Exclusive: Legendary FBI Profiler John Douglas Talks to BTK, the Most Disturbing Serial Killer Ever
What happens if you find yourself looking into the eyes of a vicious serial killer? I suggest you look away fast, and get far away even faster—it’s a sight that may haunt you for the rest of your life, which might not be long if the killer is a free man and has taken an interest in you.
But in John Douglas’s world, it works differently—he seeks these predators out. It was not only his job (he was the man who cultivated the science of profiling within the FBI in the late ‘70s) but an obsession. Maybe it was Douglas’s calling, or perhaps it was destiny, but somehow his life turned into a mission to help catch human monsters who commit unpardonable acts against helpless victims.
The profiler has paid a severe price for his work—a tortured psyche, sleepless nights, terrifying nightmares, and a cataclysmic descent into a near-fatal coma from nervous exhaustion—by climbing inside the minds of the killers and their victims. (Don’t even try to imagine what this is like.)
Douglas, the world’s foremost expert on profiling and best-selling author of 13 books, is a legend in law enforcement. His body of work not only includes helping law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and around the world (as well as victims of violent crimes), but it has invaded popular culture as well. Every movie and TV drama that used profiling as a background or main plot twist derives directly from Douglas’s influence in criminology. Thomas Harris, writer of Silence of the Lambs, consulted with Douglas; in fact, the Scott Glenn character was based on Douglas—even his office was recreated as a set for the movie.
Douglas has interviewed almost every notorious serial killer in the United States. But the man he calls one of the most cold-blooded of them all, Dennis Rader, who called himself BTK (Bind, Torture, Kill), terrorized Wichita, Kansas with a brutal string of sexual assaults and murders, a “marathon of mayhem” that spanned 31 years.
Rader committed murder after murder (at least ten murders are known)—taunting the police and the community in the process—until he seemingly disappeared in 1995. Whether dead, in prison or otherwise disposed, no one knew. But in 2004, after nine years of silence, BTK reemerged, sending photos to a local newspaper of a murder he had committed in 1991. He complained in a note that no one was paying enough attention to him. And the terror that returned in full force to the citizens of Wichita, ended only in February 2005 when BTK was finally apprehended.
Douglas interviewed the serial killer he had helped track since he was first called onto the case by the Wichita police in 1980. Due to political hindrances, he was not allowed to meet with BTK face-to-face. Instead, the interview was conducted by video, with Douglas and Rader sitting in separate rooms within the prison.
Below, in a gripping excerpt from his new book, Inside the Mind of BTK, is Douglas’s haunting and exclusive interview with BTK, a.k.a. Dennis Rader.
I didn’t know what I expected to take away from this interview. Truth is, I’d had a fairly good understanding about what went on inside his head long before I re-immersed myself in this case. But after digging through his journals, talking to his friends and interviewing the cops who had chased him, Rader had begun to grow blurry again for me, becoming almost mysterious.
I still had unanswered questions.
Could I truthfully say I understood why he’d gone so long between killings? Did I really know how he was able to compartmentalize his life with such absolute precision? Why did he resurface at the age of 59, a time when most serial killers are incarcerated, dead or smart enough to understand that serial killing isn’t a pastime for old men? And lastly, what could we in law enforcement learn from Rader to help stop other serial killers earlier in their careers?
Fifteen minutes later a door opened as I watched the screen of the lower monitor and Rader shuffled into the room, led by a guard. His wrists were handcuffed and his legs were shackled in chains.
It hit me that Rader was far thinner and more gaunt than I could ever recall seeing him in photographs or on TV. He must have lost a lot of weight since he had been incarcerated. Maybe he didn’t like the prison food.
For a guy who loved bondage, he must have been in heaven—although the bored scowl on his face certainly didn’t look like it. A minute later, the sound of human breathing erupted out from the speakers positioned in front of me. Judging by the self-conscious shift in his void demeanor, I could tell he was now staring at my image on the screen in front of him.
“Hello, sir,” he said.
His use of the word sir startled me. It seemed terribly naïve and a bit calculated, especially since we were both the same age.
“Call me John.”
“A mutual friend of ours sends her regards,” I said.
He nodded again, no doubt conjuring up Casarona’s* image inside his head. “She’s a very sweet woman,” Rader said. “She’s… she’s been quite helpful to me.”
“Yes,” I told him, wondering if he’d already tortured and murdered her in his mind this morning. “I’m sure she has.”
