Kansas congregation can’t believe its president is a suspect in 10 sadistic slayings.
WICHITA, Kan. — The faithful gathered at Christ Lutheran Church early Sunday morning, bewildered and overpowered by a sense of betrayal.
Just a week ago, Dennis Rader, president of the 400-member congregation, had been a welcome and familiar face in their midst. He had recently dropped off spaghetti sauce and a salad for a church dinner, the pastor said.
On Friday, Rader, 59, was arrested and accused of being the long-sought BTK killer who tortured and killed 10 people in the Wichita area from 1974 to 1991.
“I don’t know what to feel other than pain, agony,” Pastor Michael Clark said after delivering his sermon Sunday morning. “They didn’t teach me how to deal with anything like this at the seminary.”
Rader, a family man, Cub Scout leader and animal control officer for Park City, a suburb north of Wichita, was booked into the Sedgwick County Jail on Sunday and was being held on a $10-million probable-cause bond for suspicion of first-degree murder, according to the district attorney’s office.
Sedgwick County Dist. Atty. Nola Foulston is expected to file charges against Rader within the next few days. Officials with the district attorney’s office said Sunday that Rader’s first court appearance could take place as soon as today.
Rader is in custody on suspicion of killing seven women, one man and two children.
BTK terrorized Wichita for decades and taunted detectives with poems, word puzzles and boastful letters — including one in which he declared that there was “no help, no cure” for his sadism “except death or being caught and put away.” The nickname was coined by the letter writer, who used it to describe his methods: bind, torture, kill.
For many of Rader’s friends at church, the headlines have become numbing. They repeat the same thought — the news cannot be true.
“I keep hearing the same thing, over and over: Dennis is BTK,” said Paul Carlstedt, a church member who has known Rader since 1975. “But the man I know is not a monster. He just can’t be.”
As congregants walked into the two-story brick church Sunday, bundled in warm coats to ward off the chill of an overcast day, reporters and television crews blocked their path, peppering them with questions about Rader and his family.
On any other Sunday, the people might have lingered over cups of coffee and nibbled on sugar cookies, chatting about sports and work while the children played outside. But this Sunday, they stopped and stared, saying little.
Rader had been part of the church community much of his life. The married man and father of two grew up in the area, and worked at a nearby Coleman camping gear plant in the 1970s. So did two of BTK’s victims.
Rader graduated with a degree in criminal justice in 1979 from Wichita State University. Investigators say BTK was familiar with the work of a professor at the university.
Authorities would not discuss the specifics of their investigation into BTK, but investigators have connected Rader’s DNA with semen found at several of the crime scenes.
Inside Christ Lutheran Church, neighbors and friends crammed into the pews Sunday, staring at Clark as the pastor made his way to a lectern. Latecomers, finding nowhere to sit, mingled outside in a hallway, peering through glass doors and straining to hear what was said.
“I needed to be here,” said Carol Jones, a longtime resident of Wichita, who was seated in the pews. “I needed some explanation of why this is happening. I needed some help understanding how we all could have missed this, and how he could have possibly done something like this.”
Gerald Mansholt, bishop of the Central States Synod in Kansas City, Mo., spoke at the service and pleaded with the crowd for patience — to wait for the evidence. He said churches across the state were praying for the congregation, as well as for the survivors of BTK’s victims and for the Rader family.
“We grieve with you,” Mansholt said. “Words fail us at times like this…. The very foundation of our faith is shaken.”
Several women cried. One buried her face in her hands, bent over her knees and silently sobbed.
“The events that have unfolded over the past 48 hours have the power to destroy, to devastate us,” Clark told the congregation. “These events have the power and energy to be a wedge that drives us apart, or they can be a force that will hold us together in these trying times. ‘It makes no sense!’ ‘What has just happened?’ “
Clark said he had spoken with Rader’s wife, Paula, and other family members over the weekend. The family — including an adult daughter and son and Rader’s mother, Dorothea — remained in isolation, and did not answer doors or return phone calls at their homes.
Describing this as a “soul-shattering experience,” Clark said the Rader family was “trying to come to grips with this. Paula was in a state of disbelief. Her voice indicated she was suffering.”
At least one member of the congregation said members had begun to feel that somehow they overlooked a tip or a hint of the man police say was their friend.
“Were we used? Did he use the church and all of his friends as a cover?” said Kevin Smith, 52. “Were we all fooled? Could we have done something?”