Comparing Serial Killers: GSK Versus BTK

Two 70s-era serial killers used similar predatory approaches.

Posted May 17, 2018

In 2005, Dennis Rader was identified with DNA as Wichita’s “BTK” killer, 31 years after his first murder in 1974. In 2018, Joseph James DeAngelo was also caught with DNA and linked to California’s series of Golden State Killer rapes and homicides. Both offenders were burglars, both were stalkers, both seemed to stop on their own, both had military experience, both studied criminal justice in college, and both were family men.

As I read Michelle McNamara’s book on the GSK (aka the Original Night Stalker and the East Area Rapist), I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, I kept thinking of things that Rader had described for his autobiography, Confession of a Serial Killer. If we have all the facts, and the allegations are true, DeAngelo’s crime spree ran from 1976 (or ‘74) to 1986, while Rader’s went from 1974 until 1991. DeAngelo was far more prolific as a burglar (if he turns out to be the so-called Visalia Ransacker), and he’s also a rapist. Yet, like Rader, he spied on his potential prey and used their fear and their deaths to feel powerful. 

Both offenders knew how to stay under the radar. Both settled quietly into their communities and started families, even as they spent time on homicidal fantasies and preparations. Both liked to bind their victims, using specific knots. Both entered homes prepared with weapons, but also used items they found in the homes. Both took items from victims with limited value. Both had house type and location preferences, as well as clear escape routes. Both liked to enter backyards to watch inside houses, and both learned their victims’ routines. Both hid inside closets at times to wait, and both used ruses to make their victims believe they just needed money.

Both were born in 1945. Rader served in the Air Force, while DeAngelo was a Navy man. Both sought to be cops, and DeAngelo succeeded for a few years. Rader was rejected, but eventually became a compliance officer. Nevertheless, he stole items from stores, as did DeAngelo, which ended DeAngelo's career in law enforcement.

Rader’s first attack was against a family of four, although he hadn’t planned it this way. He killed both children. DeAngelo generally left young children alone. He also took on couples, using more sophisticated tricks than Rader for keeping them under control. Rader tried to avoid couples. Both disguised their voices and used ski masks (although Rader often forgot to wear his). The GSK roamed around CA, while Rader killed in Wichita (although he tried for victims while on the road for his job in other towns).

No one who knew them suspected either man. They were unremarkable. They blended in. They were neighborly. They held jobs. They lived in the same community as their victims. Rader even killed a close neighbor while serving as a deacon in his church. (He used a room in the church to pose the body for photos.)

Both were meticulous and exacting, as they strove for full control over victims. Rader’s motto was: “Leave nothing to chance.” As a compliance officer, he had an arena to force others to live by the law. He kept extensive records and took Polaroid photos of victims when he could, so he could relive the experience. Since DeAngelo left many victims alive, he might have enjoyed the idea of how they'd relive their helplessness as they felt the loss of items they treasured.

Rader was more interested than the GSK in fame, so he played cat-and-mouse games with the cops and wrote grandiose letters about himself — he even named himself BTK (for "Bind them, Torture them, Kill them"). He was also less daring and perhaps less angry. He set himself up for arrest; DNA analysis did the rest. Finally caught, he offered a full confession. He enjoyed the attention.

We haven’t yet heard from DeAngelo (aside from surviving victim statements about what he said to them), but it’s likely that if he does admit to anything, we’ll see similarities with Rader’s disturbing fantasy life and need for power.

McNamara noted common themes among lust killers that she anticipated for the GSK: 

The future nightmare maker begins as an adolescent daydreamer. His world is bisected: violent fantasies act as a muffler against a harsh, disappointing reality. Perceived threats to his self-esteem are disproportionately internalized. Grievances are collected. He rubs his fingers over old scars. Violent fantasies advance to mental rehearsal. He memorizes a script and refines methods. He’s the maltreated hero in the story . . . His distorted belief system operates around a central vampiric tenet: his feeling of inadequacy is vanquished when he exerts complete power over a victim, when his actions elicit in her an expression of helplessness.

She could easily be describing BTK. Rader admitted that he’d hoped to replicate the helpless faces of women he’d seen as an adolescent in another serial killer’s photos: 

The image of the woman, staring, terrified, knowing death was coming, was frozen for me. It was part of my sexual fantasy the rest of my life. The best gratification.

The big mystery about both is why – or whether – they stopped killing. Rader says that although he had fewer opportunities as he grew older and more concern about his agility, he didn’t really stop. Instead, he failed. He had "projects" and he stalked potential prey, but the timing was always off. He’d targeted another victim in 2004, just months before he was arrested. We have yet to learn if DeAngelo had more than the 12 murders in four counties with which he’s been charged.


McNamara, M. (2018). I'll be gone in the dark: One woman's obsessive search for the Golden State Killer. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

Ramsland, K. (2016). Confession of a serial killer: The untold story of Dennis Rader, the BTK killer. Lebanon, NH: UPNE.

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