In June 1977, following my first year of college, I took a job driving a roach coach, an old converted pickup truck that brought food to workers at construction sites near my neighborhood just outside Denver. The truck was white with diamond-patterned aluminum doors on both sides that swung up to expose ice chests filled with sodas and half-pint cardboard cartons of milk. I sold stale ham sandwiches, Cokes, and MoonPies to boys just a few years older than I was, boys who were shirtless and muscled and hungry. One day a new boy, a shy boy, bought a sandwich and, as soon as the other boys had walked away, asked if I might want to meet for dinner. Mark was quiet and polite and seemed a little lost. I said yes. We met at an Italian restaurant, where we sat on the patio under a moonlit sky. Over pepperoni pizza, our first-date conversation turned intimate and intense. Abruptly he leaned forward, his brown eyes troubled, and told me his sister had disappeared two years earlier. For months no one knew where she was. And then she was found dead.
Mark said Shelley was tall like me, five-eight or so, with hazel eyes and long brown hair parted in the middle. She was slim and pretty in a girl-next-door kind of way. The day she disappeared, she was wearing what we all wore back then: bell-bottom jeans, a T-shirt with the name of a rock band on the front—maybe Yes or Emerson, Lake & Palmer—and hiking boots. Hiking books were de rigueur for Colorado girls. We were tough. We were untethered. We reveled in all the freedoms the ’60s and ’70s seemed to promise young girls like us. We tried smoking pot and backpacking and sleeping with boys, things our mothers never did. We thought about medical school or law school, even though our families couldn’t afford it, even though our fathers disapproved. Hitchhiking was common. Everyone did it. You could hitch from Denver to Boulder or Boulder to Birmingham or ride all the way to the West Coast if you wanted.
Like Shelley, I wore my hair parted in the middle, long and straight down my back.
It turns out Ted Bundy preferred women with long hair parted in the middle.
Police found a gas receipt from a station in Golden, dated just days before Shelley disappeared, crumpled under the passenger seat of Bundy’s white VW Bug. Twenty minutes from Denver, Golden is the self-proclaimed Gateway to the Rockies. Winding neighborhoods rise into the foothills backed by the first row of the Rocky Mountains, dark blue and green, a jagged spine extending along the horizon. The town is filled with taverns, coffee shops, pizza parlors, and back then, the historic Foss drugstore, now gone. Golden has been a company town since 1873, when German immigrants Adolph Coors and Jacob Schueler arrived and started a brewery. When Prohibition began in 1920, Adolph was forced to dump nearly 20,000 gallons of beer into Clear Creek, but just down the street his friend Henry “Heinie” Foss sold Coors beer—and 100-proof bourbon whiskey, available with prescription—at his drugstore, strictly for medicinal purposes. These days, when you drive down Main Street, you’re still met with an arch that stretches from one side of the street to the other with Howdy Folks! Welcome to Golden in loopy script. And then, in smaller letters, capitalized for emphasis: where the west lives. People like to say there are no strangers in Golden.
In the mid-’70s, there were two gas stations. The one where Bundy stopped to fill his tank before picking up Shelley was an old Sinclair station just off the main drag. Even today there’s a friendly, emerald-green Brontosaurus on the sign.
Volkswagen Bugs were popular then, representing a kind of post-1960s philosophy of peace and love and freedom, and they held up well as you banged them up and down those back mountain roads. Mine was cherry red with a half rainbow in the back window and a small ski rack on top. Snug as a bug in a rug. My Bug was my symbol of freedom—freedom from my parents, freedom from my adolescence, freedom from the suffocating sense of invisibility I’d felt in high school. I paid for it in cash, having saved up months of tips from waiting tables. That Bug was a volte-face from the car I’d learned to drive on: my grandfather’s 1963 Rambler with a stick shift and a windshield clouded with cigarette smoke. I loved and loathed that car until the day my grandfather paid a guy $50 to take it away. “We’re selling it for a song,” he told me.
Ted Bundy learned to drive on a Rambler, too. It belonged to his mother. Years later, in a prison interview, he said it embarrassed him to drive a car so common, so pedestrian, so uncool. He was ashamed to be seen in it. What he had really wanted was a VW Bug.
Just like me.
