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- February 06, 1989
- Vol. 31
- No. 5
A Condemned Man's Last Bequest
The Desperate Ploy of a Ruthless Murderer, Ted Bundy's 11th-Hour Confessions Meant Less to His Victims' Families Than His Execution
Ted Bundy claimed that he had been badly represented by counsel. Ted Bundy cooperated with authors writing about his case, presumably hoping to project his undeniable personal charm to the public. In an 11th-hour attempt to save his life, Ted Bundy tried an insanity plea. A law school dropout, he loved conveying the image of an intense, intellectual Dostoyevskian hero gone amok.
Ted Bundy, who was executed last week at 42 in the electric chair in Starke, Fla., was a con man and a phony.
Right up to the fatal moment, he tried to play a game of three-card monte for his life. Convicted of three murders in northern Florida and suspected of many more, he began confessing to other unsolved cases in Utah, Colorado, Idaho and Washington, the launching point of his bloody cross country travels. The strategy of Bundy's confessions was transparent: If investigators in the Far West wanted to hear more details and close their cases, they would have to ask Florida to turn off "Old Sparky" while he talked.
Bundy's last maneuver gave his life a fitting coda, a slow-motion dance of death that few people really wanted to share. Even some civil libertarians stayed away, not because they weakened in their opposition to the death penalty but because this particularly odious murderer was hardly a rallying point for any cause. Weeping and sniveling in the helpless posture in which he placed his victims, Bundy told of a killing spree that may have begun in adolescence and might never have stopped if he hadn't been caught. Assistant state attorney Bob Sexton summed up his demeanor: "I think he was sincere. He was just pathetic."
"He's scared to death," said investigative journalist Hugh Aynesworth, who co-authored a book on Bundy and interviewed him for about 100 hours. "He has always put on a facade. When people thought he was in control, he wasn't."
The facade began to crumble as Bundy's attempted escape-by-confession failed and his final appeals were denied. On the eve of the execution, Bundy called then canceled a press conference. Instead, after eating what was to be his last meal—burrito, rice and a salad—Bundy huddled with James Dobson, who produces a syndicated counseling radio show from Pomona, Calif. After the highly publicized interview, Dobson met with reporters to describe the "great remorse" that Bundy felt after his first savage slaying. Dobson reported that after the second time, "the agony was easier to cope with.... He got to the point where he didn't have that remorse."
Journalist Aynesworth replied, "His only remorse is that he's going to die."
Bundy's parting advice for society, delivered through Dobson, was as fraudulent as his life: He blamed the multiple murders on his penchant for hard-core pornography. "You are going to kill me, and that will protect society from me," he said in his typical high-blown style. "But...there are many out there addicted to pornography and...potentially violent."
While Dobson was recounting these platitudes outside the prison, Bundy was visited by a Methodist minister, James Boone, son of Bundy's wife by her previous marriage. (The wife, Carol Boone, 42, married Bundy during his first two years in jail but has not visited him in the last two years.) Later he met with state attorney John Tanner, his wife, Marsha, and Fred Lawrence, a Methodist minister from Gainesville. The group prayed and read the Bible until 1 A.M. Then the condemned killer was alone in his 14-by-9-foot "death watch" cell until 5 A.M., two hours before his scheduled execution. In the morning he was offered his choice for a final meal. He had no preference, so he was served steak, eggs, hash brown potatoes and coffee. He didn't eat. Instead, he proceeded to the final ritual. His head and right leg were shaved so that the electrodes could be attached. Then he donned the prison-issue cerement: loose blue pants and a light-blue shirt.
Outside, about 1,000 people were assembling at the wire fence in lurid celebration of Bundy's imminent death. Some bore signs reading BUNDY BBQ and COOK HIM. On one large tow truck there was a model of an electric chair. Strapped to it was an effigy of Bundy. As the truck circled, flocks of turkey vultures hovered over the prison fields.
The two guards who were shackled to Bundy to lead him into the death chamber were surprised that the arrogant, self-important young man suddenly seemed feeble. "He was weak-kneed, if not wobbly," said a witness. "He looked old, tired and gaunt. I was expecting a yuppie. But he looked wild-eyed."
Asked for last words, Bundy said, "Give my love to my family and friends."
His mother had already uttered her farewell in a final phone conversation: "You'll always be a precious son to me."
