Why I Still Love My Serial Killer Dad: 'The Man I Knew Could Be Good and Decent'
In 2005, when Kerri Rawson learned that her doting, protective father Dennis Rader was the infamous BTK serial killer who had murdered ten people, the revelation nearly destroyed her.
Rawson, who was 25 at the time of Rader’s arrest, spent years locked in a depression, riddled with guilt and sadness over what her father — whose self-coined nickname stood for “bind, torture and kill” — had done.
“Nobody,” Rawson tells PEOPLE, “wants to believe their father could be capable of such monstrous things.”
Now, Rawson, 40, has written a book — A Serial Killer’s Daughter — that chronicles how her horror and anger were tempered by the love she felt for her father, as well as the terrible toll his double life has taken on her family. (Rawson’s book comes out Jan. 29.)
The sheer savagery of her father’s crimes hasn’t made her journey easy. Rader — who terrorized the family’s hometown of Wichita, Kan., between 1974 and 1991 — often stalked his victims for months before binding their arms and legs with rope, then slowly strangling them. He hid mementos from his kills in the floorboards beneath the family’s linen closet.
Rawson, a stay-at-home, happily married mother of two young boys, spent seven years working with a therapist — and leaning on her faith—before she was finally able to begin letting go of the feelings that threatened to destroy her life.
“For those first seven years, I was BTK’s daughter,” she says. “He was BTK and I was BTK’s daughter. I wasn’t Kerri and he wasn’t Dad. It wasn’t until I really let go of some of that hardness and anger that I was able to come back more to the person I was and then find my dad again.”
Criminologists are skeptical that a serial killer as depraved as Rader — now serving a 175-year sentence after pleading guilty to his ten murders — could be capable of possessing real emotions, says Rawson, who grew up fishing, hiking and watching horror movies with her father.
“But the man I knew could be good and decent,” she says. “That’s why I have to hold on to the belief that he truly did love us. I’m not forgiving him for what he did to those other families, but I am forgiving him for what he did to our family.”
While she may have forgiven her father for what he did to her family, Rawson — who spent years trying to understand what drove Rader to kill — believes her dad is fully responsible for his crimes. “Psychopathy is a mental illness, but it doesn’t mean he’s insane,” she says.
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“He’s not psychotic. He’s very culpable. If you can push him enough, get him to be honest enough, he will take culpability. But he’s also a psychopath and a narcissist, so there’s this disconnect in his brain, in my opinion. He just doesn’t seem to understand what he’s done. He doesn’t understand how much grief, pain and loss he’s caused to these families — and to ours.”
But forgiving her father doesn’t mean Rawson, whose book goes on sale on Jan. 26, wants him in her life. “I really have to limit my contact with him for my own sanity,” says Rawson, who refuses to visit him in prison, but writes him a couple times a year. “I’ve had to build in my own boundaries. I still love him. I forgive him, but that doesn’t mean I can have him in my life.”
20/20 will air an interview with Kerri Rawson on Friday, February 1 at 9pm ET on ABC.