Kerri Rawson, had her identity ripped from her at 26 years old, when authorities arrested her father, Dennis Rader, who plead guilty in 2005 to being the notorious BTK serial killer. Through her tremendous faith, Kerri found the strength to forgive the man who ruined eight families, including her own, and the courage to tell her story, first through ministry and now in her book A Serial Killer’s Daughter: My Story of Faith, Love, and Overcoming.
Kerri Rawson: When you’re you’re in such a hard awful place, and you’re questioning everything and you’re questioning God and you’re questioning your faith and you’re questioning your father who made you go to church and then was the opposite of a Christian—like, to have people actually love and care from you from that place spoke volumes to me.
A Father’s Betrayal, a Daughter’s Path to Forgiveness: Kerri Rawson – Episode #133
Narrator: Welcome to the Jesus Calling Podcast. Today’s guest, Kerri Rawson, had her identity ripped from her at 26 years old, when authorities arrested her father, Dennis Rader, who plead guilty in 2005 to being the notorious BTK serial killer. Through her tremendous faith, Kerri found the strength to forgive the man who ruined eight families, including her own, and the courage to tell her story, first through ministry and now in her book A Serial Killer’s Daughter: My Story of Faith, Love, and Overcoming.
A Normal American Family . . . Until the FBI Showed Up
Kerri Rawson: Hello, I’m Kerri Rawson. I’m primarily a wife and a mom, a stay-at-home mom, but I’ve also been involved in women’s ministry. And I’m the daughter of Dennis Rader, who is also known as the BTK serial killer, who was arrested in 2005 in Wichita, Kansas, which is where I grew up.
Before ’05, we were pretty much what you consider a normal like American family with the three-bedroom ranch and the flowers in our yard and a garden. I have an older brother who’s 3 years older than me. We went on a lot of family vacations. We went fishing and camping a lot with my dad. We went to church every Sunday with my family, just pretty much a typical, normal Midwestern family. We just didn’t know until my father was arrested that he had been living a double life from the mid-70s on.
“We just didn’t know until my father was arrested that he had been living a double life from the mid-70s on.” Kerri Rawson
My father lived one life as a husband and a father. He worked as a security salesman and he volunteered with the Boy Scouts as a leader and he volunteered at our church as an usher. He was actually the church president when he was arrested.
So you have this one solid decent person that’s raised you, and then on the other side, he committed ten murders between 1974 and 1991.
The police had been looking for him in Wichita for 31 years. And he had communicated with the police in the ‘70s, had sent letters to the media and the police. And then he stopped communicating in ‘79 when I was one. And then he started communicating again in ‘04.
By 2004, I was married and living in Michigan. I heard about this going on back home, but of course, in no way would I have thought it was my father. And then the FBI showed up at our house in February of ‘05, and showed up at my apartment and knocked on the door and. Asked me if I knew who BTK was, that’s the acronym my dad goes by. And then told me my dad had been arrested as BTK. I had heard about it in ‘04 when my dad had become public again through news, through media online, but I had never heard the acronym.
Very early on when the FBI agent was in our home, I told them they had the wrong man because they had arrested the wrong guy two months before in Wichita. So I was defending my father and showing them the photo of him taken at church for the directory that was on my wall in a suit, and I was trying to defend my father and say he’s this upstanding citizen that leads Boy Scouts and volunteers at church and takes care of his mother that’s elderly. And I was trying to say, “You’re so wrong about my dad.”
Then doubt would creep in.
Our neighbor had been murdered down the street when I was six, and it had never been solved. So that hit me when I was sitting there on the couch talking to the agent, and I told him that. And then later on that weekend, we found out that my dad was wanted for that murder too, but the police hadn’t [traced] that one [to] him before.
There’s these things that creep in your memories or you’re trying to piece together the man you knew and the life you knew with what you’re being told. But you’re in physical shock. You can’t sleep. You’re not eating. I was in physical shock for five days until I was able to travel back to Kansas to be with my family.
“You’re trying to piece together the man you knew and the life you knew with what you’re being told, but you’re in physical shock.” – Kerri Rawson
After everything happened with my dad, the only thing left was God to cling to.
The first night, I didn’t know how it was going to survive the night. I didn’t have any strength to pick up my Bible. I just let it fall to the floor. I remember just crying out to God and Psalm 23 started running through my head. “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, your rod and staff are beside me.”
That’s what got me through the first night is the scripture I had learned in my foundation years. It would just run through my head in pieces.