As dawn broke and the revenge-sated crowd dispersed, a white hearse carried Ted Bundy's body away. It was hard not to think of the people who had lost so many precious daughters.
Since Oct. 7, 1974, the Wilcox family of Salt Lake City has lived life in the subjunctive mood. If only Nancy hadn't gone out for a pack of gum...Maybe she had actually run away...Perhaps she was happy somewhere..."I kept thinking, 'I hope she comes home soon,' " Connie Wilcox, 57, says. "I've kept everything to myself all these years. I not only refused to believe that Bundy had taken my daughter; I refused to believe that she was dead."
Nancy Wilcox's mother was robbed of the bittersweet luxury of denial by Ted Bundy's confession: He told a Salt Lake City detective where he had buried the bodies of Nancy and another Utah girl. "I was shocked when he confessed," Connie says. "I just wasn't ready to hear it."
Over the years the pain of their daughter's absence has led to the pain of self-recrimination: Couldn't we have done something to stop what happened? A 16-year-old high school junior, Nancy had a part-time job as a waitress at a drive-in; she told her mother about the good-looking man who liked to come by and flirt. "I always made sure I was there to walk home with her at night," Connie remembers. "Now I wonder, 'Was it Bundy? Was he staking out my daughter?' I can't get it out of my mind."
Connie and her banker husband, Herbert, reached a fragile détente with tragedy by trying to ignore it. "We have hardly talked about it in 15 years," she says. "I learned the other day that, privately, he had thought that she was dead for more than 13 years. He didn't want to upset the rest of the family." The Wilcoxes display no photos of Nancy in their home—the pain is too great. But Connie cannot stop paging through Nancy's photo album. Tears always come to her eyes. "It's too hard to look at this book, but I can't stay away," she says. "Nancy was such a sensitive person, so kind. If she were alive today, she'd probably feel pity for Bundy for being such a sick person."
His last-minute confessions may have helped Bundy clear his conscience, but they did not bring peace of mind to the families whose daughters he left in cold and nameless resting places across the nation. "We had 14 years of believing that somebody had done something like this," says Edward Culver, whose 12-year-old daughter, Lynette, disappeared from their Pocatello, Idaho, neighborhood on May 6, 1975. "Tacking a name onto it and knowing it was Bundy really doesn't alter your emotions."
In Edward Culver's case, the greatest emotion may be his enduring love for the extraordinary child who still lives constantly in his mind. "She may have had the potential of being an Einstein," he says. "He [Bundy] may have deprived the world of something exceptional. Every single person in this country may have lost something when that kid was killed." Despite Bundy's confession to her murder, Edward Culver embraces a sad, illusive hope: He is keeping Lynette's things in storage and still imagining that the phone will ring one day and he will hear her voice again. "I suppose you can say that there is a 99 percent chance that it's over," he admits. "But I'm hesitant to write it off, period. There's always that 1 percent chance."
The Kent family of Bountiful, Utah, have chosen to remind themselves—and the world—of the death of their daughter Debi every hour of every day; their porch light has never been turned off since Nov. 8, 1974, when Debi vanished. "In our house," says Debi's mother, Belva, 52, "the last person home always turned off the light."
Debi, 17, left a school play to pick up her brother at a skating rink; she was never seen again. Bundy told detectives before he died that he had left her body, along with that of Nancy Wilcox, in a secluded area south of Salt Lake City; they will have to wait for the snow to melt before a search begins. But long before his confession, the Kents never doubted Bundy's guilt. "The first time I heard the name Ted Bundy, I knew without a doubt that he was responsible for what happened to Debi," Belva says.
Like many of Bundy's victims, Belva Kent refers to him with curious familiarity. "I'm glad Ted has finally died for what he did," she says. "These past few weeks have been the longest ones in our lives. I haven't slept well in 15 years, and every day I can't help but cry. What would Debi's wedding have been like? Would she have had lots of children like she'd hoped to? We'll never know. If I could have talked to Ted, I would have asked him, 'Why? Why did you do this?' And why did he wait until the 11th hour to confess? I believe he simply wanted to save his own hide."
