I have a confession to make. I have always considered myself to be totally smart and in the know about serial killers and other like-minded folk. I could talk for days about Ed Gein. I could go into detail on how I lurked around the Ward Weaver (heard of him?) crime scene when I lived on the West Coast. I could give you your own special Jeffrey Dahmer Tour of Milwaukee. Ask me about the BTK killer and I would have been SILENT. Nothing. I had NOTHING.
I have no idea how he went unnoticed by me for so long, but damn. That Bind,Torture, Kill guy was one frightening dude. He took immense pleasure in choosing women at random and stalking them. Not only would he stalk them for months, but he would sneak into their homes, cut their phone lines and WAIT. His method of murder was strangulation by ligature and he loved his ropes. Women would be afraid to go home. Families were terrified. He would taunt the police and the media by sending them letters, holding an entire city hostage for YEARS. Between 1974 and 1991, Dennis Rader, the BTK killer, murdered 10 people. The victims included women, men and children.
And then silence.
Then, after a ten-year hiatus from killing, BTK started sending letters again. He was finally caught when he sent a disk to a TV station and the police were able to trace the disk back to him. They found that he had used the disk at the church where he was a DEACON, they put two and two together and he was apprehended in 2005. He was sentenced to 10 consecutive life sentences.
By all outward appearances, Dennis Rader was a family man who loved his church. He was also a one-time employee of a home security company and a city compliance officer (an asshole-y one, at that). Last, but not least, he was a Cub Scout leader. Guess where he learned to tie the knots that he used in his murders? Cub Scouts. And who taught him how to tie these knots? This is where I introduce you to Mary Lou. My friend, Jason (AKA Beard), introduced me to her and she is a super rad lady. She lives in Wichita, is heavily involved in her community and loves to talk. She has a quick and sassy lilt to her voice and her excitement is palpable.
Here is her story.
“He was a good-looking kid, I know that.”
YATB: Is this Mary Lou?
Mary Lou: Yes!
YATB: I super appreciate you talking to me! When Jason told me about BTK I just about lost my mind.
Mary Lou: Well, overnight I decided that I would do a little digging to remind myself about Dennis. In my high school, the classes would run all seniors or all juniors and I knew that I had had a couple of classes with Dennis. I was a senior, he was a freshman. I thought he was only a couple of years younger than me but he was four years younger than me.
YATB: So did you talk to him or was he just sort of THERE?
Mary Lou: Well, I went back and looked. I quit halfway through my senior year; I got married and moved away. But I went and looked back (in the yearbook) and he was not in any of the sports or any of the extracurricular activities. He wasn’t an actor. He wasn’t in the bible club. He wasn’t in choir. If he was, it would have been later on and his name wasn’t in there, but I thought, well, I’ll just go back and refresh my memory. He was a good-looking kid, I know that. And I think I may have thought he was only been a couple of years younger than me at the time except I was dating another guy at the time, though, who was more desirable than Dennis was.
YATB: You dodged a bullet there!
Mary Lou: Yes, shall we say?! But, I mean I did give him more than one look as far as that goes. I remember the teacher, but I don’t remember what class we were in together. He would contribute to class if the teacher point-blank asked him, “Tell me about this,” and he’d answer. He was surely always right. I don’t recall him ever being in trouble. There were others you could depend on weekly to be in trouble, but he wasn’t one of those. He had brothers. He lived a mile east and a mile south of my parent’s home. He lived on the 4800 block on North Seneca. He graduated from Heights High School. Ironically enough, the church that he belonged to was right across the street. That’s where he took one of his victims and killed her, there at that church.
YATB: Oh boy. So he had belonged to that church for many, many years.
Mary Lou: Yes and as it were, that was his downfall. He was a deacon at the church and people knew who he was. He didn’t understand computers much and he had turned a disk in and the police investigated it. He taunted the police with letters and signs and they found out who he was.