I just clung to my faith as tightly as I could over the next months and years with my father, everything going on. I learned to like repeat scripture in my head or out loud, like, “The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life, of whom shall be afraid?” You know, I’ve probably said that a thousand times in my head or out loud in over the last 14 years.
He pled guilty in the summer of ‘05 and then was sentenced to 175 years in jail in August of ‘05.
He pled guilty, and so there wasn’t a long drawn out trial, thankfully.
It takes a long time to start coming to terms with what your father’s done and actually believe it and then continue on in your life with it.
Early on, everyone in my family was in shock and disbelief. So several of us on my mom’s side gathered together for a week in Kansas trying to hide from the media, the national media that was after us with cameras and vans.
“We tried to keep things as normal as possible, but you start questioning every memory of your life and you start wondering what you missed.” – Kerri Rawson
I think it’s been a different experience say from my mom than me, because I wasn’t alive for seven of [the murders]. But Mom and I always said, like, even early on, if we had an inkling that my dad had harmed somebody, let alone murdered anyone, we wouldn’t have stayed in the house. We would’ve gone to the police.
My dad was 95 percent of the time a really solid, decent, good husband and father.
There were times where he could be emotionally abusive, and there were two times he was physically abusive with my brother. And when you’re little on your dad’s being a brute, you know, when you’re really small, you just learn to adapt around him or follow what your mom is doing.
In hindsight, you look back and you realize you were just seeing the very tip of a very deep, insane iceberg.
“You look back and you realize you were just seeing the very tip of a very deep, insane iceberg.” – Kerri Rawson
It wasn’t really until long after he was arrested that I realized I’d had domestic abuse in my house, or that we had gone through emotional abuse, or that I went through trauma in ‘05. These weren’t words I was familiar with or would have used in regards to myself.
Answered Prayers and Faith Restored
I actually walked away from my faith in high school. I was sort of rebelling against God, even questioning His existence in my teenage years.
When I was 18, we lost my cousin that was close to my age in a horrible Jeep accident out in Colorado. And she actually had become a believer in college. I had seen like her Bible near her bed and a devotional and stuff. I knew she knew Jesus in a different way than I did, but I didn’t get the chance to ask her before she passed away.
So my first year college, I fell into pretty deep hole of grief. I also lost my dad’s father, my grandpa, to leukemia like four months later. I was dealing with a lot of grief and loss, and I became depressed. I didn’t know I was struggling with depression, which is something you know I still struggle with now.
I ended up on a six-day hiking trip with my dad to the Grand Canyon. It was this really intense trip. My cousin was along and my brother. We got into way more trouble than we should have with not enough water, not making it to camp to get more water, really dangerous rocky trail. So when I was down in the canyon was pretty much the lowest emotional and physical I’d ever been.
I started praying to God, which is probably the first time in my life I had actually prayed to Him. And He started answering my prayers. He found a place for us to camp. He got us water.
There was this huge predicament that could’ve cost my brother his life. He brought my brother back to my dad and me.
So this whole story is [written] in my book, because it was important for me to show not only doing something normal with my dad, which was hiking, but also show how my faith changed drastically in the canyon.
I was almost 19 when I was down in the canyon. I prayed to God, and I said I would accept His Son and asked for forgiveness. And I said I would come back. I almost tried to make a deal with Him, that if He would get me out the canyon, I would come back.
When I got back to college, I started praying for new friends and basically a new life. And I found a lot of solid people with Campus Crusade for Christ. And so I spent the next several years in college deeply involved in that organization. That organization is what put the strong Christian foundation under me.
I was only twenty-six when I lost my dad. You know, when he was arrested. But then when we got to Michigan, I was working on Sundays, so we kind of you know we drifted away from the church because we were new here and didn’t know anybody.
God nudged us back to church in ‘06 and found us an amazing church here.
Many churches, especially Lutheran ones, all over the country were reaching out to my mom’s church and my family through the church. And they were sending cards and care packages for us. Somebody knitted my mom and me and my grandma blankets. So then the women at my mom’s church gathered all this stuff up and shipped it to me and had wrapped several things, little things, and said, “You know, each day open one, just so you have something to look forward to the next day.”
Everybody kept saying, “We’re praying for your family.” And I still get that today. It’s been 14 years and still today, “We’ve been praying for you for 14 years, your family. We’ll keep praying for you.” Strangers, people I don’t know, all over the whole country or the world.
