- The serial killer Ted Bundy was convicted of one kidnapping and three murders before being sentenced to death in Florida.
- Before his death, authorities say he confessed to murdering 30 people across the US. Some experts believe that number could be much higher.
- Bundy was a master manipulator, in part because he was able to blend in.
- Forensic psychologist Darrel Turner believes that one of the most important takeaways from the Bundy case is that to be a successful serial killer one must be able to blend in and earn people’s trust by appearing ordinary.
As one of the most infamous serial-killer cases in American history, the saga of Ted Bundy in the 1970s arguably changed the way society thinks about serial killers and the horrors of sexual violence and murder.
INSIDER spoke with forensic psychologist and FBI and law enforcement consultant Darrel Turner about the Ted Bundy case. A specialist in psychopathy, predatory behaviour, and violent crime, Turner has studied and lectured about the Bundy case for several years.
There’s a lot of deeply disturbing ground to cover, and chances are that no one will ever have all the answers. That said, here’s what we do know about the Bundy case.
Editor’s note: This post contains descriptions of violence that may be disturbing for some readers.
Even as a child, Ted Bundy showed some signs of disturbance and may even have started killing much earlier than investigators first thought.
“He had classic signs of conduct disorder as a child. There is one instance where a female family member woke up and Bundy had arranged kitchen knives all around her body,” Turner told INSIDER.
“He also looked at violent pornography at a young age and read detective magazines voraciously. There is a large body of law enforcement that believes he killed a neighbourhood girl when he was still a teenager.”
Bundy confessed to murdering 30 women between 1974 and 1978. Five women are known to have survived his attacks.
Authorities say Bundy confessed to 30 murders across seven states. Bundy seemed to mostly prefer college-aged women.
He started his known attacks on January 4, 1974, with 18-year-old Karen Sparks. Bundy beat her severely and sexually assaulted her in her bed, but she survived with severe brain damage and no memory of what had happened to her, according to “Inside Edition.”
The victims we know about from Seattle are Lynda Ann Healy, Donna Gail Manson, Susan Elaine Rancourt, Brenda Carol Ball, Georgeann Hawkins, Brenda Baker, Janice Anne Ott, and Denise Naslund. After killing Susan Rancourt, Bundy also killed Roberta Kathleen Parks in Corvallis, Oregon.
These murders spanned from January to July 1974, according to Crime and Investigation, but their remains would not be discovered until later.
After moving to Salt Lake City to attend law school, Bundy murdered Nancy Wilcox, Melissa Smith (the 17-year-old daughter of Midvale police chief Louis Smith), Laura Aime, and Debby Kent between October and November 1974.
He attempted to kidnap Carol DaRonch as well but she escaped.Her kidnapping, survival, and the ensuing trial resulted in Bundy’s first conviction. Nurse Caryn Campbell in Aspen, Colorado, was next to be murdered. In the months that followed, Julie Ann Cunningham, Denise Lynn Oliverson, Lynette Dawn Culver, and Susan Curtis would follow.
Meanwhile, Bundy’s longtime girlfriend Elizabeth Kloepfer was one of four people who had suggested Bundy’s name to police as a suspect.
Kloepfer lived in Seattle but had roots in Utah, and had phoned SLC police when she first began to suspect that Bundy might have something to do with the very similar tales of missing women in the Seattle and Salt Lake City areas.
Another person who had put Bundy’s name forward as a suspect was a former police officer who would go on to become the well-known true-crime writer Ann Rule.
Rule had worked with and befriended Bundy while working at the Seattle Crisis Clinic. Under contract to write a book about the missing women but not realising at first that her friend Ted had anything to do with it, Rule would go on to write “The Stranger Beside Me” about the Bundy case.
Investigators of the time didn’t have the powerful technological advances we have today.
The most well-known murders committed by Bundy took place between 1974 and 1978, although some experts believe he started much earlier.
Through a modern lens, it’s easy to forget the kind of pitfalls that law-enforcement officials worked under then. Modern forensic science techniques simply didn’t exist. Hair and fibre analysis was standard practice and was not yet considered controversial, as it would be decades later. DNA testing wasn’t yet a thing.
