Inside Dennis Rader’s Childhood: What Made Him the BTK Killer?

Dennis Rader Today


Dennis Rader, known as the BTK killer, was convicted of 10 murders in Wichita and Park City, Kansas in 2005. The murders spanned from 1974 to 1986, in which the majority of those years he was married and raising two children, leading a boy scout troop, and being deeply involved in his church.

Rader was born in Pittsburg, Kansas on March 9, 1945, but raised in Wichita. When he first lived out the fantasies he started harboring as a child, to bind, torture and kill people, he was 28-years-old. It was January 1974 when he tied-up and killed four members of the Otero family, including two children, to fulfill a sexual fantasy.

Rader told Dr. Katherine Ramsland, who spent six years getting to know Rader through jailhouse interviews and letters after he was convicted, that his sexual fantasies involving tying people up started at a young age. Ramsland later wrote the book, Confession of a Serial Killer: The Untold Story of Dennis Rader, the BTK Killer.

According to Rolling Stone’s write up on the book, “Early on, he started cutting out “Slick Ads,” female figures from magazine advertisements. He drew ropes and gags on the pictures and pasted them onto 3×5 index cards that he could carry around with him.”

Rolling Stone also reported that according to the book, as a child Rader would get aroused when he was spanked, and when he would see chickens waiting to get slaughtered. He was sexually excited when he read books about murders, masturbating to his father’s copy of a book about the Lonely Hearts Killers. He told Ramsland he would fantasize about tying women to train tracks. He also liked to hang cats and watch them struggle until they died.

As far as is known, Rader kept his fantasies and his cruelty to animals to himself. But psychologist and professor Dr. Terence G. Leary, who helps lead the largest non-governmental serial killer database in the world, Radford/FGCU Serial Killer Research at Gulf Coast University, told Heavy he thinks there are even more secrets in Rader’s childhood that made him the serial killer he grew up to be.

Leary Believes Rader Experienced On-Going ‘Horrific Abuse’ as a Child

Dennis Rader

PintrestChildhood Photo of Dennis Rader.

Leary told Heavy in a phone interview that Rader’s methods of torture and murder are a sign of someone who was regularly exposed to “horrific abuse.”

While the narrative has been that Rader seemed like a regular kid, the oldest of four brothers raised in a house with stable parents,  Leary believes there is more to the story.

“Dennis Rader has been an enigma to many of us in the field because I don’t think the people who claim to be experts are, regarding Dennis, and I’ll tell you why,” Leary said. “They say he was the squeaky clean, oldest of four boys, very traditional parents, traditional family, went to school, did the right things etcetera, so there were no clues.”

According to Leary, there were clues, even if no one had found out about Rader’s animal cruelty, it still points to someone who is engaging in anti-social behavior. Leary told Heavy:

He was terribly to cruel to animals. He also engaged in mutilations of some degree. He would torture to a large degree his victims — all 10 of them — intense torture — really, really cruel torture — and he would get some close to death and then revive them so they could live this horrific experience again, and he would do that simultaneously. It’s not only a very evil heinous act but it is driven by someone who is exposed to horrific abuse, so something is hidden here. This is a puzzle…not all is meeting the eye here.

According to a 2005 Lawrence World-Journal article, one of Rader’s brothers said he and their mother, Dorthea Mae Rader were struggling to believe the BTK killer was their own brother and son. When a reporter knocked on Dorthea’s door after Rader was arrested, one of Rader’s brothers, Jeff answered. He told the reporter they could not talk to Dorthea, saying, “It’s too hard on my mother. But I’ll talk with you for a minute.”

Jeff said, “I don’t think my brother is BTK. But if he is — if that’s the truth — then let the truth be the truth. And may God have mercy on his soul.”

According to Jeff, he told the Lawrence World-Journal that he nor his family saw any signs of Rader being a murderer.

Jeff said, “My mother still can’t believe it,” he said. “She’s still very much in denial. And so am I. But maybe, with me, acceptance is starting to creep in.”

But according to Leary:

It had to have been in the family, or it could be an uncle classically or an aunt. What makes me think so is the frequency of the cruel behavior. You could be subject to cruel behavior once or twice or three times. But if it’s sustained on a regular basis you then end up engaging and incorporating into your behavior repertoire these behaviors more permanently and especially in an early age. So something awful happened here and we still don’t know. It’s still a puzzle.

Rader Said He Had ‘A Little Bit of a Grudge Against Momma’

Dennis Rader BTK

InstagramDennis Rader

On the Oxygen Network’s, “Snapped: Notorious,” episode on the BTK killer, Rader biographer and forensic scientist Ramsland said that Rader’s father worked long hours and wasn’t around a lot and his mom was often preoccupied reading and watching TV, leaving some of the raising of the boys to the grandparents.

According to Oxygen, Rader told Ramsland, “I got along real well with Dad, but Mom wasn’t always so happy. I’ve always loved her. I still love her greatly. But I did have a little — a little bit of a grudge against Momma.”

Ramsland told one of Rader’s stories about his mother that may have contributed to his fetish for terrorizing women, saying:

When he was young, his mother’s ring got caught on a couch spring, and she couldn’t get her hand out. She apparently was terrified and told him to go get help. And he felt the first stirrings of arousal over this. It was exciting to him to see a woman helpless, and it was the beginning of his ideas about women that what he wanted from them was to keep them trapped and helpless and looking to him in terror. That became imprinted in his mind and became the image he was always after.

If Rader felt like he was ignored by his mother, that may have led to his need for attention, according to Leary, which he exemplified by writing letters to the media about his crimes during the years he was committing them, giving himself the moniker “BTK” which he said stood for “bind them, torture them, kill them.”

Leary said, “He also is narcissistic — the very very strong need to be recognized. And he was upset that they didn’t find him and recognized him and give him the credit in the press for what he did. Even though they hadn’t identified him.  But he was really thirsty for that kind publicity of sorts.”

“The other factor here,” Leary said, “is in family situations he was the oldest. And the oldest is the guinea pig. The parents could’ve behaved very differently toward him than they did the others…I’ve seen that in cases and the other kids are spared some of the discipline and harsh behavior apparently sometimes.”

Rader has always maintained that he was not physically or sexually abused as a child, according to an ABC News interview with his daughter, Kerri Rawson.

The truth of what caused Rader to become the BTK killer may never be fully known. Ramsfield told Rolling Stone that even after six years of conversations with him, “I don’t think he told me everything, and I don’t think he always told me the truth. But I think I got Rader pretty well.”

READ NEXT: How did Robert Hansen’s Wife & 2 Kids Have No Idea He Was a Serial Killer?

Read More