From his jail in Wichita, Dennis Rader, the sadistic serial killer who called himself BTK--short for his method: bind, torture, kill--phoned a local television station and talked about his wife, Paula, and their grown children, Kerri and Brian. "Paula has opened up a little bit more," he told station KSNW. "She's writing a little bit more. Kids are hit-and-miss, you know, they're busy." Four days after the call, Rader pleaded guilty in Sedgwick County Court to the 10 slayings, recounting the murders in gruesome detail.
It is unclear if Rader, 60, entered the guilty plea to spare his family further agony and humiliation, or if he simply saw no point in a trial. The Rev. Michael Clark, the pastor of the Lutheran church where Rader had been the congregation president and Paula, 57, had sung in the choir, said that the killer's wife had sent a letter to her husband. But he did not disclose the contents. "Right now, Paula has to take care of herself in the best way she can," Pastor Clark told reporters. "She needs to do more healing before she can stand on her feet."
But how can family members ever heal after learning that a seemingly virtuous man--a husband who professed deep Christian values, a dad who was a Cub Scout leader--had, in truth, been a monster living in their midst? After her husband's arrest in February, Paula, a bookkeeper, left Kansas for the seclusion of another state, friends said, devastated by the shock and desperate to hide from the ravenous media. Neither she nor her children--they are in their 20s--have appeared at any of Rader's court hearings or visited him in jail. They are left to deal with memories of childhood, such as the son's earning the Eagle Scout award and the daughter's qualifying for the state high-school golf championship, as part of a horror story.
The phrase "serial killer" evokes the images of the spooky loner, too detached and twisted to marry and raise children. The reality, however, is that serial killers have often been family men, according to Harley Stock, an expert on such murderers. "They are not out in a shed someplace," he said. For some of these families, the truth can be impossible to grasp, even when the evidence is plain. Albert Fish, a serial killer in the 1930s, preyed on young boys, murdered and ate them. But during his trial, his daughter, Gertrude Demarco, wept uncontrollably and insisted that Fish had been a good father. The measure of denial can be profound. In the case of Herb Baumeister, the Indiana serial killer who strangled gay men and buried them in his front lawn, a skeleton was found on the property by his young son. His wife, Juliana, told police she believed Baumeister's explanation: the skeleton was an inherited anatomical model that belonged to his father, a physician, and that he was simply storing it in the ground. Carole Hott, who was married to the killer John Wayne Gacy, would ask about the rotting smell coming from the basement. She accepted his explanation that a broken refrigerator had turned meat rancid. In fact, the smell was coming from the bodies Gacy was storing downstairs.
Profilers say these murderers tend to exert severe control over their spouses. Robert Yates, who was convicted of committing 13 murders over more than two decades in Washington state, refused to let his wife, Linda, wear makeup or tight clothing. He also convinced her that she was incapable of making any decisions without him. Even after the killings came to light, Linda Yates sometimes sounded apologetic. "I didn't love him like a wife should," she told the Spokesman newspaper in Spokane.
Friends of Paula Rader, who are fiercely protective of her, say they will stand by her and remind her that she has done no wrong. Paula recently returned to Wichita and resumed her job as a bookkeeper at a convenience store. She has put the family's modest home up for auction. Some day, her friends hope, she will find the strength to go back to the church choir, and lift her voice in the song of a survivor.