The story of one of America’s most notorious serial killers is also the story of the women who aided in bringing him down.
“All-American boy on trial,” the front page of The New York Times declared in December, 1978. “Some say that Ted Bundy is the most prolific mass murderer in American history; Bundy claims he is the tragic victim of a tangling web of circumstances.”
The New York Times noted his blue eyes and dashing figure, “looking rather Kennedyesque dressed in a beige turtleneck and dark blue blazer… free of any extravagant motion that could lead one to think a swaggering - even dangerous - personality existed beneath that casual, cool exterior.”
But that is exactly what existed within Bundy, one of America’s most notorious serial killers responsible for the murders of at least 30, but potentially 100, people before his final arrest in 1978 and death by electric chair in 1989.
The subject of a new Netflix documentary called The Ted Bundy Tapes and a biopic starring Zac Efron as the murderer himself called Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile premiering at this year’s Sundance Festival, Bundy’s crimes continue to shock the world even 40 years since they were committed.
But not many know that there were four key women who helped bring Bundy to justice. These are their stories.
Carol DaRonch was 18 when she was approached by Bundy in 1974 in a mall in Salt Lake City, Utah, impersonating a policeman. Bundy told DaRonch that someone had tried to break into her car and that she needed to file a complaint at the police station.
While riding in his car, DaRonch noticed that Bundy was not driving to the station at all, at which point he attempted to secure her hands in handcuffs. But during the tussle, Bundy bungled the move by handcuffing the same wrist, allowing DaRonch to escape. Later that same evening, Bundy kidnapped 17-year-old Debra-Jean Kent outside a school auditorium. Her body was never recovered.
It was DaRonch’s testimony that helped clinch Bundy’s first arrest in 1975. DaRoch provided police with descriptions of Bundy’s car and the items in it, including handcuffs, an ice pick, a crowbar and a makeshift balaclava from a pair of pantyhose. DaRonch then gave police the handcuffs Bundy had used on her and picked him out of a lineup.
When Bundy went on trial for attempted kidnapping in February, 1976, he was found guilty and received a sentence of 15 years in prison. He escaped from jail on 30 December 1977, later resurfacing in Tallahassee, Florida.
A week after he arrived in Tallahassee, Bundy committed a spree of vicious crimes at the Florida State University (FSU) Chi Omega sorority house. Just before three in the morning on 15 January, he bludgeoned 21-year-old Margaret Bowman with a log, strangled and assaulted 20-year-old Lisa Levy and attacked Kathy Kleiner and Karen Chandler, leaving them with serious injuries, all in the space of 15 minutes.
Kleiner and Chandler survived Bundy’s attacks thanks to their roommate Nita Neary, who came back to the sorority house at around three in the morning after a party at a nearby fraternity and frightened Bundy into absconding.
When Neary opened the door to her house she heard a noise upstairs and took cover in the foyer. It was then that she saw Bundy rushing down the stairs, and it was her identification of him at his 1979 trial that helped put him behind bars. Her testimony placed him at the scene of the crime, holding the oak log that would later be determined to be the murder weapon. She was the only eyewitness to identify Bundy at the trial.
“I was at the entrance to the foyer and I saw a man at at the door… He was leaving,” Neary said in her testimony. He was holding “a club or a log” and though her glimpse of him lasted only “a matter of second” she was certain that it was Bundy.
“What I noticed most was the profile,” Neary said. “A prominent nose that came to a point… Nice-looking. A ski cap pulled down about to his eyebrows.”
In the early hours of 15 January, Kathy Kleiner was fast asleep in her Chi Omega dorm room when a noise woke her up. A shadowy figure loomed over her in the dark next to the trunk separating her bed from her roommate Karen Chandler.
“I remember the noise of the trip and something falling off the trunk, and that woke me up,” Kleiner told Rolling Stone in a new interview. “The room was dark, and I didn’t have my glasses on, but I remember seeing a black mass. I couldn’t even see that it was a person. I saw the club, saw him lift it over his head, and slam it on me.”
Bundy hit Kleiner in the face repeatedly, breaking her jaw in three places, tearing her cheek and causing her to bite down on her tongue. “That’s what I remember the most,” Kleiner told Rolling Stone. “Him lifting the club and bringing it down on me.”
Both Kleiner and Chandler suffered serious injuries, but the arrival home of their Chi Omega sister Neary saved their lives. It was the headlights from Neary’s boyfriend’s car that startled Bundy, causing him to flee the scene.
In 1979, Kleiner gave testimony in Bundy’s murder trial. As she took her seat in the witness box, she felt Bundy’s eyes on her. “He was just staring me down,” Kleiner recalled to Rolling Stone. “I wasn’t scared, I wasn’t angry, so much as a… throwing-up feeling. It was so bad. It was disgust.”
Speaking to TMZ, Kleiner voiced her concern that the Zac Efron biopic is a sympathetic portrayal of Bundy. “I don’t have a problem with people looking at it, as long as they understand that what they’re watching wasn’t a normal person,” Kleiner said. “The movie does glorify him more than I think he should be, but like I said, I think everyone should see it and understand him as what he was.”
1969 was the year that Bundy attempted to kidnap his first victim. But it was also the year that he met Elizabeth Kloepfer, the woman who would become his longterm girlfriend. In Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, Kloepfer will be portrayed by Lily Collins.
Bundy and Kloepfer met in Seattle, Washington when he was a college student and their relationship would ultimately last six years.
Kloepfer was a single mother desperately trying to provide stability for her daughter Tina when she met Bundy in a bar. In her memoir The Phantom Prince: My Life With Ted Bundy, Kloepfer recalls spotting Bundy on his own, and she approached him with the line: “You look like your best friend just died.”
She describes having an instant connection with Bundy and the two were soon romantically involved. “I handed Ted my life and said, ‘Here, take care of me.’ He did in a lot of ways, but I became more and more dependent upon him. When I felt his love, I was on top of the world; when I felt nothing from Ted, I felt that I was nothing.”
For the next five years their relationship continued in an on-again, off-again fashion. Some days, Bundy would be “warm and loving”. Others, she recalled him as unpredictable and volatile, with wild mood swings. In 1970 they almost got married but after a fight Bundy tore up their marriage license.
In 1974, Kloepfer began to grow suspicious of Bundy after reports of murdered and raped women in their area flooded the news. The descriptions from witnesses about the perpetrator and his car matched up to Bundy. Kloepfer found surgical gloves, a bag of women’s clothes, plaster of paris and a meat cleaver in their house. A composite sketch of the alleged killer that was circulated in the media was so eerily like him that Kloepfer called the authorities.
She would eventually speak to police a total of three times about Bundy, conversations that were instrumental in helping to finally catch Bundy, but she never disclosed this information to him.
She stayed in a relationship with him throughout her suspicions and Bundy subjected her to years of psychological abuse. He would accost her while she was sleeping with a torch to look for evidence on her body that she had cheated on him. While incarcerated in Florida, Bundy called Kloepfer at two in the morning to tell her that he had once tried to kill her after feeling “the power of his sickness building in him.”
When she was interviewed by police in 1975 about Bundy, Kloepfer’s words were chilling. “Ted went out a lot in the middle of the night,” she said. “And I didn’t know where he went. Then he napped during the day. And I found things, things I couldn’t understand.”
The Ted Bundy Tapes is streaming on Netflix now. Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile premieres at the Sundance Film Festival on 26 January.
This article was originally published on 18 January.
Images: Getty, Netflix