Ginger Strand

American Isolato:
The Rise of the Serial Killer as Anti-Hero

an excerpt from
"Killer on the Road: Violence and the American Interstate"

Forthcoming April 15, 2012 from the University of Texas Press, you can order it here:

Part 1

Lou Ellen Burleigh, age 21, was a secretarial student in September of 1977 when she was invited to interview for a great job at cosmetics company Helena Rubenstein. The interview was in a parking lot: the slightly older man who met her at the Regency Shopping Plaza explained that his office was under construction nearby. This wasn’t surprising: Walnut Creek, California was a fast-growing “edge city” on the east side of San Francisco Bay: bland office buildings and shopping malls were springing up around its new freeway interchange. The man, who called himself John Brown, interviewed Burleigh in a multi-colored van. Then he asked her to return the following day. Lou Ellen agreed, but the man made her a little nervous so she asked her boyfriend to come along. He couldn’t make it, so Lou Ellen Burleigh went back to the shopping center alone. And then she vanished.

Walnut Creek police had an description of the man and his vehicle from a construction worker who had been nearby. They interviewed a man named Roger Reece Kibbe, who had reportedly pulled a knife on a prostitute in nearby Pittsburg, but got nowhere. Kibbe’s van fit the description. But when they showed a picture of Kibbe to their eyewitness, the worker couldn’t say it was the right man. The guy was just too nondescript.

Lieutenant Ray Biondi, commander of Sacramento County’s Homicide Bureau, read the long-forgotten report over a decade later. A lanky man with dark hair, a woolly mustache, and an infectious smile, Biondi had a hunch the Walnut Creek police had questioned the right man. He knew some things the earlier cops didn’t. He knew, for instance, that Roger Reece Kibbe had been in trouble with the law for much of his life. As a juvenile in Chula Vista, CA, he was caught stealing women’s underwear from neighborhood clotheslines. As an adult, Kibbe had been fired from a welding job at National Steel for theft, did time in county jail for burglary, and later did another two years in state prison for stealing parachutes from an airport jump center. He was hardly a criminal mastermind; he just seemed driven by some deep, simmering anger to steal. And not just to steal: to collect things. When a Chula Vista officer questioned him about the area's clothesline crimes, Kibbe produced a box of pilfered clothing from his closet. It was cut and slashed with scissors.

Now married, Kibbe lived with his wife Harriet in a tract house in Pittsburg. They seemed like a deeply normal couple. They had three cats. Roger was physically timid, a soft-spoken man with a mild stutter. He didn’t drink. He was good with small kids and revered his younger brother, Steve, a homicide detective in Lake Tahoe, Nevada. Roger Kibbe was not someone you would think likely to commit a murder, let alone do it again and again. But Lieutenant Bondi, in 1985, had some other information that the police in Walnut Creek didn’t have in 1977. In the years since Lou Ellen Burleigh disappeared, the American serial killer had come of age. And Ray Biondi had seen more than his share of this newly discovered monster.

A month before Lou Ellen Burleigh went on her fateful interview, New York City police captured a man the media were calling “Son of Sam.” David Berkowitz had begun shooting random strangers a year earlier. By the summer of 1977, the city was hysterical. Police had admitted the murders were connected and newspapers had published rambling missives alleged to be from the killer. But no one called the Son of Sam a “serial killer.”

Although there have been multiple murderers throughout history—Jack the Ripper, Countess Bathory of Transylvania, Lizzie Borden—the terms “serial murder” and “serial killer” were not actually used until after World War II. John Brophy used the term “serial murder” in his 1967 book The Meaning of Murder, distinguishing serial murder—in which the killings are separated by space and time—from mass murder, multiple killings at once. “Serial murder” first appears in the New York Times in May of 1981, in a story about the child murders unfolding in Atlanta. But FBI Special Agent Robert Ressler is most frequently cited—mistakenly—as the term’s inventor. Ressler helped shape the bureau’s increasing involvement in the topic during the early eighties, a campaign that turned serial killers from a rare criminal type noticed mostly by law enforcement into a national obsession.

But then something truly odd happened. Between the early eighties, when the nation, prompted by the FBI, panicked over its “epidemic” of serial murder, and the election of Bill Clinton in 1992, serial killers morphed in the public mind from figures of fear to figures of fascination. Murder has always interested the public, but this was a new kind of murder, and new kind of fascination. Serial killers came to be admired, not only as outlaws—we Americans have always loved our outlaws—but as icons of the nation’s newly unabashed materialism. This process began with the case of one man: Ted Bundy.

The late seventies had seen a number of high-profile serial murder cases. There was Son of Sam, the Zodiac Killer, the “Hillside Strangler” in L.A., and in the Chicago area, “Killer Clown” John Wayne Gacy. But the undisputed superstar was Ted Bundy. Handsome, personable, apparently middle class and with a penchant for victims who made good copy—pretty co-eds, ski instructors, sorority sisters—Bundy quickly became the nation’s paradigmatic serial murderer.

