Who Was Ted Bundy? A Look at the Notorious Serial Killer's Trail of Terror
Serial killer Ted Bundy, who died in Florida's electric chair in 1989, concealed his terrifying trail of terror for years while moving about the country
Editor’s note: This story was originally published on May 12, 2016. On Friday, a Netflix biopic of Bundy — titled Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile — streams on Netflix, with Zac Efron playing Ted Bundy.
Serial killer Ted Bundy, who died in Florida’s electric chair in 1989, concealed his terrifying trail of terror for years while moving constantly about the country.
That he was arrested, jailed on a charge of murder and then escaped – twice – to continue his rampage only adds to his horrifying legacy of at least 30 murders of women between 1973 and 1978.
Bundy is back in the headlines after the publication of a new book by a survivor, which recounts her 1974 attack and escape – a story that victim Rhonda Stapley, then a 21-year-old Utah college student, kept secret for decades until a PTSD diagnosis helped her to speak about the trauma.
The smart, handsome killer was then just beginning his spree across at least seven states, from Washington to Florida.
Former FBI Director William S. Sessions, in a 1992 investigative review of Bundy’s methods and his confessions, called him “perhaps society’s most infamous and notorious serial killer.” Regarding the exact number of Bundy’s victims, Sessions added, “We may never know the total extent of his devastation.”
• Want to keep up with the latest crime coverage? Click here to get breaking crime news, ongoing trial coverage and details of intriguing unsolved cases in the True Crime Newsletter.
“Bundy was involved in voyeuristic activities throughout his life and actually studied his victims without their knowledge through surveillance and occasional clandestine entry of their residences,” states the 1992 multiagency team report directed by the U.S. Department of Justice, and which was based on Death Row interviews with Bundy himself.
“Although Bundy had sex with most of his victims, it is doubtful that he committed only rapes,” the report says. “He was more interested sexually in semiconscious or unconscious victims.”
The description mirrors Stapley’s account of repeated choking that left her in and out of consciousness. She awakened to find Bundy standing some distance away from her, at which point she was able to flee.
Bundy’s Meticulous Pattern
The report also states: “His planning included preselection of a body disposal site, discreet research regarding his victim, preparation of necessary paraphernalia, and complete planning of the assault to include flight, evidence disposal, and alibi. Only then would he approach the victim and put his plan into action.”
Bundy’s methods generally followed a pattern: “He would feign an injury and indicate he needed assistance or he would portray an authority figure such as a police officer. He thus persuaded the victim to voluntarily accompany him to his Volkswagen where he had secreted a crowbar near the rear of the vehicle.”
“Upon reaching the vehicle, he would retrieve the crowbar and strike the victim over the head, rendering her unconscious. He would then handcuff her and place her in the passenger side of the vehicle, which he had modified by removing the seat.”
“If the victim regained consciousness while he was driving he would calm her down by talking to to her,” the report says. “He commented that the victim was often so disoriented that he could convince her that she had been injured and he was transporting her to a hospital.”
“When Bundy got to his preselected dump site, he would again hit the victim (if she had regained consciousness) and strangle her with a ligature while raping her. Although his first murder was reportedly performed by beating and manual strangulation, he most often used a ligature he had prepared solely for that purpose. Victims were strangled from the rear.”
Because he was voyeuristic, Bundy liked to see what he was doing and often killed beneath a bright moon or in front of his car’s headlights, the report says. And he said he made return visits to nearly all his crime scenes.
His earliest identified victim was murdered Jan. 31, 1974, in Washington. Bundy claimed 11 victims overall in that state, one in California, two each in Oregon and Idaho, three each in Colorado and Florida, and eight in Utah.
After Bundy’s rampage came to light, crime writer Ann Rule famously wrote about the man with whom she worked at a Seattle crisis clinic in her book, The Stranger Beside Me. Rule died in 2015.
Bundy reportedly buried about 10 of his victims, and said he severed the heads of about a dozen.
Two Escapes from Custody
Before those grisly numbers piled up, a thwarted abduction in 1974 had led to Bundy’s arrest, and he was found guilty in Utah of aggravated kidnapping and attempted homicide. But when he was transferred to Colorado to face a murder charge there, he escaped from a courthouse library while acting as his own attorney.
He was recaptured, then escaped again six months later, fleeing to Florida where his final murders occurred.
In the early hours of Jan. 15, 1978, Bundy slipped into the Chi Omega sorority house near Florida State University and attacked four women asleep in their beds, bludgeoning them with an oak club and fracturing their skulls. Margaret Bowman and Lisa Levy were killed; the others survived. Afterward he broke into a nearby home, bludgeoning another woman. She, too, survived.
Less than a month later, on Feb. 9, 12-year-old Kimberly Leach disappeared from the grounds of her junior high in Lake City, Florida. Before her remains were found eight weeks later, police in Pensacola spotted Bundy driving a stolen orange Volkswagen.
That time, he didn’t escape. The murders of Bowman, Levy and Leach resulted in convictions and three sentences of death.
He was executed Jan. 24, 1989 at age 42.