TACOMA, Wash. — I went back to Tacoma last week to visit my family and ran headlong into Ted Bundy, one of the most notorious and savage serial killers in modern history, who grew up in Tacoma as I did.
I never met Bundy, who was 13 years older than me, but our houses were only a few blocks apart in the city’s North End. Our mothers knew each other because they both worked at the University of Puget Sound, which Bundy and I both attended.
Bundy confessed to 30 homicides of young women in seven states stretching from Washington to Florida between 1974 and ’78. The sexual slayings included decapitation of several victims. He escaped twice from police custody and committed additional killings while on the lam. The former law school student maintained his innocence and represented himself in two separate trials before exhausting his appeals and making an eleventh-hour partial confession on death row. Investigators believe Bundy killed many more women, perhaps as many as 100.
He was executed in the electric chair at Florida State Prison on Jan. 24, 1989, as large crowds gathered outside the penitentiary walls, banging pans in celebration and chanting, “Burn, Bundy, burn!”
From what I remember, we never spoke much about Bundy in our household or around Tacoma. He was a shameful stain we tried our best to ignore.
But he still haunts Tacoma, and the national psyche. Bundy was a charming, handsome, articulate psychopath whose unspeakable acts of barbarity at once repulsed and fascinated.
Witness the fact that Netflix over the past few months released not one but two Ted Bundy programs to coincide with the 30th anniversary of his execution. The first was a four-hour documentary series, “Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes,” released in January. Earlier this month, Netflix released a biopic, “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile,” starring Zac Efron as Bundy and Lily Collins as the killer’s longtime girlfriend, Elizabeth Kendall. Both Netflix programs were directed by Joe Berlinger, who broke through as the co-director of the 1992 documentary “Brother’s Keeper,” about a very different murder in upstate’s Madison County.
I watched them both. The film is schlock. The documentary, well done but overly long, is framed around extensive prison interviews with Bundy conducted by author and journalist Stephen Michaud. Like Bundy, Michaud was born in Burlington, Vt., and both moved to Tacoma as young boys of single mothers. Michaud was two years younger and they never met, but they had mutual friends in Tacoma.
Both attended law school. Michaud left those studies for an entry-level job at Newsweek, where his mentor was investigative journalist Hugh Aynesworth. Michaud was assigned to assist Aynesworth on an in-depth article about Dean Corll, who abducted and murdered at least 28 teenage boys and young men in Houston, Texas, between 1970 and 1973. Corll was dubbed “The Candy Man” because he worked at his family’s candy store in Houston. A teenage accomplice, Elmer Wayne Henley Jr., fatally shot the 33-year-old Corll in 1973.
Aynesworth sent Michaud to observe recovery of the bodies of Corll’s victims. “He put his victims in plastic bags, poured in lime and buried them in spaces at old boathouses he rented,” Michaud said. “I gagged for three weeks.”
That was Michaud’s introduction to the phenomenon of serial killers, a term that hadn’t been coined at that point. Years later, Michaud’s literary agent, Kathy Robbins, called to inform him that Bundy was looking for an author to write his story. Aynesworth agreed to collaborate.
Michaud was 31 years old when he conducted his first of nearly 100 hours of taped interviews with Bundy at Florida State Prison in 1979. Michaud gained access by getting a private investigator’s license and telling prison officials he was an investigator working on Bundy’s appeals case. He was actually working on a book.
In 1983, Michaud and Aynesworth published “The Only Living Witness: The True Story of Serial Sexual Killer Ted Bundy.” In 1989, they published another Bundy book, “Conversations with a Killer,” which became a New York Times bestseller. Both books are still in print.
Now 71, Michaud was co-executive producer and a primary source for Berlinger’s Netflix documentary. He has spent four decades trying to get inside Bundy’s psyche while also “trying to put Ted in my rear-view mirror” as he put it.
Michaud and Aynesworth quickly determined that Bundy was a manipulative, conniving sociopath, and clearly guilty of the murders.
“Ted is my Moby-Dick,” Michaud told me by phone last week from his home outside Baltimore, Md., where he is working on his 21st book, a collaboration with a Tacoma man who became obsessed with pinning numerous unsolved homicides of young women on Bundy.
“Some days I think, ‘Not another day of Ted.’ It wears on you,” said Michaud, a divorced father of two grown children.
The new Netflix documentary series surprised Michaud, who first spoke with Berlinger more than 25 years ago.
“I never thought it would get made,” he said. The 30th anniversary of Bundy’s execution and renewed interest in serial killers such as Charles Manson helped secure funding.
Michaud has gotten used to both critics and weirdos who contact him. “Strange people want to talk in-depth about killing — and the majority are women,” he said. “When people criticize me for glorifying a killer, I say ‘Read the book.’ It is not a breathless fanboy’s take.”
Michaud feels he got closer than anyone else to the essential Ted Bundy. “I portray Ted as a sociopath and a narcissist with violent sexual fantasies,” he said. “He loved hunting and killing women. He called the force inside him urging him to do these horrible killings ‘the entity,’ and he didn’t feel guilt or remorse. He spoke of his crimes like he was discussing what he had for dinner.”
Michaud was not frightened while spending hour after hour an arm’s length from a serial killer. “I never felt any personal peril from him,” he said. “It felt sort of like watching a shark under glass.”
Interviewing survivors and examining autopsy photos disturbed him, as did an encounter with Bundy’s mother, Louise Bundy, who remained a staunch advocate for her son’s innocence. He and Aynesworth went to her North End Tacoma home to share findings before they published their book. They sat at her dining room table and played tape recordings of her son describing gruesome killings.
“She leaned in to the tape recorder and started making little squeaking sounds like a mouse, which was very bizarre,” Michaud recalled.
The tape ended. There was an awkward silence. “I mumbled an apology for putting her through something so difficult,” he said. “And then Mrs. Bundy looked up with bright eyes and asked, ‘Who’s for ice cream and apple pie?'”
Louise Bundy retired after many years as a secretary in the communications and theater department at the University of Puget Sound, where I saw her occasionally. I never asked her about Ted. She died in 2012 at 88.
Paul Grondahl is director of the New York State Writers Institute at the University at Albany and a former Times Union reporter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org