That was the summer David Bowie’s “Golden Years” filled the air: Look at that sky, life’s begun / Nights are warm and the days are young. On our second date, Mark and I went to see Star Wars. We stood in line for hours, me in my long jean skirt and hair in braids, Mark in his Levi’s with a leather belt and a well-worn buckle with a mountain on it. Soon I started spending nights at his place, a tiny one-bedroom house that once had been a ticket office for the railroad. At the end of the summer, I went back to college and Mark took a job at a hardware store. He played guitar Thursday nights at the Denver Folklore Center, and I would drive down in my Bug to sit in the back row and watch as he sang, played, and laughed with the crowd. In person, Mark was quiet and withdrawn; on stage, he came alive. He was 23, four years older than me, and right off the bat, he wanted to get married. Lots of kids and a picket fence, he said. His family was splintered—his parents had divorced, his two older brothers had moved away, and always there was the one thing—his sister’s murder—they couldn’t talk about. His mother, Roberta, still lived in the same house where the kids had grown up, built by Mark’s dad decades ago. The day we met, Roberta took my hand in hers and cupped it as if I were her own daughter. Mark’s father lived outside of town with his new wife, a woman with orange hair and leopard-pattern pants who poured us tall glasses of red wine and took our photo as we sat on her sofa. You and Mark could save this family, Roberta said. At the time, I wasn’t sure what she meant.
That summer, life seemed full of contradictions. I felt heady with the promised freedom of women’s rights, civil rights, the idea of breaking free from traditional expectations. And yet, in Golden, we were all good girls, nice girls, raised in modest homes in the suburbs. We did well in school. We were polite. Our mothers told us not to raise our voices or question authority. We didn’t play sports—jogging was considered a passing fad, and 24-hour fitness centers didn’t exist. Title IX was still new. Girls weren’t supposed to have muscles. Girls weren’t supposed to fight. Girls weren’t supposed to strike back. We were cheerleaders, or we sat on the sidelines.
Shelley was a good girl. After graduating from Arvada High School, she spent a year with the United Church of Christ at a mission in Biloxi, Mississippi. She returned to Colorado and studied Spanish at Red Rocks Community College. Her class spent a semester abroad in a Mexican fishing village. Later, Shelley went back to visit the people she knew there. She spent a year working and traveling in Alaska. Mark told me that their mother had encouraged Shelley to travel and experience the world. “You can always come back to your hometown,” she had told her.
The newspaper reported that Shelley had had a fight with her boyfriend. He let her out of the car, and she was trying to hitchhike home. I don’t know if this is true. The same story has been told about more than one Bundy victim.
Many women adored Ted Bundy. During the nine years he spent in prison, he received hundreds of letters each month, mostly from female admirers. Bundy married a woman who numbered among the dozens who showed up at his trials and hearings. They had a daughter, conceived during a forbidden conjugal visit. Bundy’s wife eventually ended her contact with him and did not attend his execution. She and her daughter moved away and are said to have changed their names.
Sociopaths are opportunists. Studies show that they are unusually perceptive at spotting weakness or vulnerability, particularly in women. They’re not afraid to seize the moment. Sometimes it’s not the person but the situation: girls sleeping in a sorority house, a child walking home from school, a student on her way to the library for an evening study session.
Bundy was a necrophiliac as well as a sociopath. He liked to place his bodies in locations where he could return again and again. Sometimes he brought makeup and hair products.
I couldn’t save Mark’s family. I know this now. I couldn’t save Shelley, whose brief life had already been forgotten and erased by the town, by the media, by the nation. I couldn’t save Mark’s father, a blue-collar man who worked hard all his life and had to bear sorrows no man should have to bear. I couldn’t save Mark’s mother, who for years left Shelley’s bedroom untouched.
It turns out I couldn’t even save Mark.
Colorado is famous for letting Ted Bundy escape. Twice.
A year after Shelley disappeared, Bundy was being held, pending charges for a separate murder, in the Garfield County jail in Glenwood Springs. He was transferred to the Pitkin County Courthouse in nearby Aspen for a preliminary hearing on June 7, 1977. Bundy, a former law student, asked for permission—granted by the judge—to act as his own attorney, thereby excusing him from wearing leg shackles and handcuffs.
