WICHITA, Kan. — The FBI man knocked on Kerri Rawson’s door 10 years ago.
She looked out from her tiny apartment near Detroit. He was holding an FBI badge.
She almost didn’t answer. Her father, a code compliance officer in the Wichita suburb of Park City, had taught her to be wary of strangers, and this one had sat in his car next to her trash dumpster for an hour. She’d called her husband.
But after the FBI guy knocked, she let him into her kitchen, where she’d made chocolate bundt cake. From now on, the smell of chocolate cake would make her queasy.
He asked whether she knew who BTK was.
Yes. BTK — Bind. Torture. Kill. — was the serial killer who scared her mom decades ago. The FBI guy was her dad’s age — late 50s, wearing glasses and a necktie, nervous. She was a substitute teacher taking a day off, still wearing mint-green pajamas, though it was past noon.
Her dad had been arrested as a BTK suspect, the man said.
He needed to swab her cheek for DNA.
At that moment in Park City, shortly after 12:15 p.m., Kerri’s mother, Paula Rader, sat down to lunch at home, waiting for her husband. Cops rushed in, guns drawn. A week later, Paula’s lunch still sat uneaten in the house she had lived in with her husband, Dennis, since the early ’70s. She would never sleep at that house again.
Other cops had just arrested Dennis Rader as he was driving home for lunch, pinning him on the pavement as they cuffed him. Around Wichita, officers were picking up Rader’s family and friends for questioning.
At the police station, Paula defended her husband. Had she ever noticed anything unusual? No.
A daughter’s disbelief
Back in Detroit, Kerri yelled at the FBI guy.
The last time she had seen Dad was weeks before, in Park City at Christmastime. He looked sad. She remembered his bear hug, how he smelled, his brown code-compliance uniform.
“See you in a while,” he’d said.
This could not be true, she told the FBI agent.
Dad had called last night, asking whether she’d checked the oil in her car.
Now, with the FBI guy, she did something she would do many times over the next seven days — defend and then doubt her father’s innocence.
She told the him about Marine Hedge.
Hedge, 53, had been a grandmother, with a silky Southern accent, 5 feet tall, weighing no more than 100 pounds and living six doors from the Raders. Kerri’s dad had waved to her driving to church. She disappeared in 1985, when Kerri was 6, her body found in a ditch. Paula had worried about safety.
“Don’t worry,” Dad said. “We’re safe.”
But now Kerri remembered that when Hedge had disappeared, Dad was not home. “It was stormy, and I didn’t want to sleep by myself. My mom let me in her bed — that’s how I know he was gone.”
Kerri’s husband, Darian, hurried into the apartment that day, asked to see the FBI guy’s badge, excused himself to go into the bathroom and called the Detroit FBI office. Yes, they said. The guy is a real agent.
Kerri stared at walls, talked in circles. One moment she’d be furious about the arrest. Then she’d stare. After the FBI guy left, she took down a picture of her father that was hanging in a hallway and stuck it in a closet.
She Googled “BTK” for proof that her dad was innocent, but she told Darian she was matching her memories to BTK’s murder timeline and now had doubts.
If this were true, then her whole life might be a lie. Dad might have used her and her family as a cover story for murder.
Few people are the sons or daughters of serial killers.
But psychologists say all of us suffer trauma in life.
How we respond defines us. Some of us turn bitter. Others find a way to live in peace. One key, as Kerri’s psychologist said later, is who we have in our lives and how good they are at guiding us.
Another key, as Kerri herself would say someday, is whether we can forgive the seemingly unforgivable.
The next day, police and politicians gathered in Wichita’s City Hall to announce an arrest. CNN carried it live.
Kerri and Darian did not have cable, but friends from Houston stuck their phone close to their television.
“BTK is arrested,” Police Chief Norman Williams announced.
Over the phone, Kerri heard cheering.
The cops made her mad, and she got mad again when she learned why they had wanted her DNA. To link her dad to BTK, they’d obtained one of Kerri’s Pap smears from years before at Kansas State University’s health clinic. They’d used that to confirm that the Rader family DNA closely matched DNA in the semen sample BTK left at the scene of a quadruple homicide in 1974. So the FBI guy was double-checking her DNA.
She felt violated.
Kerri and Darian did not feel safe; Kerri slept on the couch, Darian on the floor. They slept as if one of them needed to be on watch.
