'Dark Autobiography' Required Psychologist To Connect With BTK Killer

Dec 18, 2016

Dennis Rader, widely known as the BTK killer, was able to evade capture for decades, despite leaving weapons behind and, at times, returning to the scenes of his crimes, says forensic psychologist Katherine Ramsland.
Credit El Dorado Police Department

In a twisted crime spree that lasted from 1974 until 1991, Dennis Rader stalked and killed ten people in and around Wichita, Kansas. During and after the spree, he taunted pursuing authorities in letters he sent to police, local news and, once, left in a book at the public library. In the letters, Rader established his identity with a handle that caught on quickly: BTK.

When Rader picked a victim, he would learn everything he could about them — their schedule and routine, the layout of their home, whether they had pets — anything that might help him take victims by surprise. 

"All of that was about a feeling of control over their lives," says psychologist Katherine Ramsland, a professor at DeSales University in Pennsylvania. "He was the ultimate boogie man."

Given that history of and proclivity for violence, it's unlikely anyone would want to contact Rader under any circumstances, but that's exactly what Ramsland did for her new book, Confessions of a Serial Killer: the Untold Story of Dennis Rader, the BTK Killer.

On a recent episode of KCUR's Up To Date, Ramsland spoke with host Steve Kraske about her experience working on the project with Rader.

"I hope that it teaches criminologists, forensic psychologists and law enforcement some things about a person like Dennis Rader," she says. "His preparation, his fantasy life ... his ability to live and pass as a normal person while he's also stalking people, being a voyeur, [and] breaking into their houses and murdering them."

Ramsland spent years communicating with Rader, researching his motives. 'This was a chance to get close to the raw material that I've already been studying,' she says.
Credit DeSales University

Interview highlights:

The project's beginnings

"It actually came through someone else who had begun to write a book with him. She decided not to do it, but she had collected five years' worth of letters from him in anticipation of him writing what he called his 'dark autobiography.' I contacted her to ask whatever happened to her book and she invited me to take it over."

Getting Rader's cooperation

"I had to feel my way in. The one thing he wanted me to be able to do was to work within his code system. ... I had to be on board for doing that. In a way, that was something he wanted to do to protect his story from anyone who might be listening, but also it's just something he thought was fun and interesting for him. He had liked to think of himself as a sort of secret hitman, and the codes were part of that identity.

"It was tough, picking my way through his codes — what they meant — because they came in the form of magazine pictures and newspapers with things circled, and it corresponded to things in his letters, which were equally difficult to read. Initially it was hard. I didn't mind doing it, but it was a difficult chore."

Establishing a rapport

"We started watching TV shows, and we would talk about the characters and the plots, we talked about the weather. Then we'd dig down into darker things through the codes if we were on the phone, because we knew that anyone could overhear that and it was being recorded. Usually it started very casual and then it would go into things that I had questions about, but often he wrote long letters and I would use those letters to conduct interviews over the phone. Those interviews lasted an hour, and we did that once a week."

Ongoing contact with Rader

"I worked at this for five years, so it's hard to tell how many hours actually I put in. I had the five years of letters from the first writer, so that was actually 10 years worth of information from him.

"We're still playing the same game [of chess], for three years. He created the chess board and then you just keep sending, back and forth through the mail, your moves. It has gone on and on, one move at a time. We started one game, but decided to scrap it because there had been a move earlier that wasn't permitted, and we didn't catch it in time."

Luke X. Martin is a freelance contributor for KCUR 89.3 and an associate producer for Up To Date. He can be reached at luke@kcur.org.