YATB: That’s the thing that shocks me. He wasn’t very smart with all of this stuff because he made a lot of mistakes with a lot of things along the way. Do you think at the end that he was trying to get caught?
Mary Lou: I think he thought he was going to get away with it forever and ever and he didn’t really realize that that computer was going to be his downfall. If I remember correctly, that was the first thing he turned in on a disk.
YATB: I read a book (Bind, Torture, Kill: The Inside Story of BTK, the Serial Killer Next Door) recently that was written by someone who worked on the case. They wrote about him making copies of the things he was mailing and they figured out what copy machine he was using, which helped them to figure out who he was.
Mary Lou: Well, yes, and wasn’t that copy machine in the police department? He was a dog catcher and an enforcement officer. God forbid that your grass grew any taller than 3 inches ’cause he would write you up. I mean, he kept most of his information locked up in a desk there at work.
YATB: Yes, that’s right!
Mary Lou: You know, people talked about it. I did not know his wife well, but I knew her. She was the accountant person for a convenience store within a mile of their house. I was Director of the Chamber of Commerce. The guy who owned the convenience store, there was a good-sized grocery/liquor store in town and he was the assistant manager and would go back and forth. He was also a member of the Chamber of Commerce and he and I talked after all of this. He said, “If she wants to, she will always have a job because she’s good.” I asked him, “Do you think she really and truly had any idea who Dennis Rader was?” and he said “No, he completely had her brainwashed.” I am convinced that he was very dominating, at least later on in his life. Thinking back to when he was in school, he wouldn’t have been dominating over anything but his dog, as far as I’m concerned. But if you got into the life he had, you’re going to try to cover all your bases.
“…but I also taught him the knots that he used.”
YATB: What kinds of encounters did you have with Dennis Rader?
Mary Lou: In all of the strange and unusual events that went along with his stalking and killing, my biggest encounter was, he lived in Park City (a suburb of Wichita) and his son was in Cub Scouts. There’s only one pack there and the guy that was Cub Master was a really good friend of mine. We were commissioners, I was in Cub Scouts for 25 years teaching parents how to play with their kids and us commissioners covered most of the state of Kansas. We did Cub Scout training all over the state. One of the Scout executives was recently on my program promoting scouting and I said to my co-host “Should I tell him the rest of the scouting and Dennis Radar story?” And she said, “You better.” He just looked at me funny. I said, “I did a lot of training of this man to be a part of Cub Scouts, as he had a boy (in the pack), but I also taught him the knots that he used.”
YATB: Yes, Jason told me this!
Mary Lou: He just put his hands over his eyes and said, “Mary, oh gosh, how can you live with it?” I said, “I’m not sure I could teach you, you know, what I taught him and it kind of haunts me.” I’ve put it out of my mind in a way.
YATB: I was going to ask you how you feel about, I mean….
Mary Lou: One of the hardest things I had to do was when the four people from the Wichita Eagle wrote one of the best books about him, they had their book premiere at a bookstore here in town and I went. When they were done, they asked if there were any questions and I stood and said that I didn’t have a question, but I have a statement to tell you and it’s hard to say it. I said, “I went to school with Dennis Rader,” and there was this gasp from the crowd. I said, “Yes and I knew him personally in a different way. I was a Cub Scout leader when he was a Cub Scout leader and worked with him in training. I taught him how to tie those knots.” There was another huge gasp. I said the hardest thing. I told them that I was so glad they caught him. When I think of Dennis Rader, I think of the person I went to school with. I mean, he is also the BTK killer and I have a hard time putting the two together.
YATB: Do you have any insight into what made him, not snap, but made him turn into a totally different person from when he was younger?