Debi's brother Bill died in a car accident four years ago. The Kents decided to put up a gravestone next to his, inscribed CARING DAUGHTER AND SISTER-DEBI WAS A TRUE FRIEND. The physical remains of Debi Kent may soon come to rest there. But if Ted Bundy was trying to extinguish her spirit, he failed. Debi's younger sister, Trish, now 28, wore one of Debi's dresses to her own high school graduation. "It was tough, but I'm glad I did it," she says. "Debi was with me, in a way, that day. She'll always be with all of us." Her family still looks back fondly at the little girl who once dreamed of a career in ballet, and those memories shine as brightly as the porch light. "Debi will always dance in our hearts," her mother says proudly.
A few of Bundy's victims, like the Kents, have triumphed over him in spirit. Even fewer, like Carol DaRonch, 32, escaped his murderous attacks when he was still on the loose. Fifteen years ago, Bundy, posing as a police detective, lured DaRonch into his car outside a Midvale, Utah, shopping mall. Then he tried to handcuff her and lunged at her with a tire iron. Screaming, she broke free and ran away. "I'll never forget that wicked smile as long as I live," she says.
No one who entered Ted Bundy's warped universe was left unscarred, and Carol is no exception. "I don't trust people like I used to," she admits. "You can't anymore. It's an evil world out there." Still, she thinks she has overcome the worst of her experience. "I've decided to try and block it from my memory," she says. "You can't live in fear forever."
Today, DaRonch is engaged to Gus Lewis, 35, who she says has provided what she has needed most: understanding. "We're both real happy Bundy is finally gone," she says. "He lived too long, if you as me. If they'd have asked me, I probably would have pulled that switch myself."
The day Bundy died found his victims scattered widely across the grim landscape of grieving and recovery. For some, his death may have helped to exorcise the horror: "I believe in vengeance," says Dale Rancourt, 58, of La Conner, Wash., whose 18-year-old daughter Susan died at Bundy's hands in 1974. "I believe in revenge. I would love to be the one who ridded the world of Ted Bundy." Rosemary Arnaud, 58, of Seattle, stayed up after midnight the day before he died, watching television, hoping to hear definite word that the man who murdered her daughter, Brenda Carol Ball, 22, would be dead before she got up the next morning. "How do I feel?" she asked herself when she heard that he was dead. "My first reaction was, Thank God.' But then, it doesn't bring her back."
The night had long passed into the cold, dark hours when families are safe in bed and lonely people often sit unsleeping. Eleanore Rose was at her kitchen table in Seattle, in the black dress she wears constantly now; on the wall beside her hung a portrait of her daughter, Denise Naslund. Eleanore was determined to sit up until 4 A.M., when, she prayed, the phone would ring. "I've been waiting so long for this," she said as she watched the black wall phone nervously. "It seems like I've been sentenced to a lifetime of waiting."
Denise disappeared on July 14, 1974, when the "Ted" murderer was stalking Seattle. Bundy finally confessed to her murder just before his death; he didn't know that he left someone else for dead that day. "Denise was everything to me," Eleanore says, barely restraining a sob. "I wanted nothing more than to be a mother. Bundy took away my heart. He as much as took away my life from me."
All around her are the memories she can neither forget nor come to terms with: Her daughter's '64 Impala sits, unused and rusting, beside the house. Denise's bedroom is untouched, with her guitar, her skates, her stuffed tiger waiting for the 19-year-old who will never come home. In the living room, a shrine of Denise's photographs stands before a vase of pink carnations and a single red rose. Nearby is her mother's four-foot-tall collection of scrapbooks on Bundy and his crimes. "I have three obsessions," an inscription in the first book reads. "One, to restore capital punishment. Two, to live to see...the man who did this to you, and to me, hung or electrocuted. Three, to get your remains back."
The years hang heavy on her: She has suffered ulcers, depression, pneumonia, digestive problems, and her gaunt frame is old beyond her 50 years. "I've been worried I wouldn't outlive Bundy," she says. "I've dedicated my life to memories and to Bundy."
Just a few minutes after 4, the black phone rang.
"It's over with," said the official from Florida.
"Really?" Rose asked.
"Yes, it's over."
She sighed. She walked to the living room and stared at the picture of the pretty, smiling girl on the mantel. "I've done all I can," she told her daughter. Then she crossed herself.
"Our Father, Who art in Heaven..."she began.
—Pete Axthelm and Michael Ryan, with bureau reports
March 28, 2015
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