Kerri Rawson couldn’t breathe. It was early afternoon on February 25, 2005, and an FBI agent stood in her kitchen, his back to the microwave, a chocolate Bundt cake she baked the night before on the counter next to him. “Is your father Dennis Rader?” the agent questioned. “He’s been arrested. Your dad is wanted for murders in Kansas.” It didn’t seem possible. Her dad—her Boy Scout-leading, church-ushering, stamp-collecting dad—one of the most notorious, most feared, and most disturbed men in American history? No way.
A Serial Killer’s Daughter: My Story of Faith, Love, and Overcoming
But seven hours later, Rader began confessing to terrorizing and murdering residents of Wichita, Kansas, for 17 years using the moniker “BTK,” an acronym for “bind, torture, kill.” His 10 total victims, which he called “projects,” were selected at random and included the sweet, grandmotherly Marine Hedge, who lived down the street from them. Later in court, Rader would reveal how he broke into Hedge’s home and strangled her. Then he took polaroid photographs of her body dressed in bondage. For his heinous crimes, Rader will remain in prison for life. Until now, Rawson, a friendly 40-year-old mom of two with auburn hair and a thick Midwest accent, has avoided press—continually processing her dad’s secret life as a serial killer. But in a revealing new book, A Serial Killer’s Daughter: My Story of Faith, Love, and Overcoming, she opens up for the first time about her dad and the last decade she’s spent struggling to forgive him. “I still love my father and I wish he had never done any of this, that I just had my dad,” Rawson tells Esquire.com. “I worry about him being alone in prison at times, but at other times, I just can’t, for my own sanity.”
Rawson and Rader on a fishing trip in 2002, three years before he was charged with 10 counts of first degree murder.
Courtesy Kerri Rawson
The question Rawson gets asked most when someone finds out who her dad is, is also the one she hates the most: How did you not know, growing up, what he was? “My mom and I have both said, early on, if we had known, we would’ve gone screaming out the door, running to the police,” Rawson says. “It’s not like you’re going to sit there and make dinner for the guy after finding out he’s murdered 10 people. [We] didn’t know we were living with a psychopath. They’re really good at hiding… I mean, my mom lived with him for 34 years, and 90, 95 percent of the time, he was a good, loving father and husband.”
Rader teaching Rawson how to fish in 1982. In five years, he’d murder 24-year-old Shirley Vian and 25-year-old Nancy Fox
Courtesy Kerri Rawson
Her childhood memories are fond ones: standing on his toes and twirling around in the living room listening to John Denver, hiking the Grand Canyon, church on Sundays, weekend fishing trips. But looking back now, she sees signs.Once, during a family vacation in Southern California in 1986, Rader noticed dusty footprints on top of a car parked under the balcony of their motel. Convinced someone stood on the car and broken into their hotel room, he made up a “password” that she, her brother Brian, and their mom, Paula, had to say before entering. At the time, she chalked it up to his weird obsession about safety and security. When Rader eventually took a job with ADT, it seemed a perfect fit. Now, it’s clear that while he was installing home security systems, he was also learning the ins and outs of breaking into homes. Rader also had random, violent outbursts. Rawson knew they were coming when his eyes, normally sea green, turned dark and cloudy. When she went home for Labor Day during her freshman year at Kansas State University, Rader lunged at Brian during dinner, and choked him until his face turned white.
Rader with Rawson in 1981, four years before he murdered 53-year-old Marine Hedge.
Courtesy Kerri Rawson
The attack was terrifying, but uncommon. Mostly, Rawson remembers her dad as being kind and sensitive. “When my cousin died, I can still picture his face just falling in the living room, his own countenance broke. People say, clinically, my dad’s a psychopath and he can’t have feelings. But he visibly did have emotions,” she says. “Maybe part of the reason we’re not catching [serial killers] as quickly as we could is because they… are very capable of blending in and looking normal.” At her wedding to her college sweetheart Darian in 2003, Rawson wore a white ballgown with a pearl necklace. Her father’s happy tears spilled down his cheek as he walked her down the aisle. Rawson first heard of BTK one year later. She and Darian had recently moved to Detroit, and she came across an online article about the return of a notorious serial killer who targeted her Wichita hometown back in the 1970s. He’d slaughtered seven people, including nine-year-old Joseph Otero Jr. and his 11-year-old sister, Josephine—before sending the media clues about his next victims. The thought of someone murdering children made Rawson’s stomach turn.
Rawson with her father at her wedding.
