Starting in the mid-1970s and ending in the mid1980s with the publication of Sexual Homicide Patterns and Motives and the Crime Classification Manual, legendary FBI profilers John Douglas and Robert Ressler (among others) undertook a project that involved interviewing serial killers in custody. The purpose of this study was to create a Diagnostic and Stasitcal Manual (DSM) type text for law enforcement that would standardize investigation of crimes that are sexual in nature, such as rape and certain types of homicides. These texts gave law enforcement officers and those involved in the criminal justice field insight into the mind of serial criminals.
From this investigation it was believed that all serial killers came from lower income single parent families where the father was either not present or was a minimal figure in the life of the child/children. The mother was the dominant personality, in adult hood the budding serial killer would be unable to find stable employment and would not be able to maintain interpersonal relationships. Dennis Rader (AKA Bind, Torture, Kill or BTK) took everything that law enforcement thought they knew about serial killers and turned it upside down. Rader came from a stable dual parent family, there has been no indication of abuse in the family, the family was middle class, attended church, Rader while not a stellar student finished high school and served in the United States Air Force, he married, raised children, was able to maintain a job and was president of his church. There was nothing in the background of Dennis Rader that indicated that he was (or would grow up to be) one of the most notorious serial killers in American history.
Background and History
If one where looking for the stereotypical serial killer background and history, Dennis Rader is not it. He grew up in the Midwest, graduated from high school, did a stint in the United States Air Force (from 1965 until 1969), he worked in blue collar positions after his tenure in the Air force including working for Coleman Camping Gear (1971-1973), he also worked for ADT Security (1974 – 1989), at the time of his arrest he was working as a compliance officer for the City of Wichita, KS. Rader even managed to complete a college degree graduating in 1979 from Wichita State University with a degree in Administration of Justice. He got married (and remained married until his arrest) raised two children, was an active Cub Scout leader and an active member of his church. Nothing in the background of Dennis Rader indicated that he was or would become a serial killer. Rader unlike other serial killers had an amazing ability to compartmentalize his life. There was the life that he shared with his family, friends and church acquaintances and the other side of Rader or what he called Factor X that would take over during his crimes.
While nothing in the background of Dennis Rader indicated that he would grow up to become a serial killer, his criminal activity did not drop out of thin air. Rader had reported engaging in fantasy since childhood, he also reported becoming aware of what he called Factor X in childhood.
The following is an excerpt from in interview conducted by Dateline NBC discussing Factor X:
On the “Factor X” and what caused him to kill
Rader: Factor X is probably something I’ll never know. I actually think it may be possessed with demons. Uh, I was dropped on my head when I was a kid...
Mendoza: You can’t stop it.
Rader: I can’t stop it...it controls me, you know, it’s like in the driver’s seat. That’s probably the reason we’re sitting here. You know, if I could just say, “No, I don’t want to do this, and go crawl into a hole.” But it’s driving me. (Secret confessions of BTK - Dateline NBC - msnbc.com, n.d.)
Nowhere does Rader take any sort of personal responsibility for his actions. His claim is that some outside force took control of him during his crimes. Rader believes that he may have been possessed by demons. Again, this is simply a method used to escape blame. Dennis Rader the man was not responsible for any of his crimes because the demon BTK or Factor X took control. From a criminological point of view this Factor X may be something that Rader created in childhood to separate himself from his more deviant impulses and used it as an excuse after his arrest. Rader could confess to the crimes without actually having to confess. Dennis Rader was still the good guy; he was nothing more than a victim to Factor X or the demon that took control of him. In a separate interview Rader had this to say about Factor X:
"I know it is a dark side of me that controls me. I personally think, and I know it's not very Christian, that it's demons within me, at some point in time when I was young that controlled me."(Hatteberg, 2005, July 7) Again Rader is seen attempting to deflect direct blame for his actions. Instead he is choosing to blame Factor X or a demon for his violent crimes. This can be seen as a sort of hyper religious ideology. Rader was active in the Lutheran Church, he had a solid understanding that his violent fantasy and/or serial killing was something that was negative and would be frowned upon by God. His obsession with bondage and attraction to deviant sexuality was not something that a good Christian church going man s should be attracted to. His shames in this attraction to material of this sort led him (or possibly lead him to create the dark side of his personality or Factor X). His excuse of method used to justify his actions was by creating an outside force, demon or Factor X to take responsibility for his actions. This Factor X may have been a method used for Rader to justify his actions to himself. It is also possible that Rader has some sort of undiagnosed psychological condition. In letters written to local media during his killing spree Rader claimed that other serial killers such as Jack the Ripper and Ted Bundy had similar fractured personalities of something similar to Factor X. It is possible that Rader had an understanding that for some reasons his brain and the brain of other serial killers functions on a different level. A level that is currently misunderstood by modern science.