One day, while the court was in recess, Bundy asked to visit the courthouse law library on the pretense of researching his defense. As soon as the guard left him alone, he slipped behind a bookcase, opened a window, and jumped two stories to the grass below. A passerby noticed but did nothing; when she entered the courthouse, she asked, very politely, Is it common for people to jump out of courthouse windows?
By then Bundy had pulled off an outer layer of clothing and was walking openly down the streets of Aspen, a town like Golden but with more money, higher mountains, and big movie stars. He had sprained his right ankle in the fall and walked with a limp. He heard that roadblocks had been set up around town, so he hiked up Aspen Mountain, famous for its ski slopes but now covered in wildflowers, and broke into a hunting cabin near the summit, where he took food, clothes, and a rifle. He set out for the nearby town of Crested Butte but got lost in the woods along the way. After three days on the run, still in pain from the ankle, he broke into a camping trailer, stole more food and a ski parka, and started hiking downhill. Eventually, he found himself at the edge of the Aspen Golf Course. He hotwired a car. Two police officers pulled him over and arrested him when they noticed a vehicle driving erratically down the road.
Bundy had been on the run for six days.
Six months later, back in jail in Glenwood Springs, he engineered another escape. With the help of friends inside and out, he obtained a hacksaw blade, $500, and a floor plan of the jail building. For weeks, each evening while his cellmates showered, he patiently sawed a one-foot square between the steel bars in the ceiling of his cell. He stopped eating and lost 35 pounds. On December 30, 1977, with most of the jail’s staff on Christmas break, Bundy piled books and legal files under the blanket on his bed in the shape of a sleeping body. Then he climbed up through the hole and into the crawlspace above, and dropped down into the apartment of the chief jailer, who happened to be out spending the evening with his wife. Bundy changed into the jailer’s street clothes and walked straight out the front door. Once again, he hotwired a car, but it broke down on eastbound I-70. A friendly driver gave him a ride to Vail, where he caught a bus to Denver and boarded a flight to Chicago. By the time the guards discovered the disguise in his bed 17 hours later, the plane had landed. Bundy was gone.
More than a year passed before he was caught. He traveled from Chicago to Michigan, and then took a bus to Tallahassee, posing as a student at Florida State University and renting a room in a boarding house. On January 15, 1978, Bundy murdered Margaret Bowman and Lisa Levy while they were sleeping in their beds at the Chi Omega sorority house. He then stole a van from the university and began driving. On February 9, Kimberly Leach went missing from her junior high school in Lake City. Police tried to trace Bundy’s route through receipts from stolen credit cards as he stopped for gas and food. On February 15 in Pensacola, he was pulled over, once again for erratic driving, and arrested. He was at the wheel of a stolen VW Bug.
Two months later, Kimberly Leach’s body—sexually assaulted, beaten, and decomposed—was found under a collapsed hog shed. Like Bundy’s other victims, she was pretty and had long hair parted in the middle. She was 12.
Many girls tried to talk their way out of it. In a police interview, Bundy described what happened when 18-year-old Georgann Hawkins started talking. “One of the things that make it a little bit difficult is that … she was quite lucid, talking about things. It’s not funny, but it’s odd the kinds of things people will say under those circumstances. And she said that she had a Spanish test the next day, and she thought that I had taken her to help tutor her for her Spanish test. It’s kind of an odd thing to say.” He paused, then continued with practicalities. “The long and short of it is that I again knocked her unconscious, strangled her, and drug her about 10 yards into the small grove of trees.”
He showed no remorse.
My mother, whose own marriage had been disastrous, counseled me to marry and settle down. I loved Mark, but I wasn’t ready for that white picket fence. I wanted to finish college and see the world, make something of myself. Still, I didn’t want to lose him. He was kind and gentle, certainly one of the most altruistic people I’ve ever met. My childhood and adolescence had been a roller coaster of family crisis, and he seemed like a safe shelter from the storm. But I was only 19. I’ll wait for you, he said. Please wait for me. So we agreed to marry someday and saw each other on weekends and holidays. We spent time with each other’s families. Roberta encouraged me to be a writer. His stepmother said I should learn how to cook, and began to plan wedding invitations.
