Kerri Rawson was living the quintessential American dream. She grew up in the quiet city of Wichita with her mother, father and older brother in a three-bedroom ranch with a big backyard and a “massive” tree house built for her by hand by her father.
She was daddy’s little girl and thought of her dad as her best friend as she grew from the little girl riding bikes in the neighborhood to the independent college student at Kansas State University. Her dad walked her down the aisle when she got married, the moment captured in photos that show a seemingly picturesque family.
But in 2005, at the age of 26, Rawson’s world would be irrevocably turned upside down when an FBI agent came to her apartment door and delivered the stunning news that her father, Dennis Rader—the boy scout leader, church president and dedicated city employee—had been arrested for a series of murders attributed to BTK, a serial killer whose moniker was an acronym that stood for “bind, torture, kill.”
“He says ‘your dad has been arrested as BTK’ and I was like, I think I am going to pass out,” she said in an episode of ABC’s 20/20 that aired Friday.
In an instant her family had been thrust into the spotlight, her father was being described as a monster and the charmingly normal life she had thought she had was gone.
“Every moment of your whole life was a lie even back before you were born,” she said of the realization that her father had brutally murdered 10 victims, including two small children, during his reign from 1974 to 1991.
In the more than a decade since Rader’s arrest, Rawson has tried to come to terms with her father’s dual identities, her own identity as the prolific killer’s daughter, her quest for forgiveness and the complicated relationship she has now with the man who once raised her.
Rawson discusses her conflicted feelings and the anxiety and depression she faced after discovering her father’s deadly secret in her new book “A Serial Killer’s Daughter: My Story Of Faith, Love and Overcoming.”
“Part of the reason I wrote this book is to say 'Look, we’re not catching these guys quick enough because they look normal, because they are normal,'” she said on a Wednesday appearance on Dr. Phil. “They can be loving and caring, but they are also psychopathic and we’re not catching them quick enough because we’re only looking for the psychopath. We’re not looking for the guy that never even got a speeding ticket.”
It was Rawson’s own DNA that would lead to her father’s capture. Investigators got a search warrant for medical records at her college health center after learning she had gotten regular pap smears and obtained a sample of her DNA. It was a move that felt like an invasion of her privacy, she told ABC News.
“It would have been nice if somebody had asked me for my DNA,” she said. “I would have willingly given it.”
She said her family, including her mother and older brother, said they never had any indication that Rader was also a psychopathic killer.
“Mom and I both said if we had an inkling that my father had harmed anyone, let alone murdered anyone, let alone 10, we would have gone screaming out the door to the police station,” she said on 20/20.
She recalled the moment she first talked to her mother on the phone after Rader’s arrest, calling the moment “heartbreaking, like you could just hear her break, just like utter grief and loss.”
Rawson herself only recalled two incidents where she’d ever seen her dad be violent. One was a family dinner, when she was 18 and her older brother was 21. After the family got into an argument, their old kitchen table broke, enraging her father.
“My dad lunged at my brother, like straight on and tried to strangle my brother at dinner,” she said on Dr. Phil. “Now my dad is just not even looking like my dad physically in his eyes, like he’s just someone else.”
The moment was as close as she believes she ever came to BTK.
The discovery of her father’s secret identity has caused her to rethink everyday moments of her life.
She remembers climbing into bed one rainy night with her mother while her father had been on a boy scout trip with her brother. That night, her father would secretly sneak back to their neighborhood and murder 53-year-old Marine Hedge who lived nearby.
Rawson was just 6 at the time, but said the murder scared her. She began to have night terrors soon after.
“I would wake screaming, sitting up in bed,” she told 20/20. “My mom was always the one who would come and comfort. I would say, ‘There’s a bad man in my house’ and she’s like, ‘There’s no bad man in your house.’”
Neither could know how wrong that was.
As she grew older, Rawson and her father shared a love of true crime. Now she wonders if he had been trying to tell her something.
“In hindsight, I feel like maybe he was trying to share something with me because we were very close, and maybe he wanted me to understand what was wrong with him,” she said on Dr. Phil.
Her father was also the person who taught her about self-defense when she was a teenager and learning how to drive.
“He taught me how to fight off a man and he taught me how to carry my key and I still do it,” she said on the talk show. “When you come to find out who your father is and then you realize he’s teaching you these things because he had done this to other people, it destroys you for a long time.”
She now knows her father is a narcissist and psychopath and said she doesn’t know the “cold, callous, calculating” person who broke into his victim’s homes, tortured and killed them.
Rawson believes if her father weren’t in prison, he’d still have the desire to kill, even if he was physically unable to now at the age of 73.
“He was planning one right before he was arrested,” she told Dr. Phil. “On one hand, he’s my dad, but I am also scared to death of him, so I am pretty messed up still.”
It's these dueling sides of Rader’s personality that seem to haunt Rawson, who told ABC News through tears she tends to “compartmentalize” the memories of the dad she knew, who could sometimes be gruff but usually kind, with the psychopath who stalked and slaughtered innocent women and four members of a family during his kills.
She understands that’s one part of him, but still believes that he’s 90-95 percent “Dennis” the man she remembers and just 5 percent BTK. Investigators disagree, she said.
After his sentencing in 2005, when he coldly recounted the murders in grim detail and called his family social contacts and “pawns” in his devious game, Rawson said she didn’t speak to her father for two years.
“When I heard that in the sentencing that’s when the final wall slammed down and I was like 'He could rot in hell,'” she said.
She writes her father again now.
She made the decision to forgive the dad she says she still loves in 2012 after what she describes as a “long journey” and a return to her faith.
“It was just a massive release,” she said on 20/20 of the decision. “I realized I was rotting within, like I didn’t just forgive my father for him, I had to do it for myself. I hope to see him in heaven someday because he could be forgiven for his sins too.”
Even now, Rawson said she struggles with anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. But in the decade since the discovery, she’s come to terms in a sense with who she is.
“I’d do anything to not be the daughter of a serial killer, but I am,” she said on the talk show.
[Photo: Travis Heying/Wichita Eagle/TNS via Getty Images]
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