Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Ted Bundy and Me: One Degree of Separation

 Patty here

The isolation of the dimly lit parking lot behind my Seattle apartment building had always seemed bleak and foreboding. It loomed at the bottom of a hill bordering a marshy area of Portage Bay, too far from the street for anyone to hear a call for help late at night when I usually arrived home from work.

Janice Ott
It was around midnight that July night in 1974 when I parked in an open slot at water’s edge and scanned the area with more caution than usual. One of my coworkers hadn’t shown up for work that day and no one, including her family, knew what had happened to her.

I didn’t know Janice Ott well. She was a relatively new employee, a juvenile probation caseworker at the King County Juvenile Court in Seattle. She was 23 years old, five-one and a hundred pounds. She had long blond hair and an effervescent smile. I worked in detention on the opposite side of the court system, but we both encountered some pretty tough kids. Many of the employees, including me, had received death threats at one time or another, threats from people who were more than capable of doing the job. Janice’s disappearance left many of us wondering if one of the juvenile offenders had killed her.

As I got out of the car all I could hear was water lapping the shore and a breeze agitating the cattails. I hurried across the parking lot and opened the basement door. Before me, masked in shadows, was a long, windowless hallway with another door at the far end. Every step I took hiked the needling tension on the nape of my neck. As I opened the second door, I heard the first slam shut. Somebody was following me.

I ran. Up the stairs. Kept running until I was inside my apartment. My back pressed against the locked door as my heart slammed against my ribs. It wasn’t until my pulse slowed and my mind cleared that I realized I hadn’t heard footsteps behind me, only the door slamming. That’s when I realized it was not a killer stalking me but the wind sucking the first door closed. I felt like a complete wuss.

Composite sketch of "Ted"
In the days that followed, we learned the details of Janice’s disappearance. It had been a warm, sunny Sunday. No Seattleite stays inside on those rare days, including Janice. Her husband was out of town, so she rode her bicycle to Lake Sammamish State Park to sunbathe on the beach and enjoy the day with about 40,000 other people. I’d made that same trip myself on numerous occasions. A clean-cut man named “Ted,” described by witnesses as good-looking, approached several young women that day. He had a cast on his arm and was asking for help loading a sailboat onto his car. Witnesses say at least one person turned him down, one got to Bundy’s brown Volkswagen Beetle and saw there was no sailboat and fled. He approached Janice at around 12:30 that the afternoon. A witness said she looked annoyed but agreed to help him. Later that day, he took Denise Naslund from the same park using the same pretext. 

On September 7, 1974, two months after her disappearance, the skeletal remains of Janice, Denise and another victim were found in a wooded area approximately two miles from Lake Sammamish. After that a more potent fear replaced the first, because a serial killer was hunting young women who looked a lot like me in places I had often visited. For a long time after that, every man driving a VW Beetle was suspect. Every set of footsteps, echoing behind me late at night seemed sinister. I became less inclined to help strangers or even engage with them in conversation.

Ted Bundy
Before he was executed in Florida on January 24, 1989, Bundy confessed to murdering at least 30 woman, including Janice, but hinted there might have been many more. He confirmed in gory detail how he had killed her and boasted that he kept her alive long enough to watch Denise die, although he later recanted that claim. I oppose the death penalty, but if anybody deserved to die it was arrogant, unrepentant Ted Bundy.

All these years after Janice’s murder, I still think about her, can still envision her walking down the hallway of the court with a bounce in her step and a sweet smile on her face. And I still wonder if Ted Bundy had approached me on the beach that day with a cast on his arm and a disarming smile, asking me to help him load a boat onto his car, would I have gone with him? I’d like to think I would have been the one who said no, but I can’t be sure and that will haunt me for the rest of my days.

On Monday, May 31st, I was again reminded of the tragedy of Janice’s death when Elliot Rodger, another disturbed young man, went on a rampage, murdering several young people near Santa Barbara, California. I thought of the obvious victims of this mass murder, those who died, those devastated family members and close friends left to wonder how this could have happened and why nobody had the power to stop it from happening. But there will be others, as well, those who knew the victims, perhaps not well, but well enough to forever be haunted by the events of that horrible day, those left to wonder how it was that they walked away alive.