God Is with You in Your Pain
Narrator: One of the gifts Kerri received during this difficult season of her life was a copy of Jesus Calling. She goes on to read a particular passage that is meaningful to her.
Kerri Rawson: A ministry had given me the original devotional. It was something I would pick up here and there. And usually when you picked it up, it did meet you wherever you were at.
Jesus Calling, May 29:
I am with you, watching over you constantly. I am Immanuel (God with you); My Presence enfolds you in radiant Love. Nothing, including the brightest blessings and the darkest trials, can separate you from Me. Some of My children find Me more readily during dark times, when difficulties force them to depend on Me. Others feel closer to Me when their lives are filled with good things. They respond with thanksgiving and praise, thus opening wide the door to My Presence.
I know precisely what you need to draw nearer to Me. Go through each day looking for what I have prepared for you. Accept every event as my hand-tailored provision for your needs. When you view your life this way. The most reasonable response is to be thankful Do not reject any of My gifts; find Me in every situation.
I think about the worst times of my life, sort of just crying out, “Abba Father,” like, when you need God and you don’t have anything left—there’s nothing in you, there’s nothing there’s nothing left to hold onto—and He’s there quietly, always there, no matter what has happened.
“I’ve gone through extremely dark trials and dark days and dark years, and He’s just walked alongside me through all of it.” -Kerri Rawson
You can argue with me about suffering and pain, but I know He’s been there with me—not so much even removing [suffering and pain] as just being in it with you.
Sharing Your Story Can Help Others
It took almost ten years before I became public with my story.
For a long time, I was just praying after my father’s sentencing for a quiet private life. I would pray it over and over to God, like, “Please, just a quiet, peaceful, private life.”
Media finally went away. But it eventually became this thing that when I started speaking up quietly in a group, in a Bible study with women or in a small group with my husband, you could see the positive impact it was having on people, to share that you’d been through hell and you still had your faith. And then you could tell people that they can survive what they’re getting through, whatever they’re going through.
When I was sharing with women’s ministry and then in my home and my MOPS group, my mother of preschoolers group, we paired up with a care ministry at church, and so we were able to help women that were currently in domestic abuse situations with their children, get them help. So after I started being brave and speaking up, then I had women come to me, and I was able to get a couple women to help.
I started seeing that, even though it was difficult to talk about, it was having an impact on people.
I get a lot of messages from people that have survived abuse and or have survived crime or have a family member that’s a criminal. I also get messages from war veterans that suffer from PTSD like I do. So these people started reaching out after I became public in ’15. And then my pastor at our church, he was able tie my story in to Joseph in Genesis, and my life verse had come out of that, you know, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good for what is happening now to saving many lives.”
Narrator: Stay tuned for more of our interview with Kerri Rawson and how she was finally able to forgive her father, after this brief message about a beautiful new edition of Jesus Calling.
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Narrator: Welcome back. Kerri continues her brave, heartfelt testimony as she tells us how she found the strength to forgive her father.
Walking the Long, Winding Road to Forgiveness
Kerri Rawson: When my dad was sentenced to prison, I actually shut off communication with him for two years.
I had intended to keep writing him. I wrote him often the first six months. And when I wrote enough for six months, I told him I still loved him and that God loved him and would forgive him if he asked for forgiveness. I wanted to make sure he knew that.
But in the sentencing, he said some things, hard things about my family, calling us “social contacts” and “pawns in his game.” And between that and everything else that was coming out about his crimes and his double life, I just shut down. I couldn’t handle it anymore. So I basically just shut a gate on all of that for two years.
I ended up in trauma therapy, mainly for anxiety and depression. But then I found out I had PTSD, and I didn’t even know I’d been suffering from it for two years. So my trauma therapist worked with me for six months through trying to continue to live with what I had in my dad. So she encouraged me to write him. I had become pregnant with my daughter, and I wanted him to know he had a grandchild coming. But then I only wrote him one letter, and then I pretty much shut down again, trying to protect this new baby growing in me.
I actually cut off communication for five more years with him as I sort of just threw myself into motherhood and church ministry.
I knew forgiveness was an issue. Like, if I knew the pastor was going to talk about it on a Sunday, I wouldn’t go. And I felt like, “Here I am, trying to say I’m a Christian, but I haven’t forgiven somebody.” I knew eventually God would ask me to work on it.
In the fall of 2012, I had a stress fracture in my tibia. So I was laid up on the couch. I was scooting after a one-and-a-half-year-old and trying to get a four-year-old to preschool and trying to do ministry, and God just sort of put that big cease button on all of it and said, “You know, you’re on the couch for the next six weeks.”
