand Cherokee registered to his son in the driveway. Rader had used his son’s vehicle to
commit most of his crimes.
From there, prosecutors subpoenaed a tissue sample from a pap smear done on Rader’s daughter, Kerri, at
a student clinic near Kansas State University. DNA tests on that sample showed that Kerri Rader was the
daughter of BTK.
“Since DNA testing wasn’t used until the late 1980’s, Rader had not anticipated the police having stored
DNA from the murders that were committed in the 1970’s,” Dr. Ramsland explained, “and this led to his
Any lingering doubts were erased after Rader’s arrest, when he proudly described, in a bone chilling,
matter of fact way, the torture and murder of ten people. His recorded confession, which lasted more than
30 hours, filled 17 DVDs.
After his arrest, Rader also directed police to what he called his “mother lode,” a drawer in a locked file
cabinet at his office where he kept newspaper clippings about the case, copies of all his communications,
photographs, mementos of his victims, and several chapters of the book he was writing, which he called
“The BTK Story.” Not wanting to put his family through the turmoil of a trial, Rader pled guilty to all
From their very first interview, Dr. Ramsland made sure she called the shots. She told Rader when he
could call her, when she would visit, and how much money she would deposit into his commissary
account. When asked how she knew he’d obey her rules, Dr. Ramsland said, “Rader was a narcissist who
wanted his story told in his own words. Just like in a game of chess, I anticipated my opponent’s next
move. I made sure I stayed at least one step ahead of him the entire time. There was no way I was going
to give him the satisfaction of manipulating me.”
Dr. Ramsland has published 62 books. She is a Professor of Forensic Psychology and Program Director
of Master’s in Criminal Justice at DeSales University.