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‘My life was a lie’: BTK killer's daughter writes memoir in Michigan

Francis X. Donnelly
The Detroit News
Christmas Day 1981. Kerri Rawson with her father Dennis Rader, better known to the world as serial killer BTK.

Kerri Rawson was distraught. A man parked outside her Farmington apartment in 2005 had been glancing at her second-story window for an hour.

Her dread would soon be realized, but not how she imagined.

The man, an FBI agent, knocked on her door, saying her father had just been arrested in Kansas. He was being charged with being BTK, a serial killer who had terrorized Wichita for 17 years.

No way, thought Rawson, 26 at the time.

Her father, Dennis Rader, was a stamp-collecting, plant-growing, badge-wearing code enforcement officer who somehow found time to be a Cub Scout leader and church council president.

BTK, which stood for “bind, torture, kill,” was a sexual deviant, a sadistic psychopath, a monster who murdered 10 people.

But Rawson would eventually learn her life had been a lie. She fell into a black hole that, 14 years later, she still hasn’t escaped.

She describes the ordeal in a book, “A Serial Killer’s Daughter: My Story of Faith, Love, and Overcoming,” which was published in January.

“We looked like a normal American family because we were a normal family,” she said in an interview. “And then I learned every day of my life was a lie.”

Kerri Rawson speaks about her father Dennis Rader, who is known as the 'BTK killer,'. Rader murdered 10 people in the Wichita, Kansas area from 1974 to 1991. Rader, often would leave clues to taunt authorities. Rawson spoke with The Detroit News about growing up with her father while he was living a double-life.

Among the fallout she wrestled with: How do you piece together a shattered life? How do you remain sane in a world gone mad? How do you forgive the unforgivable?

Her feelings fluctuate like the Michigan weather. She is hurt and angry and sad and ashamed and horrified.

Other times, she is a daughter who misses her father. She worries if he is warm enough in his prison cell.

“He’s my dad, who I love,” she said. “It’s that simple and that hard.”

Memoir prompts complaints

The BTK murders began four years before Rawson was born and ended when she was 12.

From 1974 to 1991, Rader killed 10 people, including two children, in the Wichita area. He often stalked his victims for months.

Once he subdued a victim, he bound their arms and legs with rope, and slowly strangled them. He kept mementos from the murders and hid them in his home and yard.

After a decade-long hiatus, he resumed writing letters to the police, which is how he got caught. One of the letters contained a floppy disk that had a file linking it to Rader and his church.

Kerri Rawson and her father Dennis Rader at her college graduation from Kansas State University in May 2003.

Some victims’ families aren’t happy about the memoir. Their problem isn’t Rawson but her father.

During Rader’s murder spree, he courted publicity by writing to the police and media, once lamenting that his bloodbath hadn’t garnered national attention.

The book will feed his elephantine ego by bringing attention to him, said Jeff Davis, whose mother was one of Rader’s victims.

“When they shine the light on her (Rawson), part of the light shines on that cockroach,” he said about Rader.

Davis, of Greeley, Colorado, wrote a book about the case before Rader was arrested. The 1996 tome, which was updated last year, is “The Shadow of Evil: Where is God in a Violent World?”

Before her father became the subject of books and TV specials, Rawson enjoyed a wholesome Midwestern childhood.

Her parents, brother and she lived in a three-bedroom ranch with a big back yard and hulking tree house. They watched John Wayne movies. They had a Springer Spaniel.

Her favorite memories were camping weekends and hiking vacations. She was a tomboy who preferred fishing with her dad to shopping with her mom. They even shared a middle name, Lynn.

“I pretty much had the American dream,” she said.

The killer had an easy relationship with his family.

He patiently taught his children about nature and camping out, said Rawson. He became emotional when Rawson left for college, and when she later got married.

He also was overprotective, constantly warning his children about strangers.

Rawson remembers her father lecturing her about the importance of fastening the deadbolt on the front door, but to keep the key nearby in case of a fire. She was 4 years old.

