In an early scene in A&E’s BTK: Confession of a Serial Killer, forensic psychologist Dr. Katherine Ramsland’s cell phone rings. The name on the screen? Dennis Rader.
A depraved serial killer who called himself “BTK” (for “Bind, Torture, Kill”), Rader gave a chillingly matter-of-fact courtroom confession in 2005, describing in explicit detail how he selected, stalked and murdered his victims, as if he were explaining how to do an oil change on a car. For the 10 murders he committed between 1974 and 1991 in and around Wichita, Kansas, he now resides in a cell alone at the state’s maximum security El Dorado Correctional Facility, isolated from the rest of the prison population. But he still has contact with the outside world, and he’s still talking about his crimes.
[Watch BTK: Confession of a Serial Killer in the A&E app.]
“I’m probably the person who has been in his [post-conviction] life for the longest on a regular basis because we’ve been speaking for about 11 years,” says Ramsland, who teaches forensic psychology at DeSales University and wrote a book with Rader, “Confession of a Serial Killer: The Untold Story of Dennis Rader, The BTK Killer,” published in 2016.
She’s continued her correspondence with him well after the book was published, hoping to gain insights that might somehow benefit the public—or even prevent someone from becoming a serial killer. Staying open and curious should be the goals of a forensic psychologist, Ramsland told A&E True Crime. “I approached a couple of psychologists—friends of mine—to say I was doing this book with Rader. And one of them said, ‘No, he’s just an a——. There’s no benefit to studying him.’ I was like, “What? You’re a psychologist? How can you not want to explore something like this?” But the fact is, it’s a very intensive process.
Ramsland spoke with A&E True Crime about what she’s learned about Rader.
Do you think you’re the person outside of prison who Rader speaks to the most?
No. I know that I’m not. He has a list of about 40 people who correspond with him. And there is a particular person, a friend, who he calls probably twice a week. So, I would say that’s the person [he speaks with the most].
Sometimes he’ll write [me] 25-page letters; I have hundreds and hundreds of pages of his handwriting, which is hard to read. And then we talked every week on the phone for several years. This year, I’ve probably spoken to him almost every week.
Has he ever asked you personal questions?
Of course. I’ll tell him if I’m traveling, he loves to hear about other places. If I go fishing, he wants to hear about what I caught. I don’t speak to him very much about my personal stuff. Except for the very first time I spoke to him on the phone—my father had died a half hour before that. And so, we actually ended up talking about the loss of our fathers. But, for the most part, I tell him that I’m teaching and it’s finals week, things like that.
We watch television shows, and we’ll talk about that. We’ll often use those as metaphors to communicate much of his story. And he’ll read stuff that I send him, and we’ll talk about that. But if you’re going to maintain any kind of ongoing communication, you have to yield some stuff about yourself.
What shows do you watch in common?
Well, when we were working on the book, we watched The Americans, which is about Soviet spies planted in the middle of America. Because it really was about secrecy, even from their children while they were trying to pass as normal, he related to it. And he liked to think of himself as a spy. So, that was perfect.
What is the value of understanding Rader?
The value for understanding Rader for both the professional and general audience is to say that he does break some of the stereotypes [about serial killers]. It’s kind of a warning to us not to be too calculated with our formulas about extreme offenders.
I recently heard a detective say to a reporter, ‘They all have trauma in their backgrounds and that’s what sets them off.’ He’s wrong about that. I want people to know Dennis Rader is not alone in being an outlier to some of the formulas. He had a college degree. He had a family. He had a full-time job. He wasn’t a loner. He wasn’t traveling across the country doing this. Some of the ideas [we have about serial killers] have misled us—and make us vulnerable. And I think if we were to break down some of these myths and stereotypes about serial killers and understand that we need to do more exploration and more study, that would keep people safe.
Why do you think it’s important to Rader to disclose so much about his crimes?
One of the things that Rader wanted to do—I wasn’t the one who talked him into this—[was] to give some compensation to the victims’ families. (They get a large share of the proceeds of the book.) So, that was part of it, but also once I came aboard, he liked that I had the credentials to not just explore [his crimes] with him, but also be the support system for him as he tries to think his way through this stuff. And to his credit, he’s read some difficult things and did try to grapple with them and relate them to himself.
We spent several years just on one book that delved into what a psychopathic brain is like, and he studied the neuropsychology of it. He watched a series called The Brain. It’s pretty rare to have someone like him really want to dig in and challenge himself. We explored things that gave him perspective. Does that mean that he always told me the truth? Of course, it doesn’t.
How could you tell if he was exaggerating or inventing?
It was about consistency, not just consistency and things he said to me, but I knew things he said to others. I had the entire police interrogation. I had files from the DA because she was a friend of mine. I had letters he had written to other people. So, does he present the same thing? And certainly, when he didn’t, I would call him out: ‘No, you said this to so-and-so or to the cops. Let’s look at that again.’ This is not to say that I got the whole truth, but I wasn’t in there to get the whole truth, I was in there to get the behavior.
Some of that behavior is going to be truthful, some manipulation, some lies. Some of it will be self-deception on his part because he did not want to take responsibility for this. He talks about himself as a good person who did some bad things. Looking at that, I think, is not something detectives would care about, but someone like myself certainly would.
In your book Confession of a Serial Killer, Rader seemed to want you to define his ‘Factor X,’ the reason he kills, which he said was a mystery to him. Your take on it was straightforward: He had a trajectory towards violence, opportunity, an unusual sexual proclivity, a desire for fame. Did he concur?
I think when he challenged me, he didn’t really expect that I could solve Factor X. I already had studied multiple cases of serial killers, so I didn’t think it was going to be that difficult—and it wasn’t.
But I think he still believes there’s some mystery left and he’s going to hang on to that. He likes the idea that there is this mystique, not just for him but for all serial killers. He identifies with someone like Jack the Ripper, for example. We don’t know if Jack the Ripper was one person, male or female, a group, or several different killers. We have no idea because Jack the Ripper was never caught. And Rader liked that; he liked the idea of somebody that famous who people are always thinking about.
What Rader wanted to do was to put all of his stuff from his crimes into a safe deposit box, so that when he died, they’d open it. That way he’d be able to have the mystique during his lifetime of no one knowing who BTK was, but then have everyone find out that it was him. He had that kind of fantasy of satisfaction.
In ‘BTK: Confession of a Serial Killer,’ you assert that Rader is not creative. Has he ever pushed back on your assessments?
Oh, yeah, sure. I mean, I push on him, he pushes on me. But that statement? I think he knows he’s not original. He takes his ideas from others. And he describes it that way. He knows he took from H.H. Holmes and Harvey Glatman. And novels gave him a lot of ideas. But I still think he wants to believe I don’t have the whole mystery solved.
Do you think that psychologically, there’s a way to prevent someone from becoming a serial killer?
Definitely. First of all, ‘serial killer’ isn’t a criminal type. It’s a description of a behavior—at least two murders on two occasions. So, we have a lot of diversity in that.
But yes, if we narrow down and focus on a particular subtype—for example, sexually-compelled serial killers who tend to get addicted to what they’re doing—we do have warning signs in childhood. We’ve identified common elements: animal abuse, cruelty to other children, deception, callousness, which you can begin to see at the age of three or four. So, we need resources in place, obviously, when someone is identified as being at risk. And you’re not going to find those resources in a lot of places. What if a teacher had understood that Rader drawing girl traps on the board when he was a teenager was a dangerous signal? There could have been some counseling in place for that.