Hell on Wheels: The Sordid History of Ted Bundy's VW Beetle

DCTWINKIE5500, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

When Ted Bundy was working as a crisis hotline volunteer in Seattle while attending the University of Washington in the early 1970s, he would sometimes get a ride home from a co-worker. Some time later that same co-worker, future true crime author Ann Rule, found it odd that descriptions of a serial killer haunting the Washington area seemed to match Bundy's height and features.

What helped ease her mind was that encounters with the killer often included mentions of a Volkswagen Beetle. The assailant often lured his female victims to the car under the pretense of needing help carrying bags, with a fake cast on his arm or leg to diminish suspicion. The killer would then hit them with a crowbar and stuff them into the passenger side of the car, where he had ripped out the seat to better accommodate their unconscious and prostrate frames.

Although the physical description seemed to match Bundy and one witness overheard the assailant saying his name was “Ted,” Rule knew that the Bundy she had once worked alongside—and was still friendly with—didn’t own a car. Still, she harbored doubts. So she asked a friend on the police force to check his car registration, and was surprised to learn Bundy owned a tan 1968 Volkswagen Beetle.

By the time he was captured for good in 1978 (he had twice previously escaped police custody), Bundy had killed at least 30 women across multiple states. In the majority of cases, the Volkswagen acted as a sort of accomplice, providing a portable shelter for Bundy’s kidnappings and killings, housing his murder tools, and even offering illumination for Bundy's crime scenes.

The Beetle undoubtedly aided him in his deeds, a fact that has led to the model’s continued infamy some 80 years after its initial introduction (though the automaker recently indicated that, for a second time, it may cease production on it). But it was also a confessional. The Beetle and the secrets it contained would eventually deliver Bundy straight to the electric chair.

 
 

There is nothing inherently evil about the Volkswagen Beetle, a compact German car first introduced in 1938 that became extremely popular in the United States beginning in the 1960s. Its devoted owners often characterized it as cute, with an expressive front chassis and clever advertising campaigns that emphasized its irreverent features. But Volkswagen has often found itself attached to some rather morbid history.

The car was nudged along by Adolf Hitler, who wanted an affordable vehicle for German consumers (although no cars were delivered to customers until after WWII)

. Much later, a Volkswagen microbus—a multi-passenger derivation—was used by Jack Kevorkian to euthanize terminally-ill patients, earning it the label “Deathmobile.”

Bundy purchased his Beetle used and was driving it for the duration of his murder spree across Colorado, Washington, and Utah in 1974 and 1975, when he was believed to have averaged one murder per month. Witnesses who saw victims enter the car told police about it, who in turn began scanning roadways for the tan Volkswagen that may have been harboring a killer.

Ted Bundy sits in a Florida courtroom
Donn Dughi, State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Being a passenger in Bundy’s Volkswagen often involved being only semiconscious, handcuffed to the car’s frame, and remaining prone on the car floor so passersby wouldn’t be able to see the dazed or distressed victim inside. Bundy had also removed the inside door handle so it couldn't be opened from within. Some victims were strangled while still in the vehicle; others were dragged out in front of the car’s headlights so Bundy could better see what he was doing. In Bundy’s hands, the car was a versatile tool: It provided a false sense of comfort, shelter from interruption, and theatrical staging.

On August 15, 1975, Bundy was in Granger, Utah when police spotted him driving the vehicle without the headlights on and breezing through two stop signs. They stopped him for a routine traffic violation. When police saw the dislodged front passenger seat, they asked to search his car. Bundy consented. They found an ice pick, a pair of handcuffs, two masks, plastic bags, and gloves. Although he was released, Salt Lake authorities arrested him six days later when the Salt Lake district attorney decided to charge him with possession of burglary tools.

Sensing trouble and out on bail, Bundy spent the following day thoroughly cleaning the car, and sold it to a teenager in Sandy, Utah a few weeks later. That October, a victim, Carol DaRonch, identified him in a lineup as the man who had tried to handcuff her in his car after telling her he was a police detective. She had managed to flee.

