Family

“I Knew Right Away It Was My Dad”

A conversation with the daughter of the serial killer BTK.

A young girl and her father open a present while wearing pajamas.
Kerri Rawson and her father, Dennis Rader.
Kerri Rawson

Late one February evening in 2005, Kerri Rawson went online and listened to a recording of the BTK killer from 1977. It was a 911 call, a chilling dispatch in which the caller casually reported a homicide he had just committed to the police. Seized by fear and disgust, Rawson realized she recognized the voice. “I knew right away it was my dad,” she says.

Earlier that day, when an FBI agent had knocked on her door and informed her that her father had been identified as the BTK killer and arrested for murder, Rawson insisted it was all a mistake. She knew her father, Dennis Rader, as normal, law-abiding, kind: a 59-year-old compliance officer in Park City, Kansas. He had even risen to become president of his church council.

It was not a mistake. In his secret life as “BTK”—short for “bind, torture, kill,” the sick nickname summarizing his methods—Rader had murdered 10 people in the Wichita area between 1974 and 1991. By the time Rawson was born in 1978, her father had already committed seven murders, including a family of four. (The Otero family, with two young children, became his first victims in 1974.) Between attacks, Rader courted infamy by mailing rambling letters to local media and police. It was his habit of taunting the police that led to his capture in 2005, 14 years after his last murder. (He is now serving 10 life sentences in prison.)

For Rawson, there is life before Feb. 25, 2005, and life after. Her harrowing new memoir, A Serial Killer’s Daughter: My Story of Faith, Love, and Overcoming, chronicles her struggle to reconcile the father she grew up with—supportive, kind, devoted to his family despite occasional frightening flashes of temper—with the man who murdered women and indulged in sadistic sexual fantasies. Rawson, now 40, has battled post-traumatic stress disorder and found solace in Christian faith since her father’s arrest. For years, she hid from the intense media interest in her family. Her book is the culmination of a growing comfort with speaking out publicly and part of her desire to help other victims of trauma. In a recent Skype conversation, Rawson talked about grappling with her father’s crimes. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

A woman whose face is blurred out holds a baby as the father stands beside her.
Kerri Rawson, her mother (blurred out), and her father, Dennis Rader, in 1978.
Kerri Rawson

Zach Schonfeld: Has writing this memoir helped you heal from the trauma of learning who your father was?

Kerri Rawson: Yeah. I’ve said it’s like pulling out shards of glass. I would come up to these things and not want to write them, and I would have to force myself to do it. It felt like I was pulling something out inside of me. I did that probably a thousand times.

I sort of equate it to, like, hell. Like going to Mordor, if you’ve seen Lord of the Rings.

My understanding is that you haven’t been in touch with your father while writing the book.

I haven’t talked to him in a year. The last time I talked to him was October 2017. We were writing pretty regularly after I forgave him in ’12. Personally, I was falling apart last fall with PTSD, and then my son got ill. I just shut down.

When you say you talked to him, you mean through letters?

I have only ever written him. He could potentially talk to me on the phone. But then he would have my phone number, and I haven’t ever wanted him to have it. I’ve never been comfortable enough to talk to him on the phone or see him at the prison.

Do you think you will reach a point where you’ll want to see him?

I don’t know. It’s hard, because I know he’s 73 and he’s having some health issues. He’s my father, and I still love him. It’s hard to know I might not ever see him again. But it also would be so difficult that I haven’t been able to do it. It’s not like I would ever get to hug him or anything. If you go visit my father, you’re in one room, he’s in another, and he’s chained to a table.

How did he react when he learned you were writing a book about this?

In 2015, when the article [this Wichita Eagle piece about Rawson] came out, he said seeing the impact he had when he was arrested on my family, he was actually upset and almost cried reading it. That’s the most emotion I’ve seen out of him in letters. After that, he sort of came back to his narcissistic self, focused on himself. He’s been encouraging me on the book, but he also wanted to be involved. He wanted to, like, have me do a book of his artwork. I was like, “No, that’s not possible.”

He wanted to be involved in your book? How would that work?

I don’t know. That’s the narcissistic part of him that wants attention. I wouldn’t work with him at all. It’s my memoir about what I’ve gone through. He has a [big] fan club—people that write him and even talk to him on the phone. They’ll print off my tweets or my Facebook pictures of my kids and send them to him. So he heard the book was coming out at the end of January, and he even asked, “Did it have something to do with the anniversary of the Otero murders?” And I was like, “No. My publisher set the date; it has nothing to do with your murders 45 years ago.” I’m trying to show you an example of what it’s like to communicate with him, and why I don’t that often.