Darian heard her repeat things, sometimes 25 times in a row.
TV crews knocked on their door, camped in their parking lot.
“Go away,” Darian called through the door.
When Darian drove to work, TV crews followed; he did U-turns to escape.
Kerri read news from Wichita every day. “Ten murders? How many more will he be accused of?”
She again Googled the BTK timeline. Mom was pregnant with her in 1977 when BTK murdered Nancy Fox.
After the media showed up demanding to talk to BTK’s daughter, Darian watched his wife change.
Athletic and nearly 5-feet-10, she was no girly-girl, and Darian loved that. She could walk for days with him, carrying a wilderness backpack. She always put her needs second to others. But now she was BTK’s daughter. She even looked like her dad — same dark hair, same eyes. She shared his middle name, Lynn.
She felt as if she’d done something wrong.
Kerri searched her memories.
The night of Hedge’s murder, Dad had taken Brian, her 9-year-old brother, on a Scout campout. Had it been an alibi so he could sneak out of the campout and murder Hedge?
In 2004 near Christmastime, after BTK had threatened to kill again, Dad had driven her to the airport to pick up her brother. Dad wandered off.
Was he mailing something? Watching the news? She minutely analyzed her whole life.
People said in news stories that Dennis Rader obsessed about little things. Kerri remembered how Dad spoke sharply if she sat in his chair or failed to put shoes away. Cops said BTK made strange marks in his communications. She remembered weird marks Dad made on newspaper stories. “Code,” he called it.
“I still seek the ‘whys.’”
—Dennis Rader, Jan. 20, 2015, letter to The Wichita Eagle from prison
In Wichita, Kerri’s uncle Jeff Rader got fed up with reporters from CNN and Fox News driving by. He stepped outside his mother’s home and said she was 79 and frail, that she sometimes fell. Now she was taking crank calls. “There are sick people out there,” he told reporters. “The sort who want to kick someone when they are down.”
Kerri flew into Wichita three days after Dad’s arrest. On the plane, she escaped by reading “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.” But on her layover, she saw Dad’s face filling the Dallas airport’s TV screens.
Mike Clark, the family’s pastor, visited Dennis Rader in jail a week after his arrest.
Clark called Paula afterward. Kerri watched her mother take the call, with a yellow legal pad in her hand. Paula wrote “he’s confessing” and underlined it as she talked.
So it was all true. BTK had operated for 31 years, starting four years before Kerri was born. BTK had murdered the Oteros — a mom, a dad and two children, ages 11 and 9. BTK had tortured victims, sexually defiled several. He had taken Hedge’s body inside Christ Lutheran Church, where he was congregation president. In church, he posed her body, strapped high heels to her cold feet and took photos.
That confession did it for Paula.
Kerri’s mother never saw, wrote or spoke to Dennis again.
Everybody assumed BTK was some sort of sadistic genius.
The real BTK was an ordinary, inarticulate doofus, Darian thought.
And a good dad, Kerri told him.
He did not hit. Did not abuse. With Mom, Dad taught godliness. Kerri had two college degrees; Brian, her older brother, had been an Eagle Scout and was training to serve on U.S. Navy nuclear submarines.
“I write not to ‘toot’ my horn ... but to help clarify or shed light on a daughter’s trust and a Father’s love for each other, torn by senseless and horrid attacks on people.”
—Dennis Rader, Jan. 20 letter to The Eagle from the El Dorado Correctional Facility
Rader, in jail, couldn’t understand why no family visited. As he told Pastor Clark, he had been a good man “who just did bad things.”
Kerri, disgusted, wrote him: “You have had these secrets, this ‘double life’ for 30 years; we have only had knowledge of it for three months. Give us some time. … We are trying to cope and survive. … You lied to us, deceived us.”
The family dreaded a trial. Every deviant act would be described on TV. But they argued. Maybe he was sick and needed help?
He decided to plead guilty to spare them. Kerri felt relieved — until the plea hearing. Her dad told a national television audience at length how he murdered people. He seemed to enjoy the story. He lingered over how he’d murdered the Otero children.
He even brought up Kerri. “Joseph Otero had a daughter, I had a daughter.”
He said Nancy Fox defiantly smoked a cigarette before he strangled her with a belt. He said the Oteros pleaded for their lives and that Shirley Vian died while her children screamed.