Charging Bundy with DaRonch's attempted kidnapping, police seized the Beetle from the teenager Bundy had sold it to and began an exhaustive forensics study. Bundy hadn't cleaned the car thoroughly enough: It was a treasure trove of evidence. Inside, investigators found hairs matching three of Bundy’s victims, along with blood stains. The car was permanently impounded.

Incredibly, it was not the end of either Bundy or his preoccupation with the model.

Bundy was expedited to Colorado to stand trial, where he escaped not once, but twice: First from a courthouse, where he managed to stay free for six days, and another time from his jail cell in December 1977. After fleeing the second time, he assaulted and killed several more victims in a Florida State University sorority house. At some point around this time he also stole a Volkswagen Beetle—orange this time—and was detained by police for a traffic violation in February 1978 while driving in Pensacola, Florida.

A photo of Ted Bundy's Volkswagen Beetle on display at the National Museum of Crime and Punishment

Bundy’s fate was sealed. He was convicted in July 1979 for two of the FSU murders (and later the murder of a 12-year-old girl)

and sentenced to death, though it would take another 10 years for that order to be carried out.

Bundy’s Beetle fared better. In the late 1970s, a former Salt Lake Sheriff’s Deputy named Lonnie Anderson purchased the car for $925 at a police auction. The transaction, conducted several years before the rise of the controversial “murderabilia” market for collectibles associated with criminals, raised a few eyebrows within the department. In speaking with the Deseret News, Anderson said he purchased it “as an investment.”

The car, which had long been stripped of most of its interior by forensics investigators, sat in a storage yard for the better part of 20 years before Anderson decided to try and realize a return. In July 1997, he placed a classified ad in The New York Times selling the car for $25,000. Relatives of the victims were dismayed, telling the News that it seemed opportunistic. Don Blackburn, whose daughter Janice was one of the murders Bundy confessed to, said the attempted sale “repulses me.”

 
 

In 2001, the car wound up in the collection of crime memorabilia collector Arthur Nash. Nash, in turn, leased the car to the National Museum of Crime and Punishment in Washington, D.C., where it went on display in the lobby in 2010. When the Museum closed over a lease dispute in 2015, the car migrated over to the Alcatraz East Crime Museum in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, where it currently resides. It is still owned by Nash, who plans to one day test it for DNA that may have been missed by authorities the first time around. Although Bundy confessed to 30 murders, some believe he may have been responsible for more than 100.

As for the “other” Bundy Beetle, the one he stole following his escape: Police returned it to its owner, massage therapist Rick Garzaniti, in 1978. No longer comfortable owning the vehicle, he sold it four months later to a father and his 16-year-old daughter. That it was once operated by one of the most dangerous serial killers in American history didn’t seem to matter to them, Garzaniti said. The teenager was just excited to have her first car.

Additional Source: The Stranger Beside Me

10 of the Best True Crime Documentaries You Can Stream Right Now

HBO
HBO

Is the true crime genre going anywhere? Probably not. Since Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line premiered in 1988 and helped free an innocent man accused of murder, filmmakers and viewers have developed a bottomless appetite for movies based on true stories that shed light on some of the darker sides of the human condition. Check out 10 of the best true crime documentaries you can stream right now on Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, and other platforms.

1. The Seven Five (2014)

Crooked New York Police Department cops get a filmed perp walk in this examination of the city’s infamous 75th precinct, which was a hive of corruption in the 1980s. Ringleader Michael Dowd talks about how taking money from drug dealers to offset his salary woes led to an increasingly complex and dangerous web of deceit.

Where to watch it: Netflix

2. Amanda Knox (2016)

College student Amanda Knox grabbed headlines in 2007 and beyond when her roommate, Meredith Kercher, was found dead in the apartment the two shared in Italy. What follows is a grueling path through an often-impenetrable Italian justice system.

Find It: Netflix

3. The Central Park Five (2013)

Director Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us limited series on Netflix has brought renewed attention to the Central Park Five case, which saw five minors wrongly convicted of attacking a jogger in New York’s Central Park in 1989. This feature documentary co-directed by Ken Burns, his daughter Sarah Burns, and her husband David McMahon examines the case, from the coerced confessions of the boys to their attempts to clear their names.