A woman in a wedding dress poses for a photo next to her father.
Kerri Rawson and her father, Dennis Rader, at Rawson’s wedding in 2003.
Kerri Rawson

The book’s portrait of your father is complicated. In some parts, you describe him as being a loving father and family man before his arrest. You also talk about how he had this temper and occasionally became violent. Do you still consider him a great and loving father? How do you reconcile these two sides?

Like 90–95 percent of the time, he was a good dad. I’ve been told, “Every day of your life is a lie because you never lived with the man you thought you did.” The fact that he murdered seven people before you were born and three after—that automatically makes him not a good dad. But my therapist said, even if it was a lie, it was a lie I believed. I had a father raising me. I had two parents raising me. If you ask me to try to reconcile it, my brain will explode. I’ll have to go, like, take a nap. I’m a trauma victim. I still deal with PTSD today. If I try to think about living with BTK [instead of] living with my dad, it’s not a good place to be.

I know that he cared for us and loved us. That side of him wasn’t an act. I’m not ever trying to defend anything my father has done, because it’s not defensible. But I think it’s important for people to understand: I did lose my father. I think it’s important, from a criminology aspect, to show that he was a father and a husband and a co-worker. You hear that my dad’s a psychopath and he can’t have feelings. I argue that he can.

In the book, you show how emotional he was when the family dog had to be put to sleep. It’s difficult to reconcile the fact that he was a murderer, and yet he cried like a normal person would cry when his dog died.

I believe my dad was sincerely emotional in those moments I wrote about. He’s said that he compartmentalizes, so that if he’s with you, he’s just Dennis. If he’s out there being BTK, he’s BTK. I don’t know what makes a person able to do that.

The letters in your book from your father are interesting. It seems like your father expressed much remorse for the way his crimes affected your family, but he doesn’t express remorse for the people he actually murdered and their families. Has he ever shown remorse for that?

No. I mean, right after sentencing, in a September ’05 letter, he says he’s so sorry for the victims and he asks God to be between him and them. That’s the closest I’ve ever seen him to saying he’s sorry. When he was in court for sentencing, he never expressed remorse as far as I know. I’ve never seen him express remorse. In court, he didn’t even get some of their names right.

Do you think he is incapable of feeling sorry for what he did to them?

I think he feels sorry he got caught. There’s that “Black Friday” poem where he talks about being caught. [Rader sometimes writes poems from his prison cell.] He wrote [letters] in March of ’05. You can see the remorse of, like: “I’m in jail. I don’t have my good food and my house shoes. And I’m alone. Why aren’t you calling or visiting me?” You don’t really see remorse for what he did to the victims and their families.

When the FBI agent first told you your father was BTK, you thought it was a mistake. Was there a specific moment when you realized he really had done these things?

I don’t know if I can pinpoint the exact moment. You’re in shock, but bits of reality will break in. I was sitting there with the agent, at first defending my father and saying, “It’s not true, you’ve got the wrong guy.” And then I remembered that my neighbor lady had been murdered in ’85 and as far as I knew, that hadn’t been solved. I was 6. I remember how much that hurt me to even say it out loud and realize my dad could have been that murderer.

Kerri Rawson and her father in a dark space with a spectral burst of light hovering next to their heads.
Kerri Rawson and her father in 1989.
Kerri Rawson

Even this far out, I’ll live my normal daily life and won’t be thinking about my dad as BTK. And then—say I’m in page edits—it comes back to me: “Oh, Dad’s BTK.” That breaks into your head and it still stings. It’s been 14 years. It’s just so out there and so crazy that I still have that “Oh, my dad’s BTK” moment now.

Do you believe your dad always knew he would be caught eventually?

I don’t know. Seems like he sort of stumbled into getting caught. He hadn’t communicated [with the police] between ’79 and ’04, except around ’87, when he sent a letter to Mrs. Fager. Her two daughters and her husband were murdered. [The 1987 Fager family murder in Wichita remains unsolved, and BTK denied involvement at the time.]

He denied committing that murder.

He denied it. I actually asked some detectives about it in Wichita. They put somebody on trial, but the guy got off. They said they’re positive it wasn’t my dad, and he just has the 10 [murders]. But occasionally I’ll reach out to a detective and they’ll have to reassure me: No, it’s just the 10. That’s one of those things that just hangs there—could there still be more? Sometimes I’m still bracing for that phone call from the media or a detective.

So do you think your father knew he would be caught?

Well, no. He was quiet, and then the 30th anniversary of the Otero murders was in 2004. There was a special [about BTK] on the news. We know that my dad watched that special and would have read the paper. Some people think he started communicating because he wanted to get caught. I think he was just bored and wanted to play games. I was grown and out of the house; my brother was in the Navy. I think he felt like we were safe from whatever he was doing. You’ve got to realize, you’re dealing with a very twisted, insane person. It’s not like our rational minds can rationalize what my father is thinking or doing. He said he wanted to “retire” as BTK. He wanted to put everything in his notebooks and folders on a computer disc and store them in a safety deposit box.

