The United States is rated the undefeated serial killer capital of the world, producing over 67% of all known serial killers. Two names come up in every conversation about prolific and notorious serial killers in the country. One of them is Ted Bundy, a law student who led a double life as a notable student with a bright political future and notorious serial killer, who stalked, abducted, assaulted, and murdered his victims in cold blood. His name alone brings up memories of disturbing cases of kidnapping, sexual abuse, and the murder of multiple women across several states.
The horrific nature of his crimes, the length of time during which he was able to fool everyone who knew him and evade the authorities, and the quest to understand the origin of his murderous tendencies have driven psychology experts to study the enigma for years. Every time they uncover a new piece of the puzzle that was his life, they come closer to completing the full picture of the man who, as true crime buffs will tell you, could win the title of the most multi-faceted serial killer undefeated. Here is what psychology experts, law enforcement profilers, journalists, and other experts have pieced together on the life of Ted Bundy.
Theodore Robert Cowell was born in November 1946 in Burlington, Vermont, to an unwed mother. Her marital status would barely raise an eyebrow today but it was too scandalous at the time, so Ted’s mother, Eleanor Louise, was sequestered away from curious eyes for the length of her pregnancy, and was resident at a home for unmarried mothers when she had him. Afraid of the stigma she and her son would face, Louise wanted to put him up for adoption, however, his grandfather offered to raise Ted as his son. Throughout his childhood, Ted believed that Louise, his mother, was his sister, however, Bundy would later confess that he suspected the truth, and knew deep down that she was his mother but kept it to himself, demonstrating a level of duplicity that was uncharacteristic of a child his age, but possibly portentous of his later life.
Ted Bundy’s grandparents were a picture-perfect family, but the normalcy they portrayed and protected fiercely was a farce. His grandmother had depression and agoraphobia, which made her terrified of being out in public, while his grandfather had an explosive temper that often turned into physical assault on Ted, Louise, his grandmother, employees, and animals. Although he would later deny it, Bundy spent the formative years of his life suffering the uncontrollable wrath of his grandfather, from which his cowering grandmother and unwed mother couldn’t protect him.
In 1951, Louise married Johnnie Bundy, who adopted Ted and gave him his last name, but a defiant Ted wasn’t happy with the new family dynamic. Over the years, he grew resentful of his stepfather, particularly since Johnnie’s job as a cook at an army hospital wasn’t lucrative, and only afforded the family its basic needs, leaving no surplus for the luxuries Ted desired. His relationship with his mother was equally strained – he was resentful towards her for having him out of wedlock, and despised his status as an illegitimate child, for which he was teased and humiliated by his peers. Johnnie and Louise had more children, further straining their relationship with Ted, who would later reveal that he felt unloved, unlike his step-siblings who had their parents’ attention and love.
Growing up, Ted Bundy didn’t possess the characteristic charisma, confidence and charm that later helped him escape suspicion for his crimes for several years. Instead, Ted was a recluse who kept to himself, and often fell victim to bullying, particularly since he hadn’t developed the ability to articulate his words, and had a speech impediment. His limited social interactions, lack of confidence, and poor speaking ability had him locked out of after-school activities he liked, such as the Boy Scouts and sports, but allowed him to spend more time studying. Although he was not at the top of his class, he did fairly well academically.
Even as a child, Ted’s ability to display completely different behavior in different settings and contexts was uncanny. For instance, his limited social life at school did not affect his ability to socialize outside school. He had friends at the church he and his family attended and was the vice president of the youth fellowship. Furthermore, he took on the typical jobs for children his age such as mowing his neighbors’ lawns and delivering newspapers. Ted matriculated high school with good grades and was excited when the opportunity to set off for college presented itself.
In college, Ted Bundy perfected the duplicity he had demonstrated throughout childhood through his ability to lead two separate lives and adopt completely different personalities and behavior for various settings. He started his college education at the University of Puget Sound in 1965, then a year later, Ted enrolled at the University of Washington to study Chinese, where Ted met the woman whose rejection triggered his murderous spree a few years later, according to psychologists. Ted spent two years at the University before dropping out for a while to travel around the country. He visited Vermont where he was born, took a few classes at Temple University in Philadelphia, and served as a volunteer for Nelson Rockefeller’s presidential campaign.
Ted Bundy’s official Utah State Prison mugshot taken shortly after his sentencing in the Carol DaRonch kidnapping case. Courtesy Utah Dept. of Corrections.
