Thursday, February 11, 2010

Ted Bundy Tipped His Hand...

I spent the better part of a decade researching serial killers for a graphic novel I've been working on, and over that period of time I've realized that I owe a huge indirect debt to Robert Keppel. His insight had a major impact that research. He worked the Ted Bundy and Green River Killer case and was one of the men behind the development of the college course called simply "Murder."

He was a helpful source and companion to Ann Rule while she was writing her first book
The Stranger Beside Me. Her book was about the friendship she cultivated with Bundy while the two were working together at, of all places, a suicide hotline.

He directly chronicled some of the last active police work he did in the book
The Riverman: Ted Bundy and I Hunt for the Green River Killer. He did a series of interviews with the man for whom the term "serial killer" was coined from shortly after the time of his capture all the way up to his execution. These interviews offered insight into the possible motivations of the then at large "Green River Killer," but they also served the purpose of allowing Bundy to confess to a larger number of his own crimes giving the legal system and the victims families a chance at closure.

His relationship with
Bundy was the basis of Thomas Harris' novel Red Dragon, with Bundy himself serving as inspiration for Hanibal Lecter. I've had a lot to say about this particular piece of work in the past.

A few years ago
Keppel's book was adapted into a made-for-cable movie and I've wanted to see it since it was made. It was recently given a DVD release under the title The Riverman. There were a few immediate insights the film gave me. First, it seems that William Peterson's haunted Will Graham was probably based in large part on Keppel's actual demeanor.

One of his first lines in the film is the parting words he gives to that day's "murder" class. Something to the effect of "don't bring the thoughts about what you just studied home with you because it'll destroy you." Something which I learned the hard way during the course of my research, which the real
Keppel probably knows more than anyone.

But the film does a good job of driving home the point about how dealing with the things that a man like
Keppel deals with takes a toll on your personal life, your family and your general mental stability that few of us can imagine.

The plot of the story basically consists of Dave
Reichert calling Keppel in to help on the case after every lead has been exhausted and the police chief is threatening to disband the "Green River Task Force." Keppel is initially very reluctant, but eventually gives in. Shortly after, he receives a letter from Ted Bundy offering help on the case sent to his house. This is shocking, because Bundy has already escaped prison twice, and he now knows where someone who was working his case actually lives.

But one last credit to
Keppel the hero: he's very kind in dealing with Dave Reichert. By some accounts everything that went wrong on the Green River case can be traced back directly to him personally. Keppel mostly treats him as a a rookie with a good heart who was in over his head in trying to deal with men like Bundy and Ridgway (Who would eventually be discovered as the Green River killer). But is has to be said that a man who allowed a suspect who had a nickname at work of "Green River Gary" slip under the radar for over a decade deserves at least some of the criticism he gets.

The plot of the story was really dramatized much better in the fictionalized accounts of the
Lechter books/movies than this true-to-life one. so I won't focus too much on it since, as I stated before, I already have. I don't think there's too much more for me to say about Keppel than what I had to say about his fictional counterpart.

What caught my eye in this version was the portrayal of
Bundy. Cary Elwes does a great job of playing Bundy in his final days. At the peak of his murderous skill he was known as a charming, charismatic, chameleon. He could easily change his appearance at will, and had an entire arsenal of skills designed to make women put down their guard around him. After years of trials and prison life, the strain of "wearing the mask" 24/7 took its toll on him, and it became obvious to anyone around him that there was something drastically wrong with this person.

One of the factors
Elwes centers on in his portrayal of Bundy is his awareness of his own myth or mystique and the fact that it was all fading in the days and weeks before his impending execution. His motivations in helping profile the Green River killer seem to lie clearly in inflating his own sense of importance and his genuine disdain for a killer who he sees as beneath him.

How much of this is true I'll never really know, but
Elwes really commits deeply enough that I ponder this idea as a real possibility. As he accounts his own crimes, he starts out full of bravado, playing himself up to be nothing less than Satan himself who could go anywhere, be anyone, and exercise absolute power over anyone he chose any time he wanted to. But after a bit of coaxing about some technical points he glossed over, some of the real answers about who he was and what he did were just pathetically disgusting.

He saw himself as something amazing. He was a brilliant college educated law student who saw himself as having an amazing future in politics. He targeted smart young women who had lots of people who cared about them and who would miss them. The fact that he was able to defeat targets such as these made him feel like he was somehow a noble hunter. Their worth, and his power to destroy it in his own uniquely disgusting way, made him a monster that would haunt people's nightmares.

Ridgway threatened all that. He was a pathetic people pleaser who had a mediocre level of skill at some blue collar job. He targeted prostitutes who by the very nature of their work are easy targets. There was nothing special about his kills, save for how many there were.

Ridgway threatened the most important in Ted Bundy's world. That's why he was so eager to help. Ridgway's existence made one thing painfully clear, not just to the world at large, but to Ted Bundy himself. He's not a demon or a monster who haunts the collective nightmares of all humanity, he was just a guy named Ted, and a pretty pathetic one at that.