Dennis Rader on a camping trip.
Dennis Rader in 2004.
Kerri Rawson

Was he planning to murder again?

Yeah. In 2016, when Katherine Ramsland’s book [about him] came out, the Wichita Eagle did a piece [saying] my dad was going to murder an 11th woman, supposedly in October of ’04. My dad said he was actually at her house and then he saw repairmen or something and left. Just Google “BTK’s 11th victim,” you’ll find it. I was pretty surprised because I hadn’t heard that until 2016. But my dad’s full of BS. It’s hard to know what’s real and what’s not real. I do know detectives think it was true and talked to the person my dad had targeted and stalked. My dad says in Ramsland’s book that he was going to commit the murder and then go on a campout with his family. Instead of committing the murder, he just went on the campout. I actually have a photo of him on that campout. I didn’t find out until ’16 he was going to murder somebody on that day.

How has your understanding of PTSD changed since your father was arrested?

I didn’t even realize the first two years I had PTSD. Or that I was a trauma victim. Or that I had witnessed physical abuse in my house. I didn’t think any of those terms applied to me. I got that time when the FBI agent was there stuck in my head, and it was looping. It wasn’t until I saw the trauma therapist and she was like, “This is post-traumatic stress disorder and you’re a trauma victim.” I was like, “How can I be a trauma victim, because nothing happened to me.” She explained, “Everything you were notified about, everything your father was involved in, is traumatic. All of that becomes trauma when you find out about it.

You’ve mentioned sick people who idolize your father. Do these people harass you on social media?

I get trolled. It’s a combination of being hit on and somebody saying they would like to kill you. In June, somebody took a picture of my father and me fishing and made a Father’s Day card and tweeted it to me. And said: “Happy Father’s Day.” Weekly I get asked, “How could you have not known?” I also get, “You’re not a victim. You don’t have the right to share your story.”

Are your children old enough to understand who your father is?

When my daughter was 5—she’s 10 now—she was like: “Where’s my other grandpa?” I told her, “I have a dad, his name’s Dennis, and he’s in jail.” She didn’t even know what jail was. So I tried to explain it: “It’s a really long timeout.” She was like, “When will he get out?” “Well, he won’t ever get out.” Now that they’re older, they’ve known for years what I’ve been writing about my life. And they’ve seen pictures of him.

Do they know why he’s in jail?

Right now they know he’s done bad stuff. But not what. That wasn’t until last year. They were sort of pushing me, asking, “Well, what did he do?” I kind of blew up and I said, “He’s in jail for hurting people.” I left it at that. For years we would ask my daughter, “What’s the worst thing someone could do?” And she would say: “Be a burglar.” We knew she wasn’t prepared to handle the answer. You’re trying to protect them. … But you also don’t want them to become teenagers and Google Mom and find this all out on their own. Trying to slowly step them into the truth without causing harm to them.

Dennis Lynn Rader wearing prison jumpsuit and handcuffs.
Dennis Rader is escorted into the El Dorado Correctional Facility on Aug. 19, 2005, in El Dorado, Kansas.
Jeff Tuttle-Pool/Getty Images

Reading the book, I found myself wondering about your mom’s story. How has her recovery been similar to yours or different?

She’s sort of dealt with my dad like he died on the day he was arrested. Her emotional way of dealing with it was, like, “He’s gone, he died.” Early on she did write him. After the plea, she didn’t; she never wrote him since then. She went into therapy around the same time I did. As far as I understand, she has PTSD from the events around his arrest.

Do you ever wonder what your life would be like now if your dad had never been caught?

It would be a private life, right? I would give anything to just have my dad back and not have any of that.

Do you wish you’d just never found out? With him just living his life in secret?

For those families, he needed to be caught. He should have been arrested right after the Otero murders [in 1974]. Honestly, he should have turned himself in before the Otero murders, to a psychiatric hospital. That’s one of the things I’ve had to wrestle with: If things were the way they should have been, I wouldn’t be alive. If he had turned himself in, saying, “I’m capable of doing this”—or if he had been caught like he should have been—I wouldn’t be here. I don’t think I could possibly answer that knowing for the last 14 years what he is and what he’s done. There’s no way to remove the last 14 years and say, “I wish we didn’t know.” Now what happens if he had died and we found something in a safety deposit box? For the families, I’m glad he got caught so they got answers and justice. And my dad belongs in prison. My dad should have been in prison since ’74.

Have you had contact with those families [of Rader’s victims]?

No. None of my family felt comfortable going to the sentencing and plea. People keep saying, “Well, wouldn’t you want to meet with the family members?” To me, it would be really unimaginable and difficult. I would be really broken up, knowing it was my father who caused them so much pain and loss.