Ted Bundy's Northwestern Ghost
One evening during the late summer of 1992, I was driving to the U.S. premiere of David Lynch's film Fire Walk With Me<>, based on his successful Twin Peaks<> television series. The series had focused on the search for a serial killer, and as I drove down the Northwest's I-90, surrounded by dense, fir-lined hills, I thought once again how suitable it was for Lynch to set his fictional killer's domain in the same region used by one of the Northwest's most notorious real-life killers: Ted Bundy. At that moment, Nirvana's "In Bloom" came on the radio. The crunching chorus about the man who likes to shoot his gun, the growing shadows amongst the pines, Twin Peaks<>, Ted Bundy - it was a quintessential "Northwest Noir" moment.
Like it or not, Ted Bundy is as much a part of Northwest culture as Nirvana, a point driven home in Clark Humphrey's Loser: The Real Seattle Music Story<>, which decorates an entire side of a page with Bundy mug-shots along with the caption "Man of the Decade" (Trivia buffs! See if you can figure out the correct dates for each picture!). And there are any number of factors that explain the perennial fascination with Bundy. He's the perfect representation of "the evil in these woods," the ultimate horror that you can't take your eyes off of, the myth of our region's "mellowness" turned inside out with a meat hook.
Perhaps Bundy recognized the dark spirit of the Northwest that was reflected in his soul. He certainly never lost his ties with the region. In 1979, while on trial for murder in Florida, he sported a Mariners t-shirt during his court appearances. While on death row awaiting execution, he subscribed to the Tacoma News Tribune<>. Prior to his death, he requested that his cremated remains be scattered over the Cascade Mountains (after a public outcry, the issue was dropped). And in 1984, he extended a helping hand to area detectives working on the case of another serial murderer: the Green River Killer.
Robert Keppel's The Riverman<> (Pocket Books), ostensibly about the search for the Green River Killer, is really a nightmare voyage through Bundy's mind - note the order of names in the subtitle, "Ted Bundy And I Search For The Green River Killer" ("Riverman" was Bundy's name for the Green River Killer). Keppel, who became involved with Bundy when he investigated the "Ted Murders" in the mid-'70s, and later served as chief consultant to the Green River Task Force, readily agreed to Bundy's strange offer of assistance. His reasons were two-fold: one, he'd be able to learn more about the modus operandi of the criminal mind (and thus learn something that might actually help the Green River investigation), and two, he might also have the opportunity to question Bundy about his own crimes.
But what was Bundy's motive? Though convicted on three counts of murder, Bundy was in the midst of a protracted appeals process when he contacted Keppel, and was certainly not about to say anything that might incriminate him. Yet locked up on death row, out of the public eye, he lacked an audience. So he chose Keppel as his sounding board while he replayed his dark fantasies. In a revealing statement, Keppel refers to himself as one of Bundy's victims, and the scenario of The Riverman<> backs him up. For years he was haunted by the weight of the unsolved "Ted Murders," only to eventually find himself the target of Bundy's manipulations. It was, Keppel explains, all part of a "grand scheme" to help save Bundy from the electric chair, because of the invaluable information he'd then be able to pass on to law authorities.
It was a dangerous game to play, and Bundy ended up the loser. A primary reason we don't know more details about the Washington murders is because Bundy withheld most of the facts, hoping to use them as a bargaining chip in gaining himself a stay of execution. Reading Bundy's confessions is an exercise in frustration - and a testament to Keppel's ability to keep cool under pressure. Bundy dodges questions or refuses to answer them; other times, he deals out vague promises of "We'll get back to that sometime," when Keppel's queries hit too close to home.
For Keppel does get some information out of Bundy. In news reports at the time of Bundy's execution in 1989, Keppel stated that some things he had learned about Bundy he would keep to himself. But this information finally appears in The Riverman<> for the first time, in shockingly explicit detail. Stalking, killing, mutilation, and necrophilia were all part of Bundy's grisly business. But when asked to confront the horrors of his crimes directly, Bundy nervously backs away, stammering chilling excuses: "That's something we're going to have to talk about in the future...I mean, that night is like some kind of dream, you know, very blurry area, nightmarish, and I have trouble piecing it together." But there was to be no future for Ted Bundy. And he knew it.
Keppel's other subject in The Riverman<> is how serial murder cases are investigated. It's a sobering look at how human error and/or outright neglect can inadvertently wash clues away. One of the strategies Keppel used when working on the Ted Task Force was to reinvestigate all the cases of missing and murdered women from the beginning. He learned a number of aspects of the cases had not been handled properly: evidence was narrowly recovered from an "Items for Destruction" pile in the police evidence room; friends and relatives, "untapped gold mines" of information, hadn't been interviewed extensively. Later, in the Green River investigations, police surveillance was botched when TV helicopters flashed aerial shots of the stake-outs on the evening news. Keppel is equally critical of the backstage politicking officials engage in, even at the expense of developing quality investigative procedures.
The Riverman<> is the eighth book written about Ted Bundy. What can explain the public's continuing interest in probing the recesses of an extremely twisted mind? For one thing, true crime stories always contain an element of voyeuristic thrill, allowing you to flirt with danger from the safety of the movie theater or living room. And ultimately, it may also be because Bundy's story is a riddle with no answer. No one, not even Bundy himself, could definitively say why he was driven to kill repeatedly with such grim determination. Bundy's life may be over. But his motives remain as difficult to pinpoint as the wind whistling through trees on a cold, cold night.