Just in terms of long-distance communications, this was a time before even something like fax machines were around to quickly transmit information, let alone email. Instead, most of the time, you picked up a rotary telephone or sent a letter by postal mail.
Finally, the FBI’s ViCAP program – which links state and federal law-enforcement resources to apprehend exactly this type of behaviour across states – didn’t come into being until 1985.
Bundy got pulled over by a Utah Highway Patrol officer on August 16, 1975, and then police searched his car.
If you’re familiar at all with Bundy’s case, you’ve probably heard about the tan Volkswagen Bug he used much of the time which was also the car police were searching for.
According to Rule, police noticed several key things inside the car:
- A ski mask
- An ice pick
- A crowbar
- Trash bags
- The front passenger seat had been removed – which police later determined made kidnappings much easier to facilitate
At this point, DaRonch had reported her kidnapping and described the vehicle involved and SLC police had also taken Kloepfer’s detailed call about her Bundy suspicions, so they took the matter seriously.
This led to a warrant to search Bundy’s apartment, where police found even more circumstantial evidence.
Caryn Campbell had been abducted from the Wildwood Inn in Colorado and Bundy coincidentally had a Colorado ski resort guide with the Wildwood Inn marked.
The town of Bountiful housed Viewmont High School, from which Debby Kent had disappeared after attending a school play. Bundy had the play’s program in his possession.
While definitely suspicious, police still couldn’t prove anything at this point.
On March 1, 1976, Bundy was found guilty of the kidnapping of Carol DaRonch.
He was sent to Utah State Prison for a sentence of one to 15 years, but was extradited to Colorado in January 1977 to stand trial for the murder of Caryn Campbell.
That’s when Bundy escaped from prison for the first time.
Rather than hire a lawyer, Bundy intended to represent himself and so was given access to the law library in the Pitkin County District Courthouse where his trial was to be held. According to local paper, The Post Independent, he escaped by jumping out a second-story window in the library.
People in the surrounding area were terrified. A June 9, 1977, front-page story in the Glenwood Post read, “Since Bundy’s escape, parents have been asked to pick up their children at schools; the sale of guns and ammunition has been banned; people have been asked to travel in pairs and not to go camping alone.”
Bundy was caught in Aspen a few days later while driving a Cadillac he had stolen.
On December 30, 1977, Bundy managed to escape from prison a second time.
One of the things Bundy is best known for is his chameleon-like ability to change appearance, including his weight.
He was skinny enough at the time to squeeze through an approximately 1-foot-square hole for a light fixture in the ceiling of his cell and then squeeze through the ductwork into a closet in the jailer’s apartment, according to The Post Independent.
This time, he made it out of Colorado.
Bundy fled to Florida, where he committed his final murders.
In the middle of the night of January 15, 1978, several residents at Florida State University’s Chi Omega sorority house were sleeping when Bundy struck.
He brutally murdered Margaret Bowman and Lisa Levy while they slept, according to the Tampa Bay Times. He also attacked Karen Chandler, Kathy Kleiner, and Cheryl Ann Thomas that night, but all three women survived.
Three weeks after the FSU murders, 12-year-old Kimberly Leach disappeared from Lake City and her body wouldn’t be found until April 1978.
Bundy was executed in the state of Florida via electric chair on January 24, 1989.
After two very public trials in Florida, Bundy was found guilty of two counts of murder for Bowman and Levy’s death and three counts of attempted murder on July 24, 1979. He was also found guilty of the abduction and murder of Kimberly Leach on February 10, 1980.
Prior to his execution nine years later, authorities say Bundy confessed to the murders of many of the victims whose names we know today. Many felt this was yet another attempt at manipulation to delay the inevitable, but if it was, it didn’t work.
Pete Axthelm and Michael Ryan wrote for People magazine: “The day Bundy died found his victims scattered widely across the grim landscape of grieving and recovery. For some, his death may have helped to exorcise the horror.”
Now that you know what he did, it’s important to understand why he succeeded.
