Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Only Living Witness: The True Story Of Ted Bundy

The Story Page 6

Ted contended that he was a victim himself, of incompetent defense attorneys, poisonous pretrial publicity, and manipulated evidence. He said he was caught in a monstrous tangle of circumstance that had led him from a life of promise and public spirit to unjust prosecution, imprisonment, and three death sentences. He was, he said again and again, innocent.

There had been disturbing elements in both his trials. Eyewitnesses waffled and were vague. The scientific evidence was at times equivocal and produced sharply differing opinions among the experts called by both sides to testify. No fingerprints were found. In fact, in the dozens of cases from Seattle to Florida in which the police have sought to implicate Bundy, there was not a single bit of physical evidence that incontrovertibly demonstrated his involvement in anything more sinister than car theft.

This question of evidence, we would learn, was Ted's personal test of guilt and innocence, part of his complex mental apparatus that turned contention into belief, flimsy rhetoric into creed. We would soon have to deal with that.

But in the beginning, Bundy regaled me with stories of his boyhood (he once fantasized being adopted by Roy Rogers and Dale Evans), his academic career (he'd thought about going into law enforcement), his loves and his frustrations. His memory was acute for details of his jail breaks, the uneven course of his schooling, and his involvement with Washington state Republican politics. He spoke of his attorneys, his judges and his juries.

Ted recounted tales from the eight lockups he'd been in and shared the thousands of letters he received. Nuns, mental patients, housewives, lawyers, groupies all total strangers wrote to Ted all the time with offers of salvation, sex, money, friendship, forgiveness, and abomination. A man identifying himself as a medical doctor suggested that he and Ted switch brains. Another wanted to know if Bundy would agree to be put under suspended animation rather than electrocution; the idea was for doctors to harvest organs from the unconscious Bundy as needed, and for him to be available for vivisection experiments, as well.

Bundy felt this sort of material was sufficient to our purposes. In some ways, he was his own most avid fan. He envisioned an exciting, gossipy book with naughty details, just like the best-selling books about Hollywood celebrities. He did not want to discuss guilt except to deny it and he actively tried to dissuade Hugh from investigating the cases against him, ostensibly his main reason for working with us in the first place.

We were of a different mind. The content of the book, as far as we were concerned, would be determined by what we learned about Ted and not just what he wanted us to learn. We talked with him not just as his biographers, but also as licensed private investigators attached to his prospective appeals attorneys.

In that capacity, we would have been pleased to demonstrate Ted's innocence. Instead, Hugh and I quickly concluded that Ted was every bit the killer his prosecutors and the police said he was possibly far more successful at serial murder than any of them realized. Our minimum victim count was 21 girls. It seemed possible that he killed twice that many. In view of that, we had no interest in producing the gauzy, self-serving narrative Ted desired.

Yet Bundy had nothing to gain by confessing to us. He had been twice tried and convicted of murder; he knew he was guilty, of course, and that nothing we would write would in any way prevent his ultimate date with Old Sparky, probably at least eight years away.

When I tried to turn our Death Row conversations to substantive issues, he hedged or lied outright to me. Not only did he have nothing exculpatory to offer us, not a single credible alibi for any of the killings, or even a supportable interpretation of the known facts, but he turned the interviews into a game of chutes and ladders, pleading a faulty memory at times, or lapsing into long, impenetrable silences.

Hugh and I soon wearied of this, and actively began to consider shutting down the project. Yet we had, over the weeks, taken note of two behavioral clues, distortions in Ted's personality that suggested a novel avenue of approach.

Emotionally, Ted struck us both as a severe case of arrested development. From all that he said, and all that Hugh had learned of his past, he might as well have been a twelve-year-old, a precocious and bratty pre-adolescent. Whether a cause or a consequence of his condition, this apparent emotional retardation resulted in a diseased child's mind directing the actions of an adult male body.

The second clear signal we saw was Ted's profound capacity to dissociate. He was a compartmentalizer, and a superb rationalizer. His mind was a maze of walls. This, we would learn, was a key to understanding his entire (bizarre) mental edifice.

Taken together, the emotional immaturity and power of compartmentalization, we felt, could explain how Ted could live with while also denying his homicidal acts. It had required weeks to reach this level of understanding, which we achieved just as we were about to abandon Ted to his fantasies, his conceits, and his bizarrely selfless wife. However, in light of this new perspective, we decided to try one last stratagem.

The childishness was so extreme that we were reminded of youngsters who will deny wrongdoing even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. An example would be the crash of a picture window breaking, and the discovery of a baseball on the floor within.

Outside the shattered window stands 12-year-old Johnny, baseball bat in hand. Johnny clearly knows something about the shattered glass, but so fearful is he of taking blame that Johnny will stonewall any questions, adamantly insisting he knows nothing.

However, if you can eliminate the confessional "I,'' and instead ask the young boy how he thinks the ball was propelled through the window, he might grasp that opportunity to tell the truth, obliquely, in a way that to his immature mind he is not actually accepting responsibility. Bundy himself even had proposed such a protocol at the point in his legal proceedings when possible plea bargains were discussed. Ted had suggested he simply be sent away for the balance of his life, a sentence he'd accept without further legal battles so long as he did not have to say, "I did it.''

So we re-packaged that proposal.

Why, I asked him, couldn't he speculate on the nature of a person capable of doing what he had been accused (and convicted) of doing? The word confession didn't arise. I reminded Ted that no one knew as much about the case as he, and for legitimate reasons. He had vast firsthand knowledge gained by virtue of being a suspect in all the killings, as well as his background as a former psychology student plus, of course, his intelligence.

Ted agreed to think over the idea, an immediate indication that we had guessed right about him. The next day, I returned to the prison and found Bundy more than just amenable to the idea; he embraced it enthusiastically.

This was March 27, 1980, the day I first met the hunchback.