James Alan Fox and Jack Levin
Northeastern University, 2005
Copyright 2005 Gannett Company, Inc.
March 3, 2005, Thursday, FINAL EDITION
For three decades, the “BTK” strangler was a shrewd and elusive killing machine. He viciously murdered 10 people, held Wichita in a grip of terror and arrogantly demanded national attention through letters to the news media.
No wonder the arrest of Dennis Rader, 59, has brought tremendous relief not just to the families of the victims, but to all of Wichita.
Until Rader’s capture, the case had been dogged by frustration and colored by the blame game. A plodding investigation, a false arrest and thousands of fruitless DNA tests gave critics plenty of fodder.
Police have returned the disfavor, accusing the media of spreading misinformation that might hurt the case. This kind of finger-pointing is de rigueur. In serial murder cases, the victims of scapegoating often outnumber the victims of the killer.
When Jeffrey Dahmer murdered 17 young men in Milwaukee, residents said local police were incompetent. Officers returned a captive to Dahmer’s care when the boy, bleeding from wounds inflicted by Dahmer, tried to escape. Police had dismissed it as a lovers’ quarrel.
Investigators in Seattle’s Green River murder case had interviewed the killer, Gary Leon Ridgway, years before he was arrested. But they let him go for lack of evidence.
Much of the criticism levied on the Wichita police ignored the challenge posed by serial murderers, who are the cream of the killer crop. Most homicides are solved within days, but serial killers can elude for years, even decades.
Rader, in fact, is extraordinarily ordinary. He has never looked or acted like the monster that he is accused of being. Such ability to blend in and appear above suspicion helps serial killers avoid detection.
Rader served as a Cub Scout leader and was an active member of the local Lutheran Church. He worked as a city code-enforcement supervisor and appeared on television in 2001 in that capacity.
Even so, it’s only natural for a rattled public to want someone to blame. The media, too, can be an easy target in such cases.
In the fall of 2002, two snipers terrorized the Washington, D.C., area, methodically killing 10 random victims. Crime “profilers” had suggested on TV that the killer would turn out to be a white, middle-aged male. When the black shooters were arrested, these experts became the new target.
The obstacle to locating the killers, however, was the misguided hunt for a phantom white van, allowing the duo to escape time after time in their blue sedan. Yet, had it not been for the massive publicity given to the case, the killers might have taken more lives. The men were captured thanks to a call to a tip line. The caller had observed the details of the case on TV.
Final victim: Killer’s family
But the finger-pointing doesn’t stop there. If the BTK case runs true to form, those closest to the serial killer, especially his wife and grown children, will be blamed for not having noticed the red flags long ago. Not surprisingly, Rader’s family has already fled town.
Families of serial killers typically suffer humiliation and condemnation, even though they are as clueless as investigators. Kelli Boyd, wife of Hillside Strangler Kenneth Bianchi, after learning of his arrest for murdering 10 women in Los Angeles, said the Ken she knew couldn’t have harmed anyone.
Serial killer John Wayne Gacy’s wife claimed total ignorance of the fact that her husband had buried 29 victims in the crawl space of their suburban Chicago home.
The only person to blame for the Wichita murder spree is the killer. If Rader is convicted, the finger-pointing should be redirected to where it belongs — at him.
When the next serial killer surfaces, as he inevitably will, BTK should serve to remind us not of the moniker “Bind, Torture, Kill,” but instead, what it should always be: “Blame The Killer.”
James Alan Fox is the Lipman Family Professor of Criminal Justice, and Jack Levin is the Brudnick Professor of Sociology and Criminology, both at Northeastern University. They co-authored Extreme Killing: Understanding Serial and Mass Murder.