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

The Man Who Forgot Himself: How Presumed-Dead Lawrence Bader Invented a New Life

AlexLinch/iStock via Getty Images
AlexLinch/iStock via Getty Images

Suzanne Peika could not quite believe what she was seeing. It was February 2, 1965, and Peika was standing in front of an archery booth at a sporting goods convention in Chicago. A man with brown hair, a thin mustache, and an eyepatch was holding court for retailers. Aside from the patch and the facial hair, he looked exactly like her uncle Lawrence Bader.

There was just one problem: Her uncle was supposed to be dead.

In 1957, Coast Guard authorities had discovered Bader's rented boat washed ashore on Lake Erie after a storm. There was no sign of Bader, and no clues as to what had happened to him. Bader’s wife, Mary Lou, was effectively widowed, and his four children were left without a father. Eventually, he was declared legally dead.

Now, nearly eight years later, Peika had been summoned by a man from Akron, who told her to rush over to the sports convention. He had seen something there she would not believe.

After staring at a man who was almost certainly her uncle, she approached the booth. "Aren't you my Uncle Larry?" she asked.

The man laughed and seemed confused. No, he was not anyone’s Uncle Larry. His name was John Johnson, though he went by the nickname “Fritz.” He lived in Omaha, Nebraska, where he was a sports director for a local television station. He was polite but firm. It was nothing more, he said, than a misunderstanding.

Peika rushed to a phone and called her family. Lawrence’s two brothers jumped on a plane from Ohio to Chicago, where Johnson was again confronted. No, he said. He was not their brother, this man named Larry Joseph Bader, who had disappeared in 1957. Finally, he agreed to accompany them to a police station to be fingerprinted. The brothers explained that Bader had been in the Navy and his fingerprints would be on file. That would settle the matter once and for all.

The next day, they all received a call from police. The fingerprints matched: The man known as Fritz was Lawrence Bader. After disappearing during a storm on on Lake Erie, he wound up over 700 miles away, with a new job, a new face, a new wife, new children, and a completely different set of memories about the first 30 years of his life.

 

Bader was born December 2, 1926, in Akron, Ohio. His father, Stephen, was a dentist, and Bader considered following him into the practice. After a stint in the Navy from 1944 to 1946, Bader enrolled at the University of Akron, but his grades were mediocre, and he flunked out after just one semester. During his brief enrollment, Bader met Mary Lou Knapp, and the two were married on April 19, 1952.

To support their growing brood of children, Bader took on a job as a cookware salesman for Lifetime Distributors. Though he was an affable man and well-liked by colleagues and clients, the earning potential of the job was limited. He carried debts and fell behind on his taxes. It was later estimated that Bader failed to file tax returns from 1951 to 1957.

A wooden oar is pictured in the water
Jurgute/iStock via Getty Images

On May 15, 1957, Bader announced to Mary Lou that he needed to drive to Cleveland on business. Afterward, he planned on going fishing and would be late. Mary Lou, pregnant with their fourth child, suggested that he might want to come directly home instead.

“Maybe I will and maybe I won’t,” Bader said, and left.

Bader did drive to Cleveland. He also cashed a check for $400 and paid some outstanding bills, including an installment premium for his life insurance policy. Then he headed for Eddie’s Boat House, a boat rental operation on the Rocky River, which empties into Lake Erie. It was late afternoon, and the proprietor, a man named Lawrence Cotleur, warned him that a storm was coming. Bader seemed unconcerned. He paid a $15 deposit and asked for the boat to be equipped with lights. When Cotleur told him it wouldn’t get dark for hours, he insisted. Cotleur noticed he was carrying a suitcase.

Bader went out on the motorboat, which was also equipped with oars, and began making his way along the water. The Coast Guard spotted him and reiterated Cotleur’s warning, advising him it wouldn’t be safe when the storm hit.

That was almost certainly the last time anyone interacted with a man answering to the name Lawrence Bader.

