Extremely Wickedly Good.
CONVERSATIONS WITH A KILLER: THE TED BUNDY TAPES is a well-produced documentary about the serial killer who was as pretty as the asses of the 20-year-old girls he sunk his teeth into.
BUNDY TAPES wins on every level, because it is just that! Ted Bundy – the psychopath himself – speaking on cassette recordings made by journalist Stephen Michaud in the late 70s. (According to Michaud, the recordings total about 100 hours.) No lame re-enactments, no cobbled footage from unrelated sources – this is the real deal! There is enough audio and video of Bundy himself, to construct a compelling, enigmatic, ultimately chilling portrait of one of America’s most monstrous killers.
Director/writer/executive producer Joe Berlinger (who also made the movie EXTREMELY WICKED, SHOCKINGLY EVIL AND VILE, about Bundy from his girlfriend’s point of view) also interviews talking heads tightly connected with Bundy or his murder cases (detectives on the case, Bundy’s lawyers and girlfriend – no tenuously linked acquaintances like “Bundy’s hairstylist” or “Knew Ted in Grade School”). A wealth of murder mystery mayhem! Well done!
A mini-series in four parts, each episode 1 hour long, BUNDY TAPES is so informative that I wonder why Berlinger bothered to make that shoddy, seemingly apologist tribute EXTREMELY WICKED. (Well, because a studio offered him money, of course. But I guess I’m talking about the ethics behind Joe Berlinger making that movie devoid of information about Bundy, after discovering/revealing so much in this doc.)
Speaking of biting ass-cheeks, in the movie, that act of bringing teeth impressions and bite-mark photos into court was played as if Bundy (defending himself) made sport of the dental expert and cast doubt on that whole ploy, but in fact, this doc (in Episode 4) tells us it was one of the major factors in turning the tide of the jury against him. Ironically, this doc also offers an opinion from a modern forensics expert: “Nowadays [bite-mark evidence] is pretty much considered junk science.” So it was gross speculation, but the general public saw it as highly scientific at the time, and it sealed Bundy’s fate.
For all these insights and more, BUNDY TAPES is an extremely wicked watch.
1: handsome devil
In the early 70s, the term “serial killer” had not yet been invented. It was not coined specifically for Bundy, but rather during the era when a single person murdering more than one person was becoming commonplace, with the advent of Charles Manson in 1969 (7 murders); in the mid-70s, the Son of Sam (6), the Hillside Stranglers (10) and John Wayne Gacy (33).
Along comes Ted Bundy: “Hold my beer.”
Montage reveals Bundy (active between 1974-1978) was questioned in the cases of 36 slayings of young girls, spanning over 7 states, involving strangulations, beatings, necrophilia, mutilation, rape… becoming “the most infamous accused mass killer in the country.”
We meet journalist Stephen Michaud, who interviewed Bundy while he was in a Florida prison, hoping to discover the murderer’s motivations. We hear Bundy on cassette – it’s amazing to realize that’s his actual voice – at first, flippantly treating the exercise as if he is making a commentary for the biopic of an innocent man. Michaud admits he was getting nowhere – until he hit upon the idea to ask Bundy, “What type of a person would do these things to young girls?” And Ted “grabbed the recorder, curled up with it” and started dictating in graphic detail how his killings were planned and executed, as if he was talking about someone else in the third person. Michaud: “It was like I unlocked an avenue for him to tell his story.”
Bundy was articulate, good-looking, well-spoken, and had aspirations of being a lawyer. Berlinger’s movie casts the beautiful simplicity of Zac Efron as Bundy, but in reality, we see Bundy is much more the smoldering intensity of Michael Fassbender.
We hear of Bundy’s relationship with Elizabeth Kloepfer, with whom he led a mundane family life, whilst he engaged in his secret killing life! She was the dominating factor in the film EXTREMELY WICKED (due to being based on her book, under the pseudonym Liz Kendall), but was only one part of Bundy’s varied, enigmatic story.
Doc skips around chronologically, detailing Bundy’s crimes, and trying to find answers in Bundy’s childhood and early dealings with society. Bundy was once employed by the Seattle Crime Commission, where he learned of the inadequacy of police investigations across state lines and jurisdictions, exploiting that lack of cooperation by targeting victims across 7 states.