Two years later, Ted returned to the University of Washington to study psychology – ironically, he helped save lives by working on a suicide hotline in his last year at the institution. Ted received his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1972and a glowing recommendation from a professor in the Psychology Department, who expressed his regrets that Ted, who graduated with distinction, had decided not to undertake more professional training in the field, terming Bundy’s decision to pursue law as a loss to the field of psychology. Unknown to the professor, Bundy’s extensive knowledge of psychology would help him select and lure his victims, by pretending to be hurt and in need of help, or impersonating authority figures such as police officers, and escape suspicion for years. Two years after graduation, Ted was intent on establishing a career in politics, having worked in two political campaigns in those years. He enrolled for evening classes at his former college, the University of Puget Sound, before he was admitted to the University of Utah’s law program with the help of a glowing letter from his former college professor and a letter of recommendation from a governor on whose campaign he’d worked.
Stephanie and Elizabeth
Ted Bundy despised the humble life his stepfather’s job afforded his family. When the University of Puget Sound granted him a scholarship, he jumped at the chance to reinvent himself and create a solid foundation for the life he had always wanted. After all, education is a potent tool for upward social mobility. However, one year into the program, Ted found himself drained and in need of a change, prompting him to transfer to the University of Washington. There, he encountered Diane Edwards, the woman of his dreams, who hailed from the social class he aspired to join, and represented the life Ted envisioned for himself and the family he would have in the future. At that moment, his confidence and charm were born. With his shy nature buried deep within himself, or perhaps shelved away until he needed it to lure innocent women into his trap, Ted sauntered towards Diane, who is commonly known by the alias Stephanie, asked her out, and went on to fall madly in love with her. Bundy gave himself completely to his relationship with Stephanie, whom he placed on a pedestal and practically worshipped for her beauty and class. He confessed that she was the most sophisticated woman he had ever encountered.
As Bundy revealed later in “Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes,” his relationship with Stephanie transformed his life. He was particularly crushed when Stephanie broke off their relationship, citing their class difference. She specifically stated that Bundy did not fit into her world, awakening feelings of inadequacy that Bundy sought to escape by building a better life for himself than the one his stepfather offered. Stephanie had also caught Bundy in some lies, and observed a pattern of him forming strategic friendships and using people in his network to move up socially. Stephanie’s declaration that she had fallen out of love with Bundy was devastating, more so because he believed her to be his soulmate, and so continued to hold on to his love for her. In fact, he set out on a long journey of self-improvement to become worthy of Stephanie’s love.
He started by bringing up his grades and working his way onto the honor roll. In no time, his professors were taking note of Bundy’s potential, and naming him as one of the top students of his time. Second, he scoped the university’s student associations and settled on the Republican Interest Group as his best bet for growing his influence at the institution. In no time, he went from being just one of the many faces at the college to an influential figure in its political circles. He added more notches to his growing influence and profile, by earning recognition from the police department for saving a drowning child, and chasing down a thief, recovering the snatched item and returning it to its owner.
While Ted was building a respectable profile at the University of Washington to win back Stephanie, he started dating another woman to fill the void. Elizabeth Kloepfer, who is often referred to as Meg Anders or Elizabeth Kendall, was the unfortunate woman who fell into the clutches of the infamous serial killer. According to her friend, Elizabeth met Bundy at a bar in Seattle, enjoying a night out with her friends when one of them caught a guy staring at Elizabeth. At the time, Elizabeth had divorced her husband and had won custody of their child. She and Bundy hit it off and started a tumultuous relationship that lasted for years. Ted didn’t look at Elizabeth with the same rose-colored glasses he wore when gazing upon Stephanie. Instead, he applied all the knowledge he acquired in his psychology classes to ensure that Elizabeth doted on him, while he dropped occasional morsels of affection and devotion on her lap to fuel her obsession with him. He would alternate between making her feel so loved, needed, and protected and shutting himself down completely, until he succeeded in keeping her on her toes, doting on him, anticipating, and meeting his every need to get rewarded with his love and affection. At the time, Elizabeth was conveniently working at the University of Washington, and had dismissed her parents’ concerns to have Ted live with her and her daughter. In addition to housing him, Elizabeth took care of him financially by often lending him money. She had always suspected that her and her family’s money was what attracted him to her, but continued to support him, even as the scales started to fall from her eyes and she began to realize that Bundy was a dangerous man who could hurt her and her daughter.
Meanwhile, Bundy crossed paths with Stephanie again, convinced her to give him a second chance, and started to lead a double life by dating both women simultaneously. However, his intentions for Stephanie were not as pure as they had been the first time they dated. This time, Bundy wanted to break her heart and show her, and himself, that he could have her and marry her if he wished. He strung Stephanie along, rekindled her feelings for him, then cut her off abruptly. When she called a month later in distress seeking an explanation, he pretended not to know why she was distressed, and hung up on her. That was the last time he spoke to Stephanie. In that same year, women started disappearing, then turning up dead.