Mary Lou: You know, I was totally amazed, that in court, when the judge was getting ready to sentence him he asked Dennis if he had anything he wanted to say. And Dennis sat there for an hour on live television and told about every killing that he had ever done in great detail. I absolutely could not believe it. But, he talked about things that he did as a youngster. He killed animals and he tortured them. He performed sex acts in his mother and dad’s basement when he was growing up. Had he had not told that, no one would have ever known. And so I just don’t think he was wired right, from birth. And it’s a good thing that they caught him because I don’t think he would’ve ever quit. And he used Cub Scouts. One night, he had stalked a lady for a long time. And he used Scouts as an excuse (to be out of the house). That was his alibi. And he killer her. We had a Winter Rendezvous (an overnight Scouting trip)–
YATB: Were you there?
Mary Lou: I went the next day and my friend, the other Scout leader was there. I don’t remember what his excuse was, but Dennis left the Winter Rendezvous to kill her in the middle of the night and then he came back to camp. Bob (the other Scout leader) used to talk about it, but he doesn’t talk about it anymore. Bob said, “Not only did I trust him with my life, I would’ve trusted my wife’s life with him.” But Cub Scouts was a very good cover. You don’t know how his mind works. Scouts gave the kids something and something for them as a family to do together, but you don’t know. Was this just an excuse to go around stalking and not be at home?
YATB: What was his personality like in Cub Scouts?
Mary Lou: Very good! He was fun and games with the boys and very good with the other fathers, pitched in, did stuff. You would’ve killed to have him in your group because he DID stuff, you just didn’t know EVERYTHING he did.
YATB: Did any of you….
Mary Lou: Did I suspect him? So, I’m one of the alumni that helps to arrange alumni banquets for the whole high school. I help arrange 20th, 50th anniversary things. As you know, Dennis would send notes to the police, taunting them. Maybe the 40th (anniversary), he had sent a deal to the newspaper talking about the neighborhood he lived in and the things that he did. He talked about a lot of thing close to the north end of town. One of my buds (Phil), was a Sheriff’s patrol officer, years ago. Anyway, he and I were comparing notes about what some of these things were. Everyone is trying to figure out who this was. I said, “The next time we get together with the alumni we need to sit down with the annual and compare notes and figure out who this guy is.” And so, Phil said that was a good idea. Our classmate Ron, I said to him, “I’m wondering if it might be one of our classmates.” Ron jumped all over me and got so upset, so we didn’t talk about it. But Phil’s wife, Glenda, was the executive secretary to the editor/CEO of The Wichita Eagle. She opened all of the mail and saw all of his letters, first time, first hand. Plus, the fact that the day that he was arrested, she was listening to it on the police scanner at the office. She called Phil and said to him, “BTK is going down today.” Phil called me and said, “BTK is going down today and guess where they’re at? They’re in Park City.”
“You just missed being killed by the grace of god.”
Mary Lou: When my son graduated from Cub Scouts to Boy Scouts, three other boys became Eagle Scouts. One of them was Kenny Landwehr, who was the main police officer that put him in the car when he was arrested. BTK gets in the car and says, “Kenny.” And Kenny says, “Mr. Rader.” Kenny had been determined to find him for many years. Another story that a lot of people don’t have a connection to is a lady that Dennis stalked. He sat in her house. She was a widow. He was waiting until 2 a.m. for her to come home one night and she never came home. He couldn’t figure out where she was and why she didn’t come home. He took some of her scarves and he sent her a note with the scarf that said You just missed being killed by the grace of god.
YATB: Oh my god.
Mary Lou: That doesn’t mean a lot to a lot of people, but her name was Mrs. Chavez. Mrs. Chavez was at Christ the King church (Rader’s church) that night at their neighborhood party. Her grandson was one of the Eagle Scouts that graduated with Kenny. And so her son, Pete Chavez, she was at the party late and he said, “Don’t go home just come to our house. We’ll just go home and you won’t have to drive across town.” And then she never went back to that house again and eventually moved out of town.There are so many side stories. Two of my Eagle Scouts were involved in BTK. My son, he wasn’t living in the house that he’s living in now, but the house with the woman (Shirley Vian) with the small children that was killed is a block from my son’s house. But they tore the house down.
