More than 30 years after his execution for three murders in Florida, Ted Bundy continues to cast a long shadow over America. His horrific crimes continue to shock us while his ability to blend into a crowd and pass as normal while committing at least 30 murders terrifies us. Bundy is the “killer next door” that makes everyone distrust strangers asking for help and lock their doors at night.
A key part of our sense of Bundy’s chameleonic ability comes from Ann Rule’s classic true crime story Stranger Beside Me. In it, Rule tells the story of Bundy as seen by one of his coworkers–she worked beside him and never had a sense that he was a murderer. Bundy also dated Elizabeth Kleopfer for years, but she had no idea he was a murderer, and even initially believed his pleas of innocence.
Many people who interviewed Bundy had a sense that it was hard to link him to the murders psychologically in part because he compartmentalized his brain very thoroughly. Though he rejected the notion that he had multiple personalities, several interviewers suggested that he might to some degree believe in his own innocence because some parts of him did not understand or even acknowledge what the other parts had done.
But there was one thing that Bundy couldn’t separate himself from: his teeth. While his distinct, crooked teeth might have helped him commit his crimes, they also helped convict him.
A Pathetic Figure
While in many cases, Bundy crept into women’s rooms and beat them senseless while they slept, in other cases he convinced women to come with him willingly. It’s hard to reconcile Bundy’s strange, crooked teeth with his supposed charm. It is often stated that women thought the was attractive, and this was how he was able to lure them into his car and kidnap them.
However, in Stranger Beside Me, Rule states, “Ted was never as handsome, brilliant, or charismatic as crime folklore has deemed him… A virtual nonentity before he was suspected of a series of horrific crimes, he somehow became all of those things as the media embraced him.” Similarly a defense attorney who worked with him said that Bundy never “exuded charm” nor was he a “diabolical genius.”
Instead, Bundy’s modus operandi (MO) which he developed in the early 1970s was to play the part of a pathetic figure. He often had his arm in a sling or be on crutches with his leg in a brace and would pretend he needed a woman’s help with some task, like carrying books or even putting a boat on top of his car (a Volkswagen Bug–also a kind of pathetic car). For this type of ruse, he didn’t need a “Hollywood” smile, he needed a smile that made him look everyday, perhaps as a bit of a loser, and his weird crooked teeth probably served this function well.
But while his teeth might have helped him lure victims in, they were also largely responsible for his conviction.
Bundy’s crimes were always savage. In addition to initially bludgeoning women unconscious or sometimes to death, he would assault them with objects found at the scene, causing terrible internal injuries.
His brutal attack at the Chi Omega sorority at Florida State University followed a similar pattern. In an attack that experts say may have taken as little as 15 minutes, he beat, strangled, and assaulted two women, then beat two other women with a club before fleeing. After fleeing the house, he entered another woman’s basement apartment and beat her.
The evidence from the scenes was sparse. There were a few hairs in a pantyhose that had been used as a mask, but no fingerprints.
However, Bundy had savagely bitten one of the women he murdered, leaving teeth marks on her flesh. This would become crucial evidence when Bundy was picked up later for driving a stolen car.
A forensic odontologist matched impressions of Bundy’s teeth with the bite marks to assert that the bite must have been Bundy’s. At the trial, the odontologist stated that the match between the bite marks and the teeth were as precise as fingerprints. This evidence was very convincing to the jury, several of whom said afterward that this was the evidence they relied on to vote to convict.
He was found guilty of the murders and sentenced to death. Later, he would be found guilty of another murder–a 12-year-old girl who was kidnapped from school. Before his execution, he confessed to 30 murders, though many believe he may have killed many more, possibly as many as 100 women.
Nearly 40 years after Bundy’s conviction, forensic experts reviewing the evidence cast doubt not on the accuracy of the conclusion, but on how well it might work in a modern courtroom. Since the early 80s, we have learned that bite marks can be unreliable evidence, especially on skin, where the malleable surface can distort the shape of the teeth and the bite.
We also know that we don’t have a database of teeth that we can use to compare bite marks to, the way we have a database of fingerprints, so it’s hard to say just how unique any given bite is. Bundy’s teeth were definitely unusual, but were they unusual enough to identify him and solely him as the attacker, the way the evidence was presented at the trial?
It’s terrifying to think that Bundy might have been released because of more advanced forensic evidence. Of course, modern DNA evidence in the form of hair and semen samples would probably play a more important role and would have helped to seal the case, with bite mark evidence playing a supporting role. Fortunately, we can all be glad that Bundy is dead and not out walking the streets today.