However, he continued his relationship with Elizabeth, who stayed with him even when the news of the disappearance of several women surfaced, and she started to suspect his involvement in the cases. Fortunately, she survived him and his murderous spree, but barely escaped with her life since Bundy would later reveal that he had tried to kill her and her daughter through monoxide poisoning by blocking her chimney and lighting a fire. Although she shared her suspicions with the police in 1974 when Bundy went on his first killing spree, Elizabeth was shocked when Bundy confessed to the crimes and struggled to reconcile the image of the calculated serial killer with the image of the man who had lived with her and her daughter for years.
Ted Bundy’s violent tendencies started long before he killed his first victim. In his childhood, he liked to scare people; he once hit a Boy Scout on the head with a stick, unprovoked. When he wasn’t studying, mowing lawns, or delivering newspapers, Ted Bundy would set traps by digging holes in the ground, laying sharp sticks inside, and covering them with grass to lure people into falling in and getting hurt. When he was in high school, Ted had a reputation as a voyeur who would spy on his fellow students. Psychologists believe that his voyeuristic tendencies were a precursor to the sexual violence to which he would subject his victims before and after later on in his life.
Ted Bundy is suspected to have committed his first murder while still in high school. When he was 14 years old, an eight-year-old girl named Ann Marie Burr disappeared without a trace. Ann lived with her family a few miles from Johnnie and Louise’s home. The young girl disappeared around the time when Ted Bundy was in his peeping Tom era of spying on people’s houses. It’s believed that he could have spied on her home, taken her through her window while the rest of the family slept, and killed her elsewhere. Ann’s mother alleged that Ted Bundy had met the eight-year-old while he was out delivering newspapers, planned and executed her disappearance and murder. When Ted was arrested and convicted of his crimes, Ann’s mother wrote to him begging him to give the family closure by confessing to her daughter’s kidnapping and murder. Bundy responded denying any involvement in Ann Marie’s disappearance. Strangely, Rebecca Morris, the author of “Ted and Ann-The Mystery of a Missing Child and Her Neighbor Ted Bundy,” claimed that Ted confessed to the kidnapping and murder of the little girl during an interview with a researcher.
Psychologists and criminologists theorize that Bundy targeted, hunted, abducted, assaulted, and killed women who reminded him of Stephanie – he attacked his first victim within a year of ending things with Stephanie, at the time when he was a law student at the University of Utah. His first victim was Karen Sparks, a student at the University of Washington. On the morning of 4 January 1974, college student Karen was at her house in the University District of Seattle when she saw someone watching her from the street. When she tried to get a good look at the person, he disappeared, prompting Karen to think she had imagined the whole thing. Besides, her three roommates were all male, and she felt safe. Later that night, the voyeur from earlier snuck into the house she shared with three other people and hit her on the head with a bedpost before ramming it into her private parts. Karen’s saving grace was one of her roommates, who started talking in his sleep, spooking Bundy into fleeing. Bundy left Karen with a ruptured bladder, brain damage, impaired vision, and significant loss of hearing, but she was lucky to be alive. She is one of the only two victims who survived an attack by Ted Bundy. That night, Ted went home to Elizabeth after attacking and nearly killing his first victim.
In February 1974, a month after his botched attempt to kill Karen, Bundy struck again. This time, he was determined to see the attack through. His victim was 21-year-old Lynda Ann Healy, a student at the University of Washington. Her upbringing and appearance mirrored Stephanie’s, reinforcing psychologists’ beliefs that Bundy went after women who reminded him of the woman who awakened his love and broke his heart.
Like Stephanie, Lynda had long hair and a pleasant personality. She had a relatively privileged background since she grew up in an upper-class neighborhood in Seattle, and was studying psychology and had a vibrant social life in and out of school. She volunteered at a center for children with disabilities, did the weather report for a local radio station, and was a member of a choir at the university. She lived off campus with some friends. On the day of her disappearance, Lynda had read the weather report, attended her classes, went out for drinks with some friends, and went back to her house. At 11:30, she went to one of her housemates’ room for a chat and left for her room at midnight – that was the last time she was seen alive. The following morning, Lynda’s alarm woke up her next-door roommate, who popped her head in to check on Lynda, noting nothing out of the ordinary in the room. The roommates only started to worry when Lynda’s boss called the house asking why she didn’t turn up for work. Lynda was also supposed to have dinner with her parents, who called her house worried when she didn’t show up. Her roommates went back to her room and found bloody sheets, missing bedding, and a bloody nightgown. The back door was unlocked. The police suspected that a crime was committed, but had no evidence to go by, Lynda’s skull was found the following year, bringing her case file to a close. Bundy, who lived a few blocks away from Lynda’s house, would later confess to the crime. However, nobody suspected him at the time. To the world, he was just a promising law student with a seemingly bright future in politics.