One girl, raped and left for dead, did manage to get away, although luck played an extraordinary role. Rhonda Stapley, a 21-year-old pharmacy student at the University of Utah, was waiting at a bus stop when a man in a white VW Bug pulled over and offered her a lift. She thought he was cute, and when she climbed in, he was kind and polite. “He didn’t talk much,” she said, “but when he did, his voice was confident, his conversation articulate.” They drove awhile, and then he turned up a mountain road and stopped in a secluded area next to a rushing stream. He shut off the engine. He wanted to kiss her. “I didn’t want to kiss him,” she said. “But I didn’t know how to get out of the situation without embarrassing myself by making a fuss.”
When Rhonda regained consciousness, she was lying on the ground next to the Bug while Bundy busied himself on the other side, organizing the items he generally carried in his back seat: a lug wrench, twine, duct tape, a large knife in a wood case, a meat cleaver, and crutches, which he sometimes used to fake an injury. Her jeans were around her ankles and she couldn’t rise or run, so she rolled away from the car. She fell into the stream. As the water carried her over rocks and branches, she kicked off her jeans and crawled out, bruised, naked, and alive, several miles downstream.
We all hitchhiked. We trusted strangers. We believed in the general goodness of all things. Once, when all of us four kids were packed in the back seat of the station wagon and fighting like alley cats, my mother pulled over to the side of the road. “Stop it!” she demanded. “I can’t drive!” We giggled together in open rebellion. “If you can’t sit quietly,” my mother said, “you’ll have to walk home.”
“Fine,” my younger sister said. She got out. She was 12. “I’ll see you at home,” she said.
My mother drove off. Ten minutes later, she circled back, but my sister was gone. Two more hours passed before she showed up late for dinner, smirking a little, pleased as punch. I burned with envy at her independent spirit.
Shelley Robertson disappeared on Monday, June 29, 1975. In late August, two engineering students went hiking near Berthoud Pass, in the mountains just outside Golden. They found Shelley’s nude, decomposing body in a mineshaft, still bound with duct tape. Little else is known about her death.
My VW Bug frequently overheated, forcing me to pull over to the side of the road and wait. Sometimes it refused even to start. One afternoon, I planned to drive to Denver to meet my mother for dinner. The Bug was lifeless; the starter clicked and then fell silent. I hiked out to the highway and put out my thumb. It was a hot, dry day, and the sun shone in that bright, direct way that is particular to Colorado. It felt good on my face. I remember being thirsty. I often carried a warm Coke in my backpack, but this day, I had only my purse—leather with fringe—with a couple of dollars inside. Rush-hour traffic hadn’t started yet, and only a few cars whizzed by. Finally, just as I was ready to give up and head back to my apartment, a sedan slowed and pulled over. A Ford Galaxie, pale yellow with cream seats. The driver looked to be in his early 40s, well dressed, perhaps on his way back to his office. He reached over and opened the door from the inside.
“Where you headed?” he asked.
“Arvada,” I said. It was an hour’s drive.
“Hop in,” he said. “I’m headed that direction.”
He had long slender fingers, and they tapped the wheel as he pulled back onto the highway. After a few minutes, he reached over and locked my door, as if this was something he always did. He didn’t seem to want to talk, so I sat in silence. We drove for about 20 minutes, and then he turned off on an exit.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“The back roads,” he said. “Less traffic.”
But there was almost no traffic, and the highway was a straight shot. There was no reason to take a back road. I nearly said this aloud, and suddenly I realized this had nothing to do with traffic. We turned onto a single-lane road, going very fast. I looked out the window at the fields racing by. Then he put his right hand on my left knee. His grip tightened. It was hard to believe this was happening. I thought of Shelley. I thought about opening the door and jumping out. In my horseback riding lessons, I had learned how to tuck and roll, and I thought I might be able to roll off the pavement onto the shoulder of the road. But the side of the highway whizzed by in a blur. The man was silent, his face expressionless. My mouth went dry. I felt lightheaded, disconnected from my body, my heart thudding and my tongue thick.
I started talking. “Where are you from?” I asked. “What’s your name?”
He didn’t answer. He looked serious. Furious.
“My name is Kris,” I said. “I have two sisters and a brother. We have a dog named Pug. I take riding lessons on Thursday nights. My horse’s name is Sassy.”
He didn’t look at me.
I was talking too fast.
“One sister plays the flute,” I said, “and the other is a gymnast. My little brother likes to play jokes on his sisters. But we always get him back.”