Find It: Amazon Prime

4. Long Shot (2017)

Though it’s more of a short film than a feature, this examination of Juan Catalan’s fight to be recognized as innocent of committing murder is notable for his attorney’s methodology: Catalan couldn’t have done it because he was at a baseball game. How they go about proving that turns into one of the biggest left-field twists you’re ever likely to see.

Find It: Netflix

5. Killing for Love (2016)

When married couple Derek and Nancy Haysom are found dead in their Virginia home in 1985, suspicion falls on their daughter, Elizabeth, and Elizabeth’s boyfriend, Jens Söring. Was Jens a co-conspirator, or just a pawn in Elizabeth’s game? Watch and find out.

Find It: Hulu

6. Brother’s Keeper (1992)

Before garnering acclaim for their Paradise Lost documentaries, filmmakers Bruce Sinofsky and Joe Berlinger captured this portrait of four elderly brothers living in rural Munnsville, New York. When one of them turns up dead, police believe it could have been murder. As one brother goes on trial, the others close ranks and try to keep family secrets from leaking out.

Find It: Netflix

7. Without Charity (2013)

In 2000, police discover a trio of construction workers have been murdered at an expensive home in Indiana. As police dig deeper, they discover the puzzling presence of Charity Payne, a woman who might have helped a group of robbers to break in and commit the murders.

Find It: Amazon Prime

8. Gringo: The Dangerous Life of John McAfee (2016)

Antivirus pioneer John McAfee reinvents himself in Belize, becoming an armed leader of a makeshift militia before later being implicated in the death of his neighbor.

Find It: Netflix

9. I Love You, Now Die (2019)

Teenagers in love Michelle Carter and Conrad Roy nourished their long-distance relationship via text messaging. But as Conrad’s mood grew darker, Michelle believed the best way to help her boyfriend would be to encourage him to take his own life. That dynamic sets the stage for a dramatic trial in Massachusetts that ponders the question of whether it's possible to be responsible for taking someone’s life via text.

Find It: HBO

10. Out of Thin Air (2017)

In 1974, two men in Iceland disappeared. A police investigation led to six men, who were all eventually sent to prison after confessing to murder. Decades later, new evidence casts doubt on their version of events—and whether they killed anyone at all. 

Find It: Netflix

10 Facts About Alcatraz

Robyn Beck, AFP/Getty Images
Robyn Beck, AFP/Getty Images

At 9:40 a.m. on the morning of August 11, 1934, Alcatraz's first group of prisoners—137 in all—arrived at the soon-to-be-infamous prison. For decades, it was known as the site of one of the most unforgiving federal prisons in the country. “Break the rules and you go to prison,” went one anonymous quote. “Break the prison rules and you go to Alcatraz.” But San Francisco Bay’s Alcatraz Island has a history that goes far beyond its infamy as a criminal commune. Check out some facts about its origins, its history-making protest, and signing up for a tour.

1. Alcatraz was a military outpost in the 1850s.

Described by Spanish explorer Juan Manuel de Ayala in 1775, Alcatraz Island is the Americanized name of Isla de los Alcatraces (Island of the Pelicans). Following the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848, California became property of the United States. In the 1850s, the island was earmarked by U.S. forces for a military citadel. Outfitted with more than 100 cannons, it monitored activity in San Francisco Bay to thwart foreign invaders looking to cash in on California's gold rush. (Later, it was used to discourage Confederates from trying to seize control of San Francisco in the Civil War.) That presence led to some federal prisoners being housed on site—a foreshadowing of the general-population prison it would one day become.

2. Alcatraz inmates were forced to build their own prison.

An aerial view of Alcatraz circa the 1930s
OFF/AFP/Getty Images

When the need for armed monitoring of the bay ended, the U.S. Army deconstructed the fortress, leaving only the basement foundation intact. From 1909 to 1911, the military prisoners were put to work building a new structure that would house disciplinary barracks for the West Coast. (That building is the one standing today.) The military transferred ownership of the island to the Department of Justice in 1933, which is when Alcatraz became synonymous with the worst of the worst, housing notorious criminals like Al Capone and George “Machine Gun” Kelly.