A Nixon Republican (which says something right there), one of Bundy’s most high profile jobs was campaign aide to Seattle Republican governor Dan Evans; his job was to spy on the opposing party’s stump speeches to use as ammo against them. Back then, it was reported as a scandal. That’s how anti-social that behavior was once regarded – they only gave the job to serial killers! Nowadays, they call them Fox News correspondents. And nowadays Fox News just lies out in the open about opponents’ speeches. What does that say?
2: one of us
Bundy developed a persona on tape called “The Entity,” who was responsible for the heinous crimes for which he (as good old Ted) still maintained complete innocence. Apparently, his dreamy blue eyes would turn black when The Entity took over.
He would narrate about the subservience of women; he connected naked women with violence.
July 1974, Lake Sammamish State Park; two girls disappear. It was about this time that witnesses were able to provide police artists with sketches, which were heavily publicized. Everyone noted that Bundy looked nothing like “a person who ripped apart girls”; he looked like “one of us.” Kloepfer sees the sketches and calls police: “I’m concerned about my boyfriend – you should look into him.” She was not as naïve as she was made out to be in the movie.
Bundy became a Mormon, baptized in Utah. We see the smashed skulls of girls. Closeup, graphic, disturbing visuals. Not a good rep for Mormons. Yet when he ends up in a Utah prison, the Mormon church was behind him all the way, supporting him with rallies!
Features Carol DaRonch, aged 18 in 1974, who tells of actually surviving Bundy after a dire brush with him; abducted, handcuffed – escaped!
One of Bundy’s old mentors had an orange Volkswagen Beetle; Bundy loved it so much, he got one himself. And cops picked up Bundy on the make of his car! And evidence started coming together. He was transferred to a Colorado courthouse.
Bundy relates how he escaped: started practicing in his cell, jumping from his top bunk to the floor to strengthen his legs, measuring the distance between the 2nd-storey window and the ground, distance to the alley, distance to the mountains. In this low-security environment, he psyched himself up over weeks, and one day – he just did it.
3: not my turn to watch him
June 1977. In a totally cinematic escape, Bundy relates in detail how he leaped from the 2nd-storey window of the Pitkin County Courthouse in Aspen, Colorado and fled into the mountains. One of the defense attorneys joked when asked where Ted was: “It’s not my turn to watch him.” As it happens, the guards were completely derelict in letting such a grandiose daylight escape go unnoticed. After 6 days missing, with a manhunt in full swing with no leads, in Ted’s own words, he only turned himself in to the town of Aspen because he was cold and sick in the rainy mountains!
December 30, 1977. Another cinematic escape! In an Aspen cell, Bundy starves himself down to 140 pounds and escapes through a hole he had sawed in the ceiling! Leaving a pile of books in his bed covered with a blanket to simulate a body!
No wonder so much entertainment media is dedicated to this hoochie-coochie man!
By now, we’ve lost track of the numerous charges against Bundy. And after this escape, we also lose track of his murders, because instead of going on the lam, with the FBI on his tail, and charges mounting against him – he kills again! Not just one – but three college girls.
And the only reason the FBI could eventually charge Bundy with the murders is due to Bundy’s confession. This meant that underlying the psychosis of needing to brutalize, sexually molest and murder girls, there was his narcissism. He wanted the fame for his murders.
February 1978. After 46 days on the run, Bundy was arrested in Pensacola Florida, with 22 credit cards and IDs belonging to students. Florida vehicle licenses at the time were simply pieces of paper with no pictures, so police did not know what his real identity was – and Ted didn’t tell them! Amazing as it is to believe, the lack of technology, social media, just plain police disorganization across states meant that Bundy remained a mysterious holdee until HE again chose to tell them his identity! But why did he get picked up in the first place? Idiot was driving an orange Volkswagen Beetle – a make of car primarily connected to him. But this was a stolen car! Did he have to steal an orange Volkswagen Beetle? Now that’s a fanatic gear-head.
Bundy told Florida police his identity in return for a call to Liz. In that phone call (from Liz’s account) Bundy told her how he “couldn’t contain this force within him”; that he was “sick, and tried to control it, but couldn’t.” So he had some inkling of self-awareness. It’s how alcoholics, pedophiles and other deviants describe their addiction. Makes us wonder whether, with the right treatment, the man could have been saved. As the technology for crime detection wasn’t as good back then, neither were the facilities for clinical help with psychoses. From all accounts, Bundy was an excellent law student – might that have been the way out had he found success in that field?
