Serial killer Dennis Rader wants to control his narrative. That was clear when the devout Lutheran, dad and Boy Scout troop leader told police to call him by a self-given nickname: “BTK”—bind them, torture them, kill them. He coined another term: “Factor X,” which he blamed (or credited?) for his drive to commit 10 murders between 1974 and 1991.
When corresponding with forensic psychologist Dr. Katherine Ramsland, Rader was interested in having her uncover the source of Factor X, which he said was a mystery to him. Was it demonic, or something else? Her assessment was less otherworldly. She said Rader “had a trajectory toward violence”: opportunities to kill combined with unusual sexual proclivities and a desire for fame.
When criminologist Dr. Scott Bonn interviewed Rader for his book “Why We Love Serial Killers: The Curious Appeal of the World’s Most Savage Murderers,” he tapped into Rader’s narcissism. “I sort of played Clarice Starling, soliciting his expertise,” Bonn says. Rader jumped at the chance to correspond. “A psychopath thinks they’re the most interesting person in the world,” Bonn says.
Not all serial killers are psychopaths, and not all psychopaths are serial killers. (Some are successful CEOs or renowned surgeons.) But psychopaths “unencumbered by human emotions” and able to hide in plain sight, “tend to be the most prolific and effective serial killers,” says Bonn.
This was especially true in the 1970s, when criminal profiling was new and technology was unsophisticated. “The ’70s were also the ‘Me Decade’ and it was the ‘Me Decade’ of serial killers too,” says Bonn. “Serial killers like BTK and Son of Sam emerged to make a statement to police and the press: ‘You will take me seriously.'” (Rader was ultimately caught because of his ego—and advances in technology. In 2004, he boastfully communicated with police via floppy disk, which they traced back to him.)
We asked Bonn about his correspondence with Rader, Factor X and what makes Rader want to be seen as more of a “terrorist than a garden-variety serial killer.”
Rader blames his urge to kill on something he calls Factor X. What do you think Factor X is—if it’s anything at all?
What he is attempting to do there is neutralize his actions, deflect his guilt. As if to say, ‘I’m no more responsible for killing than a venomous snake is—how can you blame me?’ He truly believes that God made him a natural-born predator, that this is his design, and therefore he’s not culpable. In fact, he envisions himself as such a natural-born predator that [in our correspondence], he signed his signature in cursive in the shape of a shark’s teeth.
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And yet as much as he wants to deflect guilt, Rader does seem to love himself and his ‘work.’ As you pointed out in your book, he gave himself the nickname ‘BTK.’
There’s definitely a contradiction/hypocrisy there. One part saying, ‘I have no control over it’ and yet he absolutely craves killing and loves it. He told authorities to refer to him as that—BTK—his own brand name.
Do you think Rader is more of an egomaniac than other serial killers?
I became very good friends with the late Roy Hazelwood, one of three FBI agents who essentially created profiling and interviewed many serial killers. What Hazelwood told me about BTK is that that he is ‘a profound, malignant narcissist and psychopath.’ He said Rader was the worst-of-the-worst that he came across.
During your communication with Rader, were you ever afraid of him?
I was never afraid. I never sat across from BTK because you’re not allowed to—he’s restricted, you cannot access him. I corresponded with him through the mail.
Were you surprised by anything in your correspondence with Rader?
One thing was odd: He’s created this alternate reality for himself. Behind bars, he’s investing in stocks and real estate. He’s a wealthy investor in his mind. He keeps copious records of his investments.
Does he think he’s going to get out of prison to spend his wealth?
No. I think this is just something to occupy his time, to feel good about—it’s given him self-esteem. If you or I were locked away in solitary confinement 23 hours a day for decades, we would wither away. But he does not crave emotional contact or connection with other people. He craves fantasy. For him, having what he believes is this highly successful stock and real estate portfolio has replaced his fantasy life of killing.
Rader also writes flowery poetry. Do you think there’s a normal part of him that enjoys butterflies? Or is that performative?
He likes butterflies and cats—but for different reasons than you and I like butterflies and cats. (And babies for that matter, and children.) It’s an amusement. He doesn’t emotionally connect with anything—that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t find things fascinating or find enjoyment in things. He finds stimulation and arousal. He also prolifically draws little nature scenes, but interestingly there are never any people in his drawings.
Rader’s daughter Kerri Rawson has said that he was an empathetic, patient dad. Why do you think he was such a different person with his victims?
He calls it cubing. In psychology, we call it compartmentalization. He was able to create two alternate realities for himself. In one, he was Dennis Rader, president of his Lutheran church council, father and husband—it appealed to his ego. He was a man to be reckoned with in town. But then, when Factor X would kick in, he had this insatiable need to kill and became BTK.
And he sees no contradiction. He believes that he can be both a doting father, good public servant and citizen—and torturing serial killer.
Did you find in your research any other serial killers who lived such normal-seeming lives?
Absolutely. Look at Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy. Their lives were remarkably normal—when looking from the outside. These ‘everyman’ killers are why people wonder if one could be living next door. Those killers are perhaps the most chilling. Because you don’t see them coming.
But serial killers are like great white shark attacks. They get an undue amount of attention in our press, in our entertainment because they are rare, exotic and deadly. That leads to an erroneous impression that they’re much more prevalent than they are.
At a certain point, Rader referred to himself as a terrorist. You’ve studied terrorism. Do you agree?
That’s an indication of his narcissism. His grandiosity requires that he not be pigeonholed as a serial killer. He says it’s not nearly broad enough to cover his accomplishments. He sees himself as far greater than Ted Bundy or Son of Sam. He sees himself as much more like Osama bin Laden—that he’s on a different plane because he didn’t restrict himself to a particular victim type. That means the next victim could be anyone.
How do you live a normal life when so much of your work is about violence? Do you cleanse your brain of this at the end of the day?
You might be surprised to hear that I’m a very spiritual person. And [in living a] spiritual life, one of the things I’ve thought about is that serial killers, like it or not—are part of us, they are us. They are far more complex than simply good and evil.