It sounded so stupid. He kept his hand tight on my knee.
I willed myself to stop shaking. I made myself slow down, keeping my voice low and calm.
“I have a boyfriend named Mark, who plays guitar and likes to go rock climbing,” I said. “He’s tall with brown hair and hazel eyes. He’s not sure about college. I have to study tonight for chemistry. It’s my worst subject. I thought I would be a veterinarian, but I’m not sure I can pass chemistry.”
There was no response. He kept his eyes on the road.
I told him about my best friend from high school who’d just gotten engaged. “I’m going to be her maid of honor,” I said. “I’ve never been a maid of honor, and it makes me nervous.”
I told him my mother was waiting to have dinner with me when she got off her shift at the nursing home. She loved being a nurse, but the hours were long. We’d probably order Cobb salads and Chardonnay.
I wondered if he was scared, too. His grip on my thigh grew so tight it hurt.
“I might change majors. I think I want to be a writer,” I said. “Maybe someday.”
The air in the car grew hot and clammy. I thought I might faint. I couldn’t think of anything else to say.
But then he jerked to the side of the road and braked in a spray of gravel.
“Get out,” he said. “Get. Out.”
I fell sprawling out of the car and tumbled down the embankment. I heard the door slam. I lay with my cheek in the dirt until the car roared off. I waited until I couldn’t hear it anymore, and then I waited a little longer. It took me four hours to reach a gas station. I stayed down in the gully, walking through the weeds and soft sand and water. Every time a car passed, I huddled down. At the gas station, I used a pay phone to call my mother to come pick me up.
I didn’t tell her what happened. I never told anyone what happened. I felt guilty and dirty. I felt it was my fault.
I never hitchhiked again.
Why did the man with slender fingers let me out of the car?
Perhaps it was because I told him the details of my life. My dog, my mother, my boyfriend.
Maybe it was God, maybe it was fate, maybe it was extraordinary luck.
Or maybe he was just an opportunist who lost his nerve.
In his final hours, Bundy called his mother, Louise, twice at her home in Tacoma, Washington. “He kept saying how sorry he was, that there was ‘another part of me that people didn’t know,’ ” she said, adding that he sounded “very much at peace with himself.” At the end of the second call, she told him, “You’ll always be my precious son.”
One afternoon, a sunny Saturday in October when Mark and I had been seeing each other for over a year, he went rock climbing with a friend. Mark had climbed for years, in Colorado and Mexico, and he and his friend Gary decided to drive up to a popular climbing spot in Boulder Canyon to practice rappelling. A rope slipped, and a piton pulled from the face of the rock. I was taking a meditation class at church that evening, when my mother called to pull me out of class. “Come home,” she said. She made me sit down at the kitchen table before she gave me the news.
Mark had been living in a small apartment on 34th Avenue in Denver. He was 24. Two days after his death, his brother Rick took me to the apartment. It was tidy, untouched, a half-full coffee cup on the table. We went upstairs to the bedroom, and Rick told me to take whatever I’d like to have. I froze at the door. The only thing I could see was a teddy bear on the bed that I had given Mark as a Valentine’s present, a kind of joke. He liked to hike. He liked the mountains. He liked bears.
I still have that bear.
Fourteen years after Shelley died, in the hours before his execution, Bundy confessed to dozens of murders. He had delayed his appointment with the electric chair for nine years and 277 days, and he thought he might delay it a little more. He provided concrete, specific evidence of the murders of 16 women and admitted to involvement in at least 30 others in Colorado, Utah, Washington, and Florida. The final tally, which will never be known, is at least 70 and likely over 100. The youngest proven victim was 12, although he was strongly suspected of the killing of an eight-year-old. The oldest was 26. Most were 18 or 19.
Bundy seemed desperate in his last-minute deluge of details, talking fast like some of his victims must have done. He listed names, places, his particular methods of murder. He described the look women get in their eyes just as they die. It was an intimate moment, he said. Previously, he admitted to murdering Shelley Robertson but refused to provide details. It was the only acknowledged murder he wouldn’t talk about. Even he seemed to shudder at the memory.