3. Life at Alcatraz wasn't always so bad.

Known as the “Rock,” Alcatraz developed a reputation for segregating America’s incorrigibles from the rest of the population. Sometimes, rules dictated that prisoners couldn’t even speak to one another. But conditions inside the prison weren’t as harsh as movies and television would later portray. Inmates often got their own cell, and some even asked to be transferred there because the potential for violent trouble was low. The reason some of the more notorious criminals of the era were sent there was usually due to the facility’s strict routine. Prisoners had little leeway or privileges outside of the four basics: food, shelter, clothing, and medical care. One perk? Hot showers. Inmates got warm water to use for bathing, although it wasn’t for altruistic reasons. A theory has it that if prisoners got used to warm water, they’d freeze up if they ever made an escape attempt in the bay’s frigid conditions.

4. Odds of escaping Alcatraz were slim.

Swimmers run across the water near Alcatraz Island
Donald Miralle/Getty Images

Many know the story of Frank Morris, John Anglin, and Clarence Anglin, who famously attempted to escape the prison island in 1962 using a raft made out of raincoats. No one knows whether the men made it, but the odds were stacked against them. Of the 36 men who fled from the site in the 29 years it was open (1934 to 1963), 23 were recaptured, six were killed by guards, and two drowned. The remaining five—including Morris and the Anglin brothers—made it to the water and disappeared.

5. Softball was a popular pastime.

Though Alcatraz would never be confused for a country club, inmates still had outlets to pursue physical activities. Softball was the most popular pastime, with prisoners using a diamond in the recreation area. Organized teams played using shorter innings; balls going over the barricades were outs, not home runs. But not every game went smoothly. The teams were integrated, and that occasionally to racial tensions. During one May 20, 1956 game, tempers flared and makeshift knives were pulled before guards could restore order.

6. Alcatraz's prison guards lived on the island with their families.

A camera peers through a chain-link fence inside Alcatraz
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Life at Alcatraz wasn’t isolated just for the prisoners. Guards and other prison employees lived on the island in separate housing that was once Civil War barracks. Their kids fished in the bay and passed time in social halls that had pool and bowling. Families often took weekend boat trips to nearby Marin to stock up on groceries and other essentials. While they were forbidden to make contact with inmates, a few made a spectator sport of watching new arrivals come in wearing shackles.

7. Alcatraz was closed in 1963 because it was too expensive to maintain.

Alcatraz didn’t get shuttered over human rights issues or because the prison was too hardcore even for society’s worst. It closed in 1963 for the same reason it was so distinctive: the location. Saltwater continued to erode structures, making the cost of maintaining the buildings excessive. On a day-to-day basis, Alcatraz cost $10.10 per person to maintain in 1950s dollars, three times as much as most other federal prisons. It also needed freshwater brought in by boat at the rate of a million gallons a week.

8. In 1969, a group of college students occupied Alcatraz in protest.

A man stands on Alcatraz Island during a Native American occupation
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1969, a group of college students stormed the abandoned prison. Their cause: to draw attention to the United States government's policy of terminating tribal sovereignty and relocating Native American residents to cities. Richard Oakes, a student at San Francisco State College, led the occupation, which lasted a total of 19 months. Authorities moved in 1971 when the group—which was 400 strong at its height—had dwindled to just 15 people. During their protest, Richard Nixon reversed the policy in 1970, effectively ending government seizure of Indian lands.

9. Alcatraz is now one of San Francisco's most popular tourist attractions.

Alcatraz Island was converted into a park and made part of the U.S. national park system in 1972. If you want a tour, you can make advance reservations and book a ferry. Once there, an audio tour will take you through the grounds, including the cells of luminaries like Al Capone. More than 1.5 million people visit annually.

10. Alcatraz has literally gone to the birds.

Alcatraz sits in the background of two birds flocking nearby
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Without a permanent human infrastructure, Alcatraz Island has slowly been engulfed by nature’s squatters. One of the first sights visitors see is a surplus of Western gulls taking up residence on almost every surface. The park service even offers a tour of the avian life, which includes 5000 birds across nine different species. The population is fitting, since the prison’s most famous inmate is widely considered to the “Birdman of Alcatraz,” Robert Stroud. After being sentenced for murder, Stroud took up ornithology and was considered to be an expert by the time he arrived on the island in 1942.

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