Who was Ted Bundy? Netflix releases Conversations with a Killer 30 years on from mass murderer's execution

Joe Berlinger's four-part documentary series built on recordings of prison interviews with journalist Stephen Michaud

Joe Sommerlad
Friday 25 January 2019 08:14
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Conversations with a Killer The Ted Bundy Tapes trailer

Notorious American serial killer Ted Bundy was executed by electric chair at Florida State Prison on 24 January 1989.

Precisely 30 years on, Netflix has released a four-part documentary series about the mass murderer, Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, directed by Joe Berlinger and presenting its subject in his own words through interviews conducted behind bars by journalist Stephen Michaud in 1980.

While languishing on death row, Bundy confessed to killing 30 women and girls across seven states over the course of the 1970s. However, the true extent of his crimes, which included acts of rape, torture, decapitation and necrophilia, is unknown and the death toll could be even higher.

The series is not Berlinger’s only project about the killer scheduled for release this year. Zac Efron is starring in the biopic Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, which premieres at this month's Sundance Film Festival and is told from the point of view of Bundy’s on-off girlfriend, Elizabeth Kloepfer.

But any film treatment risks glorifying or romanticising a narcissitic serial killer, whose clean-cut style, handsome face and piercing blue eyes defied the loner stereotype of a murderer.

Bundy was born to Eleanor Louise Cowell in a home for “unwed mothers” in Burlington, Vermont, on 24 November 1946, the identity of his father unknown.

He was raised in Philadelphia by his grandparents, who led him to believe he was their son and Eleanor his sister, a deception he did not uncover until he was 28. His grandfather Samuel is thought to have beaten him as child, prompting Bundy to exhibit disturbed behaviour, not least a fascination with knives.

Eleanor later married hospital chef Johnny Bundy in Tacoma, Washington, who subsequently adopted Ted and gave him his surname, courtesies that did not save him from the boy's contempt.

While classmates at Woodrow Wilson High School would later describe Bundy as popular with his peers, he later recounted an adolescence spent trawling the press for stories of sexual violence, destructive drinking and spying on women from their own front lawns through parted curtains.

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At the University of Washington where he studied first Chinese and then psychology in the late Sixties, Bundy was dumped by a girlfriend for lacking ambition, an event that hugely upset him and which was subsequently pinpointed by psychiatrist Dorothy Lewis as “the pivotal time in his development”.

It was at this juncture that he began dating divorcee Elizabeth Kloepfer, who would later tip-off police about his activities after recognising a sketch of his likeness on a wanted poster. Her warnings would be complacently dismissed.

After becoming involved in Republican politics in Seattle and working at a Suicide Hotline Crisis Centre (where he met ex-police officer Ann Rule, later his biographer), Bundy returned to his alma mater and on, 4 January 1974, carried out his first attack after breaking into a sleeping student’s dormitory room with a metal rod. The resulting assault left the victim in a coma for 10 days and disabled for life.

Ted Bundy

Girls subsequently began to disappear from the university at a rate of one per month in what became known as the Pacific Northwest Murders, the victims almost always having shoulder-length dark hair parted in the centre.

Bundy would often target hitchhikers alone on the road or female fellow students on campus by pretending to be injured to attract their attention, often wearing his arm in a false sling and asking their help in carrying textbooks to his brown Volkswagen Beetle. There he could bind, rape and kill them in seclusion before dumping the bodies in remote woodland areas.

An atmosphere of terror prevailed in Washington and Oregon but Bundy moved on to the University of Utah Law School in Salt Lake City in August 1974, resuming his activities soon after.

He finally became known to Utah police when a routine vehicle inspection in August 1975 revealed weapons, handcuffs and a homemade mask in his possession.

He was subsequently tailed and arrested before being extradited to Colorado in January 1977, only to escape the Pitkin County Courthouse law library in Aspen that June by jumping out of an open window and hiding out in the hills for six days.

Later that year he would escape again, this time from the Garfield County Jail in the same state by cutting a hole through the ceiling of his cell using a hacksaw blade and fleeing via a crawlspace during the Christmas holidays, ending up in Tallahassee, Florida, where he lived as a fugitive under the pseudonyms in “Christopher Hagen” and “Kenneth Misner”.

The murders continued in Florida, notably when he broke into the State University’s Chi Omega sorority house and bludgeoned four residents with an oak log from the fireplace. Two of the victims died from their injuries.

Florida police finally identified the number plate on a car he was driving in Penascola as stolen and arrested him on 15 February 1978. He served as his own defence attorney at trial but to no avail, the crucial evidence being his dental records, which were matched to bite marks on one of the victims of the Chi Omega attack.

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During the drawn-out legal proceedings he found time to marry Carole Ann Boone, a former colleague from a job with the Washington State Department of Emergency Services. He fathered a daughter by her during an unauthorised conjugal visit.

Ted Bundy was sentenced to death for two murders on 24 July 1979 and a third on 10 February 1980, living for a further decade behind bars, brutalised by fellow inmates, before the execution was at last carried out.

Netflix has had success with true crime subjects before like Making a Murderer and Mindhunter and the chance to hear Bundy's own assessment of his horrific career is likely to prove a similar draw for viewers of a certain ghoulish disposition.

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