Mindhunter: How the BTK Strangler Was Eventually Caught

Mindhunter BTK Killer Real Life

WARNING: Spoilers for Mindhunter season 2.

How was the BTK Strangler caught in real life? In Mindhunter, Sonny Valicenti portrays a mysterious character credited as "ADT Serviceman." The storyline reveals that he’s the infamous “Bind, Torture, Kill” serial killer, Dennis Rader, who murdered 10 people between 1974 and 1991. In real life, BTK wasn't caught until 2005, so what is Netflix setting up for future Mindhunter seasons?

Mindhunter explores criminal psychology techniques that were developed by the FBI Behavioral Science Unit during the ‘70s. Special agents Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) interview captured serial killers to learn about their method and motivations, while psychology professor Wendy Carr (Anna Torv) assists behind the scenes. During Mindhunter season 1, Holden's conversations with convicted murderer Edmund Kemper, the “Co-ed Killer,” inform his methods while investigating the Atlanta Child Murders in Mindhunter season 2. But Holden doesn't necessarily understand that serial killers like BTK are capable of living relatively normal lives.

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Related: Mindhunter Season 2 Review

During Mindhunter season 2, Kemper reminds Holden that his only first-hand serial killer knowledge comes from captured criminals. Ultimately, Bill and Holden aren’t even sure if Wayne Williams is responsible for the Atlanta Child Murders, and Mindhunter’s BTK subplot underlines a major theme: doubt. So, how did the BTK Strangler case play out in real life, and how was Dennis Rader eventually caught?

The BTK Strangler In Mindhunter Seasons 1 And 2

During Mindhunter season 1, BTK appears in nearly every episode, but only in brief scenes. As Holden and Bill go about their business and travel around the United States, a home security employee in Wichita, Kansas displays suspicious behavior. These small vignettes complement and contrast the FBI’s enlightening meetings with Kemper, who appears to love talking about himself and his crimes. Holden’s methods ultimately backfire during a traumatic physical confrontation with Kemper in the Mindhunter season 1 finale, which reminds viewers about the series' changing power dynamics.

Mindhunter season 1 quietly foreshadows BTK's future relevance in the series. Some viewers may be confused about the character’s brief appearances, while others may immediately connect the dots because of all the contextual clues to the ADT Serviceman's identity. Given the vast amount of true crime documentaries about serial killers, some viewers could be quite familiar with BTK's backstory. Still, Mindhunter effectively maintains suspense by paralleling brief BTK scenes with Bill and Holden’s primary investigations.

A BTK sequence opens Mindhunter season 2, as Dennis Rader's wife discovers him in the middle of an autoerotic asphyxiation act. Bill later receives a briefing about mysterious letters being sent to Kansas police officers, and visits the crime scene of BTK's first murders in 1974. He then meets with Kevin Bright, who survived a 1974 attack in which his 21-year-old sister, Kathryn, was stabbed three times and killed. Mindhunter season 2 concludes with BTK wearing a porcelain mask and preparing for another erotic asphyxiation act, while looking at news clipping about his crimes, most notably the March 1977 murder of Shirley Vian, and souvenirs that he claimed from his victims.

Related: Mindhunter Cast & Character Guide (& How They Looked In Real Life)

The BTK Strangler Wasn't Apprehended Until 2005

Mindhunter BTK

By 1977, BTK had killed six people during three separate attacks. Approximately nine months after strangling Vian with a rope, he strangled 25-year-old Nancy Fox with a belt. After that, however, BTK didn’t kill anyone else for another eight years. In retrospect, this was likely because his wife gave birth to two children. To put it simply, BTK's priorities shifted, at least according to interviewees in the 2019 documentary BTK: A Killer Among Us.

In 1985, BTK strangled 53-year-old Marine Hedge with his hands, and used a nylon stocking to kill 28-year-old Vicki Wegerle in 1986. BTK’s last known victim was 62-year-old Dolores Davis, who was strangled to death in 1991. The serial killer had written letters about his crimes in 1974, 1978, and 1988, and then seemingly disappeared. Wichita residents speculated whether he’d been imprisoned for a separate crime, left the country, or had simply passed away. 

BTK contacted the media in 2004, presumably because he wanted more attention. Photographs of victims were sent, along with items connected to crimes scenes. Over the next several months, BTK played a game of cat-and-mouse with authorities, who delivered secret messages during live broadcasts and in newspapers. BTK also sent symbolic bound dolls to a local television station. In 2005, he asked police officers if a floppy disk could be traced, and was apparently under the assumption that it would be a safe way to transfer messages. Oddly, BTK did indeed send a floppy disc to a TV station, which was immediately traced to Christ Lutheran Church and someone named Dennis. Soon thereafter, Dennis Rader was identified as BTK and arrested. He reportedly had planned to resume killing. BTK’s daughter, Kerri Rawson, detailed her life experiences in the 2019 book A Serial Killer's Daughter: My Story of Faith, Love, and Overcoming.

Related: Mindhunter: Was Wayne Williams Guilty of the Atlanta Child Murders?

Where Is Mindhunter's BTK Storyline Heading?

Mindhunter BTK

Though Mindhunter season 3 hasn’t officially been ordered by Netflix, executive producer and director David Fincher has stated that he’s planning for five seasons. With that in mind, it makes sense that he would gradually tease a BTK subplot through small vignettes. But how exactly could Fincher incorporate BTK if the serial killer wasn’t captured until 2005?

The answer may lie in Mindhunter’s narrative structure. Some episodes begin and end with BTK sequences, which suggests that Mindhunter's series finale may conclude with BTK’s capture, or at least his 2005 re-emergence. In that case, Netflix may take the same approach as HBO’s True Detective, which features the main characters in various timelines. However, Fincher would likely take a more original approach when addressing the BTK storyline.

During a recent Esquire interview, Mindhunter actor Holt McCallany foreshadowed where the BTK narrative may be headed: “One of the things that I think separates our show from other shows is that we show the reality of police work... and the reality is that they don’t always get the guy!"

Mindhunter season 2 concludes in 1981. Given that BTK killed two people between 1985-1986, the next two seasons may continue to tease the Kansas subplot, with the final season detailing Holden and Bill’s unsuccessful attempts to catch the infamous serial killer.  

Next: What To Expect From Mindhunter Season 3

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