It's been many years since Dennis Rader terrorized Wichita. Using the signature BTK--for bind, torture, kill--he murdered 10 people, often fading away between killings. A new book delves into Rader's motivations through phone calls and letters with the author.
KMUW's Aileen LeBlanc talked with author Katherine Ramsland on a computer phone call. Ramsland has written many books on serial killers and is director of the Master of Arts in Criminal Justice program at DeSales University in Pennsylvania.
Aileen LeBlanc: Is Dennis Rader excited about his notoriety and popularity, if you want to call it that, coming back?
Katherine Ramsland: I think he's always excited whenever his name is in the paper, or when there's any kind of notoriety attached to him. I think that will never leave as long as he's alive.
Does he still, in prison, fantasize and do those sorts of things there?
I believe he still fantasizes. He drew things for the book, like this torture silo, so yeah, I think he still fantasizes. But I also think, because he's 70 years old, he isn't as active or intense as it was when he was a younger man.
Rader spent a lot of time studying other serial killers and mimicking them or learning from them. How does he line up with all of the ones that you've studied so far?
Well, the very thing you mention makes him make unique. There are very few who actually set out to have role models among other serial killers. I mean, they'll study the ways and what not, but Rader modeled himself on specific serial killers like Harvey Glatman, who used ropes to bind his victims and used ruses to bring them to him. He pretended he was a photographer. He was shooting covers for true detective magazines, so they had to be bound. Once he got them, he had power over them, and that was a very exciting thing for Rader, as a teenager.
Also, he read about H.H. Holmes, who is the subject of a book called "Devil in the White City," and he loved that Holmes had built a three-story hotel in Chicago and had all these torture devices. In Rader's mind, he sets that in a barn, because he's from Kansas and he loved the big red barns. He's one of the few who quite explicitly looks to other serial killers as to 'How did they do this?' in order to be inspired and to try to duplicate what they had done.
He mentions more than once that he wanted to be like Jack the Ripper and get away with it. And yet he seems to, when he resurfaces after so many years, want to be known and be discovered, and he gives away more and more information as if he wants, not just the attention as BTK, but actually to be found out.
He actually doesn't. He has so many lies mixed in with a semi-truth that he's not really giving away that much information. He's playing with the police. He's pretending to give away information that really doesn't end up panning out very well. He had this plan where he was going to be the one who got away, like Jack the Ripper, but they were going to know that it was Dennis Rader. He had this plan where he was going to put a lot of stuff in a safe deposit box so that after he died, it would be discovered and then he'd get the notoriety as the one who got away.
So in his fantasies, that would be very satisfying to imagine the headlines and to imagine the people he knew being completely taken by surprise. So he thought that plan would basically let him have his cake and eat it too.
Explain to me what he calls "cubing."
What he's talking about when he says "cubing" is what in psychology and criminology we call compartmentalizing. That is you have distinct areas, almost distinct personas, it's not like multiple personality disorder, but it's you can dissociate from your life and go into your fantasy life, and it almost becomes its own moral center so that you can think contradictory thoughts and it doesn't matter.
So he calls it cubing, and I think his idea is actually pretty good because the idea of the cube is that when you're on one face of a cube, you can't see any of the others, but they're all still part of the same package. And you can just go on to another face, and another face, and live out as if each of those faces is entirely separate, because you're not looking at all the other ones. Nevertheless, they're all part of a cube.
What are the other stereotypes that people have about serial killers?
That there are no females. That's one I talk about in my class a lot. That females aren't as violent, they only poison you; that's not true, they certainly have used weapons as well. That they're loners. They don't have jobs. That they live with their mothers. Seventy-five percent of all serial killers are American. White, you know. Quite a few.
I go through 20 myths about serial killers to start my class because I want students to understand all the things you're learning from movies, TV and novels are giving you the wrong idea about these people. That they can't stop, that's another one. And we certainly have had serial killers who turned themselves in, who have stopped. That they're also either psychopaths or they're all psychotic or insane; that's another one. That you can tell by the look in their eyes; that's one I've heard from police officers, that you can tell from the look in their eyes. No, you can't!
Is there anything I should have asked you, Katherine?
I guess one of the things that, in the articles that appeared in the [Wichita] Eagle, I was criticized for not confronting him and getting to the truth, and I just want to say I was not there as a detective or as an investigative journalist. I was there as somebody observing layers of behavior and bringing forth all of that, and putting it out there for others to see, who also have training in criminology and psychology.
For me to have attempted to reform how he thinks of himself...I think would've completely undermined my purpose. And so I would like people to understand that there are different ways to approach some of my care. And I wasn't there as a detective, and I wasn't there as a journalist.
Aileen LeBlanc is news director at KMUW. Follow her on Twitter @Aileen_LeBlanc.
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