Utah didn’t play a supporting role in the story of serial killer Ted Bundy — it took center stage.
He started murdering women in Washington, and he killed his final victims in Florida before he was executed there. But in between, he killed at least five (and possibly eight) young women in Salt Lake, Davis and Utah counties. He attended the University of Utah’s law school. He joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
And, because one young woman escaped from him in Murray, Bundy was convicted — despite the support of fellow church members — and sentenced to prison. (He subsequently escaped from custody in Colorado, where he was sent to face murder charges.)
“Utah played a major role in this saga,” said Joe Berlinger, who directed not only a movie about Bundy that will premiere at the Sundance Film Festival on Saturday, but also a four-part documentary series that begins streaming on Netflix on Thursday — the 30th anniversary of Bundy’s execution.
“Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes” chronicles Bundy’s killings. He confessed to 30; some estimates put that number closer to 100.
“Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes” • The four-episode documentary series begins streaming Thursday on Netflix. The episodes run 53, 57, 51 and 74 minutes.
The documentary series is built around 100 hours of interviews Bundy did with journalists Stephen G. Michaud and Hugh Aynesworth while he was in prison in Florida — a weird, chilling mix of Bundy trying to prove his innocence and slipping into a third-person description of the actions and motivations of a “hypothetical” killer.
In Episode 2, Bundy says, “I loved Utah. I decided I was moving down there in September of ’74.”
By the time he arrived in Salt Lake City, Bundy had already killed at least nine women and attacked one more in Washington, Oregon and Idaho, and police were looking for a killer named Ted.
On the recording, he continues: “Hopped on the interstate going south toward Provo. All of a sudden, I felt almost euphoric. I just looked out the window and watched the scenery, and dreamed and reminisced, and generally maintained a real good feeling I had all the way into Utah.”
(The period footage of Utah that accompanies Bundy’s audio is of southern Utah, hundreds of miles from where the killer would have been driving. Berlinger acknowledged the error: “That look is kind of iconic for the rest of the country to quickly say Utah. And also it was what was available, unfortunately.”)
Five Utah murders were directly tied to Bundy:
Nancy Wilcox, 17 • Last seen riding in a Volkswagen Beetle — the kind of car Bundy drove — she disappeared from Holladay in October 1974. The day before he was executed, Bundy admitted to kidnapping and murdering her and indicated the general area where he’d left her body. She’s never been found.
Melissa Smith, 17 • The daughter of Midvale’s police chief disappeared while walking home from a pizza parlor on Oct. 18, 1974, near Summit Park. Her body was found nine days later; she’d been severely beaten, strangled and sexually assaulted.
Laura Ann Aime, 17 • She disappeared from a Lehi park on Oct. 31, 1974. She was found a month later in American Fork Canyon. Bundy confessed to her murder.
Debi Kent, 17 • She disappeared from Bountiful while waiting to pick up her younger brother from a skating rink on Nov. 8, 1975. Bundy confessed to her murder; her body was never found.
Susan Curtis, 15 • She disappeared on June 28, 1975, from a Latter-day Saint youth conference at Brigham Young University. Bundy confessed to her murder; her body was never found.
Three other Utah murders are believed to have possibly been committed by Bundy:
Sandra Weaver, 19 • Last seen in Salt Lake City on July 1, 1974; her body was found the next day in Grand Junction, Colo. There are conflicting reports as to whether Bundy mentioned her in his confessions.
Nancy Baird, 23 • She disappeared from the Layton gas station where she worked on July 4, 1975. Her body was never found; Bundy denied he killed her.
Debbie Smith, 17 • Last seen in Salt Lake City; her body was found at Salt Lake International Airport on April 1, 1976.
Bundy moved to Salt Lake City and enrolled in the U.’s law school when things were starting to get hot for him in Seattle. (“Conversations with a Killer” recounts the almost unbelievable lack of coordination among police in different states and cities at the time.)
His membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was more than just a Utah urban legend. His former branch president, Michael Preece, says in the Netflix series that he “befriended” Bundy in 1974; that Bundy “expressed an interest” in the church and “eventually … was baptized.”
“I felt that he was a handsome young man that seemed to have his life pretty much in order,” Preece says. “He came to the activities. He came to the church meetings and responded in a positive way. So I thought things looked good for him for the future.”
Meanwhile, Bundy was sexually assaulting and murdering teenage girls. It was the one that got away in Utah that eventually led to his arrest, conviction and execution.
