By Ted Montgomery
(Special to The Seattle Times)
Bob Keppel has had serial killer Ted Bundy on his mind for 30 years, or exactly half his life. And it doesn't seem likely that Keppel will ever completely shake the ominous shadow that Bundy cast over him.
The detective and the killer are forever intertwined by circumstance and the cat-and-mouse game they played from 1974 until Bundy's death by electric chair on Jan. 24, 1989. And on Thursday, Sept. 9 at 10pm (9pm Central Time), their story will be told in "The Riverman," airing on A&E.
The movie stars Cary Elwes as Bundy and Bruce Greenwood as Keppel, and is based on Keppel's book, "The Riverman: Ted Bundy and I Hunt for the Green River Killer," originally published in 1995. The book chronicles Keppel's prison interviews with Bundy in 1984, 1988 and 1989, the last conversations taking place just days before Bundy was electrocuted for the murder of a young girl in Florida.
"Bundy was such an interesting character, and such a mystery to me, because he knew everything there was to know about serial murder, and yet for years, he denied he was a killer," Keppel says now. "He selected me to confess to because he respected me, but also because he educated me about the most effective ways to interview a serial murderer."
Bundy had written to Keppel in 1984, offering to provide his analysis of the murders committed by the Green River killer, the phantom serial killer who had murdered nearly 50 prostitutes in Seattle during the 1980s, and whose identity at that time was still a mystery to Keppel and police investigators. (In 2002, King County Sheriff's detectives arrested Gary Ridgway, who later pleaded guilty to 48 of the murders attributed to the Green River killer.)
Keppel jumped at the chance to talk with Bundy, not only to hear his thoughts about the Green River killer, but also to see if perhaps Bundy would subconsciously give up some of the secrets he had so zealously guarded about his own murders.
It was Keppel to whom Bundy first confessed details of his crimes in an attempt to stave off his execution. Bundy was on death row in Starke, Fla., where he had been since 1980. He had been convicted of the gruesome murder of 12-year-old Lake City resident Kimberly Diane Leach, just weeks after he had bludgeoned five women in Tallahassee, killing two of them and forever scarring the other three.
These were his final crimes, after a 20-year odyssey of murder that apparently began in Washington state.
The book and TV movie tell the story of two very dedicated men: One, a serial killer who was completely consumed by his need to destroy innocent lives, and the other, a professional cop whose dogged pursuit of the killer led him to be identified by the man he was hunting as the world's foremost expert on serial murder.
As Keppel now tells it, the men faced each other, knee to knee in a cramped interview room in the Starke prison. It was a novel situation; one serial killer talking about the crimes of another.
Bob Keppel, now 60, and an associate professor of criminal justice at Sam Houston State University in Texas, looks like the guy next to you in the grocery line. He has a full head of salt-and-pepper hair, wire-rim glasses and a warm smile.
It was on July 14, 1974, that Ted Bundy first appeared on Keppel's radar. A man calling himself Ted had approached several women at Lake Sammamish State Park east of Seattle, asking for their help loading his sailboat onto his car. He had his arm in a sling and seemed like a nice enough guy, at least to the witnesses who declined to help him and who later gave statements to Keppel.
The bodies of the two women who offered their help to the stranger were found two months later on a remote hillside.
Keppel was a week into his new job as a detective with the King County Sheriff's Office when he was thrown headlong into the search for the killer.
"It was the next day, July 15, that we first learned of the girls' disappearances," Keppel says now.
"We began to interview witnesses, and we were struck by the meticulousness of their recall. They remembered his gait, his manner of speaking and what he was wearing. And of course, his first name. The only thing we didn't have was a clue as to what happened to the two girls."
When, on Sept. 7, two hunters found the remains of the two young women (along with a femur bone from an unidentified third victim) in nearby Issaquah, Keppel and his colleagues were the first at the scene.
The search-and-rescue team found a grisly collection of bones, hair and other evidence, but they found none of the women's clothing, jewelry or other personal effects that could potentially harbor trace evidence, like semen, blood or hair from the killer.
As other women began to disappear around Washington and Oregon, Keppel theorized one man was responsible.
"You had the same type of victim, eyewitness reports that the suspect was using a ruse to gain the girls' confidence and sympathy, and similar types of trauma to the bodies," Keppel says. "It seemed to me to suggest one perpetrator. What we didn't have was a lot of compelling evidence. Whoever was doing this was being extremely cautious about leaving evidence."
And then, the murders in Washington stopped, and Bundy moved on to Utah and Colorado. He was finally apprehended in Utah, then extradited to Colorado to be tried for the murder of a nurse in Snowmass.
He escaped from a county lockup in Colorado in December 1977 and fled to Florida, where he committed his final murders. After he was caught, he preened for cameras as his trials were broadcast to an international audience. He fomented the image of the wrongly accused man — intelligent, educated and swept away in a wave of circumstantial evidence that somehow caught this lovable Everyman in its undertow.
Throughout the 1980s, Bundy reiterated his innocence. Meanwhile, Keppel became engrossed in the hunt for the Green River killer.
Keppel was taken by surprise, then, in October 1984, when he received a letter from Bundy's representatives saying that Bundy had some information that he thought might be useful in apprehending the Green River killer. Keppel flew to Florida and met Bundy in prison for the first of what would turn out to be three conversations.
During the conversations, he learned that Bundy had very strong opinions about what drove the Green River killer to murder again and again. When Ridgway was arrested in 2002, Keppel realized that Bundy's speculations were eerily accurate.
For example, Bundy kept emphasizing that a killer would revisit the grounds where he left the bodies again and again; he also suggested that police stake out these sites before they made the discoveries public. As Keppel learned later, Bundy was obsessed with body dump sites and returned repeatedly to "visit" the remains of his victims.
"I still believe that much of Ted Bundy's 'Riverman' hypothesis was a projection of himself," Keppel writes in "The Riverman."
A life's mission
The movie, shot in Halifax, Nova Scotia, took a toll on the actors.
"Mentally, the role was psychologically demanding," says Elwes, of his portrayal of Bundy. "But we [the cast and crew] shared a sense of humor without which would've made dealing with some of the material a lot harder."
Elwes credits Keppel's professionalism with providing the movie's central driving force.
"Bob is not only an expert psychologist, but he was also the only person who Bundy treated as his equal intellectually. With the exception of Bob, I think Bundy felt most members of law enforcement were merely buffoons."
"When I first met Bob Keppel, I got a feel for the very quiet and deep-water intensity that he has as a person," says Greenwood, who portrays Keppel in the movie.
"He enjoys the language — an obscure turn of phrase — and I think he used this skill while listening to Bundy. When I first listened to the tapes of their conversations, I thought that Bundy was doing all the talking. But I soon realized that Keppel was delicately nudging him and creating a very comfortable vacuum to draw out [Bundy]."
Keppel left King County in 2003 and joined the faculty of Sam Houston University in Texas, where he uses his experience to teach young students intrigued by television shows like "CSI" and "Profiler" about the realities of serial-murder investigations.
The author of four books on serial-murder investigative techniques, and a pioneer in the field of creating computer networks to link law-enforcement agencies nationwide, Keppel is responsible for much of current knowledge about serial killers.
"I wish we didn't have to be concerned about the Ted Bundys of the world," Keppel says now. "But the sad reality is, they exist in our society, and they pose a very real danger to us all. I've spent my career trying to understand them. Hopefully, I can share what I've learned so we can minimize the damage these predators do."
More information on "The Riverman"
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Ted Montgomery is a free-lance writer based in Michigan: TMontgo184@aol.com