“I remember every detail from every crime,” Rader said. “I remember every detail like most people do their favorite movie and I play it over and over again inside my head. That’s really how it all started back when I was a child. I had these thoughts and images that played out inside my head. The more I thought about them, the stronger they became. I just got so caught up in them that pretty soon… they took me over. I couldn’t fight them anymore.”
“I always felt you had to have had a camera in order to remember all that detail,” I said. “You must have an amazing memory.”
Rader turned his face away from the camera and stared off at a distant wall in the room where he was sitting. For all I knew he was daydreaming, perhaps he had just imagined wrapping a rope around Casarona’s throat. Rader had spent a lifetime doing just that sort of thing—not only fantasizing about murder and torture, but about being famous, powerful, influential, and superior to everyone. When he finally returned and once again made eye contact with the camera, he wasted no time trying to hoodwink me into believing he was a changed man.
“I’m trying not to think those thoughts anymore,” he said. “I’m trying to have more control over my life, trying to stay away from all those fantasies. It’s the only way for me now. When I wake up each morning that’s when the fantasies start—that was when they were always the most powerful and uncontrollable. Paula [Rader’s wife] always got up before me and I’d lay in bed thinking about all that stuff. But now I try and block out the images. I try and think about Paula and the kids and all the things I’m going to read and write for the rest of the day. And instead of drawing bondage pictures, I draw happy faces. And I read the Bible.
“I’m a Christian, you know,” he went on. “Always have been. After I killed the Oteros, I began to pray to God for help so I could fight this thing inside me. My greatest fear, even more than being caught, was whether God would allow me into heaven or would I be condemned forever. All my life I thought about that—even before I killed anyone. I wonder if God might not accept me because of my deeds, no matter how many times I ask for forgiveness.”
All this blather about God, the Hereafter and forgiveness made me want to laugh, but I didn’t dare. Religion was part of the façade he had used to fool those around him. Most people were shocked when the news broke that Rader was president of his church congregation, but I wasn’t.
When I learned about his longtime ties with Park City’s Christ Lutheran Church, I wanted to shout: “Of course he was!”
Our landmark ten-year study on serial killers revealed as much. We learned that if these guys could choose a profession, it would be minister, police officer or counselor.
Why? Because of the perks, of course. The single most obvious being that all these professions involve some type of power and control over others. It’s not surprising that in prison many convicted violent offenders gravitate toward religion—not just to be a member of a group, but rather, to lead the group. Charles “Tex” Watson of the Charles Manson family and David Berkowitz, a.k.a. Son of Sam, are now both jailhouse preachers.
“I know about you,” he said, chuckling. “I know about what you think of me.”
“Do you?” I asked.
“Somebody sent me the newsletter from your website, the one you wrote last winter,” he said. “You don’t like guys like me. You think that all of us make choices, so we have to take responsibility for our actions. You said I deserved the death penalty.”
He paused for a moment, chewed on his lip, then continued. “I believe in capital punishment too, you know. And I suppose I deserve the death penalty. But since I never killed anyone after 1994, I’m not eligible for it.”
“Is that what kept you from killing after Vicki Wegerle’s murder?” I asked, not completely convinced that he hadn’t taken another life after Kansas reinstituted capital punishment in 1994.
“No,” he said.
Rader’s words reinforced my belief that he knew exactly what he was doing when he committed his savage murders. It had nothing to do with any split personality, evil twin or monster living within him. I thought back to how Rader’s pastor at Christ Lutheran Church wanted to attribute what happened to his parishioner as an example of how a demonic force can corrupt an otherwise healthy, caring, well-adjusted man. I suppose that was the difference between myself and a man of the cloth like Rader’s pastor.
A tiny smile returned to Rader’s face. He seemed to be enjoying this [interview].
“It was all psychological,” he said. “My whole thing when I went into someone’s house was based on a fantasy of bondage. I was especially into self-bondage. I wasn’t a sadist. I never pulled the fingernails or toenails out of anyone. Sex was never part of my fantasy either. I wanted power. I guess that’s what I was really looking for. That’s why Nancy Fox was my most perfect victim. I got to spend plenty of time with her without any interruptions.
“Tell me about your neighbor—Marine Hedge?” I asked, hoping to get him talking about his various murders. “You carried her to the basement of your church.”