In additional interviews conducted after his arrest, Rader indicated that he knew he had a problem “"Sexual fantasies, probably more than normal. But you have to remember that was coming from puberty, and I, all males, go through some sort of sexual fantasies. Mine were just a bit weirder than other people. I knew somewhere along the line of eighth grade or freshman in high school that I had some abnormal tendencies at that point in time. But it exploded on January 15, 1974. That's when the ball game exploded. You know, at some point in time, someone should have picked something up from me and identified it." (Hatteberg, 2005, July 7)
Rader has stated that there was no abuse during his childhood but that he would find himself becoming aroused by the spankings that he would receive from his mother. At this point Rader was beginning to make the connection between violence/pain and sexual arousal. Like many serial killers before he started his killing career Rader was a peeping Tom, he would also steal women’s undergarments to be used later as props for masturbatory fantasy. One of his favorite early targets of fantasy was actress Annette Funicello. Rader would have fantasies of kidnapping and raping her.
While Rader appeared to have had a normal childhood without any outward signs of abuse, there were indicators of his violent impulses. Any review of Rader will reveal that he had no close childhood friends, instead choosing to live by himself in his fantasy world. This is the world where Rader chose to place most of his time and effort; this is also the world that Rader chose to bring into reality with his crimes.
Fantasy is a subject that has received more than a passing mention throughout the body of this research paper. When fantasy is used in relation to serial criminals, that fantasy goes beyond what many of us experience. Instead of fantasy of winning the lotto or dating a supermodel the fantasy of a serial criminal will involve some sort of power, domination and control over another human being. In addition, for the average individual fantasy will be something done in passing. The fantasy will be part of a daydream or a passing thought. For the serial criminal fantasy will be something he or she will engage in on an almost constant basis. The fantasy world that the criminal creates quickly becomes more important than the “real world”.
“Fantasy, as we define it is an elaborate thought with great preoccupation, anchored in emotion and having origins in daydreams. A fantasy is generally experienced as thoughts although the individual may be aware of images, feelings and internal dialogue. Some people may be conscious of only thoughts where as others are conscious only of feelings. Fantasy is a normal way for adults as well as children to obtain and maintain control of an imagined situation”(Ressler, Burgess, & Douglas, 1992, p. 34). A serial criminal will create an elaborate fantasy world as a control valve. At early stages of development the fantasy will function to release pent up aggression and violent thoughts. The would be criminal can act out his or her feelings through fantasy. Over time the fantasy will become more elaborate and offer less release of sexual satisfaction, once this occurs the serial criminal will move from fantasy to reality.
After his arrest Rader indicated that he would engage in active fantasy in childhood:
"If I had never gone into sexual fantasies, really off the deep end, I’d never become what I was. I just went from one fantasy to bigger, bigger, and bigger."
“The person has to be controlled. My sexual fantasy is, if I’m going to kill a victim or do something to a victim, is have them bound and tied. In my dreams, I have what they call torture chambers or what I call the Holmes Castle. To relieve your sexual fantasies you have to go to the kill."
"If I could just say ‘No, I don’t want to do this’ and go crawl in a hole -- but it’s, you know, it’s driving me. So that’s when, I guess, factor X, whatever, the monster took over totally then."
"You have to have the control, which is the bonding. That’s been a big thing with me. My sexual fantasy is of, if I’m going to kill a victim or do something to the victim, is having them bound and tied. In my dreams, I had what they called torture chambers. And to relive your sexual fantasies you have to go to the kill.
"I got this fantasy. I started working out this fantasy in my mind. Once that person became a fantasy, I could loop it over. I would lay in bed at night thinking about this person, the event and how it’s going to happen. It became like a picture show. I want to produce it, direct it and go through with it no matter the cost or consequences. It was going to happen one way or another. Maybe not that day, but it was going to happen." (Smith, n.d.)
Not only would Rader engage in active fantasy before his murders, he would also engage in active fantasy after his murders. Rader had the ability to compartmentalize his life and his murders allowing the fantasy of the murders to sustain him for lengthy periods between kills. When the fantasy would begin to fade, Rader would begin planning for his next crime.
Much of Rader’s fantasy was sadistic in nature, the nature of sadistic fantasy and/or sadistic personality development will be covered in the next section.