Courtesy Kerri Rawson
Police assumed BTK was either dead or in prison, since he’d ceased communication by 1979. But in 2004, he wrote to the media claiming an eighth murder victim from 1986 and revealing intimate details about himself, like that his grandfather fought in World War II, somebody in his family played the fiddle, and he lived near train tracks. “The odd list stuck with me,” Rawson says. “I kept trying to puzzle it out… Something in the list was nagging at me. It was just weird, it felt off, kind of like déjà vu.”In hindsight, she realizes, everything pointed to her father.She saw her dad for the last time during the holidays that year. Before leaving, they hugged goodbye. He smelled like Old Spice. “All right, love you,” he told her. “See ya in a while.” “Yeah, love you, too,” she said, hugging him. “See ya in a while.” On February 25, 2005, Rader, age 59, was pulled over by police while driving home from work to have lunch. One of the first things he said after the arrest was, “Hey, would you please call my wife? She was expecting me for lunch. I assume you know where I live.”The FBI showed up at Rawson’s house shortly after. When the agent left, she took down a family photo hanging on the wall, and put it away in a closet. She couldn’t bear to look at her dad. But soon his picture was everywhere—plastered on the front page of every newspaper and magazine in the country. When she flew back to Kansas the next day, her dad’s mugshot appeared on every airport television.
By 8 p.m. on the day of his arrest, Rader had confessed to the killings. The FBI discovered pantyhose, underwear, ropes, cord, and duct tape in his backyard shed. They also found a false-bottom space in the hallway of their family home, where he stored drawings and newspaper clippings about BTK. It was the same hallway Rawson hugged her dad goodbye the last time they were together. Rawson isn’t a drinker, but that night she poured herself a tall glass of vodka. There were already journalists knocking on her door. “I felt like I was over there, on the other side, even though I haven’t done anything wrong,” Rawson says. “You become viewed in the public, sometimes by certain people or the media, that you’re culpable just because you’re part of that breaking headline news.”
“You become viewed in the public that you’re culpable just because you’re part of that breaking headline news.”
For weeks, she remained in a state of total shock. She enrolled in grief counseling. She’d later be diagnosed with PTSD, anxiety, and depression. “I wouldn’t say the word, ‘serial killer,’ not even to my husband,” she says. “That was one of those words you didn’t utter in our home.” Two weeks later, Rader was charged with 10 counts of first degree murder. Rawson wrote him a letter. “No matter what you may have done or not done, you are my father and I love you,” she said. “You raised me and Brian as well as any man could, you took care of us, protected us, taught us so much about life and the things in it. I am sorry I cannot be there to take care of you the way you took care of me the last 26 years.” She began writing him monthly after that, even during his arraignment and plea—and even as the painful details of his evil actions were made public. All those “late nights” at work her dad complained about? Those were spent trolling for victims. That one time he asked Darian whether floppy disks were traceable? That was so he could send clues to the police, undetected.
Dennis Rader listens to testimony at his sentencing hearing on August 18, 2005 in Wichita, Kansas.
Of course, the floppy disk is ultimately what led to Rader’s arrest. Police traced the disc to Christ Lutheran Church and discovered the last user was someone named “Dennis.” They obtained samples of Rawson’s DNA which matched semen left on or near several murder victims, including 25-year-old Nancy Fox, who was killed in December 1977. Rader was sentenced to to a minimum of 175 years in prison without a chance of parole. The sentence was the longest allowable; Kansas had no death penalty at the time of sentencing. Five years ago, Rawson’s now 10-year-old daughter Emilie asked why she only had one grandpa. “I told her [he’s in jail], it’s a super long time out,” Rawson says. “Then she’s like, ‘When is he gonna get out?’ I said, ‘He’s not.’ She wasn’t anywhere near prepared to hear everything and she’s very empathetic, so she would see me struggling and knew it was hard for me and I’d been through a lot.”Her seven-year-old son Ian isn’t quite as understanding. “He hears these conversations, and he pushes me about his grandpa,” Rawson says. “With [the] kids, I’m like, ‘I’ve been through a lot of hard stuff. Stop being silly about this. You’re bothering mom right now.'”As they get older, Rawson wonders how and when she should reveal the truth. “Do you do it slowly so that they’re not 13 and accidentally see their mom on Google?” she says. “They’ve seen pictures of my dad. They know he writes, but they don’t know their grandpa is a murderer or a serial killer.”
Rawson with her husband, Darian, 39.
Courtesy Kerri Rawson
Rawson remains in contact with her dad through letters (which she doesn’t let Emilie or Ian read), but they’ve never spoken on the phone and she’s never visited him. “He still doesn’t understand why my family hasn’t visited or called, or why we aren’t more just like the way we were,” she says. “Early on, I felt like I would get to a point where I would be able to let him back more into my life, but it hasn’t.” When she mentioned her book A Serial Killer’s Daughter to him in a letter, Rader asked if it could be a joint project. “I was like, ‘No, we are not working on this, this is my story and my life and my journey,’ ” Rawson says. “I did have to get legal permission to publish his letters [sent from prison] in the book, because even though I have the original copies, he actually legally still owns the works.”As she wrote her book, Rawson listened to John Denver. “It helped me remember good things about my dad… to recapture my father,” Rawson says. “Then, I slowly made myself, forced myself, to write the really hard stuff.” “This process has healed me,” she adds. “Because I have been private and hiding these things for almost ten years and to be able to just be like, here’s my life, here’s me… there was almost a power in that, a positive thing that could come out of all this awfulness.”