“I gave up years ago hoping that someone would forgive me and understand.”
—Dennis Rader, letter from prison to The Eagle, Jan. 26, 2015
Weeks after the arrest, Kerri, at the family house in Park City again, found papers with Dad’s little code marks and called police, wondering whether they would want them. And so she met Ken Landwehr and Kelly Otis, two cops who helped catch BTK.
They treated her kindly, like a victim.
Landwehr had silver hair and dark eyes that looked deep; he talked in warm tones. The investigation, he said, showed that she and her family were victims as much as the families of the 10 dead. Otis gave her his business card, with his cellphone number scribbled on it. “Call me if you ever need anything.” She put the card in a pocket and carried it for years. Dad was a monster. These guys were noble.
One night in 2006, while Darian slept, Kerri lay beside him and wrote to Dad.
“Should I tell you that I grew up adoring you, that you were the sunshine of my life ... true, even if it is coming out jaded and bitter now. But really, who could blame me? Hey, it’s okay to yell at your father all you want when he’s a serial killer.
“I just wished you were sitting next to me in the theater, sharing a tub of buttered popcorn. But you’re not. You’re sitting in your concrete room (what you like to call it, your room! Hello!!! It’s a jail cell, not a room! Like you’re staying at some inn where they serve you breakfast in bed with a fresh cut flower on the tray, instead of where you really are, where they serve you on a cold metal tray that slips through a crack in the door.)
“That tub of buttered popcorn reminds me that sometimes I just want to go out and buy the biggest, buttery tub I can find and wave it in your face and say, ‘Ha, you won’t ever have this again’ and ask was it worth it?
“In the next breath I want to ask if you’re staying warm at night. … I’m so sorry that you’re alone in that small cold concrete cell and sometimes I just wish I could give you a hug.”
She never sent that letter. She couldn’t bring herself to hurt him.
Compassion has limits.
Dad committed his first murders at age 29. She was 27. She worried maybe something would change in her in two years, though she had never gotten even a speeding ticket.
“No,” Darian said. “You don’t just flip a switch and one day become a serial killer. Come on.”
She could not imagine what she would tell her children, if she had kids someday. “How do you say, ‘Your grandfather is a notorious serial killer’”?
When her dad wrote, his letters sometimes went into the trash, where she dumped cat litter on them.
Other times, she’d write, and he would not, and later write that he’d been busy.
“Busy?” she thought. “What the hell is he doing in prison to be ‘busy’?”
She later learned that he had a fan club — loons who wrote to him. She worried they’d look her up.
At age 29, her dad had become a murderer. At age 29, she became a mother, and suddenly she despised her dad.
In 1974, he had killed two children.
In 1977, he had locked Shirley Vian’s two children in a bathroom then strangled her while her 6-year-old son watched through a keyhole and screamed.
In 1986, he killed Vicki Wegerle while her 2-year-old watched from a playpen.
“Man hurt mommy,” the child told police.
“Once I got pregnant with my daughter,” Kerri said later, “I just got really mad at him ... became very protective of my kids.”
She stopped writing. For good, she thought.
Sue Parker, a Detroit-area therapist, treated Kerri for five months in 2007, two years after the arrest. Parker saw a woman with above-average intelligence, poise and post-traumatic stress.
Emotional trauma is an affliction more widespread than anyone realizes, Parker knew. Look at prison inmates. Look at addicts. As Parker would say later: Are all of those people really all bad people? Or did something happen early on that triggered what they did?
But Parker also knew that trauma doesn’t always determine how we recover.
“It’s not just about trauma. It’s about the severity of the trauma and how long it goes on, but it also depends on the coping mechanisms the victims have — and it depends also on their support system, who they have around them.”
Kerri ended up fine, Parker said later. Betrayed, yes, on a level only God can understand. But Kerri left her care looking healthy, strong and resourceful, Parker said.
Why? In part because of the therapy. And in part because Kerri had had good people around all her life. A good husband. Church. Friends. And good parents. Not just Mom, Parker thought.
The cops said Dennis Rader had fancied himself, in his interrogation, as a James Bond character with cover stories. He was Christ Lutheran’s congregation president. A Boy Scout volunteer.
Cover stories, he said.
But BTK had been a good dad, Parker said. Even when every word he said was a lie.