As a writer, I also think about these events in relation to the characters I create. What wounds from my character's past make up the fears and expectations of the fictional present? As Sidley Lumet once said: “All good work requires self-revelation.” If true, I have more than enough material to fill several more books.


29 comments:

  1. A powerful post, Patty. Makes us appreciate the quirks of fate we've managed to avoid.

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    1. Yeah, Craig, probably too many to recall.

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  2. A very timely post for me. I spent the weekend watching Ted Bundy documentaries for research. Kudos for putting into words what it must have felt like at the time--and how it still feels today.

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    1. Thanks, Diane. It was actually more difficult than I ever expected to write this post because I haven't told many people about my experience.

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  3. Harley Jane Kozak5/27/2014 10:05 AM

    Patty, you brought Janice Ott back to life today. I am touched by her story, and yours, and I am sorry for Janice and her family and friends. And I'm glad you're still here.

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  4. Bundy's handwriting reveals the deeply disturbed monster that he was. There is no "serial killer handwriting," but if there were, it would look like his. It reveals his unrealistic perception of women, his sexual inadequacy, his hidden violence. I heard Ann Rule (The Stranger Beside Me) speak about him at a conference. She worked with him for more than a year on a suicide hotline, and attended his first trial. She believed in his innocence until the day they showed the bitemark evidence. She said that when she saw that, she ran to the ladies room and heaved.

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    1. That's what was so scary about him. He was a law student and worked on the campaign of a very popular governor. He was the last person anyone suspected because he was a master of disguise. I'd love to see you write an article about his handwriting for the SinC/LA newsletter.

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  5. Patty, this is so powerful and moving. Although I was young at the time, I remember the fear Ted Bundy created in the northwest, even after he was caught. He killed 3 sorority sisters of my mom's best friend, and my dad's secretary said yes to a date with him - but when the time came, her gut told her not to go and meet him. And since he didn't know her last name, he couldn't come and find her. These crimes feel so distant and yet so personal all at the same time. And every time something like this happens, it's heartbreaking all over again. Thank you for having the courage to share this.

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    1. Thanks, Kim. The fear persisted because he wasn't caught immediately and nobody knew where he was. He left the area to kill on other college campuses until he was finally caught in Florida.

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  6. Chills, Patty. Was Bundy aka the Hillside Strangler? Re: the UCSB shootings, another mentally warped intelligent kid with a manifesto and arsenal. I wish it were fiction. I can't imagine the heartbreak for all involved, including the killer's family.

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    1. The Hillside Strangler and Bundy were not the same killer, at least I don't think so.

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    2. Linda, the hillside strangler was actually two men, cousins named Angelo Buono and Kenneth Bianchi.

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  7. Damn powerfukl, Patty, and yes, times like these remind us how precarious life can be.

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  8. I hate it when genuinely good people are killed by sociopaths preying on kindness. It sounds like Janice had potential for a lifetime of giving back to society. It's situations like this that makes me want a hell in the afterlife for people like Ted.

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    1. Couldn't agree more, Travis.

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  9. from Jacqueline: Patty, an excellent post - which, by the way, demonstrates your gift for ratcheting up the tension; I was in that hallway with you after the door slammed, and felt myself sick with fear. When I was about 11 years old, a girl in my class was murdered in a forest nearby. I had loved that place, for I was born on a farm right in the middle of the plantations of conifers. Every man, youth and boy in the area was questioned, including my father and brother - who after that insisted upon coming with me every time I tried to leave the house to go for a hike on my own (which had never seemed a problem, so safe was our community). It's interesting, but I've thought about that girl a lot in recent years, remembering not only her sweet, almost angelic face, but - for my part - how trapped I felt by my family's overpowering chaperoning of me everywhere after it happened - and I was a kid who liked to find places of solitude to roam. My parents had brought us to the countryside for the "perfect' childhood, but overnight it became bleak and threatening. They never found the girl's killer, and I am ashamed to admit that, although I can readily see her face, her impish grin, pale blue eyes, fair hair and an endearing smattering of freckles across her nose, I do not remember her name. An excellent post, Patty. The Santa Barbara case is a tragedy almost beyond words - and as more news emerges, it appears it should have been preventable, though you cannot account for the machinations of the unbalanced mind.

