On her novel "The Stranger Beside Me", writer Ann Rule tells the story of Ted Bundy.
What would you do if you discovered that you met and even worked with one of the most fearsome and ruthless serial killers in history? The first thing I'd do would be to thank whatever deity for still being alive. Then I'd document those experiences. That’s basically what Ann Rule did. Well, I don’t know if she thanked God, but she definitely wrote a book narrating all her experiences with Ted Bundy, the incarnation of evil. A man accused of stealing, kidnapping, raping, and murdering, as well as being a necrophile and a pedophile. A character so charming that even those near him wouldn't believe a person like him was capable of committing such crimes: a real sociopath. So, what happens when the themes you write about start to seep into your personal life? Although she’s best known for the books she wrote, her personal life was just as intense as the stories she wrote about.
Rule was known as an important representative of the true crime genre, and her connection with crime stories goes back to before she met Bundy and published her book The Stranger Beside Me. In the 1960s, Rule was working as a crime reporter for the True Detective Magazine, where she wrote about crimes happening between Oregon and the Canadian border. Her job was to visit crime scenes and be near police stations to get the newest and most relevant information about these crimes and report it all in her column. In 1971, she wanted to do something more relevant for society, so she volunteered at a suicide hotline, believing that her experience with crime and psychological insight about the people involved in it would come in handy when dealing with suicidal people and trying to persuade them to change their mind.
Enter Ted Bundy. The young college student also volunteered at the hotline. They got along immediately, and soon they were working as a team. While one of them was dealing with the suicidal person, the other one would trace the phone call and tell the authorities where they were, so they could save them. Soon, that partnership became a friendship, and both of them would share their concerns, life stories, sorrows, and happiness. That was when Rule started to realize that there was something strange about her charismatic pal.
As she says in her book, which is both an autobiography and a biography of Bundy, everything was going great until she was commissioned to cover the stories of several unsolved murders and missing reports of young women in Washington that were thought to have been committed by a serial killer based on the profile of the victims and the pattern of the crimes. Rule was writing a book about these cases with this information, so she really had to work hard to get as much information as possible and even hint at details that the police investigation hadn't confirmed.
As it usually happens with this sort of criminal, they can do the same thing several times, but, at some point, they will slip and make a mistake. This was exactly what happened to Bundy, who confided to one of his victims that his name was Ted. The woman managed to escape and told the police what happened. Although the detectives decided to take this information as a possible false clue, the profile and the name got Rule thinking about her friend, who fit the description perfectly, except for the fact that the criminal they were looking for had a golden Volkswagen Bug, and the Ted she knew didn’t even have a car. Still, in Rule’s experience, a coincidence like this should never be taken lightly, so she contacted the detective in charge of the investigation to tell him about her suspicions.
Some time later, she was shocked to find out that Ted Bundy, her coworker and friend, owned a Volkswagen with the same characteristics as the ones described by the police. Still, something inside her wanted to believe in him, so she calmed herself down by thinking about how there were literally millions of cars with that description. At some point, Bundy stopped talking to her until, in 1975, he got in touch with her to ask for her help in finding out why the police had confiscated his college records. Rule decided to help him and discovered that his university had taken around one thousand records to do some routine inquiries; the police had nothing to do with it.
It was at this moment that all her suspicions and fears started becoming real. She met with Bundy to tell him what she had discovered, and he suddenly began talking to her about how he was sure that the police thought he was involved with some crimes in Washington, and how he was sure his story would be in all the newspapers. Only a couple of weeks later, he was arrested for kidnapping, but the evidence wasn’t incriminatory enough, so the police had to let him go.
But this is only the beginning of this incredible story. From this moment on, the story of their relationship becomes the story of Rule's confusion and her struggle to separate the criminal she was supposed to be investigating from her friend who happened to be the same person. As Rule explains in her book, a part of her always knew that there was something wrong with him but she always said to herself that, until the police had solid evidence on him, there was a chance it was all a misunderstanding. In her book, she talks about how difficult it was to be working on the book, while also being kind of close to Bundy.
The most fascinating thing about the book (which was actually quite controversial at the time) was that she always describes him as a very interesting, charming, and handsome man. Although she always said that these descriptions were real, and that she wanted people to understand that evil doesn’t always come in ugly packages, these descriptions and those of people who knew him helped create the myth surrounding this character, who's still very popular in American crime history.
Rule’s works might never be regarded as literary classics, but they are definitely key to understanding why the genre of true crime fiction has always been so popular. More importantly, they are a great example of the fascination and fear we feel toward these characters that show up so frequently in the history of the United States.
If you want to know more gruesome stories and why we find them so fascinating, take a look at these: