The serial killer's charisma and viciousness continue to be a source of fascination, but the victims' stories sometimes get lost in the hype.
Not long after it started airing “Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes,” the streaming service Netflix tweeted a message to viewers urging them to pull themselves together.
“I’ve seen a lot of talk about Ted Bundy’s alleged hotness,” the tweet began, “and would like to gently remind everyone that there are literally THOUSANDS of hot men on [Netflix] — almost all of whom are not convicted serial murderers.”
That viewers needed to be reminded of Bundy’s gruesome acts — and his admission to killing at least 30 women — doesn’t surprise true-crime writer Rebecca Morris. But it worries her.
“There’s a danger in romanticizing him and mythologizing him,” said Morris, whose 2013 book “Ted and Ann,” suggests that Bundy killed an 8-year-old neighbor girl in 1961. “Lost in all the Ted Bundy myth and charisma is how vicious his crimes were. Because this wasn’t just … these were very vicious deaths.”
Thirty years after Bundy was executed in a Florida electric chair, the culture is filthy with the killer’s mythology. Along with the four-part Netflix series, there is a full-length feature film for which former teen-heartthrob Zac Efron has been eerily transformed into the serial killer. Called “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile,” the film was well received at the Sundance Film Festival, and was just picked up by Netflix. In Tennessee, a place called the Alcatraz East Crime Museum is hosting a special Bundy display, including his Volkswagen Beetle, letters, cards, photos and a radio given to him by his mother.
And on Friday, Feb. 15, ABC’s “20/20” will air a two-hour documentary featuring three Seattle-area people connected to the Bundy case: Morris; retired King County Detective Bob Keppel, who was the case’s lead investigator; and former Seattle Times photographer Jerry Gay, who spent three hours in a Colorado jail with Bundy, taking photos that are both personal and chilling.
Each of these local players is still grappling with the impact Bundy had on their lives — indirectly or otherwise.
Before she became a true-crime author, Morris was a student at Oregon State University when victim Roberta Kathleen Parks was abducted and killed by Bundy. Keppel, the former detective, still gets calls from law enforcement and the curious about Bundy’s crimes — and knows there are still bodies out there. And Gay, the photographer, holds a discomfiting sort of sympathy for Bundy, whom he saw as a subject first and foremost.
“This story continues to fascinate, like so many appalling crimes, because it poses such a burning question: How could a good-looking, incredibly intelligent, seemingly all-American young man be capable of such horror?” David Sloan, the senior executive producer of “20/20,” said via email. The show includes new information and rarely seen footage.
“The Bundy case reminds people that extreme evil is hiding in the most unlikely places,” he continued. “Pure evil doesn’t always look like Charles Manson. It can be the boy next door. The sheer scope of (Bundy’s) crimes, the number of victims, and their terribly sad endings makes this one of the most memorable crime stories of all time.”
Gay recalled making a connection with Bundy when he photographed him at the Garfield County Jail in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, in 1977.
“He gave himself to me,” Gay said of Bundy. “It was just Ted and I creating moments together. I wanted people to see Ted. And if I had limited my mind, that he was a mass murderer, I wouldn’t have captured Ted. He was an in-depth person and he had certain qualities about him that I liked.”
Now 71 and living in Everett, Gay looks back at the photos and sees that Bundy was “giving a lot of his personality and himself.”
“I think he wanted to take advantage of that and project who he was in these pictures.”
Keppel holds no such empathy. He knows too much, having worked the case from the very start, when he was a brand-new detective sent out to investigate the disappearance of two young women from Lake Sammamish State Park in 1974.
“They kind of threw me in the deep end, but that’s typical of how things were run a long time ago,” said Keppel, now 73 and living in Bellevue. “Give the rookie the worst cases.”
Keppel’s career would be entwined with Bundy until the end of the serial killer’s life, when Bundy wrote to Keppel, offering to help in the investigation of the Green River Killer.
Most Read Life Stories
Days before his execution, Bundy would confess to Keppel about a number of unsolved crimes, and the locations of some victims’ remains.
“There was a time when he liked talking to me, because he never told me to get lost,” Keppel said. “I think I had some connections that he was interested in. That I was from here, that I was the investigator on these cases, and he was interested in staying in touch.”
Bundy also wanted to confess to Keppel, simply to save himself: “Someday he would need me to tell other people what he had done, and that he was cooperating with me.” Those other people, Keppel believes, were the Florida governor and attorney general who had the power to stay Bundy’s execution — but didn’t.
“He liked life,” Keppel said of Bundy. “He wanted to stay alive.”
Author Morris has been interviewed four times about Bundy in just the past year. It helps with the sale of her books, she said, “and not to sound callous, but it is a cottage industry.”
She’s right. The books, and now the movies. The exhibit in Tennessee. The pop-culture element, we both agree, is disturbing and maddening, but also inevitable, considering the scope and sickness of Bundy’s crimes.
“He’s like Cher,” she said of Bundy. “Just one name, and everyone in the Northwest knows who he is. But we shouldn’t glamorize him. He did terrible things.”
And while Netflix viewers may have become fixated on Bundy’s good looks, Sloan, the “20/20” executive producer, has found his thoughts staying with the victims.
“It’s hard not to feel for the people who were victimized by Bundy and lived to tell about it,” he said. “The Bundy nightmare happened many years ago, but the impact is still felt by people even today.”
Words to live by, for all the victims didn’t get the chance.