The next morning, the boat was found washed up on shore at Perkins Beach in Lakewood, more than five miles away from Eddie’s Boat House. One of the propellers on the motor was bent and the hull was scratched, but there was no sign the boat itself had capsized or had tipped over. A single oar was missing. The life jackets were accounted for. The gas can was empty. Bader and his suitcase were nowhere to be found.

The Coast Guard made a thorough search of the water but discovered nothing. It was impossible, they said, to survive the choppy current without a life jacket, and certainly not for hours at a stretch. After two months, law enforcement had little choice but to effectively give up hope Bader would ever be found, alive or dead.

Obviously, no one thought to look in Omaha.

 

It was between three and five days later, depending on the account, when a man named John Johnson materialized at a restaurant and bar named Ross’s Steak House in Omaha. He was there looking for a bartending job, a drink guide stuffed under his arm. He carried a suitcase and a heavy canvas bag along with a Navy-issued driver’s license. He explained to his would-be employer, Mike Chiodo, that he had just gotten out of the Navy after a 14-year stretch. A bad back had led to his discharge, and he decided to travel the country a little. He was staying at the Farnam Hotel near the bus station. He’d be a good hire, he told Chiodo, because he used to tend bar at clubs in the service.

He got the job and was soon holding court among the regulars. When people remarked on his unusual name, he said he was originally reared at an orphanage in Boston. Of the 22 babies found on doorsteps, they were given the same generic name but a different nickname. His was Fritz, he explained, because he reminded people of a character in the Katzenjammer Kids comic strip popular in the 1920s and 1930s. Sometimes, that story would change, and he would say the nickname came from a short haircut he got in the service that made him look like a German soldier.

Two glasses filled with ice are pictured
Igor Vershinsky/iStock via Getty Images

He insisted on being called Fritz and used his full name infrequently. Checks were signed Fritz. He had his bills made out to Fritz. He also had the curious habit of dating his checks by season, not month, day, and year. If a bill came due in July, he would write “summer” on it.

Yet no one seemed to think he was unusual at all. They found Fritz to be a joy to be around, and Fritz found joy in virtually everything. He was a determined bachelor who went out on frequent dates, sometimes playfully showing up in an old hearse that had a place to lounge in the back. He listened to classical music and proved to be adept at archery, winning several regional championships. It was a life, one Akron resident later said, that would never have been welcome in a more conservative town like the one back in Ohio.

He also had ambitions beyond bartending. After his shift and late at night, he would visit local radio station KBON to use the recording equipment and practice his broadcasting skills. In 1959, he was hired by the station and became something of a local celebrity. Fritz was game for stunts like sitting in a box on top of a 50-foot flagpole to raise money and awareness for polio. He didn’t come down for 15 days, an endurance challenge that added to his local legend.

Around 1961, he met and married a former model named Nancy Zimmer. Nancy had been married once before and had a daughter. Soon, they’d welcome a son and he would begin a prosperous career on KETV, a local television affiliate.

Between his social life, marriage, and career, Fritz was very much alive. Back in Akron, Lawrence Joseph Bader had been declared legally dead.

 

When he was discovered by his niece in 1965, Fritz was a broadcaster working part-time as an advisor for archery companies. The eyepatch was from the excision of a malignant tumor, which had taken his eye in 1964. Now cornered by his family, the new life he had built for himself began to crumble.

Though he insisted he had no memory of being Bader, whom he called “that other fellow,” his reappearance led to a number of legal and ethical quandaries. There were the insurance policies worth roughly $40,000, which had been paid out to Mary Lou and which now seemed to be null and void. Social Security payments sent to Mary Lou and calculated based on his demise would have to be addressed. Even Cotleur, the boat house owner, was looking for restitution. Bader had left behind a damaged rental that needed replacement. “He owes us a boat,” Cotleur said.

There was also the matter of the marriage. Because Bader was alive, he was still legally married to Mary Lou and could be considered a bigamist. At minimum, he had a financial responsibility to the family he had left behind in Akron. Fritz hired a lawyer, Harry Farnham, who recommended he undergo a battery of psychological testing at an area hospital. After several days of intense evaluation, doctors could not say he was willfully deceiving anyone. It truly appeared as though he had no recollection of ever being Lawrence Bader.