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    1. So sorry for your loss, Our J. One of the ripple effects of violence is a loss of trust and personal freedom.

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  10. from Jacqueline: Sorry that comment was so long - your post ignited such deep memories. It was tense, well written and invited reflection.

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  11. Haunting. I can only imagine your emotion writing this piece. Those of us in Miami remember the case well. (The one that sent him to the electric chair). It was televised gavel-to-gavel on the local public station. A first. Everything stopped. Everyone watched. Amazed and stricken.

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    1. I didn't realize the case was televised. Must have been awful listening to the testimony. I've thought about reading Ann Rule's book about Bundy but not sure I could make it all the way through.

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  12. Great work Patty. It made me reflect to the times when we had famous killers: The Zodiac, Bundy, The Hillside Strangler, were lurking in our world.

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    1. They're probably still lurking, Chris. We just haven't named them yet.

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  13. That was absolutely compelling, Patty. I can imagine the fear it instilled in you. We can "never judge a book by its cover" and caution imperative. The boy who was my boyfriend when I was 18 turned out to the the killer in Vincent Bugliosi's "Till Death Us Do Part." His public image was that of a clean cut student at USC who could charm birds from the trees. I never suspected that there was a diabolical other side.

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    1. OMG, Morgan! How horrible and how lucky that you escaped with your life. Gives me chills.

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  14. Thanks for your interesting (and sad) comments. They may help remind others to take extra care and we never know when we will need it.

    I well remember I was on a college campus that COULD have been visited by Ted Bundy as he could easily have taken that route to Florida but luckily for our dorm residents wasn't. Our dorm's basement door was unlocked (broken lock) right by our washers & dryers and the university did not fix it the entire semestery in spite of having to have known as we did that no one knew where he was....I had long hair just like some of hi victims and my room led 1st up from the basement. Some thought I was overly cautious always locking my door, even when going to the bathroom across the hall, some thought I wasn't cautious enough since I showered at night. (But one had to use the bathroom and it was not at all safe at any time really it seemed to me.)

    I would like to see more studies publicized of the famliies of serial killers like Bundy. I hate how the media acts like they are victims too when many of them created these monsters and if they didn't they still unwittingly let children associate with those whose role model led to them being monsters IMHO. I recall reading Bundy was illegitimate in a mean & Pentecostal family, was raised by a mean Pentecostal aunt (who administered corporal punishment) after being taken from a grandfather he loved at 3. Have been meaning to reread the Stranger Beside Me. THE MURDER ROOM mentioned more of the awful things he had done that I had never read anywhere else.

    I have had the misfortunate to know a psychopath or sociopath and I knew the family well and the ONLY thing I have been able to figure out that created the person was the vicious corporal punishment administered by overly restrictive and harsh parents who might in a different era not have chosen to have kids.

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  15. Here's an interview with Bundy just hours before he was executed in which he blames violent pornography and alcohol for fueling his homicidal rage.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9LYL1PTrtXo

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  16. For those who are interested in learning more about the psyche of serial killers, you might want to read Robert Ressler's book, Whoever Fights Monsters. I met Ressler (he started the behavioral profiling unit at the FBI) when when we were both on a TV talk show about Jon Benet Ramsey.
    Many, if not most, of these men had head injuries of various kinds in their early life. Not an excuse for their behavior, but a partial explanation. A French psychiatrist told me about a study that was done on people with a particular type of head injury. It turned out that a stunning 80% die violently, by suicide or homicide, probably due to impaired impulse control.

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