“If it wasn’t for Carol DaRonch bravely escaping, he wouldn’t have been caught that first time,” Berlinger said. “She was a real turning point for the case.”
On Nov. 8, 1974, Bundy tried to abduct 19-year-old DaRonch outside the Fashion Place mall in Murray. In the Netflix series, she recounts how she “fought with all my might, thrashing with him and fighting. My fingernails were all broken. I remember these beady, blank, lifeless eyes.”
She says she was “very lucky” that she managed to jump out of Bundy’s car and escape, “and it was really shocking to find out later that he was so angry that I had gotten away, he just drove somewhere else and killed someone else.”
Hours later, Bundy abducted and murdered Kent in Bountiful.
In August 1975, Utah Highway Patrol officer Bob Hayward stopped Bundy as he was driving his VW Beetle at night with the lights turned off. A search of the car turned up a ski mask, ice pick, strips of torn sheets and handcuffs — and Bundy matched the description of DaRonch’s kidnapper.
But his friends rushed to his defense. “Conversations with a Killer” includes several snippets of local TV interviews — including several on Salt Lake City stations — and he is unfailingly confident, charming and funny.
“Well, a funny thing happened to me on the way to labor-law class one morning,” he said in one conducted in front of the old Salt Lake County jail in Salt Lake City, as he was being transferred for a hearing. “I got two weeks in the spa on the third floor up here.”
He vowed he’d be exonerated; he vowed he’d continue at the law school; he vowed he’d become “a damn good lawyer.” In the later, taped interviews, he said he was “beside myself with rage” when DaRonch testified, calling her a liar.
“I just thought he was really arrogant and always had a smirk on his face,” DaRonch says in the Netflix series.
Preece said that, once Bundy was charged, he became suspicious of his story. But the killer’s fellow Latter-day Saints “flocked to his defense,” showing up in court to support him. “They just knew that he was innocent of all charges,” the former branch president said.
Bundy, then 29, was convicted and sentenced to 1 to 15 years in the Utah State Prison.
Of course, his story didn’t end in Utah. He was extradited to Colorado to stand trial on murder charges. He escaped not once but twice, and the second time he made his way to Florida — where he brutally attacked five Florida State University students, killing two, and sexually assaulted and murdered a 12-year-old girl.
Whether Bundy’s conversion as a Latter-day Saint was sincere, no one will ever know. He was later excommunicated.
“Some say Bundy joined the Mormon church as cover,” Berlinger said. “I actually believe Bundy craved normalcy.”
The executive producer/director saw that same need for normalcy in the “little sliver of the story” that was Bundy’s relationship with Elizabeth Kloepfer, a woman he lived with — becoming a “surrogate father to her little girl” — while he was committing many of his murders in Seattle.
In another Utah connection, Kloepfer moved to Seattle from Ogden. She later write a memoir using the name Elizabeth Kendall.
That relationship is the basis for the movie “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile,” which debuts Saturday at Sundance. Berlinger also directed that film, which stars Zac Efron as Bundy. [Update: Sundance audiences applaud Zac Efron as serial killer Ted Bundy, but reviews are mixed for ‘polarizing’ movie about his crimes]
“I felt he had the acting chops,” Berlinger said, “and I also felt that his teen-heartthrob image was perfect for this film, because that persona is exactly what Bundy used to seduce women to their deaths. People trusted him and he was extremely believable.”
Berlinger will be in Utah on Saturday for a Sundance screening, as the movie premieres in the state where many of Bundy’s crimes were committed.
To Berlinger, “the core reason to tell this story” is reflected in how Bundy blended in here. “He teaches us that people who do evil are not these two-dimensional monsters who are easy to spot in society. Quite the contrary. They’re usually the people you least expect and the people you trust.
“Whether it’s a priest who commits pedophilia or a serial killer who is a member of the Mormon church and going to law school at the University of Utah and well-liked by people, there is this dark side to him that you never know. And that taps into our most primal fear: that the person next to you is not who he or she seems to be.”
“Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile” • The 110-minute features premieres Saturday at 9:45 p.m. at the Eccles Theatre in Park City. There are additional screenings on Sunday at 8:30 a.m. at the MARC in Park City; Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. at the Rose Wagner in Salt Lake City; Wednesday, Jan. 30, at 6 p.m. at the Sundance Resort Screening Room; and Saturday, Feb. 2, at the Eccles Theatre in Park City. For ticket information, go to sundance.org/tickets.