Turner wants people to understand the reasons why Bundy was able to do what he did for so long.
“I think it’s important that people understand that Ted Bundy was successful because he was so ‘ordinary,'” Turner told INSIDER. “But more than that, he was charming and handsome and a charismatic young man.”
Turner went on to point out that Bundy was a psychology student and a law student and worked on a Republican presidential campaign, a suicide hotline, and a campaign for a governor of Washington. He was likable and appeared successful, which is what made him so dangerous.
“It was these successful aspects of his personality that allowed him to go undetected for so long, and it was these same traits that allowed him to be so successful in apprehending victims,” Turner said.
“He used guile and cunning, charm, and sympathy to win the trust of his victims and lower their defences before subduing them. In fact, he was quite proud of this and felt it was something that set him apart from other ‘gentlemen,’ which is how he referred to other serial killers.”
To read more at length about these more everyday aspects of Bundy’s formative years, Ann Rule’s book is essential reading.
Bundy was able to manipulate people easily to gain their trust, and that’s how he got away with so much.
Turner explained to INSIDER that one of the reasons Bundy was able to get away with so much is that he gained people’s trust. Turner called him a “cunning and manipulative psychopath”:
“His looks helped, but a psychopath is, by nature, a cunning individual, one who can quickly read another’s weaknesses and capitalise on them, one who acts without the ‘burden’ of remorse, guilt, or the ability (or desire) to empathise with others,” he explained. “Psychopaths exist outside the context of serial killers. Serial killers are individuals who are psychopathic and lack remorse and empathy and are willing to victimize others, true, but they also have deviant sexual interests that require victimizing others to satisfy.”
Turner said this combination of deviant sexual interests (including necrophilia and sadism) with a psychopathic personality is what is arguably what formed Bundy as a serial killer.
Although we want to know what drives a person to do such horrible things, most of the time, all we have are theories.
“Regarding what drove him to kill, I think aside from the sadistic and necrophilic interests, it was the thrill, and the power and rush of ‘getting away with it,'” Turner told INSIDER.
Turner posits that a lot of what drove Bundy was a sexual urge to “hurt, torture, kill, and rape women” to feel in charge.
“Unfortunately, there will always be individuals who have these interests and are willing to act on them, and it is exceedingly important for us to educate ourselves about these killers in order to help prevent ourselves from becoming victims,” Turner said. “If something doesn’t feel right, it doesn’t feel right for a reason. Don’t let others guilt you into going somewhere or doing something that feels ‘off.’ Our instincts are there for a reason!”
Like many experts who have studied this case over the years, Turner has some thoughts about the ultimate number of murders that Bundy may have committed.
While Bundy confessed to 30 murders and was convicted of three, some experts believe the number could really be in the hundreds. Turner agrees.
“Bundy confessed varyingly to 30 murders and to over 200 murders. He made a comment to law enforcement agents at one point who indicated that he had approximately 30 victims – ‘add two digits to that and you’ve got it,'” Turner said.
Because he often crossed state lines and because law enforcement coordination is not what it is today, Bundy could get away with a lot. Turner said that because of this Bundy’s victims probably number in the hundreds.
“There are still many, many missing person cases from that time and from the areas where Bundy lived, worked, studied, and travelled,” Turner said.
Ultimately, what drove Bundy to rape, murder, and defile the corpses of his victims defies simple explanations.
Some people have simplified Bundy’s crimes to be about victims that looked alike (long brown hair, parted down the middle). But Turner says this is at best an oversimplification of his motives and at worst inaccurate.
“That’s just how most women wore their hair in the ’70s, and so the two are simply unrelated in my opinion,” Turner told INSIDER. “He also had numerous victims that bore no resemblance whatsoever to this [physical type].”
He said that most serial killers are a product of genetic and environmental factors that cause them to become monsters. That’s partly why people are still so interested in these cases.
“Bundy is interesting to so many people, I feel because he represented two completely dichotomous people: One charming, handsome, successful individual, and the other a sadist, necrophile, rapist, and murderer with zero remorse who took pride in his ability to successfully kill and evade capture,” Turner said.
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