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A retired FBI profiler meets a retired serial killer.

Inside the Mind of BTK: The True Story Behind the Thirty-Year Hunt for the Notorious Wichita Serial Killer

Jossey-Bass, 2007, 344 pages

This incredible story shows how John Douglas tracked and participated in the hunt for one of the most notorious serial killers in U.S. history. For 31 years, a man who called himself BTK (Bind, Torture, Kill) terrorized the city of Wichita, Kansas, sexually assaulting and strangling a series of women, taunting the police with frequent communications, and bragging about his crimes to local newspapers and TV stations.

After disappearing for nine years, he suddenly reappeared, complaining that no one was paying enough attention to him and claiming that he had committed other crimes for which he had not been given credit. When he was ultimately captured, BTK was shockingly revealed to be Dennis Rader, a 61-year-old married man with two children.

From the publisher's blurb, you might get the impression that John Douglas, a former FBI profiler, was personally involved in catching the BTK killer. In fact, his only real contribution was spending a few hours giving tips to the police back in the 70s. The BTK killer continued to terrorize Wichita for years after that; he was only identified and arrested in 2005, years after his last murder had become another cold case, because of his own stupidity and publicity-seeking.

Dennis Rader, the BTK killer

Church president, Cub Scout leader, dog-catcher, serial killer.

Dennis Rader gave himself the "BTK" nickname - one of the things that emerges in this biography of his career is what an egotist and attention whore he was. He sent taunting letters and cryptic packages whenever he wasn't getting enough attention, even going so far as to write a creepy letter to one of his intended victims when she, by sheer luck, didn't come home at her usual time on the night he was lying in wait for her.

His need to be talked about ended up being his undoing, as he was eventually tracked down thanks to easily-traced software; he was dumb enough to ask the police if his messages could be traced, and believe them when they said no.

As a serial killer, Rader was not particularly spectacular though his crimes were certainly numerous and horrible. His first was the slaughter of a family of four — he broke into the Otero household in 1974, pretending to be an escaped felon who just wanted their money and their car keys. After he tied them up at gunpoint, he proceeded to strangle or asphyxiate every one of them. (A fifth family member, the oldest son, was not home at the time.) Joseph Otero was a military veteran and had a black belt in karate, yet he naively (though one might say he made a calculated risk assessment that turned out to be a horrible miscalculation) allowed himself to be tied up, thinking the balding dweeb with the gun would do as he said, rob them and leave.

This reinforces something I know from my own self-defense training: if confronted with an armed attacker, if he just wants your wallet, sure, give it to him. If, however, he wants to take you somewhere, put you in a trunk, tie you up, etc. — then it's better to make a stand right there. Your odds are a lot better, even against a gun.

Of course, I have never faced a situation like Joseph Otero's, who had to weigh the threat to his family and what might happen if he tried to disarm Rader and failed. This is what makes these monsters so horrible. They don't just kill people, they destroy entire families, even the survivors.

For me, the most interesting thing was not Rader's crimes, but what made him tick. He was obsessed with bondage and strangulation, and he didn't just kill women. He was caught performing auto-erotic asphyxiation by his wife, but she never suspected until the day he was arrested that he was the BTK killer. Indeed, notably sparse in Douglas's biography of Rader is mentions of his wife and children. This is partly because, as he relates, they understandably want little to do with him and no attention from outsiders. But apparently Rader led a completely compartmentalized life: he was literally the "guy next door," a Church president, Cub Scout leader, and municipal employee, and by all accounts, none of his twisted fetishes and desire to bind, torture, and kill ever manifested in his treatment of his family.

What is also interesting is that Rader was no Hannibal, Charles Manson, or even a Ted Bundy: he was, to put it bluntly, rather stupid. His intelligence was low-average, his career was unremarkable and boring, and the only clues he ever gave as to what was going on inside his head was the zealousness with which he used his authority as a city employee to harass people for overgrown lawns and unrepaired cars sitting on driveways. He apparently stalked and harassed a number of women as well, but no one ever thought of him as anything other than, at worst, a creepy little petty tyrant.

Like most serial killers, he collected memorabilia, paid avid attention to news coverage, read about other serial killers, and used his killings to store mental images for his future "spank bank."

When he is finally interviewed by John Douglas, he's just a spent little man in prison, with not much new to add. Douglas's interview is presented as a sort of closure for the author, but Douglas himself seems like a spent man at the end of his career. He gains little new insights from Rader, who is still the pathetic, self-justifying, mediocre pervert he always was. With a little luck and better intuition from the cops and/or his victims, he'd have been easy to stop decades ago, but instead it took 31 years and 10 victims.

This book was a readable and educational entry in the literature of psychopathy, but even Douglas seemed to realize he was kind of phoning it in, both in his final interview with Rader and in the (co-)writing of this book. The hype and mild sensationalism notwithstanding, it's worth reading if you want to know about one of America's less impressive serial killers.

Verdict: An interesting look into the banal mind of a very evil person. As psychopaths go, "murderous dog-catcher" is probably the best and most fitting way for Dennis Rader to be remembered. Inside the Mind of BTK: The True Story Behind the Thirty-Year Hunt for the Notorious Wichita Serial Killer is not a deep or thrilling book, being written decades later by a retired FBI agent only remotely involved with the case, but it does offer a few disturbing observations about things to look out for.

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