Bundy’s final interview was with James Dobson, a preacher who, in 1977, founded the Christian conservative organization Focus on the Family. Bundy hoped Dobson would stay his execution once again, while Dobson hoped a taped interview with Bundy would help with fundraising. With Dobson’s prompting, Bundy changed his story and agreed with Dobson that pornography had caused his violent behavior. It went all the way back to the 1940s, Bundy embellished, when as a boy he’d found lurid comic books and detective novels in neighborhood garbage bins that featured women being tortured and killed. The interview did not prolong Bundy’s life, but Dobson used it to fill his organization’s coffers.
On the day of Bundy’s execution, January 24, 1989, hundreds of people gathered across the street from the Florida State Prison in Starke. In addition to receiving the death penalty for the 1978 sexual slaying of the 12-year-old girl, Bundy was convicted of murdering the two sorority sisters at Florida State University. Fraternity boys stood in groups, wearing hand-lettered T-shirts: “Bundy BBQ ,” “Roast in Peace,” “Hey Ted, This Buzz Is for You,” and “Bundy World Tour: Sold Out!” Other gatherers banged on frying pans, and chanted “Burn, Bundy, burn!” A few people sang songs they had written about him, including one to the tune of “On Top of Old Smokey.” A few feet away, several dozen death-penalty opponents stood silently, some praying and holding lighted candles.
At 7:16 A.M., a journalist left the Q Wing of Florida State Prison, raised his hands, and waved a white flag, the sign that Bundy was dead. The crowd cheered. The hearse carrying the body was held up by traffic that jammed the road.
Some of those in the crowd were parents of victims. “I feel kind of numb in a way,” one woman said. “My daughter’s murderer was taken care of. He paid for what he did.” But she still felt unsatisfied. “It seems like I was sentenced to a lifetime of waiting. Now there’s really nothing to wait for.”
Roberta Robertson also stood in that crowd, in the row of candleholders. “Killing Ted Bundy won’t make me feel better and it won’t bring back Shelley,” she told a journalist. “A lot of people seem to want it out of a vengeance. But it gives people a false sense of security. And it’s terribly expensive.”
Shelley was 24 when she died. Mark was 24 when he died. I lived to see 24, and 34, and 44, and more. More than 30 years have passed since these events. Yet I am still haunted by the image of the man who would have been my husband and the woman who might have been my sister-in-law. My ghost husband, my ghost sister. Why did I get to live, and they did not?
The day Bundy died, he showered, had his head and lower right leg shaved, and then put on dark blue pants and a light blue shirt. He wore manacles on each wrist. Two correctional officers escorted him to the death chamber, where 24 witnesses were waiting. He sat down in the electric chair. The officers placed straps over his arms, leg, waist, and chest, with a final strap over his chin and a metal cap on his head. He was asked if he had any last words. “Give my love to my family and friends,” he said. A black veil was placed over his face.
Many years later, I saw Roberta at the drugstore. We had lost touch, and she didn’t recognize me. She was paying for some small item with coins from a zippered purse. Her face was deeply lined and her hair gray. Her clothes could have been 10 years old, maybe 20, maybe more—a pair of blue corduroy pants and a sweater too large for her small frame, just as I remembered. She pushed the coins around on the counter, exchanged some pleasant words with the clerk, and shuffled out. I wondered if she was still living in the same house. I wondered if Shelley’s clothes were still hanging in the closet, and if Mark’s hiking boots were still in the hall.
I thought of tapping her shoulder and saying hello. I considered what I might say. She had lost two children. Roberta’s grief had seemed so intimate and profound that my words could only have been painfully trivial. Even then, I still carried Mark’s death like a knife in my gut. I had learned that you don’t get over grief like that; you just learn to carry it inside and try to live with it.
I watched her walk out the door, and I have regretted the moment ever since.
Maybe this essay is about Roberta. Maybe it’s about just getting up, day after day, year after year, and not giving in to the bitterness of the world.
I sold that VW, not long after Bundy got caught for the last time. Like my old Rambler, it went for a song. The tires were bald, the engine dead, the rainbow in the back window faded to a pale ribbon of red. I pocketed the crumpled $100 bill from the buyer and watched a tow truck take it down the street.
Roberta was 92 years old when she died. I read in the newspaper she had recently written a play that was produced in the local theater. She was working on a second one, a family drama, at the time of her death. The manuscript has been lost.
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