One month after the disappearance of Healey, and although no one knew it at the time, her gruesome murder, Bundy committed his third murder. This time, his victim was 19-year-old Donna Gail Manson. Like most of Bundy’s victims, Donna had long brown hair, and at the time of her disappearance, was a student at the Evergreen State College. On the night of her murder, Donna was headed to a jazz concert on campus grounds, and was last seen walking from her dorm towards the concert venue. One of Donna’s roommates claimed that she had been fixated on her appearance, and had changed her outfit more than once, raising the suspicion that she could have been planning to meet up with a romantic interest, however, she didn’t confirm explicitly that she was going on a date.
Netflix just tweeted a reminder that Ted Bundy, the subject of its latest docuseries, murdered at least 30 people — so maybe stop calling him 'hot'? pic.twitter.com/JaKgVuu2i8
— Dose (@dose) January 29, 2019
No one recalls seeing Donna at the concert. Unlike Healy, who was reported missing on the day of her disappearance, Donna wasn’t reported missing until six days after she was last seen heading to the concert – a search party was deployed but found nothing. Donna, like most of Bundy’s other victims, had disappeared without a trace. Bundy would later confess that Donna was his third victim, sharing hilling details in his interrogation, claiming that he’d incinerated Donna’s skull at a fireplace in Elizabeth’s house. To date, Donna’s file remains open, since the authorities didn’t find her remains where Bundy claimed to have buried them. While Donna’s loved ones and the authorities were frantically searching for her, holding on to the hope of finding her alive, Bundy was leading a normal life, attending his classes, interacting with his peers, and living with his girlfriend Elizabeth and her daughter.
Bundy would spend the next three years preying on young women, assaulting them physically and sexually, and disposing of their remains. In April 1974, he killed 18-year-old Central Washington University State College student Susan Rancourt; her remains were found the following year around Taylor Mountain, which was Bundy’s unofficial graveyard.
In the same year, Bundy raped and murdered 20-year-old Oregon State University student Roberta Parks and several others including Brenda Carol Ball and 16-year-old Nancy Wilcox, and continued his killing spree the following year until he was arrested – one woman was responsible for Bundy’s first arrest.
In November 1974, a few months after Bundy moved to Salt Lake to attend evening classes at the University of Utah, Bundy attempted to kidnap Carol DaRonch, who was shopping at a mall one evening when a police officer approached her, claiming that someone had broken into her vehicle and asked her to follow him outside, where the officer convinced Carol to go with him to the police station. Once he succeeded in getting Carol into his car, Bundy, who had presented a badge to convince Carol that he was a police officer, asked Carol to put on her seatbelt, which she declined. At that time, alarm bells were going off in her head, and quickly became aware of the danger she was in when Bundy attempted to cuff her wrists but was unsuccessful. Carol opened her door and jumped out of the vehicle with Bundy in pursuit. Luckily, another vehicle was driving along the road, prompting Bundy to drive off, disappointed. That same night, he killed 17-year-old high school student Debra. Carol reported the incident but Bundy remained elusive until the following year, when he was arrested in connection to the incident.
Bundy was arrested in 1975, and in 1976 sentenced to 15 years behind bars. His arrest brought his double life to an end by removing the mask of a respectable law student which he had been hiding to commit murder and assault young women sexually for more than a year. Bundy’s conviction for his attack and attempted kidnapping of Carol brought some reprieve to worried female high school and college students, young women, and their loved ones. While serving his sentence, Bundy was charged with a murder that had occurred in Colorado. Ironically, the murder charge helped set him free, albeit illegally, since he broke out of a courthouse by jumping from a window on the second floor. He was arrested six days later but escaped again in December 1977.
By the time he was arrested again in February of the following year, Bundy had killed six more women, bringing the total number of women he murdered to 30. Having escaped from police custody twice and left behind a long list of dead women as an escaped convict, women across the United States would not feel safe until they were sure that Bundy could never hurt one of them again.
It was until 7:16 am on the morning of 24 January 1989, that they let out the collective breath they had been holding since the disappearance of Lynda Healy, as Ted Bundy breathed his last at Florida State Prison.