In lieu of the recent arrest in Sacramento, California of the East Area Rapist/Original Nightstalker/Golden State Killer and the hopes that the genealogical studies that led to his arrest could be used to discover the identity of the Zodiac Killer, I felt compelled to read about another serial killer who seemingly retired from terrorizing his community so that he could live a normal life. Both EAR/ONS and BTK because it’s utterly mind-boggling that this happens, and runs counter to the narrative usually put out there about serial killers.
BTK terrorized Wichita, Kansas in the late 70s, beginning with the murder of four members of the Otera family in 1974. He then seemed to disappear (though he killed three women in 1985, 1986, and 1991, which investigators couldn’t conclusively link to him many years later).
In 2004, he was confronted with the realization that the world had moved on and that no one knew or cared about his crimes. He began communicating with police and the media, reigniting the hunt and the public’s interest. Nearly a year after resurfacing, he was finally caught by police, and his identity was revealed for the first time: Dennis Rader. He was a married father of two who worked as a compliance officer and dog catcher, and served as the president of his church.
The truly fascinating thing about BTK, to me, isn’t that he could apparently seamlessly slip into normal life after committing truly heinous crimes, it’s that he could inspire such terror in a community while being so irredeemably boring. It’s impossible to not picture him as some kind of unimaginable monster, but when you actually learn about the guy, he’s just…..a pathetic and delusional piece of shit blessed with more luck than skill.
And, in a way, I suppose that’s even more terrifying. We’ve been trained by television and film to think of serial killers as charming geniuses, but they aren’t. They’re hard to catch because they choose victim sat random and don’t leave a lot of evidence behind (or operate at a time when techniques haven’t been developed to use the evidence that was left behind). Rader wasn’t a normal guy who got away with 10 murders, he was a monster that was just good enough at pretending to be normal that he was able to hide his terrible fetishes from the people in his life.
But he also didn’t retire from his darker impulses. After his last murder in 1991, he continued stalking potential victims throughout the following decade. Thankfully, he never followed through.
I’ve made a few attempts at true crime books, but I find that they often feel exploitative. Maybe it’s because the writers here were Wichita journalists who actually worked the case (and thus developed relationships with the victims families), but this book felt incredibly detailed without seeming to revel in the misery. They made a valiant (and successful) attempt to honestly depict the lives and struggles of detectives who spent decades hunting for BTK. This isn’t just a vicarious exploration of death, this is an account of what it was like hunting an elusive monster.
And I was glad for that. I highly recommend this book for all true crime fans.