“I am John (Fritz) Johnson and I have never heard of this Bader man until this matter came up,” he told the Akron Beacon Journal. He seemed more bemused than upset by the situation, admitting that, yes, he did look like Bader and that both shared a love of archery. Beyond that, he didn’t care to explore his memories with anyone, citing doctors who told him that examining his past could be psychologically damaging.

A white mask is pictured
francescoch/iStock via Getty Images

“My God, don’t you understand?” he told a reporter. “All of a sudden, I find out that 30 years of my life never happened. You see, I really do have 30 years of memory as Fritz Johnson. What am I supposed to do with those 30 years? Throw them out the door?”

For a time, the situation seemed precarious. If it could be proven Bader committed fraud, he was looking at legal consequences. But no one could prove that. Instead, his lawyer argued the surgery to remove a cancerous lesion may have affected his memory. Perhaps he once knew why Bader disappeared and Fritz appeared, but there was little hope of finding answers now.

Struck by the peculiar nature of their employee’s double life, KETV terminated him. Nancy left him, their marriage essentially erased in light of the fact that he was already married. She seemed bewildered. "I just don't know what to think," she told a reporter.

Quickly, Fritz found himself back to work as a bartender, earning $100 a week. Of that, $50 went to Mary Lou for child support and $20 went to Nancy. He was left with $30 and moved into an Omaha YMCA.

 

Mary Lou spent several months in seclusion, shying away from curious reporters and from Fritz. Eventually, she decided to meet him in Chicago, with their four children in tow. That meeting, which took place in August 1965, was described as amicable, though Fritz insisted he had no recollection of meeting, marrying, or having a family with her. Because he insisted they were strangers, there was little choice but to consider him a stranger, as well. Mary Lou voiced hope that maybe one day he would come around.

"I am hopeful he will eventually remember," she said. "He's convinced himself that he doesn't recognize anybody." Learning he was alive was "unreal," she said. "It was sort of like a numbness. It wasn't like an emptiness when I thought he was drowned."

It turned out that there would be no time for Fritz to come around. In 1966, his cancer reappeared, this time in his liver. He died on September 16 of that year.

His passing posed the question of how to pay respects to a man who appeared to have lived two distinctly different lives. In Omaha, a service was held at First Methodist Church for John “Fritz” Johnson. The next day, his body was transported to Akron so he could be buried in a family plot at Holy Cross Cemetery as Lawrence Joseph Bader.

The question of whether Bader suffered some kind of injury during the storm or had some kind of neurological disorder has never been fully answered. Given the circumstances of his disappearance—his timely insurance premium payment, his mounting debts, and his wildly different and unencumbered lifestyle in Omaha—it seems likely that Lawrence Bader decided he was trapped in the life he was leading and saw only one way out.

If he was telling the truth about having 30 years of memories as Fritz, then it’s possible Bader experienced dissociative amnesia, a rare condition where a person has no memory of their life owing to trauma or stress. In a dissociative fugue state, they have an urge to travel and may invent a new personality, settling in a new area with no recollection of how they got there.

In one such case, in 2005, a lawyer and father of two in New York disappeared. He was found six months later living in a homeless shelter in Chicago under a new name. Once discovered, his wife revealed he had been overcome by stress relating to his experience in Vietnam as well as being near the World Trade Center on 9/11.

Only neuropsychological tests can sift out cases of true dissociative fugue from people simply hiding from their problems. It’s unlikely, however, that Bader would have suffered from amnesia for nearly a decade. In such cases, memories are not lost but are misplaced. They eventually return.

If he did experience a total erasure of his previous existence, at least some remnants lingered. He managed to retain his ability in archery. And while he may have believed his nickname came from an orphanage his psyche invented out of whole cloth, it’s far more plausible that a conscious memory of his previous life had inspired it. As a cookware salesman, his boss was a man named Mr. Zepht. His first name was Fritz.

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

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