Bundy first came to the public’s notice in 1977. He had been killing women in the Seattle region since the early seventies, but police there didn’t have enough evidence to indict him. In 1974, he moved to Salt Lake City to attend law school at the University of Utah, and late that year, one of his intended victims got away. She identified Bundy and he was convicted of kidnapping in 1976. While embarking on Utah’s 15-year sentence, he was extradited to Colorado to stand trial for murder. While in law school, he had moved his killing activity out of state.

In Colorado, Bundy became a media sensation after he escaped from custody—twice, once from Aspen, the second time from Glenwood Springs. Many people couldn’t help but admire his audacity. Aspen locals printed T-shirts saying “Ted Bundy is a one-night stand.” An area restaurant offered a “Bundyburger”—an empty bun, which you open to find “the meat has fled.” On the lam, Bundy made his way to Chicago, then Michigan, and ultimately, Florida. After a week in Florida, he broke into the Chi Omega sorority house on the Florida State University campus and went on a rampage, brutally bludgeoning and strangling two young women and severely injuring two more. Two weeks later, he abducted, raped and killed a 12-year-old girl in Lake City, Florida. He was arrested less than a week later, and denied any connection to the Florida killings. But the game was over; he would eventually begin confessing to a shocking, multi-state murder career.

Bundy was catnip for the media. Not only was he good looking and well dressed, he was a former law student, a converted Mormon and an occasional political worker for Republican candidates and Washington State’s Republican Party. News stories depicted him as a bright lawyer-to-be with a promising future in politics. He had worked at a suicide crisis hotline, had run down a purse-snatcher, and once saved a small child from drowning. He wore turtlenecks and nice sports jackets. At his first trial, he conspicuously turned the pages of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago while the lawyers wrangled. He looked like the kind of man a woman would proudly bring home to meet mom and dad. “All-American Boy on Trial” was the title of the New York Times Magazine profile, which called him a “terrific looking man” with a “lean all-American face,” a “young man who represented the best of America, not its worst.” The Times author went so far as to dub him “Kennedyesque.”

But Ted Bundy was no Jack Kennedy. On close inspection, his veneer of upper-middle-class sophistication evaporates. Born at a home for unwed mothers in Vermont, possibly the product of incestuous sexual abuse, he was told when very young that his grandparents were his parents. Then his mother took him to Tacoma, Washington and remarried. He was adopted by his stepfather, a cook in an Army hospital. The family, which soon grew to include four more kids, lived in an unimpressive home on Tacoma’s west side. Bundy hated being seen in his stepfather’s low-class Rambler. “I felt inferior,” Bundy later told interviewers, “in part because of the money thing. My family didn’t have money problems per se, but I was always envious of the kids who lived in all those brick houses where the executives and doctors lived. I felt kind of deprived, at a disadvantage to those people who had the money, the successful parents, all the goodies.”

Once at the University of Washington, Bundy worked hard to disguise his humble origins by acquiring the goodies. He bought preppy clothes, drank fancy French wines, forged ski lift tickets. He affected an English-sounding accent. He was most successful in hoodwinking the unsophisticated. His first serious girlfriend, the daughter of a wealthy California family, dumped him for his lack of ambition. He later described her as “Saks” to his “Sears and Roebuck.” His next girlfriend Elizabeth Kloepfer, a Mormon secretary from Ogden, Utah, was easier to impress: in her memoir, she reports that when she met Bundy she thought him “a cut above the rest of the crowd,” because “his slacks and turtleneck certainly weren’t from J. C. Penney.” The first time they made dinner together, he impressed her by taking her to an upscale Safeway to buy steaks. He didn’t tell her he had worked there as a night stocker.

Bundy’s most comprehensive biographers, Stephen Michaud and Hugh Aynesworth, write that “the press stories about Ted stressed his apparent normalcy, his intellect, his attractiveness, his Republicanism. They didn’t report he was a compulsive nail-biter and nose picker, that he was no genius (I.Q.: 124), that he was at best a fair student in college and failure in law school, that he was poorly read, that he frequently mispronounced words and that he stuttered when nervous and had acquired only a surface sophistication.” The authors were swimming upstream. The media persisted in presenting Bundy as brilliant, charming and upscale, and Bundy kept helping them do it. Asked by a prison interviewer to describe his crimes, he replied, “How do you describe the taste of bouillabaisse? Some remember clams, others mullet.” When he announced his intention to defend himself at his Florida trial, 250 reporters from 5 continents applied for press passes to the courtroom. ABC television paid for a dedicated satellite hook-up.