Rader twisted his face into another one of his ridiculous pensive expressions. “Yes, she was a good one,” he said after a few moments of thought. “I really enjoyed that one. But you know what? Over the years, all the burglaries I began doing were almost as satisfying as the killing. I broke into a lot of houses, stole watches and jewelry and underwear. But it’s just like you wrote in your books. The fantasy is better than the crime, because in my fantasies, everything was always under control. I played the director and the lead actor. Like I told you before, it’s just like watching a movie. I see myself committing the crime, doing all the things I did in real life, only without all the headache or frustration. Because in real life things never quite turned out the way I wanted them to, the way I expected. My victims always seemed to react in ways I didn’t plan.”
“You know, I used to love driving around with classical music on, looking for projects in areas where I felt comfortable, where I knew my way around and felt familiar with the streets. I can’t tell you how many times I cruised past the homes of my past victims over the years. I’d slow down and stare at the house and feel this feeling of accomplishment settle over me because that house was my trophy. It reminded me of what I’d gotten away with, of a secret I knew and nobody else did.”
“Did you ever visit the graves of any of your victims?” I asked.
“No, but I cut their obituaries out of the newspaper and read them over and over again. But I never went to the cemeteries, though. I’d read that the cops sometimes staked out those places, so it didn’t seem to be a safe place to go.”
“What about if the police had organized a community meeting for residents, in order to update them on the killings and ask for citizen volunteers. Would you have attended?” I asked
“No way,” he said, shaking his head. “I knew for certain that the place would be filled with police just waiting for me to show up.”
I told him about my super-cop theory, explaining how the intended goal was to make the UNSUB [unknown subject] identify with a single officer instead of an entire police force. As he listened, his eyes grew wide and his tongue darted over his top lip as if he were trying to wet it.
“I think the guy I liked best was Richard LaMunyon. He was the chief of police back in the 1970s. Seemed like a real nice guy. I was hoping that he and I could sit down and have a cup of coffee at the jail after my arrest. But he never came.”
Amazing. Rader still believed that he and the police shared some sort of professional camaraderie. I’d suspected the BTK was a wannabe cop back when I first looked at the case in 1979, but until sitting here and listening to him speak, I didn’t realize how entrenched this delusion was. If only we’d been able to better capitalize upon this frailty of his, to use it against him. Talk about paradoxes. Rader was too savvy to visit one of his victim’s graves or attend a community meeting, yet he somehow believed that Landwehr [Wichita police homicide detective] or LaMunyon would actually sit down, have a cup of coffee with him and chew the fat.
“How did it make you feel when LaMunyon stood up at that press conference in 1979 and announced that the police had no leads in the killings?” I asked.
“That felt good,” he laughed. “No, that felt great. It meant the police didn’t know anything. It meant I could relax and stop looking over my shoulder every two minutes. That was tiring. But something I didn’t like was when that district attorney said I used to hang myself at Boy Scout outings. That’s just not true. I wish you could clear that up for me in your book. I never did that. I never would have done that. That’s one of the things that really bothers me. I love the Boy Scouts far too much to ever do anything like that during a campout.”
The fact that Rader strangled his neighbor during a Boy Scout campout didn’t bother him in the least.
Like every criminal, violent and non-violent, he had his own twisted code of ethics. Murder was one thing. He just didn’t want anyone to think he was the type who might do something weird like hang himself during a scout outing.
Rader, of course, didn’t know what I knew about him. I’d read an entry in his journal detailing his late-night exploits in the back of his truck during a campout in the mid-1980s. On that autumn night, Rader didn’t wrap a rope around his throat, but he did strip off his clothes, pull on a pair of women’s underwear and a bra, then wrap himself up in ropes, dog collars and clamp a pair of handcuffs over his hands. Problem was, the damn lock got jammed and he couldn’t remove the cuffs. So he lay there in the back of his truck, thrashing and grunting, sweating like a pig as he desperately tried to free himself.
At one point, he wrote in his journal, that he feared he might have to begin shouting for one of his young scouts to help extricate him from his bindings. But then, at the last moment, all that perspiration lathering his body allowed his wrists to slide out of his cuffs. He removed the rest of his bindings, cleaned himself up, then returned to the campfire to listen to ghost stories and instruct whomever might be interested on some advanced knot-tying tips.
Next I decided to ask him about his earliest victims—the animals. Since his arrest, Rader had flip-flopped over the issue of whether he bound, tortured or killed any animals while he was growing up. His diaries touched upon it. During his marathon gabfest with police, he confirmed as much, explaining that he’d often take the animals to a barn near his house and kill them. But lately, Rader had changed his tune, telling Casarona that he never would have taken the life of an animal because he loved them far too much.
“Tell me about the animals, Dennis,” I said. “How did you kill them and why always in the barn?”
