Rhonda Stapley, who fled killer in 1974, believes her underlying message of healing can help others

By Jeff Truesdell
Updated May 13, 2016 04:50 PM
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Credit: AP

For 37 years Rhonda Stapley kept a terrible secret.

Raped in 1974 as a 21-year-old University of Utah student, she blamed herself for accepting a ride from a stranger. She feared that if her mother found out, she’d yank her out of school. At the time the young Mormon also was a virgin.

“I imagined people whispering, ‘That’s that girl who was raped,'” Stapley, now a 62-year-old grandmother, tells PEOPLE exclusively. “I didn’t want attention. I still don’t.”

But her trauma went deeper. The good-looking man who offered a ride in his Volkswagen Beetle and gave his name as Ted had announced he meant to kill her. Over and over in an isolated canyon picnic spot outside of Salt Lake City, he choked Stapley in and out of consciousness until, somehow, she was able to escape.

Still, she told no one. Then, as headlines reported other Utah women who went missing, she panicked: Could it be her attacker?

Not until a year later did she see his face again, as TV news reported the local arrest of a man for a thwarted abduction. It was then when she finally heard his full name: Ted Bundy, later revealed to be one of the most prolific serial killers in U.S. History.

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For Stapley, the arrest brought relief – “and another wave of guilt,” she says. “It was another proof that it was him. ‘That’s the guy.’ Maybe I should have done something about it.”

She didn’t, she says now, because others had since described him to police, and she believed she had nothing to add. She worried about attracting unwanted attention from those who might ask why she hadn’t spoken earlier.

Remarkably, Bundy’s trail of terror resumed after that arrest. Stapley became quietly consumed with him, following his two later escapes from custody and the trials and convictions for murder that eventually led to his execution in Florida in 1989. By then he’d confessed to killing more than 30 women across seven states between 1973 and 1978.

To read more about Stapley’s attack and recovery after her encounter with Ted Bundy, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE on newsstands Friday.

A Journey of Healing

In her new book I Survived Ted Bundy: The Attack, Escape & PTSD That Changed My Life, excerpted in this week’s issue of PEOPLE, Stapley explains how she moved on: marriage, motherhood, and a career as a pharmacist and an inventor. “I thought that I just needed to put it away and make life like it was before and just pretend it never happened,” she says.

But her past reared up unexpectedly in 2011, when she was confronted over a workplace incident by a bullying boss. She says his threatening language echoed Bundy’s words 37 years earlier. The flashbacks, nightmares, anger and despair at last pushed Stapley toward help.

“I couldn’t control my tears, I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat,” she says. “I thought I was going crazy. But I knew it had to be related to the Bundy stuff, because that’s what my dreams and my nightmares and my panic attacks were about.”

She searched online for others like her. An anonymous online pen pal who shared a brief brush with Bundy became Stapley’s excuse to unburden herself. It brought relief. She sought therapy, and slowly shared the name of her attacker and the horrific details of what she endured.

Journal writing also helped her make sense of it. “This is almost like a book,” she told herself. “I don’t know if I want the whole world to read it, but if I want one person to read it, that would be Ann Rule,” the true-crime author who worked with Bundy at a Seattle crisis clinic at the start of his murderous spree and wrote The Stranger Beside Me.

Rule’s publisher immediately embraced Stapley’s account and its underlying message of healing, and helped push the book into being. Rule, who died last year, wrote the forward.

“There’s no group of Ted Bundy survivors that I could sign up and join,” says Stapley, who finds purpose in sharing her journey now. “But there are other people who have experienced trauma. They can understand not wanting to tell, and the shame and embarrassment and all those things that go along with rape.”

“The main thing I wanted to tell people was that they’re not alone,” she says. “Even though their traumatic experience may be different than my traumatic experience, at least there’s someone who can recognize those feelings and people who can understand.”

“The crime doesn’t end when the attack ends.”