“How many do I have to kill before I get a name in the paper of some national attention,” Dennis Rader asks early in BTK: Chasing a Serial Killer. The elusive strangler wanted to be a hall of famer, along with Jack the Ripper and the Son of Sam. He got off on the killings, and wanted everyone to know it. Investigation Discovery closes out Serial Killer Week with a three-part documentary exploring the psyche of the infamous “BTK” killer, and the devastating effects he had on the community around him.
Like many of the murderers profiled during the week, the BTK Killer escaped detection because there seemed to be nothing to detect. He was a normal guy, who you would never suspect. But underneath the façade was a man who saw himself as extraordinary and deserving the legacy of dark celebrity. BTK: Chasing a Serial Killer focuses on Kerri Rawson, Rader’s daughter who says she had no clue the man who raised her was “a monster in disguise.” Although she also makes clear in the documentary how she had to maneuver her father, who she calls her best friend growing up, to keep him on his good side.
The special includes detailed testimony from law enforcement which was working the case, as well as family of the victims, and survivors. But Rawson’s accounts bring a contrasting picture of the killer who was as addicted to the notoriety as he was of the killings and the sexual pleasure he got from them. Her memories flesh out the man who bragged to KAKE TV in Wichita that he had Factor X, the elusive ingredient only few true real-life monsters possess. The “Ghostbusters” Task Force assigned to the ghoulish killer takes note of his desire for fame and gives him much more than fifteen minutes. The special does a good job in presenting a mouse trap chasing its own tail.
The narration is suitably dramatic but not overly so, as in quite a few of the network and basic cable true crime documentary series. The narrator brings a low-key gravitas to what are some grisly facts. Part one begins with the BTK killer’s first murder. On Jan. 15, 1974, he killed four members of the Otero family. The story is told as a modern memory of the tenth grader who discovered the bodies. He says it felt like having his heart pulled out of him physically, and the camera captures his continuing vulnerability. One of the revelations of the series is how everyone connected with the BTK spree is an open wound. Steve Relford, who was bound and helpless while his mother was murdered, says he now has multiple personalities. When asked if his life was changed by BTK, he says he let himself slide into a lifetime of addiction. That never would have happened if his mother was alive. He wears the psychic scars in an almost physical way.
BTK didn’t only inflict excruciating brutality on his victims, he tormented the police. Rader toyed with authorities, starting by stashing a confession letter at the Wichita Public Library in October. The budding serial killer called the Wichita Eagle and told them where to look. In the letter, he even came up with several impressive and memorable monikers for himself. BTK stands for “bind them, torture them, kill them.” The special makes clear how methodically the cops were investigating, but the drama comes through the killer’s own impatience. He writes letters, poems, draws pictures, explains how the X factor is a supernatural element, and even names Kathryn Bright, Shirley Vian and Nancy Fox.
BTK: Chasing a Serial Killer continues the enforcement dilemma during the 12-year gap in the killings: whether BTK was dead, in prison, out of town, or on the road. We get a terse explanation of a cold case, how in cases of this magnitude, they are never really closed, just forgotten. Which brings us back into the central drama. BTK did not want to be forgotten, and when he sees a newsy “Whatever happened to?” piece in local media, he decides to answer the question.
The documentary deftly captures the escalation and braggadocio from drawing to photography. BTK posed 53-year-old victim Marine Hedge in bondage positions at the Christ Lutheran Church, weeks after killing her, before dumping her body in a ditch. There are similar examples of his macabre presentation, and BTK: Chasing a Serial Killer showcases the killer’s portfolio expertly. The BTK Killer’s spree ends with the killing of Dolores E. Davis, who was found in February 1991.
The documentary turns this into a police procedural after BTK goes on a letter-writing spree, he even tapes one to a stop sign. The special notes that this is where BTK makes his mistake, by fudging a return address. But this reviewer sees another missed opportunity. Did BTK lick the stamps? This is one of the cases which spanned the pre- and post-DNA analysis era of crime-fighting. The killer ejaculated at the kill scenes from his earliest murders, but it didn’t equal usable evidence. The documentary gets into how DNA testing was in the early stages, one cop says to get a sample you had to ruin a whole lot of evidence.
The cops go in a different direction. They pull in hundreds of possible suspects to see if they could get a match for the newly admitted 1986 murder of Vicki Wegerle. The third installment is basically an inadvertent comparison between how organized the police get and how sloppy BTK gets. Once the whole dragnet coalesces, the first thing the cops realize is BTK isn’t quite the mastermind they thought he was. He writes a poem threatening lead investigator Lt. Ken Landwehr, who has become the face of the BTK task force, as well as a false autobiography. One of the things the elusive villain left was an outline for a proposed book titled “The BTK Story.” It opens with the chapter “A Serial Killer Is Born.”
The documentary has a wealth of gory material to choose from, but has a field day with bound dolls. Between the length of time, and change in manpower, it takes to finally catch the killer and the graphically detailed images of Barbies tied in intricate knots, the series has elements of the horrific hunt for a killer on True Detective season 1. It adds a subliminally conspiratorial dimension when a floppy disk, which BTK himself supplies to the police, reveals Denis Rader is actually president of the church council at the Christ Lutheran Church.
BTK: Chasing a Serial Killer is laid out in the boiler plate style of most true crime documentaries, but the crimes and the suspense of the chase keep your interest over three installments. While it doesn’t offer much in the way of new revelations, it details the BTK saga fairly comprehensively. Rader was convicted of the 10 murders he confessed to, and the documentary leaves open the question on whether he was involved in more unsolved killings. The closing installment of Serial Killer week does incidentally prove the psychopathic BTK killer gets what he wants: The police gave him the publicity he craved in order to trap him, the special proves the BTK name has been etched on the serial killer hall of fame. BTK: Chasing a Serial Killer closes on footage of the victims’ families explaining to the court what the BTK cost them, but the documentary underscores how they continue to pay.
BTK: Chasing a Serial Killer airs Friday, Sept. 4, on Investigation Discovery. Part 1 begins at 9 pm, and is followed by the other installments.