Episode ends with Bundy in a TV indictment. Continuing the ethic of this case being Made for TV, Ken Katsaris the county sheriff wanted to pull a political stunt, so read Bundy’s indictment live on air with Bundy standing next to him, whom he thought was going to be cowed into submission by the righteous arm of the Law. But Bundy wouldn’t cooperate, and while Katsaris read the notice, Bundy uncomfortably paced between the cameras and their subjects, getting into everyone’s personal space, and lobbing comments at Katsaris, whose composure hung by a thread. It was total theater – for both Katsaris and Bundy. And probably got them both what they wanted.
4: burn bundy burn
It was The O.J. Trial before The O.J. Trial. In June 1979, cameras were allowed into the courtroom for the first time to nationally televise Ted Bundy’s trial for his Chi Omega sorority homicides. Giving Ted probably what he craved all along – notoriety, attention, coverage… fame.
One of the newspaper headlines screamed: “Made-For-TV Courtroom Drama.” And they were right. Bundy’s joking with the judge and his entertaining loquaciousness was a hit, not just with TV audiences, but with a whole gaggle of giggling young women attending the circus. “Every time he turns to me, I kinda get that feeling, he might get me next.” Yet – wet. And then there was Bundy firing his lawyer ostentatiously on air, in order to represent himself.
Carole Ann Boone was in the courtroom, Bundy’s ad hoc girlfriend; a friend from the past, she now supported him fanatically, his girlfriend Liz having faded into the background after his arrest. Carole would become Bundy’s voice on the outside, and his lover on the inside. Eventually, she would get pregnant to Bundy while he was in jail – the guards just ended up not caring they were having sex during visits – and birth a little girl named Rosa in October 1982.
There is video of the full deliberation, and the jury returning the verdict. At this trial, Bundy was found guilty of 3 counts of attempted murder and 2 first degree murders. That was enough to send him to the electric chair. (Amazing then, to learn that most of Bundy’s murders were pieced together and attributed to him after this verdict. Through pure detective work. And Bundy’s confessions.)
Six months later – another trial. For the murder of Kimberly Leach. The prosecutor wanted to ensure that with two death penalties, one of them was sure to stick. During this second trial in 1980, Bundy called Carole up on the stand as a character witness – then proposed and married her right there – because they were in a court of law! (This doc does not mention they were divorced in 1986, after Carole was devastated by Bundy’s confessions.)
Bundy attempted a stay of execution by hiring a new lawyer who declared him mentally incompetent. Then he tried for another stay by confessing to his murders. Right near the end of his life, Bundy admits he buried “around 10” of 30 victims, and beheaded “probably half a dozen.” There were more confirmed murders eventually attributed to Bundy over the years; there are also many murders suspected to be Bundy’s, but to this day cannot be proven.
Just like the Hannibal Lecter movies, Bundy was approached by the FBI to help them save lives, by gaining his insight into the serial killer mind, their modes of operation, how they might evade authorities, etc. Bundy was glad to help, probably thinking his aid might also go toward staying his execution. It didn’t.
24 January 1989, Bundy is electrocuted. Outside, the public riots with signs to end Ted: “Burn Bundy Burn!”
CONVERSATIONS WITH A KILLER: THE TED BUNDY TAPES ends with detectives and reporters who all worked on the case lamenting the lack of technology that could have gone into capturing the new type of killer that Bundy personified. There was no DNA evidence back then, no teletype, not even faxes. All communication was telephone and mail. However, Bundy’s case (at least by this doc’s surmise) prompted the FBI to up its game in the tech department, to avoid exploitation by creative killers.
It makes us wonder how many more of these innovative, careful, system-bucking killers existed in the world before the advent of technology enabled authorities to curb some of them. However, forensic tech is not a magic bullet to contain every single serial killer, and the real murder artists will remain at large, uncaught and unidentified forever, smart enough to game the system at its state-of-the-art, and not pretty enough to stand out amongst a crowd…
I’m reminded of a line from THE SOPRANOS, when Patsy Parisi threatens a woman to stop romantically pursuing Tony Soprano, pushing a gun to her ribs and advising in a calm voice that if he kills her, “It won’t be cinematic.”
Ken Katsaris was NOT the ‘indicting attorney’ he was, in fact, the Leon County sheriff.
Thanks for the correction. I have corrected the article. 🙂