“American Gothic,” a new CBS show this summer, is about a serial killer “S.B.K.” and possibly the killer’s family. It looks as though it was inspired or at least informed by a serial killer familiar to Wichitans.
Corinne Brinkerhoff, the show’s creator, (a writer on “The Good Wife), said in “Entertainment Weekly,” that “Gothic” “reminds” her of a case she grew up knowing in Kansas, about a church deacon and Boy Scout mentor who turned out to be a serial killer, unbeknownst to his own family.
That sounds much like the story of Dennis Rader of Park City, who in 2005 was arrested and identified as the serial killer BTK, who operated in Wichita from 1974 to 2005. Rader killed 10 people in and around Wichita, and for 31 years until his capture taunted police and the public by sending cryptic (and badly spelled) clues.
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In the “Gothic” episode that ran Wednesday evening, it was clear that the show is about not only a serial killer but the dysfunctional and varied Hawthorne family of Boston. Two family members, snooping through the basement, find an Ikea box filled with silver bells, which look a lot like the little silver bells the killer S.B.K (Silver Bells Killer) leaves with his victims.
All this was one more reason for Dennis Rader’s daughter, Kerri Rawson, to roll her eyes when she heard about it in her home in Michigan.
There have been other television and movie and book references to her father, she said.
“I think it’s important to remember that there are actual people who died, 10 people who lost their lives and 8 families – that’s including mine – that were destroyed and forever separated by my dad’s actions. Hundreds, if not thousands of lives, when you include the community of Wichita, were adversely affected by one person’s terrible choices that spanned decades.... I’m not trying to debate the merits of what constitutes entertainment. I watch the same shows as the rest of the country. I’m saying, life, real life, is a far, far stretch from Hollywood.”
After Rader’s arrest in 2005 no one in the family, Rader, or his wife or daughter or son, talked to the media, except for a short interview Rader gave KAKE’s Larry Hatteberg in 2005.
But in 2014 Rawson watched Stephen King explain on a morning news talk show that “A Good Marriage,” his novella made into a movie, was based on the Rader family. Infuriated, she contacted the Eagle, and laid out, in several interviews over the next few months, what a horror it was for her and her family to learn that Dad was a serial murderer who had sexually defiled some of his victims.
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And now, “American Gothic.”
Rawson watched clips of it on her home computer in Michigan on Thursday.
For now, Rawson said, she’s wary about what “Gothic” might do in telling that television story; but she’s not as upset as when she denounced King in 2014. For one thing, she went back into therapy after that, which helped her. For another, she’s grown used to references to her father in movies and books and television. Most of them, for her and her family, create “laugh out loud” moments about how they portray either her father or his family.
“There was that movie that came in 2005, about about my Dad’s case, and I watched it with Darian (her husband). It was just so terrible, how it portrayed my Mom and everything else.”
And sometimes, things people say to her in real life are “nasty,” worse than anything said in a fictional portrayal on television.
Not long ago, for example, at a visit to the dentist, one of the dental staff, knowing her family background, asked questions:
“He actually asked if I wondered whether my dad had passed along the psychopath trait to me. He asked whether I worried that this trait might have gotten passed along to my (two young) children,” Rawson said.
But then the dentist spoke up, Rawson said. And was far more comforting. “I’m so sorry,” the dentist told Rawson. “I’m sorry your family went through that.”
There are memories that bother her far more than any television show can do, she said.
“Red Dragon,” a movie with Anthony Hopkins playing serial killer Hannibal Lecter, came out in 2002; she watched it with her father. They both liked it.
There is at least one parallel between Wednesday’s episode of “Gothic” and Rawson’s real life. As in that episode, she also found possible clues to murder in her father’s home.
In May 2005, months after her Dad’s arrest, Rawson had come home from Michigan to help her mother empty the house she’d grown up in, where her father had plotted his murders.
She found a crime novel on a bookshelf, with some of her Dad’s business cards stuffed inside it, with “some of his writing on the cards that meant something only to him.”
She called police and told whoever answered the phone that she had possible pieces of evidence related to the BTK murders.
The police did not sound interested, she said, “until I told them that I am Dennis Rader’s daughter.”
Fifteen minutes later, two men appeared at the door: Kelly Otis, and Lt. Ken Landwehr, two of the Wichita Police Departments’ task force investigators who had tricked the serial killer BTK into revealing his identity.
“They looked at the book and cards, and bagged it, and then talked with us for a few minutes,” Rawson said.
They were kind to her and her mother, she said.
And they were heroic in stopping a serial killer.
She’s grateful to the cops who stopped her father, she said. Had they not done so, he might have killed again “and if my Dad had died someday without being revealed, there might not have finally been justice for his victims.”
That’s one of the few memories she wants to hang on to.