One nightmare begets another

As the arrest of Rader ended one nightmare, it began another. His daughter’s life would be divided into two parts: Before Arrest and After Arrest.

Rawson had been living in Michigan just 18 months when she was visited by the FBI agent.

Her husband, Darian, got a job here as a graphic designer shortly after their marriage. Her dad helped them move.

Rawson, a substitute teacher, began to shake after the agent delivered the news. The tiny apartment began to spin. She had to hold on to the kitchen wall for balance. She thought she would pass out.

“Dad wasn’t the black hat,” she thought. “He’d been the white hat, the good guy. They guy who saved the day. The hero. My hero.”

A loop of the agent’s visit played in her head over and over. She couldn’t turn it off.

Her chest frequently grew tight. She couldn’t work, couldn’t sleep. She would burst out crying in restaurants and churches.

A few weeks before the second anniversary of the FBI visit, she was hospitalized for nausea and pain near her stomach. She was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

A priest at the hospital asked whether he could pray over her. What she really needed, she thought, was an exorcism.

“It felt like I was stuck back there (in 2005),” she said.

Childhood memories tainted

The murders invaded Rawson’s childhood memories, turning them gray and murky, forever tainted.

She knew one of the victims, a woman with a Southern accent who lived down the street. Rawson would wave to her on the way to her grandparents’ home.

Rader hid the bloody clothes of one victim in his parents’ chicken coop, the one where Rawson played hide-and-seek as a youngster.

Rader told authorities he couldn’t remember for sure but may have given some of the jewelry he stole from victims to Rawson.

In the book, she described a conversation she had with herself as she struggled to understand what was happening.

Kerri Rawson holds a carp she and her father Dennis Rader caught at a lake in Oklahoma in March 2002.

“Can’t we go back to how things were?” she thought.

“They weren’t really ever that way, kid.”

Rawson considers herself one of her father’s victims.

No one died in her family but she said she experienced a lot of grief. She mourned the loss of her dad and the loss of the victims. She felt sorrow for her dad, her family, the families of the victims.

If her dad had been arrested after the first murders, the other victims would still be alive, she thought. And she never would have been born, and neither would her children. In a strange calculus, she felt guilty about having kids.

Besides her children, she wondered if she had the right to feel good about anything in her life. Was it OK to experience joy? Was it all right to laugh?

One dad, two people

Rawson doesn’t try to reconcile her father with the BTK killer.

It’s impossible, she said. How could the man cooking runny eggs for his family of four one day be killing a family of four another day?

Instead she compartmentalizes. She sees him as two people: a good dad and a heinous murderer.

Kerri Rawson and her father Dennis Rader, aka the BTK serial killer, on the Durango to Silverston Train in Colorado, May 1999.

“If you ask me to try to reconcile it, my brain will explode,” she said.

Forensic psychologists said Rader was a psychopath incapable of empathy, but Rawson doesn’t buy it. She said her father’s love for his family was real.

She said people who know her father only as a serial killer can’t understand how he could be a good dad. She has the opposite problem. She can’t understand how her dad could be the BTK.

Her discordant views may explain her volatile feelings toward her dad.

Sometimes she wants him to rot in hell. Another time, she was watching the animated film “Cars,” whose scenes of the New Mexico desert reminded her of family trips out west.

It made her miss her father, and wish he was sitting next to her, sharing a tub of buttered popcorn.

Healing through forgiveness

To help her heal, a therapist had been urging Rawson to forgive her father.

But she resisted. When her preacher announced the following week’s sermon would be about forgiveness, she skipped it.

Dennis Rader at the Grand Canyon on a trip with his daughter in March 1995.

Finally, in 2012, she asked her mom for all the letters her dad had written to her. She had ignored them earlier but now read every one.

Late one night, she was driving home from a movie, “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn,” and waiting at a red light when forgiveness suddenly washed over her. She began sobbing heavily.