Sadistic Personality Development
Sadism is defined as “the intentional infliction of psychological or physical suffering on a conscious victim, able to experience pain or humiliation for the purpose of sexual gratification”(Turvey, 2012, p. 660). Sadomasochism is defined as “consensual activity involving polarized role-playing, intense sensations and feelings, actions, and fantasies that focus on playing out or fantasizing dominant and submissive roles as part of the sexual scenario.”(Turvey, 2012, p. 660) Sadomasochism is something that would be normally associated with an alternative lifestyle such as those involved in the BDSM community, all participants are willingly involved in the activity, and sadism on the other hand will be an activity that a criminal offender will engage in with an unwilling victim. The primary purpose of this sort of activity is to inflict pain on the victim, if the victim was dead or unconscious the offender will not receive any sort of satisfaction from the activity. The victim is required to be aware of the torture being inflicted on them to make the behavior satisfying.
Again in interviews given after his arrest Rader discussed how he would enjoy the bondage and torture of his victims. The murder was incidental to the sadistic behavior he would engage in with his victims. To make the offense satisfying for himself Rader had to inflict prolonged torture/pain on his victims. He would enjoy the pleading and infliction of pain. The down side of his behavior was the fact that the victim was required to die as a result of the infliction of pain and bondage. His sadistic behavior was also reflected in his signature, or “repetitive ritualistic behavior from crime to crime.”(Douglas, Burgess, Burgess, & Ressler, 1992, p. 251) Signature is the offender’s psychological need expressed through repetitive behavior found at a crime scene, the signature elements are what make the crime psychologically satisfying for the offender. In the case of Dennis Rader his signature was extreme forms of bondage. Rader needed to tie his victims using a manner of ligature and elaborate knots. This signature element can also be found in connection to fantasy. The fantasy that Rader had involved bondage and domination over the victim. Evidence found after his arrest revealed that Rader would draw pictures showing elaborate forms of bondage. Without the ability to tie up a victim and torture her, the crime would not be satisfying to the offender. This is also the only element that remained stable between crimes. Rader was known to attack male, female and child victims. In some cases he used a knife in other cases he used a gun. In some cases he broke into the home in other cases he used some sort of ruse or con to gain entry into the home. The method used to complete the crime(such as the type of weapon used and methods used to gain entry) are known as MO or the method the offender used to commit the crime, an MO can and does change. The longer an offender continues to offend his or her MO will become more advanced as the offender learns what works and what does not work and his able to modify the best methods to use to complete the crime. Signature on the other hand is something that the offender needs to do to make the crime psychologically satisfying. Signature, due to the fact that is psychological will not change. If the offender is not able to implement signature behaviors at a crime, the crime will not be satisfying. Again, while Rader’s MO would change from crime to crime, his signature (bondage) was present at each crime scene. Signature by its very nature cannot change. It will modify but all in all signatures will remain similar.
Dennis Rader changed everything that law enforcement thought they knew about serial crime. Unlike serial killers studied up until Rader, he was able to have a stable family life, he was able to maintain stable employment, he was active in social activities with his children (namely cub scouts), his family life (in childhood) was reported to be free of any sort of abuse, he was not raised by a single mother with an absentee father. Nothing about the life of Dennis Rader would have predicted that he would become a serial killer. Also, unlike other serial killers Rader became a better criminal, he was evolving into the ultimate predator (due to his ability to compartmentalize his murderous side of Factor X from his normal personality seen by society). Ted Bundy was similar to Dennis Rader in several ways; Bundy was an educated man, active in the community, a law student. Bundy was also able to blend back into society after his crimes, however, unlike Rader, Bundy evolved to a point, they he began to devolve, instead of being the ultimate predator, he started to slip quickly into a psychotic state that no longer allowed him to commit murder and slip back into the shadows. Rader never began to devolve. He never entered a psychotic state and took over complete control.
Dennis Rader has shown law enforcement and the mental health community that there is still much to be learned about the nature of serial criminals.
Douglas, J. E., Burgess, A. W., Burgess, A. G., & Ressler, R. K. (1992). Crime classification manual. San Fransisco, Washington, London: Jossey-Bass Publishers.
Hatteberg, L. (2005, July 7). BTK: The Search For Answers. KAKEland. Retrieved October 29, 2011, from http://www.kake.com/home/headlines/1667177.html
Ressler, R. K., Burgess, A. W., & Douglas, J. (1992). Sexual homocide: patterns and motives. (ed. ed.). New York: The Free Press.
Secret confessions of BTK - Dateline NBC - msnbc.com. (n.d.). msnbc.com - Breaking news, science and tech news, world news, US news, local news- msnbc.com. Retrieved October 29, 2011, from http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/8917644/ns/dateline_nbc/t/secret-confessions-btk/
Smith., C. (n.d.). BTK Killer Dennis Rader. Family Counseling & Coaching. Retrieved October 29, 2011, from http://karisable.com/skazbtk.htm
Turvey, B. E. (2008). Criminal profiling: an introduction to behavioral evidence analysis (3rd ed.). St. Louis : Elsevier.