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Family Man Arrested in 10 Slayings

Police in Kansas say he is the sadistic BTK serial killer who taunted Wichita for 30 years.

February 27, 2005|P.J. Huffstutter and Stephanie Simon | Times Staff Writers

WICHITA, Kan. — He called himself a monster, but in 31 years of hunting the serial killer known as BTK, Wichita police made it clear they were searching for a man who appeared in every way ordinary. On Saturday, they announced they finally had caught him.

Dennis Rader, 59, a church-going family man, a Cub Scout leader, a dog-catcher for the trim suburb of Park City, is in custody on suspicion of torturing and killing seven women, one man and two children from 1974 to 1991 -- including two victims linked only this week to BTK.

Authorities would not discuss the specifics of their investigation into BTK. (The "code word" the killer used to describe himself described his method: bind, torture, kill). But they have compared Rader's DNA with the semen that BTK left at several crime scenes.

They said they were confident that Rader was the man who terrorized this industrial city for decades, taunting detectives with poems, word puzzles and boastful letters -- including one in which he declared that there was "no help, no cure" for his sadism, "except death or being caught and put away."

"Bottom line: BTK is arrested," Wichita Police Chief Norman Williams said at a news conference Saturday morning. "Doggone it, we did it."

Williams was hailed with a standing ovation. Some members of the victims' families slumped in their chairs, sobbing.

"I can't think," said Dale Fox, the father of Nancy Fox, who was strangled in December 1977. "I've waited so long to hear the words, 'We have him.' "

Rader's name had surfaced on a list of possible suspects in the late 1970s when investigators cast a broad net, pulling up names of all white male students who attended Wichita State University at that time, said retired Det. Arlyn Smith, who worked on the case at the time.

Authorities suspected the killer might have connections to the university because one of his letters was reproduced on a copy machine students used -- and one of his poems appeared to be modeled after a verse in an obscure textbook from a folklore class. But Rader did not draw any particular scrutiny, Smith said. There were too many white male students to investigate them all, so detectives focused on those who gave them reasons to be suspicious.

"To the best of my recollection, [Rader] never matched any other list, so he was never specifically looked at," Smith said.

Rader graduated in the spring of 1979, with a bachelor's degree in criminal justice.

Rader's name apparently surfaced again in recent months as detectives studied surveillance videos from businesses located near the spots where BTK dropped some of his mocking communications.

"They kept seeing this Park City animal control officer's van," said Robert Beattie, a local author who is writing a book about the case and who has extensive contacts with investigators.

Rader, who is married with two grown children, works as the animal control officer in Park City, a working-class suburb of ranch homes and fast-food restaurants about 10 minutes north of downtown Wichita. Part of his job was citing residents for violating municipal codes.

Although some of his neighbors said he was friendly -- and he was well-respected enough to serve as president of his church council -- others called him mean and arrogant. "He wore a badge and would swagger around the street like he was above the law. I always considered him a bully," said James Reno, 42, who has lived across the street from Rader for more than a decade.

Maricela Cano, 23, who lived around the block from him for more than two years, said: "I can't tell you how many times he made me cry. If he was outside, I would stay indoors and hide." She said Rader constantly harassed her about her dogs, until she and her family moved across town.

On Saturday morning, her 5-year-old son was watching TV coverage of BTK when a picture of Rader flashed on the screen.

"He turned around and said, 'Mommy, look. It's the man who took away our dog,' " Cano said. "It freaked me out."

Rader was so rigid about code enforcement, neighbors said, that he carried around a ruler to measure the height of grass on lawns he thought looked unruly.

Investigators noted that BTK was meticulous: When he broke a window to get into a victim's house, he swept up the glass. In a few of his letters, he made a point of commenting on how tidy -- or dirty -- he found the victims' homes and cars.

Rader was arrested as he was driving through Park City just before noon Friday. Later in the day, police seized computer equipment and numerous plastic containers from his single-story home. A mobile police laboratory was still parked in front of the house late Saturday.

Authorities would not say whether Rader has talked to them.

BTK, however, has been talking loudly, if cryptically, for decades.

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