After his conviction, Bundy’s became the paradigmatic serial murderer. Four books about him were quickly published: The Stranger Beside Me, The Deliberate Stranger, The Killer Next Door, The Only Living Witness. The most popular was by Ann Rule, a hardworking hack writer of parenting and detective-magazine stories who had actually worked with Bundy at the Seattle Crisis Center—a lucky break for a would-be crime writer. The Stranger Beside Me launched her meteoric rise as a bestselling doyenne of true crime. In it, she describes Bundy in terms so glowing she sounds like she’s writing his law-school recommendation: “a brilliant, handsome senior in psychology at the University of Washington;” “Ted Bundy is a man who learns from experience—his own and others’”. . . “If Ted is to die, I think he will muster the strength to do it with style.” One year later, Elizabeth Kloepfer—writing as “Elizabeth Kendall”—took a similarly admiring tone in her memoir, The Phantom Prince: My Life With Ted Bundy.

Bundymania spawned a number of false myths about serial killers: that they are predominantly white, middle-class men who prey on beautiful young co-eds; that they are intelligent, even brilliant, capable of eluding and tricking the police; and that they are fundamentally divided souls, with a socially acceptable “mask” disguising the dark demon writhing within. Even as criminologists have consistently debunked these myths, they persist in movies, novels and purportedly nonfiction books. They serve to make serial killers more likable.

Another myth the Bundy case helped create was the notion that serial killers are mobile predators, roaming the nation in search of victims. Bundy had indeed traveled from Washington state to Utah to Florida, but before he left Washington the majority of his killings occurred in one very small area—the Seattle neighborhood around the University of Washington. Yet it was his travels that sparked the national imagination. He was said to be “the first coast-to-coast killer, the model of the traveling serial killer who took advantage of what Bundy called ‘the anonymity factor.’”

One person who knew better, even in the early eighties, was Lieutenant Ray Biondi. The Sacramento area seemed to have more than its fair share of serial killers, and Detective Biondi had helped capture a number of them. He had tracked down Richard Chase, the “Vampire Killer,” a psychotic murderer who drank his victims’ blood. He had helped build the case against Gerald Gallego, whose wife Charlene helped him abduct, rape and murder teenage girls in the Sacramento area in the late seventies. In 1985, Biondi would help solve a series of murders of young boys committed by another young boy—Jon Scott Dunkle. None of these cases fit the stereotype: Chase was psychotic, Gallego worked in a team with his wife, and Dunkle was a diagnosed schizophrenic. And each had a very specific “hunting ground.” Biondi knew that, although the media presented him as the very model of the modern multiple murderer, Ted Bundy was the exception, not the rule. The reality was much less glamorous.

Sometime around 1980, Harriet and Roger Kibbe bought a home in Oakley, a small town about 12 miles east of Pittsburg. A few years later, using borrowed money, they purchased a furniture warehouse in Modesto. Roger was going to make furniture, and Harriet would manage the business’s books.

It was an era of change. As the eighties dawned, the nation was experiencing a profound transition. The seventies—an era of questioning, of self-doubt, of rethinking old beliefs in the face of social breakdown—were about to give way to the eighties, an era of retrenchment, of turning away from what was wrong with society and refocusing on what was right. In July of 1979, President Carter gave a historic speech in which he bluntly declared that it was time to deal with the fact that America had chosen the wrong path: consumerism. “In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God,” President Carter declared, “too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we've discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We've learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.”

Carter’s anti-consumerist message was drowned out in 1980 by the election of Ronald Reagan. In response to what conservatives branded as Carter’s “navel-gazing,” Reagan simply glowed with boundless faith in the American way. In the campaign’s one televised debate, Reagan offered a few simple questions for people to ask themselves in deciding how to vote: “Are you better off than you were four years ago? Is it easier for you to go buy things in stores than it was four years ago?” he began. It was a redefinition of the national mission in the simplest terms possible: America is succeeding if its citizens can go buy things. The Great Communicator’s subsequent landslide victory suggested the message had found an enthusiastic audience: the rededication to mass consumption was on.

It was a deep and profound shift in the national sensibility, a turn away from self-doubt and back toward the American dream defined as unfettered free enterprise, unabashed consumerism and unflinching military prowess. And it was amped up by eighties upscaling and the affluence of the aging Baby Boom. Suddenly, the brand-name lifestyle so desired by Ted Bundy was unapologetically everywhere. Shows like Dallas, Knots Landing and Dynasty celebrated the arts of getting and spending. Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous profiled the conspicuous consumption of real-life Ewings and Carringtons: host Robin Leach signed off each night by wishing his audience “champagne wishes and caviar dreams.” It was the era of movies like Wall Street, whose anti-hero Gordon Gekko’s motto—intended as satire by director Oliver Stone—became a rallying cry for would-be corporate raiders: “greed is good.”

Part 2 appears in the May 2012 issue of the Believer


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