Dr. Katherine Ramsland is interviewed by Jaciel Cordoba on WFMZ News at Sunrise
DeSales University professor Dr. Katherine Ramsland delves into the mind of a serial killer in her latest book, Confession of a Serial Killer: The Untold Story of Dennis Rader, the BTK Killer.
Ramsland worked closely with Rader for five years on the project, talking over the phone and corresponding by letters. "I call it a guided autobiography because he's telling his tale within a structured framework," she says.
Ramsland is known for her research and books on serial killers, but admits this wasn't something she was looking for. She had just published another book, The Mind of a Murderer, and unknowingly set herself up to take Confession over.
Rader was already working with another author. As it turned out, that woman was looking for a replacement. But it wasn't an easy process. Rader had already signed his life rights over to the victims' families, which meant they would get the proceeds. It also meant the next author would need to be vetted and approved. ''They had turned away other people who wanted to do it,'' Ramsland says.
In the end, the director of the Master of Arts in Criminal Justice program was chosen because of her credentials and because she wanted the book to help psychology and the law enforcement community. "My agenda was I want this to benefit criminology. The fact that it benefits victims' families made it more palatable for me to take it on.”
So what was it like working with a serial killer for five years? "People asked me: did he surprise me? No, I was immersed in this long before Dennis Rader came along." Ramsland has corresponded with serial killers in the past. But she's never been this involved. She and Rader would watch TV shows, like “American Gothic” (Rader would watch for parallels to his crimes) or “The Walking Dead,” and then discuss them. He even drew her a picture of his so-called torture silo.
Ramsland describes him as respectful and easy to talk to. She also calls him a narcissist who loves publicity and someone who thinks of himself as a spy. "There are many different angles into this that showed me different facets of who he was. In his mind, I was basically his secretary. That is not what I did with this book."
The most challenging part of writing Confession was deciphering the confessed killer’s code system. “Everything is in codes,” she says. “It's silly but it's fun. Imagine having a serial killer send you all these things and then have you crack the code before you can talk to him. But finally, I made the code.”
Ramsland admits it's not serial killers that interest her the most. It's extreme crime. "When I first get in, I try to do something people aren't doing. Extreme offenders, to me, I'm very curious about what I call their life trajectory into violence. I want to know how a certain person ended up committing these acts. I don't look at them through cookie cutter theories. I study extended case analysis."
The BTK killings terrified the Wichita, Kansas, area for decades. Rader committed his first murders in 1974, killing four members of a family, including two children. He continued killing until 1991 and sought notoriety by sending letters describing grisly details of his crimes to police and the media. Rader remained silent for years after that. But in 2004, the BTK killer reemerged. “Somebody decided to do a 30-year retrospective on these killings,” Ramsland says. “He wanted control over his own story. He wasn't happy that someone else was telling it.”
That need for control led to his arrest in 2005. Ramsland believes the married father of two would have never been caught had he not sent those new letters. "He truly believed he wasn't going to get caught. He can't even contemplate that question."
Rader wanted to be among the elite serial killers. Now he is. "He got away with it for 30 years,” Ramsland says. “Hardly anyone else has done that. Was he as prolific as Bundy? No. Was he as cruel? That's a matter of someone's opinion."
Ramsland’s hope is that a wide variety of readers – from students and professional colleagues to the law enforcement community – get something out of Confession. "I want people to feel this is a book that is of substance but also can be read as a page turner." Her mother, who turned 85 on the day the book was released, even plans to read it.
Ramsland will be discussing Confession at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, where she received her master’s degree, on September 26 and at the DeSales Forensic Forum on October 12.
She is currently writing a sequel to The Ripper Letter and has a total of three books under contract. As for her relationship with Rader, she expects to stay in contact with him – for the time being. "He knows that our relationship was about the book. Once we get through all this stuff, he will move on to people who are going to give him attention. That would be good for me."
Further reading and viewing:
New York Times Magazine
Crime and Science Radio
WFMZ News at Sunrise
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