Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Mike DeBardeleben: Serial Sexual Sadist

Putting It All Together

Stephen G. Michaud
Stephen G. Michaud

Author Stephen Michaud met Roy Hazelwood at a serial murder symposium in 1984 in Des Moines, Iowa. Michaud was there to present his experience interviewing Ted Bundy, and Hazelwood was talking about sex crimes.

"Roy had just completed his analysis of DeBardeleben for the Secret Service," Michaud recalls, "and he let me have a look at it. At this point, DeBardeleben had just been caught. His story was completely unknown to the public, and it was fascinating."

He was soon introduced to the agents who had worked the DeBardeleben case and was approved for full cooperation, including access to the DeBardeleben files. He also managed to interview principal players, and since he is the only writer who has received this kind of access, he has a rare perspective. To give more dimension to the story, Michaud agreed to answer some questions about his experience in putting it together.

Have you always written true crime?

No. In the 1970s, I was at Newsweek magazine as a general assignment reporter and I kept falling into these true crime stories. I did one about the heir to the Bronfman fortune, who was kidnapped in New York. Then they sent me to do a story on Jack Knight, the heir to the Knight-Ridder newspaper fortune, who was murdered in Philadelphia.
In the summer of 1973, I was in Houston working for the magazine when Dean Corll, "the Candy man," was killed, so I covered that story. In Houston I also met Hugh Aynesworth, the later co-author of the Bundy book.

At this time, however, I was still a reporter, not a true crime writer. I then left Newsweek and went on to Business Week an odd incarnation. In 1978, I was about to go to Japan to take over their bureau in Tokyo when my agent called and asked if I'd ever heard of Ted Bundy. I hadn't, actually. I was unaware of who he was.

So she said there was going to be a story about him in the New York Times Sunday Magazine and told me to read it. I did and found out he was this alleged serial killer who claimed he was innocent, a handsome young law student and a real conundrum. She said that Bundy was reaching out to find someone to write a book. He wanted the cases reinvestigated. He said he'd talk to whoever worked with him.

I was dubious about it but intrigued at the possibility of maybe getting someone off Death Row.

I called Aynesworth, who had just gone to work for 20/20 at ABC as their first head of investigations. I asked if Hugh wanted to pair up with me for the book. I'd do the interviews with Bundy and he could do the investigations. He said, "Sure." So that's how it happened.

The book was published in 1983. That's when I found out that I was a true crime writer, because I'd written a true crime book. So I started doing true crime.

When Hazelwood told you about DeBardeleben, you went to the Secret Service and got their documentation, right?

Yes, I went to the Secret Service.

I had a few problems. One was that DeBardeleben is so evil, so unbelievably bad, that you can't tell his story from his point of view. And I couldn't tell it in a linear waythe trail of a killer again because it was too bloody horrible, sustained horror.

I contacted DeBardeleben in the joint. We had a short-lived correspondence that ended when he suggested I do something anatomically impossible with myself. There's not much to say about the letters. In retrospect, it didn't matter, because as Roy would tell me of his interviews with sexual sadists, they're not worth talking to. They won't tell you anything except lies.

Bundy, by the way, was NOT a sexual sadist.

So I went to the Secret Service and introduced myself. They knew that I had written the Bundy book and that I knew Hazelwood. A lot of thought apparently went on for quite some time until the upper levels of management anointed the project and said that the three agents who were on the case could talk to me.

I would have thought they'd just send you away.

In 99 out of 100 cases, they would. I think a couple of things were different in this instance, One, the Secret Service was justifiably proud of its role in getting DeBardeleben. If they hadn't done what they did, he'd have gone free again. Two, talking to me about him was not going to compromise their main mission. I didn't get into protecting the president and I just included some general information about counterfeiting in the book. I didn't give away any secrets.

How long did you work on the book?

A long time, although it was not as labor intensive as the Bundy book, which took four years of doing nothing but Ted. DeBardeleben was probably a two-and-a-half year project.

How do you distance yourself from it after such intense immersion?

You learn how to shut it off. When you're listening to the tapes, you have to be really focused. There's a lot of information. But maybe because I've done so many stories generally, I've developed the ability to leave it all behind when I stand up from the computer. I really try to leave it behind mealthough that is not always possible.

There were times I'd be out with friends and my eyes would glaze over and everyone knew I was in Bundyville or DeBardeleben land. I spoke to lots of victims for both books and I learned a lot about what these guys did. An experience like that really does taint you. It leaves a scar on your heart.

