If there’s one thing Sgt. Shane Alexander would wish, it’s that people would learn the name Debi Kent, rather than fixate on the man who killed her.
“The thing that bothers me the most is everybody remembers his name, but nobody really remembers the victims,” said Alexander, a detective in the Bountiful Police Department.
His name was Ted Bundy, considered one of the most notorious serial killers in American history. Before he was executed in Florida’s electric chair on Jan. 24, 1989, Bundy admitted to 30 homicides — and he may have committed many more.
America’s fascination with Bundy and his crimes remains strong, 30 years after his death. A sign of that continued interest is a new movie about Bundy, “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile,” starring heartthrob Zac Efron as the charismatic psychopath. It premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and debuts Friday on Netflix.
Joe Berlinger, who directed and wrote the movie, noted that America has 5% of the world’s population, “but we’ve had 67% of the world’s serial killers.” Even in that group, Bundy continues to stand out.
“The one that rises to the top is Bundy, because Bundy uniquely used the American media to create this persona,” Berlinger said in an interview during Sundance. “That’s the persona the movie presents, and then takes down at the end of the film.”
The movie shows Bundy largely through the point of view of his longtime girlfriend, Liz (played by Lily Collins), a single mom who for years had no idea of Bundy’s murders.
“It’s a portrait of deception, and how one becomes seduced by the person closest to them,” Berlinger said.
The attention given to Bundy because of Berlinger’s film — and by the documentary series “Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes,” also directed by Berlinger, and which debuted on Netflix in January — prompted the Bountiful police to spotlight Alexander’s work in 2014 and 2015 to bring closure to Kent’s murder.
Debra Jean Kent was 17 years old when, on Nov. 8, 1974, she was abducted from Viewmont High School in Bountiful.
In 1989, a human kneecap — believed to be Kent’s, and the only part of her remains ever to be found — was identified as the sole human bone among a bunch of animal bones found in Fairview Canyon, in Sanpete County, about 100 miles south of Bountiful. Investigators searched the canyon because Ted Bundy, just before his execution, said he buried one of his victims there.
In 2014, when Alexander was assigned to the detective division of Bountiful police, he was told to make himself familiar with some of the department’s cold cases. One of those was Kent’s case, which officially was listed as unsolved, though most investigators believed Bundy killed her.
“As far as any kind of follow-up, it kind of just ended there with Bundy’s confession,” Alexander said. “But I don’t think he was a very trustworthy individual.”
Alexander said his assignment was to help create a DNA profile for Kent, using DNA from her family to approximate her DNA in a national database. In his research, Alexander found a newspaper interview with Kent’s mother, Bella, in which she pulled out a small box with her daughter’s patella inside.
“There was never a positive identification saying this bone belonged to Debi,” Alexander said. “And if it’s not Debi’s, whose is it?”
So Alexander met with Kent’s mother, both to collect family DNA for the profile and to test the patella to confirm it was Kent’s. After a bit of hesitation, Alexander said, Kent’s mother agreed to let Alexander send the bone in for testing, along with the family DNA samples.
Months later, the test results came back from the University of North Texas — and the DNA from the patella matched the DNA profile built for Kent based on her family’s DNA. With that information, the medical examiner was able to declare officially that Kent was deceased and to issue a death certificate, providing the family with a small measure of closure.
“Debi was the victim, but her family was the second victim. They had to live for so long not knowing,” Alexander said. “I know this doesn’t fix everything, but maybe it’s just enough to help them start a little bit of a healing process.”
Advances in technology, like better DNA profiling, often can lead to cracking a long-unsolved crime, said Jason Jensen, co-founder of the Utah Cold Case Coalition, a nonprofit group that tracks some 400 unsolved cases.
Another element to solving old cases is finding new witnesses, which is where the media — whether in true-crime reality shows like “Forensic Files” or portrayals like Efron’s in “Extremely Wicked…” — comes in.
“It’s the way to get the message out to a larger group of people, in hopes to pull in one or two that may give us new information,” Jensen said. “There’s even some unsolved cases they suspect were Bundy cases. So [the media] really helps us, as a community, keep that cult interest where cold-case enthusiasts follow it, and have conversations with others. It keeps cold cases a hot topic.”
Alexander also sees the value in media exposure. With some cold cases, Alexander said, “the only way we’re ever going to solve these is just that one person who might know that information that we don’t, and be able to share that.”
Killers like Bundy continue to captivate the public, Jensen said, because “they’re so out of touch with the mainstream. … The things that you would dream would never happen to you always fascinates people.”
“The main lesson of Bundy,” Berlinger said, “is, as he himself says, murderers don’t come out of the shadows with long fangs with blood dripping off their chin. They’re people that you least expect. And that applies to a priest who commits pedophilia or a serial killer or a corporate CEO of a polluting corporation who goes to bed at night knowing he’s killing tens of thousands of people.”