YATB: That story was terrible.
Mary Lou: And the oldest son of the Otero’s (BTK’s first victims), who found his murdered family, he lives around here and I see him every once in a while.
YATB: All of these lives have just been absolutely destroyed.
Mary Lou: Oh, yes. My husband asked me at one point if I was ever scared that he was stalking me and I said, “No, I know him from high school!” My impression of him, it’s like two separate people.
YATB: The people that he stalked, did he know them?
Mary Lou: I think he just stumbled across them. Who knows what triggered him to see somebody and decide to do it. There was at least one on the list that he had been stalking when he got caught.
YAT: I was blown away by how sloppy he was. The incident with Kathryn Bright and the fact that her brother escaped from Dennis. And the Otero family when he had trouble getting in their home–there was a dog. And he left and came back because he forgot something.
Mary Lou: Two doors north of his house, he killed that lady. That’s the lady he took to the bridge.
YATB: I’ve always really been into this stuff, and it’s funny because a know a lot about a lot of other serial killers but I’ve never really known a lot about BTK.
Mary Lou: A lot of things, when Phil (the alumni/sheriff friend) and I were mulling things over. We picked up on things.
YATB: It’s just human nature to not think that you’re connected to those types of things. It’s just fascinating how these people are so brazen, leaving Cub Scout camp, killing a woman (Marine Hedge) and taking her to a church where you can get caught, for example.
Mary Lou: I’ve been to that church and it still gives me the willies. Also, I live on a property with 6 acres as part of the yard. I have 3 ½ acres of wheat, it’s an L-shape. Guess who takes care of it? Dennis Rader’s nephew. He also works at a hospital and we sometimes see him when we go. I saw him and asked him if he still goes to church over where his family went and he said that his dad (Dennis’s brother) and the kids, the church asked him not to come back anymore. People that had known the rest of the family and the church board asked “Would god turn him away if Dennis Rader’s family showed up at heaven?” And they said, “No.” They invited the family back, but other people quit because of them.
YATB: In the general community, have been people okay with his family?
Mary Lou: Maybe 50/50. A lot of people have shunned them, but some say you can’t help it if you’re in that family.
YATB: I imagine that a lot of people would think that his wife was lying about whether she knew what he was doing or not.
Mary Lou: Well, you know, I feel so sorry for her and the kids. I don’t really know what happened to the son, but the daughter has written a book. She said that he had locked drawers in one of their closets and told her not to touch the drawers. That’s why I thought she was brainwashed because if my husband told me that, I would be in those drawers right when he left the house!
YATB: He always seemed like such an asshole.
Mary Lou: He worked in enforcement and he always wanted to be a cop, but they wouldn’t take him.
YATB: I’ve seen some stuff with her daughter and she’s very angry, understandably. She seems adamant about people not giving him attention because she knows that that is exactly what he wants.
Mary Lou: Exactly. Exactly. And I understand that. She’s right.
YATB: Did they move away?
Mary Lou: I’m not sure, but I don’t believe she (the daughter) was in town when he was arrested. I still don’t know where the son is. His wife, I believe, still lives in the area, but keeps a low profile. He’s lucky he wasn’t married to me. I would’ve taken a hammer to that drawer within minutes of him leaving. His mother and dad were very quiet, nice people. Very unassuming.
YATB: Did they die before he was caught?
Mary Lou: His mother was still alive, I’m not sure about his dad. There are a number of lots that are empty in town because of him (because they tore so many houses down where people were murdered).
YATB: You can just be so close to someone and have no idea.
Mary Lou: You can have NO idea. I had no idea.
I want to thank Mary Lou SO VERY MUCH for taking an afternoon out of her busy day to speak with me. She was captivating, passionate and so fun to talk with. I know that stories like these often lead to more questions so if you have anything that you’re dying to know, hit me up.
If not, I’ll just be sitting at home living a life of paranoid thoughts like, Is that guy really a mailman or is he freaking stalking me?