Did you talk to any of DeBardeleben's wives?

Yes. One has Multiple Personality Disorder. I spoke with her on the telephone. I also spoke with one wife who lived down here in Texas and another who lives in Virginia. The one here in Texas, his second wife to whom he was married all of three months, either didn't want to remember, or really did not remember, any particular cruelty. She recalled his vanity, but she seems to have been relatively unaffected by her brief time with him. However, he was not a full-blown criminal sexual sadist at that point.

The other wife had been through a lot. I'd heard tapes of her with him and I knew what he had done and written about her. She was affected, no doubt about it, but she seemed to have picked up what was left of her life and moved on.

Throughout your book, I felt that as evil and calculating as DeBardeleben was, there was something really squirrelly about him, too.

Yes. He scripted everything. I've never encountered anyone who despises spontaneity more than Mike DeBardeleben. Unbelievable.

The two important things to understand about him are his paranoia and his narcissism. If you understand that a feature of paranoia is projecting onto other people those things in yourself that you fear and loathe, then you start to get an idea of his worldview. Then if you add the vanity of narcissism and the need to control and be the center of attentionwhich Bundy also had in abundancethen you get the essential features of his personality. Then add his high intelligence and the violent sexual sadism, and you've got quite a criminal.
Dr. Park Dietz, the forensic psychiatrist, was the first person to mention to me some years ago the overlooked importance of narcissism in a criminal's make-up. He felt that sociopathy was over-emphasized while narcissism was a more key element.

It's interesting that both narcissism and paranoia are adaptive traits for a criminal as well as destructive traits. Dr. Reid Meloy pointed that out to me.

Paranoia keeps you on your toes, but at its essence, it's irrational. If you're irrational at your essence, you're eventually going to get caught because you can't assess things clearly and logically. Likewise, narcissism allows you to move with bold swiftness and individual initiative, but you also will act as your own attorney, which is stupid. Hazelwood says how glad he is that aberrant criminals are narcissistic, because it's one of the few things we can use against them to catch them.

So you had the Secret Service documents, the court transcripts, and what else?

I interviewed a bunch of cops. There weren't many newspaper articles. DeBardeleben was a strange case in many ways. He's every bit Bundy's equal, if not his superior, as a perverted killer, but he never got any national press. There were a few local stories, but only one television station caught him on video, going to and from court in North Carolina.

He got ink in small markets, but no one ever put it together and saw it as a national story. Part of the reason for that is that the Secret Service never sought publicity while the investigation was going on, so there was no publicity machine to generate a high profile for him. The press clips weren't of much value. It was all interviews, and digging through documents.

What was it like to write this book?

It was a very hard book to structure. In the normal course of an investigation, a bad guy commits a series of crimes. The police notice and they chase and finally catch him. End of story.

In this case, they caught him and then had to go back and find the cases. So it was a reverse investigation. For me, the question became: Where do I jump in and start telling the story?

The answer was that I had to start with him being caught. I couldn't follow him as a ghostly presence raping and murdering, because that story has no traction for the reader, no way to get involved. You're essentially talking about a ghost.

So for story-telling purposes, I had to introduce the three agents right away. Then I needed to go all the way back and figure out how to tell a non-linear story that would keep people interested. It was not easy. The other problem is that DeBardeleben was not as mediagenic as Bundy. He was not handsome and well spoken. He was a freak.

Do you think there are things he's done that he hasn't been convicted of?

Mike DeBardeleben, line-up (US Secret Service)
Mike DeBardeleben, line-up (US Secret Service)

Yes, definitely. There are murders and bank jobs. There's money buried out there somewhere. Those things will never come to light. If anyone deserves to be on Death Row, it's Mike DeBardeleben. And the only way you'll get him to start talking is for him to be staring his execution date in the face. That isn't going to happen.

What are you working on now?

Currently, I have Dark Dreams with Roy Hazelwood out. I also write as-told-to books. I did one recently called Left For Dead, which is the story of Dr. Beck Weathers, the Dallas pathologist who survivedbut barelythat famous 1996 blizzard on Mt. Everest. It's the story Jon Krakauer wrote about in Into Thin Air.

I also write children's books, believe it or not. My first one was The Miracle of Island Girl, part of a projected series of large-format books for kids 5-8. They're all nonfiction and they're all about animals. The books are all about love and courage and personal responsibility.

A nice change from Mike DeBardeleben.

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