“Maybe it was all a cover story,” Parker said. “But if it was, it was a cover story that actually worked.”
In the end, Parker said, we are not our parents. We are who we are.
Kerri is not “the daughter of BTK,” Parker said.
But Kerri herself didn’t entirely believe that.
“To live in a 8’ X 12’ room for a very long time; most of us that live here will go ‘crazy’ at some point.
“But, its that separation from others that finally is your worst nightmare.”
—Dennis Rader, in a letter from prison to The Eagle, Jan. 26, 2015
For five years after her daughter, Emilie, was born in 2008, Kerri cut her father out of her life.
Darian spoke to her with compassion, made her laugh.
In church, she clung to teachings about God’s love. But when it was announced that the next Sunday’s sermon would address forgiveness, Kerri stayed away.
She gave birth to a second child, Ian, in 2011, but her dad’s betrayals kept poisoning her life.
When friends questioned whether it was wise for them to have children, Kerri ignored them. She never worried about her kids inheriting a serial killer gene.
When Emilie, at 5, understood what “grandfather” meant, she asked where her grandfather was.
“In a long time-out,” Kerri replied.
Couldn’t Kerri go see him? Emilie asked.
“It’s a really long time-out,” Kerri replied.
Kerri asked friends: “Don’t tag our children” on Facebook. When friends asked why, she didn’t know how to answer them. She told some of them that “my dad did something terrible.”
“Just Google me.”
And they would. And then: “Oh.”
There are two kinds of friends, Darian said later. “The kind that when we told who Dennis was, they’d just say, ‘That’s super-weird, but it doesn’t change the way we think about you guys.’
“And then there’s the other kind … who perhaps think this thing defines you.”
One day at church, they listened to a woman describe being raped. She said she forgave, not to help the rapist but to lighten her own suffering.
Kerri talked about that for days, to Darian, their pastor, to church friends.
In August 2012 at her church, Northridge Church in Plymouth, Mich., she publicly announced that her father is a serial killer and told her story to a women’s ministry.
“I have not forgiven him,” she told them.
Marijo Swanson, another church friend, talked to her about forgiveness. How we handle betrayal is on us, she told her.
“If we choose not to forgive or not work at healing from the betrayal,” she said, “we continue to give the other person power to control us and our feelings.”
In the fall of 2012, while working out in a gym, Kerri suffered a stress fracture in her tibia. She was laid up for weeks, with time to think.
One day, the forgiveness just poured over her. She sobbed so hard that she had to pull the car over. The anger was gone, the hurt was fixed, the holding out against Dad was not there anymore.
But forgiveness did not mean she’d made peace with murder.
Dad belonged in prison.
In December 2012, Kerri wrote to her father for the first time in five years.
She told him she would never forget his crimes or be at peace with what he’d done. But she wrote that she was at peace with the man who raised her. That man was a good man, whatever else he’d become.
And then she wrote of her life, which he would never see.
She wrote of the grandchildren he would never meet.
“I have come to terms with what happened with you and laid it to rest. I am never going to understand it but I forgive you.
“I don’t know if I will ever be able to make it for a visit but know that I love you and hope to see you in heaven some day.”
After that letter to her father, Kerri changed.
“Before she forgave him, she thought of herself as BTK’s daughter,” Darian said later.
“But as soon as she forgave him, she was Kerri again.”
But forgiveness is not tidy.
In February 2013, Kerri spoke at her church again from a prepared speech.
“(God) told me, ‘You have a Dad problem, you have a trust and obedience problem. You trusted and obeyed your earthly father and he hurt you, so now you’re holding out on me. You have been holding out on me for seven years.
“‘Let’s fix that.’
“He told me that I had a forgiveness problem, which is a love problem, which is a God problem.”
“I told Him that ‘I love you.’
“He said ‘then show me.
And so she had done it, she told them. She had forgiven him. In December 2013, she wrote to Dad, telling him once again that she forgave, that she loved him.
Rader, or so he wrote from prison to The Eagle, was stunned.
“Forgiveness is there between the lines, she writes on those days she thinks of me, and the dark deeds, she recalls all that we did as a family — many good memories, and that helps her make the day.
“that is true love from a daughter’s heart.
“What else can a father ask for.”
But that was not the final word about forgiveness or BTK.
“Yes, I feel deep remorse, but I doubt of some one killed a loved one, I would ever forgive them.”
