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Feature Article

Mindhunter Season 2: Who Is The Real BTK Strangler

When reality is worse than fiction

Mindhunter Season 2 has finally arrived after a nearly two year hiatus and true crime fans everywhere are rejoicing--and for good reason. This season is just as strong as the first, with a powerful blend of fiction and reality as FBI agents Holden Ford and Bill Tench, as well as their academic consultant Dr. Wendy Carr (all of whom were invented for the show), continue their efforts to psychologically profile the very real serial killers of the '70s and '80s.

However, one of the prominently featured killers in both Seasons 1 and 2 never gets the interview-and-profile treatment. Dennis Rader, aka The BTK Killer, was first introduced to the show's mythology back in Season 1 through a series of disconnected vignettes that would cut through the beginning and end of episodes. Rader was never formally named, and in the first season, he didn't actually commit any crimes. The implication was there, to be sure--every moment of his screen time is dedicated to a sort of simmering tension and building discomfort that communicates just how bad things are likely going to get.

That threat pays off in the first episode of Season 2, which reveals that BTK has been actively killing, communicating with the press through disturbing poems, and avoiding capture entirely. For viewers who know BTK's real history, putting two and two together isn't much of a challenge, and it's clear that the man in those vignettes has been Rader all along--though the show never explicitly names him.

Tench does what he can to help at first, but there are no real leads and the Behavioral Science Unit's resources are being otherwise utilized. Throughout the season, the vignettes continue, but the case never progresses in any official capacity for the FBI--something that may feel a bit frustrating for viewers who are unfamiliar with the reality of the BTK Killer, who managed to successfully avoid capture until the early 2000s. Mindhunter may take some liberties with the true stories it intersects with, but changing the ultimate outcome of the cases it deals in tends not to be one of them.

So what was the real BTK Killer's story and where does it fit into the Mindhunter umbrella? Hold on tight, because this one gets bleak.

The real Dennis Rader began killing in 1974 with the Otero family, three years after marrying his wife Paula, while working for a home security company installing burglar alarms--a detail included in his Season 1 storyline. Paula is a character in the show as well, but his children--a son born in 1971 and a daughter born in 1975--are not. The scenes included in the second season premiere that focus on his wife discovering him dressed in a mask and women's clothing are likely fabricated for the show. The fetish for women's clothing and the mask are genuine--but the implication that his wife had caught on to Rader's "deviant" sexual proclivities and, apparently, had chosen to ignore them for whatever reason, or tried to "fix" them by providing self-help books, can't be confirmed.

Rader began writing letters to the press about his murders shortly after the Otero killings, which sparked a mass panic through his native Wichita, Kansas. In addition to written communication, Rader also called in tips to police hotlines. One such call, made from a phone booth in 1977, actually led to the discovery of the body of one of his victims, Nancy Fox.

After an apparent lull in media coverage, Rader became frustrated with his lack of notoriety and began communicating again. In 1978, he wrote a letter in which he claimed responsibility for the murders of Kathyrn Bright, Shirley Vian, and Nancy Fox (who he had guided police to a year prior)--all of whom are mentioned in the show as cases that were confounding the police. It was in a 1978 letter where he coined his own nickname: BTK, for "bind, torture, kill."

In 1983, a task force of federal detectives were given the BTK cases and tasked with reinvestigation--the loose inspiration for Tench's brief involvement in the case during the show. The real-life team was nicknamed the "Ghostbusters task force" and focused on the collection of DNA evidence and the implementation of new technology, including a psychological profile, worked up by behavioral scientists, that assumed BTK was someone local to the area where his crimes were committed.

The work, unfortunately, provided to be ultimately fruitless, and the cases were marked as cold through 1997, when Robert Ressler--the actual FBI profiler who served as inspiration for Tench--stepped in to build a more expansive view of BTK. But Ressler believed BTK had either left the area or died because the killings had apparently stopped back in the 70s.

The case remained totally unsolved until 2004, when Rader began communicating with police again, claiming responsibility for more deaths through the 1980s, confirmed by the inclusion of mementos from the scene of the various crimes. It was these early 2000s communications--one of which was saved on a floppy disc--and advancements in DNA testing technology--that eventually lead to Rader's arrest and subsequent confessions in February of 2005. Rader reached out directly to the police to ask them, point-blank, if communication via floppy disc could be traced, emploring them to "be honest." After telling Rader that no, the disc could not be traced, they promptly used the metadata contained within the floppy disc Rader had sent to trace him.

Unless there's a significant time jump in future Mindhunter seasons, we can expect the BTK thread to remain unresolved for Ford and Tench--but perhaps that's actually for the best, even with all consideration for historical accuracy thrown aside. The reality of Dennis Rader is that FBI profiling and behavioral science were unable to successfully aid in his capture, often leading to more dead ends and conjecture. Had Rader not overextended his "game of cat and mouse with the police" (in his own words) he probably never would have been caught. In Mindhunter, it seems like he's being set up as the show's "big bad guy," but whether this will actually culminate in anything during future seasons is anyone's guess.

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