Arriving home, she sat down and wrote to her dad for the first time in five years. The words came spewing out, filling six pages. It was a few days before Christmas.

She said she missed him, often wondered about him, and thought about all the good times they had shared. She said she had a wonderful husband and two amazing kids. She said she came to terms with what he did.

“I’m never going to understand it, but I forgive you,” she wrote.

She didn’t do it for him but for herself, she wrote in the book. The anger was rotting her soul. She had to let it go.

Forgiveness was one thing. Having a relationship was another.

Rawson thought she would eventually rekindle her connection with her dad but still hasn’t reached that point.

She keeps him at a distance, refusing to give him her address or phone number. To reach her, he has to send letters to a Wichita address, where a relative forwards them to Rawson.

Prison visit likely?

Rawson would start to feel kindly toward her dad when he would do something to make her angry all over again.

In letters to her, Rader bragged about how well he was treated by the guards and other prisoners. He asked her to write a book about his artwork. And he continued to court notoriety from his prison cell, eagerly talking to reporters and authors.

Rawson said she doesn’t think her dad will ever understand what she has been through. He’s too much of a narcissist.

She wishes he could read her book but he isn’t allowed to have true-crime literature.

“I feel like my father imploded my family,” she said. “We’re not the same and we’ll never be the same.”

Rawson has never visited her dad at El Dorado Correctional Facility in Kansas and has no plans to do so.

He told her in a February letter that he may have suffered a stroke last year, leaving him with short-term memory loss and possible dementia.

Dad and I in our front yard, May 1993. Kerri Rawson with her father Dennis Rader, better known to the world as serial killer BTK.

“It’s hard because I know he’s 73 and he’s having some health issues,” she said. “I want to take care of him and say goodbye. The reality is he’s been gone 14 years. I can’t imagine the situation where I would go through with it.”

Rader didn’t respond to a letter from The Detroit News. He told a British newspaper in February that he planned to stop giving media interviews.

“Getting ready to retire from the infamous world spotlight, and let my daughter Kerri Rawson take over,” he told the Daily Mail.

Stephen King triggers catharsis

If forgiveness was one salve, the book was another.

Besides anger, Rawson had kept shame and guilt bottled up inside her for nine years. Writing about her demons forced her to confront them.

Her catharsis began with a famous author.

In 2014, Stephen King was interviewed on “CBS This Morning” about an upcoming movie based on one of his novellas. He told the reporter “A Good Marriage” was inspired by the BTK case.

December 1988.  Kerri Rawson with her father Dennis Rader, better known to the world as serial killer BTK.

When Rawson learned of King’s remarks, she became incensed and dashed off a letter to the Wichita Eagle. She said King shouldn’t be profiting from her family’s misery.

“My family is done, we are tired,” she wrote. “We are not a story to be exploited. Leave us out of it. Out of the noise & chaos & the ugly & the awful.”

The letter led to an interview by the paper and then another. She went from talking about King to describing how she has coped with the aftermath of her father’s carnage.

Talking about her experience felt good, she said. She no longer thought she had to keep everything hidden. It felt like freedom.

In deciding to write the book, she worried about the reaction of the victims’ families. Did she have the right to write about what happened?

Ultimately she decided every family has the right to tell their own story.

“I want people to know what it’s like on this side,” she said, “what it’s like to live with somebody like my father and go through what we’ve gone through.”

Exorcising her demons was no small feat.

Rawson struggled to write the book. It was agonizing to describe what her father was, what she thought he was, and everything he did.

Each revelation felt like a shard of glass she had to yank from her body. There were hundreds and hundreds. After each extrication, she informed her husband, “I got another one.”

Rawson, a fan of the “Lord of the Rings,” said writing the book was like traveling through Mordor.

“I can sit here and talk about it so, in many ways, I’m healed,” she said. “But I don’t think I will ever be fully healed, and I don’t think the story will ever be over.”


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Twitter: @francisXdonnell