DAHLONEGA — A Wichita, Kan., serial killer’s love of attention and notoriety became the single biggest factor in his capture, a detective in the case said Tuesday.
Dennis Rader, a 60-year-old animal control officer who pleaded guilty in 2005 to 10 murders committed between 1974 and 1991 using the alias "BTK," or "bind, torture, kill" never wanted to get caught, but a flurry of communications with police through the news media led to his identification and arrest, Wichita Police Detective Tim Relph told a forensics symposium hosted at North Georgia College and State University.
Relph was one of six people to speak at a two-day symposium on the investigations of sex crimes and deviant behavior hosted by the college’s continuing education and criminal justice departments. About 50 investigators, sexual assault nurse examiners, victim-witness assistants and prosecutors attended.
The detective noted prophetic words a profiler used to describe BTK many years earlier: "Your advantage in this case is that his very strong, self-centered attitude will be his downfall."
During the 1970s, when he killed six people, including a family of four, Rader sent several cryptic letters to news organizations and individuals. The letters were conveyed to police, but none contained the clues needed to crack the case.
Relph recounted the myriad strategies detectives used during the investigation, from combing census data and "geographical profiling" to inserting subliminal messages for BTK to "call the chief" in a televised news report on the case.
After a time, BTK fell silent, and was not even a suspect in several later killings eventually tied to him.
Then, 30 years after his first murders, when a newspaper article marked the anniversary and noted that an attorney was working on a book about the case, BTK felt compelled to reach out again. It was 2004, and he had last killed in 1991.
"His words were, ‘He wanted to dust this thing off,’" Relph said. "This was the greatest accomplishment of his life. People were forgetting about it, and he wanted to remind them. But I can assure you he did not want to get caught."
Rader wrote to a Wichita newspaper in May 2004, the first of 11 communications mailed to or dropped off at various locations across Wichita in a year’s time. Some included photographs he had taken at the scenes of his killings, or driver’s licenses, jewelry and other "trophies" taken from the victims.
Some packages Rader sent contained bound and partially unclothed dolls meant to represent specific victims. Most contained "chapters" in what was a poorly written autobiography of a serial killer, with the promise of more to come.
Police responded to each new communication in measured, carefully crafted news releases.
"There wasn’t a word in there that we didn’t think about for hours," Relph said. "Everything at every press briefing was directed at him." By August 2004, a sense of urgency gripped investigators.
"We were very concerned that the next time he was going to communicate was with a dead body," Relph said.
The breakthrough came in February 2005, when Rader, in one of his messages, directed a question toward police that would be his ultimate folly: "Can I communicate with a (computer) floppy (disc) and not be traced to a computer? Be honest."
"This guy is enjoying this and he thinks we are, too," Relph said. "He was making more mistakes in the last few months than he had in the past 30 years."
Through a pre-arranged communication in a local newspaper’s classified section, police told BTK that sending a floppy disc "will be OK."
Shortly after a Wichita television station received what Relph called "the world’s most famous computer floppy," in February 2005, police had traced it to a location – a church in Wichita, and a name – Dennis Rader. Soon after that, police obtained through a court order a medical sample from Rader’s daughter that was kept at the Wichita State University and confirmed through a DNA match that her father was the BTK killer.
Rader pleaded guilty, giving a lengthy courtroom confession, and was sentenced to 175 years in prison.
Relph said he thinks had Rader not been caught when he was, BTK would have kept corresponding with police "until he had told the story of his book, but then I’m not sure he could have stopped then. He was having so much fun."
Rader indicated in his messages that he had begun stalking new potential victims.
Asked if he felt Rader would have killed again, Relph said, "absolutely."