—Dennis Rader, in a letter from prison to The Eagle, Jan. 26, 2015
In September, Kerri was with her children when she saw Stephen King give a TV interview.
King said he’d written a story inspired by her family years before, “A Good Marriage,” about discovering the monster in the house.
Furious, she broke the family’s nine-year silence and gave a newspaper interview, lashing out at King. Among people giving her rave reviews: Dad.
“She reminds me of me,” he wrote to The Eagle. “Independence, fearless, uses the media.”
“I was touch by it, and what Kerri said. I could tell, it came totally from within her ‘an emotional venting.’
“People reading the release, will see we had a ‘good Family.’ Nothing to hide; Only me with my ‘Dark Secrets.’
“Like she said, I was a good Dad, (but only did bad things).”
“Disgusting,” Kerri thought.
Bad memories came back.
She remembered late 1996. The family had lost a cousin to a wreck and was losing a grandfather to illness. To comfort the family, her mom made manicotti.
“My family got into some kind of argument at dinner, and we had this old rickety table and someone — I don’t remember who — pounded on it and the legs broke and all the dinner came crashing down, scattering noodles and sauce all over.
“My dad was so angry at my brother, he put his hands around my brother’s neck and started to try to choke him. My mom and I stepped in right away and broke it off.
“I can still picture it clearly, and I can see the intense anger in my dad’s face and eyes. Close to manic.”
Forgiveness is complicated.
“I fight my dad sometimes in my dreams, never understanding who let him out of prison; I’m always very fearful of him and very angry in my dreams,” she said.
“Sometimes I’m even fighting for my life or frantically trying to convince others of the truth.
“I don’t know what this says about forgiveness.”
“Age is also catching up with me, beginning to slow down, nap more, reflect on life, work on poetry, art, read, play chess, no much ‘Telly’ anymore; I’ll soon be 70!”
—Dennis Rader, in a letter from prison, Jan. 20, 2015
On a bitter-cold January morning, Kerri walks along Rock Island Road in Wichita, hands shoved in her pockets.
“Coming back here to Wichita is like stepping into enemy territory,” she says.
She wonders whether people might recognize her and throw up.
She talks of forgiveness but can’t talk about “him” without swearing.
“I feel bad for the 30 years of s--t my dad gave this town — 30 years of bad things because of one man, my dad. The terrible things he did to the victims. ... Women were scared — my own mother was scared to go home.
“I forgave him.
“But I didn’t do that for him.
“I did it for me.”
From downtown, Kerri rides nine miles north to Park City, to her old block.
“There’s my grandma’s house, and there’s where Mrs. Hedge lived. … And here is where our house was.”
It is a vacant lot — pale tan grass hibernating under patches of dirty snow. The city bought the 960-square-foot house and bulldozed it in 2007 to discourage gawkers.
She walks to the back of the lot and points out the tiny creek.
“I used to play, a total mud girl, mud from head to toe in that creek. … To get to my grandma’s house, I had to walk past Mrs. Hedge’s house, and now (at age 6) I was afraid. And the guy who killed her was living in our house.”
She shows where her tree house stood, built by her dad, so big that three kids could sleep inside.
She showed, with a sweep of her arms, how big his garden had been.
“He liked to do hobbies, because it kept him out of trouble. He turned my bedroom into a nursery for plants when I was 3, and I’d sleep with my brother in the bunk bed. I was so annoyed with my dad. But now you realize, that kept him out of trouble. He was trying to stop.
“So it was plants — or murder. Later it was stamps. … We had hundreds of stamps in tubs. My mom and I ended up using them on envelopes. So every time I stick one of his stupid stamps on an envelope, it’s like making part of the evil go away. … He thought he was somebody important and that people would want them for a stamp collection. Instead, I mailed letters for 10 years to the electric company. It makes me happy. You put that in the paper, Dad will be mad.”
She points to a small depression in the grass — the grave of a pet dog long dead. His name was Patches.
The cops were so suspicious of BTK that they dug up Patches’ remains to see whether BTK had buried any secrets with the dog, she said.
He had not.
But nothing about her life was spared, she said.
Not even the graves of long-dead dogs.
©2015 The Wichita Eagle (Wichita, Kan.)
Visit The Wichita Eagle (Wichita, Kan.) at kansas.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC