Beware the Friendly Neighborhood Killer

ByBryan Robinson

Aug. 16, 2005 — -- To some of his stunned neighbors, Dennis Rader seemed too normal to be the serial killer next door.

Some said they didn't like the admitted "BTK" killer; they found him strange and called him a conservative stickler for abiding by city laws. But most agreed that Rader -- whose formal sentencing hearing for pleading guilty to killing 10 people in Wichita, Kan., between 1974 and 1991 is expected to begin Wednesday -- lived an ordinary life. He was a family man, a Cub Scout leader and pastor in his church -- all while keeping his double life as the BTK (which stands for "Bind, Torture, Kill") killer a secret, even from his wife and children.

Like some other noted murderers, Rader defies the perception that serial killers are social outsiders and loners who do not live normal lives and attract attention with obvious, disturbing behavior. Both serial killers and criminal fugitives often assimilate within society and are skilled in not bringing attention to their secret lives.

"People are confusing psychopathic behavior with psychotic behavior," said Pat Brown, criminologist and head of the Pat Brown Criminal Profiling Agency. "People who are psychotic appear to live in their own reality. Their behavior is not going to be confined to the norms of society.

"A person who's a psychopath knows what the norms of society are and has a hatred of society," Brown continued. "They're not going to be the guy who's frothing at the mouth. He wants to create his own reality, but he knows he's confined within societal norms. So, he's going to hide his illegal activity. Clearly, he knows what works within what society dictates."

That ability to work within society while hiding their other criminal life is what has enabled some killers and fugitives to appear so "normal" to their family, friends and acquaintances. It is also why families, friends and acquaintances are shocked when their loved ones' heinous crimes are revealed.

Robert Yates Jr.'s family was baffled when he admitted killing 13 people -- mostly prostitutes -- between 1996 and 1998 in Washington state. As an Army veteran and National Guard helicopter pilot, he seemed disciplined and honorable while proudly representing his country. But he confessed to the killings, at one point drawing a map for investigators to find the remains of one victim, and is serving 408 years in prison.

Gary Ridgway, the admitted Green River serial killer, seemed well integrated into his community and long held a job as a truck driver before DNA evidence linked him to the killings. Ridgway admitted to 48 killings that occurred between 1982 and 1998 and is serving the rest of his life in prison in a plea agreement that spared him the death penalty.

Norman A. Porter was serving a prison sentence for two counts of second-degree murder when he escaped a minimum-security pre-release center in Massachusetts in 1985 and spent 20 years on the lam living a new life as a political activist and poet named J.J. Jameson in Chicago. named him poet of the month for March 2004 and posted his photo on the Web site. Investigators came across the picture and ultimately found and arrested Porter in this past April.

Unlike most fugitives, Porter did not keep a low profile and that ultimately led to his capture. The key to most fugitives and killers appearing normal to members of community is their ability to naturally blend in and not bring attention to themselves. They live their lives as if nothing is wrong, that they're not hiding anything or from anyone.

"The key is just going about their everyday lives, not bringing attention to themselves and not stand out," said Jack Levin, professor and director of the Brudnick Center on Conflict and Violence at Northeastern University in Boston. "They just go about living their everyday lives, business as usual and not appear to look over their shoulders. Most fugitives have a great ability to look like everyone, yet look like no one at the same time."

Convicted killer Randolph Dial escaped an Oklahoma prison in 1994 and apparently held Bobbi Parker, the wife of a sheriff's deputy, against her will for 11 years as they lived as husband and wife on a remote East Texas chicken farm before his capture last April. After his capture, Dial bragged to reporters that he was so comfortable "hiding in plain sight" that he called Oklahoma author Charles Sasser, who had written a book about his case.

"Often you'll find that fugitives will go to a place where they won't stand out and will hide out in a community they're familiar with, know well and understand the language," Levin. "There, they know the best roads to take, the best places to hide out. That may be one reason authorities have not been able to track down Osama bin Laden, who has almost certainly received help from sympathizers. Authorities have said [abortion clinic bomber] Eric Rudolph received help from those who shared some of his views before he was captured."

Neighbors said Dial and Parker generally kept to themselves and that Parker seemed free to come and go as she pleased. However, some also claimed, in retrospect, that Parker seemed secretive and scared and that Dial was controlling and abusive.

Despite an appearance of normalcy, some experts say loved ones, close acquaintances and neighbors can detect signs of criminal behavior. However, they often either ignore or deny them.

Robert Yates reportedly refused let his wife, Linda, wear makeup or tight clothing and controlled her so much that she consulted him on most decisions. The wife of John Wayne Gacy, who was executed in 1994 for killing 33 people, often asked him about a rotten smell that emanated from their basement. She accepted Gacy's explanation that meat had turned rancid because of a broken refrigerator, but the smell came from the bodies he had stored.

"People often say they never saw it coming, they never saw the signs," Brown said. "But the signs are there. You see them if you're around a person often and long enough. Psychopaths tend to be extremely self-centered and manipulative. You also see a coldness in them. And they will never express remorse and admit that they are wrong. It's always somebody else's fault that they did this."

Court observers were stunned by the calm, matter-of-fact demeanor Rader showed as he detailed the killings when he pleaded guilty June 27. In a subsequent interview with ABC News affiliate KAKE-TV in Wichita, he said he had remorse but blamed the murders on a "demon" that got inside him at a young age.

Perhaps no one was more stunned by Rader's demon than his wife, Paula, and his two grown children. Paula Rader has not publicly spoken about her life with husband but a judge has granted her petition for an emergency divorce.

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