Dennis Rader, the serial killer better known by his self-assigned pseudonym of “Bind, Torture, Kill” (BTK), murdered 10 people, including men, women, and children, between 1974 and 1991. He loved to play a game of “catch me if you can” with authorities and he sent them numerous taunting letters. He avoided detection and capture until 2005 when he was finally tripped up by his own egomania and narcissism.
Rader is back in the headlines today due to the publication of the best-selling book written by his daughter, Kerri Rawson. Kerri’s book is powerful and enlightening. It reveals how, in between murders, Rader lived a remarkably normal looking life with a wife and two children. He was perceived by acquaintances to be a pillar in his Wichita, Kansas, community.
Inwardly, however, Rader was secretly satisfying his sexual needs and delaying his compulsion to kill for months and even years at a time by engaging in autoerotic fantasies until the need to commit murder became overwhelming once again. Now in prison and serving 10 life sentences in isolation, he remains as unrepentant as ever.
I corresponded extensively with Rader between 2011 and 2013 for my own book on the public’s fascination with serial killers. Prior to contacting him, it occurred to me that he virtually personifies the narcissistic predator that is obsessed with his own criminal celebrity status. I believed that Rader would agree to correspond with me if I appealed to his ego and told him that I wanted to learn from him. I was not disappointed, as he promptly wrote back to me.
When he writes about his life in prison, he does so in the first person. When he describes the past actions of his alter ego BTK, it is in the third person. His letters are often lengthy and always hand-written in small print because he is not allowed access to a computer or typewriter. Rader customizes and personalizes his prison stationery using colored pencils.
He has created letterhead for himself in the shape of a cave using his initials DLR. The cave drawing appears on the first page of each letter from him and it always contains a little nature scene that changes seasonally, so it might be a jolly snowman in the winter and a bright sun overlooking playful animals or flowers in the summer.
Interestingly, there are never people in his drawings. He sometimes sent me original poetry about things he enjoys such as butterflies and springtime. Rader and I played chess by sending each other one move at a time, back-and-forth, through the mail. His signature (or more accurately his trademark) at the end of each letter is his first name, Dennis, drawn in the shape and form of a shark with imposing teeth.
The aspect of his complex antisocial personality that was most apparent to me throughout our correspondence is his extreme narcissism. It is manifested in numerous ways. For example, Rader admits that he eagerly contributed to the social construction of his own gruesome public identity when he instructed his pursuers to call him “Bind, Torture, Kill” in October 1974. He concluded his first letter to authorities with the postscript:
P.S. Since sex criminals do not change their M.O. or by nature cannot do so, I will not change mine. The code word for me will be… Bind them, torture them, kill them, B.T.K., you see he's at it again. They will be on the next victim.
Following his seventh murder, Rader sent a letter to authorities where he asked, “How many do I have to kill before I get a name in the paper or some national recognition?” This statement indicates just how much he craved attention for himself. He was also fully aware of society’s fascination with the macabre, given the notoriety attained by other serial killers. Rader has said that he knew the public would be riveted by his crimes and would demand to know his motivations. Therefore, he deliberately appealed to society’s appetite for murder. Through his taunting letters and clues, Rader was speaking directly to his public audience.
Another indication of his narcissism is that he rejects the classification of serial killer for himself. He sees it as too limiting to encompass the many accomplishments of BTK. Rader explained to me that unlike most serial killers who target a particular type of victim such as a young, female prostitute, BTK killed men, women, and children with equal pleasure and disdain. He reasons that no one in society could feel safe while he was on the loose because, literally, anyone could become his next victim.
Rader believes that his BTK alter ego was more like an armed terrorist (such as Osama bin Laden) than a serial killer. He also fancies himself a natural born predator who is no more responsible for killing than a venomous snake or a shark (his prison signature). In fact, he attempts to neutralize any responsibility for his murders by claiming that he was compelled to kill by something he calls “Factor X”—that is, an insatiable and undeniable urge to kill that he does not comprehend. Rader is completely unrepentant today and has no remorse or regrets, except for having been caught.
Rader’s narcissism is also manifested in his musings about the cooling off period between his murders. Unlike most serial killers, BTK had a reign of terror that lasted an unusually long time. He started killing in 1974 when he was 29 and was planning another murder at the time of his arrest in 2005 when he was 59. What is particularly unusual for a serial killer was the amount of time that passed between his crimes. As the late FBI profiler Roy Hazelwood said, “Most serial killers kill far more frequently than he did.”
Rader used autoerotic fantasy and masturbation aided by his “mother lode” of trophies from his victims to relive his crimes and satisfy his sexual cravings in between murders. As a result of his autoerotic fantasy life, the length of time or cooling off period between BTK’s murders was highly variable and generally much longer than most other serial killers. Incredibly, Rader takes credit for his fantasy rituals and even claims that they saved lives. He explained to me that he likely would have killed more people if he had not discovered a way to satisfy his urges. In one of his letters to authorities he wrote:
I can't stop it so, the monster goes on, and hurt me as well as society. Society can be thankful that there are ways for people like me to relieve myself at time by day dreams of some victims being torture and being mine.
My correspondence with Rader provided new insights into the significance of the cooling off period between his murders. It is commonly assumed that the cooling off period is a time of de-escalation of arousal for a serial killer—almost like a time-out from murder—in which they return to their normal everyday routines. Stated differently, the cooling off period is often compared to coming down from a narcotic high or basking in the glow following sex.
However, Rader indicates that for him the cooling off period was actually a time of trolling for the next perfect victim combined with intensive autoerotic fantasy as he followed his intended future prey and planned his abduction strategy. For BTK, the so-called cooling off period was anything but that as he got to know the routines and habits of his intended victim and became increasingly aroused and compelled to kill.
In that regard, it was more like a courting ritual or foreplay for BTK as he got to know his intended prey and fantasized about what he would do once they were alone together. Although this new perspective on the cooling off period may not apply to all serial killers, it certainly contributes to our understanding of the pathology of BTK.