Now I’m stuck there, wrestling and stewing in everything, and that’s where He really start working on my heart about forgiveness. I ended up reading all the old letters my mom had kept [that] my dad had [written] me. I was softening.
I had been to a movie with a friend in mid-December. And I, maybe because I always went to movies with my dad, I’m not sure. I don’t even really think I was really thinking about him. But I was stopped at a light, and I just a thought like a rush of light pour over me and I was sobbing. Like, I knew, I knew that hardness had been released and I had forgiven my dad. You know, I was forgiving him for what he had done to me, the betrayal and the lies and what he put my family through. That it’s not my place to forgive him for what he did to the victims and their families.
“I was forgiving him for what he had done to me, the betrayal and the lies and what he put my family through.” – Kerri Rawson
When I rushed home, I rushed up the stairs and told my husband that. I sat down and wrote my dad a six-page letter, and I hadn’t spoke to him in five years. So at the bottom of the letter, then I told him I had forgiven him.
After I forgave my dad, I would get mad again. And God, He would point me to that verse, “As far as east is from west, we forgive.” And basically [you have to learn] to forgive again and again as you proceed forward in a in an attempt at a relationship with a person.
“[You have to learn] to forgive again and again as you proceed forward in a in an attempt at a relationship with a person.” – Kerri Rawson
I had to learn it wasn’t just a one-time thing and that God forgives me again and again, so I need to let that . . . let that hardness out of me because it was it was rotting inside me.
My husband said when I let it go, I came back to Kerri and that I had been more like BTK’s daughter for seven years, and I came back to being Kerri after I let it go. And it wasn’t until I let it go that I could start talking about it and writing about it and sharing my story with others. It was all just stuck in me until God shifted it.
“With forgiveness, I think it’s important to remember sometimes you might just have to forgive somebody internally inside yourself. You may not even be in a place where you’re ever going to be able to tell them.” -Kerri Rawson
Since I forgave my dad, I’ve learned about Boundaries, Cloud and Townsend’s really amazing book.
I have very firm boundaries set up between me and my father for my safety and my family’s safety. So I think people look at me and they say, “It’s radical that you’ve forgiven your dad.” But then they question me for not visiting my father, which I’ve never done. They don’t understand how you can forgive someone and say you still love them but not visit them. And I’m trying to say like there’s boundaries set up for the protection of my safety and sanity, because my father is insane. So I still do communicate with him, but not very often because it’s like talking to a crazy brick wall.
There’s nothing fixable about my dad. There’s nothing fiscally fixable about our relationship. The most that we can have is an occasional letter.
So I think for anyone out there struggling with forgiveness, sometimes it’s something you’re just going to have to do within yourself. But it doesn’t mean that you have to be back in relationship with somebody. It’s not even that you’re forgetting it or you’re saying it’s okay, because nothing my father did was okay. It’s just sliding that rot out of you and trying to move forward with your life.
“Sometimes [forgiveness is] something you’re just going to have to do within yourself.” – Kerry Rawson
Remembering God is a Good Father
I think one other thing I hadn’t shared was because . . . because my dad was my father, I’ve really struggled against that God is your father and God’s a loving father. And I try to show that honestly in the book of wrestling for years with God, you know, coming up hard against that father.
And God would have to remind me over and over again through study, a sermon, a devotional or prayer time, like, “I’m good, and I’m your father. I only mean good for you.”
It took me a very long time to to get there with Him. And really after forgiveness was when I did the really hard heart work with Him, of accepting God means good for me and not harm.
And I could tell God was trying to tell me that all the way back to the canyon, and then you think about as a little girl, like, God taking care of you. So I still wrestle with Him all the time, but I also know he’s okay with it.
Narrator: You can find Kerri’s book A Serial Killer’s Daughter: My Story of Faith, Love, and Overcoming at your favorite book retailer today.
Narrator: Next time on the Jesus Calling Podcast, we speak with four authors who write love stories for a living, and spend lots of time thinking about how we show love to people we cherish in all kinds of relationships. One of the writers we spoke with, Brenda Minton, tells us about the heroes we like to see on the page—and in our own lives.
Brenda Minton: We want to see heroes who are strong, who are chivalrous and caring about the people in their lives and living their lives with faith. And I think that speaks to people. I think that no matter what is going on in the world, we want to see people of action, people of faith reaching out.