The face of the man on my TV monitor went stern. His thick, bushy eyebrows arched downward.
“I know where you’re going with this,” he said. “It’s part of that homicidal triangle—along with bedwetting and starting fires. But I never killed any animals. I would have never done that. You know, at one time I wanted to be a vet? So I just couldn’t do something like that to an animal.”
I knew he was lying. But I also knew that I didn’t dare call his bluff. All I could do was try and salvage a part of the truth. “Okay, so you didn’t kill them, but you tied a few dogs and cats up, right?” I asked. “And why always in barns? What was it about barns?”
For the first time all morning, he looked almost embarrassed. In his mind, torturing and killing humans was one thing, but performing the same atrocities on animals was something else altogether.
“I just always felt safe in a barn,” he said. “Just something about them. Maybe because barns are always detached from the house, separate, off away by itself. You can do things in a barn and no one will interrupt you. It’s more private than a basement and I always liked basements. Did a lot of stuff in my parents’ basement.”
He stopped talking. Judging from the angle his eyes made in relation to the video camera in front of him, he was once again staring at the floor. He looked ashamed.
“I never killed any animals,” he said. “But I did tie some up and then I masturbated next to them.”
Why was he really blocking? I wondered. Part of the answer had to do with the contradictory, unsettling nature of violent criminals. They’ll elaborate on the goriest details of a case, but then turn evasive over some minor point. In other words, he was embarrassed. I’d spent enough time working on farms in high school, hoping to earn school credits to get into a vet school, to know what sort of unspoken things sometimes occurred on a farm when no one was watching.
As I sat there watching Rader’s shamed expression, I realized that not only had he killed his share of animals as a youth, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he’d engaged in a bit of sexual experimentation with them as well.
And that was what led me to my next question.
“Tell me about your fascination with autoeroticism,” I asked.
Rader’s green eyes did a double take. His face went blank. “What’s that—autoeroticism?” he asked. Once again, I realized we’d given him far too much credit. He appeared to have no idea that the activity he performed with a rope during his “motel parties,” out in the privacy of the woods or down in his parents’ basement actually had a name. For all he knew, when I used the term autoeroticism, I was talking about inserting a portion of his anatomy up the exhaust pipe of a car. So I explained the clinical definition of the term and Rader once again shook his head back and forth, claiming he’d never hung himself because it was too risky.
“I just wouldn’t do that,” he said, his head now turned sideways. “That’s far too dangerous. People die doing that sort of stuff and that was the last thing I wanted to have happen.”
He was lying, of course. Not only had several reliable sources confirmed as much, but I also knew that he’d written about this activity far too many times in his journals for it not to be true.
Yet, Rader’s twist on autoeroticism was unique. He didn’t hang or suffocate himself in order to intensify an orgasm like all of the case studies I’d researched. It turned out that his sense of what caused him to get aroused was so tweaked that merely the sensation of being hung or suffocated was enough to induce an orgasm. I’d never heard of anything like this. Sitting there, thinking about Rader stringing himself up, made me think about Paula Rader. Plenty of the killers I’d tracked were married to women, all cut from the same cloth—placid, easy-to-please, the kind of woman who wouldn’t snoop around in her husband’s belongings.
“I’m trying to control it—I am,” he said. “But the scary thing was how quickly the urge could come over me. I could be staring out the window, looking at something and it would suddenly be on me and it would take me over. But I’m trying to get the upper hand now, now that I’m in here. You know, the other day the guards were walking me to the shower and a bunch of the guys in the cells I passed by began chanting, ‘BTK… BTK… BTK.’ I stopped dead in my tracks and I told them, ‘I’m not BTK. I’m Dennis Rader.’”
I watched as Rader’s eyes moved deftly and subtly from the camera down to the screen, no doubt studying my reaction to what he’d just told me.
“Nice story, Dennis,” I told him, because that was just what I believed it to be: a piece of fiction created solely for my benefit. Being BTK was all he knew, all he ever did know. The Dennis Rader bit was just another gimmick, another ruse. Like some frustrated former high school quarterback sliding into middle age, he would forever be reliving his conquests until that day he took his last breath—something that couldn’t come soon enough as far as I was concerned.
“You know, I really liked speaking with you,” he said. “It felt good to talk about this stuff. Maybe when all this dies down, you can come back and we can talk face to face, without all the cameras.”
“Maybe,” I told him. “I’ll see you later, perhaps.”
“Goodbye, sir,” he said.
The screen went gray, then black and the image of Dennis Rader disappeared.