Suspect in BTK serial killer case lived a remarkably stable life, criminologists say


Published: Tuesday, March 1, 2005 at 2:36 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, March 1, 2005 at 2:36 p.m.

He was trusted as a Cub Scout leader, respected as a churchgoing family man and accepted as a regular guy with a secure marriage, a steady job and all the other trappings of middle-class success.

He was also, according to police, an insatiable murderer who tortured and killed strangers over 17 years, boasting about his crimes in taunting, gruesome letters and poems that he mailed to police and the news media.

Dennis L. Rader, a 59-year-old municipal worker suspected of being the BTK killer responsible for 10 murders, is believed by authorities to have led a Jekyll-and-Hyde existence.

Experts on the criminal mind say that is not unusual for serial killers. But what sets Rader apart is his remarkably stable life and deep roots in the community.

"Mostly, serial killer are drifters," said Michael Rustigan, a California criminologist. "Typically they're single, have problems with women, are in and out of jobs, in and out of relationships." Bur in Rader's case, he said, "We've rarely seen serial killers so well-integrated into the community."

Rader has called the Wichita area home almost his entire life, earning a criminal justice degree at a local university. The father of two _ he has a grown daughter and son _ had been married for nearly 34 years and held jobs for long periods, including a position at a home security firm for 15 years, part of the time as installation manager.

Rader was arrested Friday by police, who said they were confident he is BTK _ the killer's self-coined name that stands for "Bind, Torture and Kill." He is being held on $10 million bail. Police had long linked the BTK killer to eight murders but added two more this past weekend after Rader's arrest. The slayings took place from 1974 to 1991.

The BTK killer terrified the Wichita area from the late 1970s through the mid-1980s; most of the victims were strangled, others were stabbed or shot. In one instance, the killer called 911 to report the homicide; in another, The Wichita Eagle-Beacon was alerted to a letter in a library book that provided details of some murders only the killer could have known.

The killer resurfaced last March _ the 30th anniversary of his first murders _ with a series of letters to police and the media. One included a photocopy of the driver's license of one of his victims.

Police will not say what led them to Rader, but his arrest stunned many in suburban Park City, where he lived for more than 25 years and worked as a compliance officer, handling code violations and stray dogs.

Some described him as a friendly, solicitous man who helped neighbors and recently brought spaghetti sauce and a salad to a supper at Christ Lutheran Church, where he was an usher, president of the council and a member for 30 years.

"Dennis was in church as often as I was," said pastor Michael Clark.

But others say he could be a nitpicker and a bully, always looking to cite his neighbors for petty violations, once using a tape measure to determine if a neighbor's grass was too long.

If Rader turns out to be BTK, he will not be the first serial killer to engage in what some experts call doubling _ leading two lives. They cite other examples: Gary Ridgeway, the Green River killer, was a truck painter. Jeffrey Dahmer worked in a candy factory. John W. Gacy was a building contractor who sometimes performed as a clown.

"They lead a benign, if not friendly and helpful life with family and friends. Then they kill strangers," said Jack Levin, author of several books on serial killers and the director of the Brudnick Center on Violence at Northeastern University in Boston. "It's almost like the death camp doctor who goes home and plays with his children."

These two lives are "the way they survive. That's the way they're not detected," said Steve Egger, a serial killer expert and associate professor of criminology at the University of Houston-Clear Lake. "Their actions with people who love them, with people they associate with, are very natural. But they're able to split off and compartmentalize these fantasies they have ... then they go out and have to act on them."

Rustigan, the California criminologist, said he wonders how Rader, if he is the BTK killer, could hide a sinister life from his wife.

"You can fake `nice guy' at work," he said. "But how do you fake `nice guy' when you're married? That's a very powerful question in this case."

Rader's pastor said Rader and his wife, Paula, were close. "They were always together _ except if one of them was sick," Clark said. "It was as solid a marriage as any."

Clark said he has consoled members of Rader's family, who have remained in seclusion and are bewildered by the allegations. "There's no such thing as reality for them," he said.

If Rader is found to be the BTK killer, some experts say it also will be noteworthy that he managed to carry on for so many years without drawing suspicion in a community where neighbors know and socialize with each other.

"It would be relatively easy in Miami or New York City," Rustigan said, "but how do you keep this secret so well in a small-knit community?"

Howard Brodsky, a Wichita psychologist who consulted on the BTK case in the 1970s, said that is one of the big unanswered questions. Brodsky said that when he heard of Rader's arrest, he was surprised the complaints by neighbors about his overbearing behavior did not eventually raise red flags.

"He was able to keep up a better act than I thought," Brodsky said. "Or maybe he just surrounded himself with a lot more naive people."

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