Ted Bundy Abducted And Nearly Murdered Me: How I Survived
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Ted Bundy was a serial murderer who abducted, raped, and killed at least 30 women between 1974 and 1978. Over the course of his criminal career, a handful of women either escaped from or experienced near misses with Bundy. One of those women was our source today, Rhonda Stapley. She was abducted, raped, and nearly murdered by Bundy. If you need a trigger warning for this article, it was everything you've read so far.
I Missed One Bus And Found Myself In The Path Of A Serial Killer
In August 1974, Bundy was accepted at the University of Utah law school, and he almost immediately started murdering women there. On October 2, he killed a 16-year-old named Nancy Wilcox. Rhonda's encounter started on October 11 with a dentist appointment, so if you needed more reasons to put off that root canal, "That's how you meet serial killers" is a nearly valid argument.
After her appointment, Rhonda went for a walk in downtown Liberty Park while she waited for the anesthetic to wear off. Then she went to the bus stop to catch a ride back to campus. The bus was late. This is where the ominous musical sting kicks in. Right as Rhonda was about to head to another stop, "this tan Volkswagen drove by and the driver offered me a ride, and I accepted it and got in." Here is that exact car, where it is now displayed at the Alcatraz East Crime Museum:
Making him the second-worst person involved with the Beetle.
Rhonda repeats the serial killer descriptor mantra: "He was very nice, polite, well-dressed. He looked like a college student and he presented himself as a college student ... He told me he was a law student, he was going up to the university too and it was just right on his way, it wouldn't be out of his way at all to drop me off." If you're picturing some slimy monster, this is what Ted Bundy looked like back then:
"I loved you in West Wing."
So Rhonda trusted him. Aside from that bow tie, there seemed to be no reason not to. "And then he turned a way that didn't seem like the normal route to go to the university, and I asked him about that and he said, 'I hope you don't mind, but I have a little errand to run up by the zoo,' and so then we went up the canyon."
This is the part of the horror movie where you start screaming at the screen and rolling your eyes, telling the protagonist not to go "check out" the old barn full of scythes. But Rhonda didn't realize she was in a horror flick yet: "The canyon where the zoo is, it's up next to where the university is, so it wasn't really way out of his way. It still wasn't alarming or anything. It was fine to me that we took a little detour. It wasn't very far out of our way, and I'm thinking, 'I'd still be home faster than if I'd took the bus.'"
She was not.
It May Take Some Time Before You Realize You're Being Abducted
You have the gift of hindsight. You know the name "Ted Bundy" as a staple of terror. Rhonda was only just finding that out: "We got to the zoo and he kept on driving. I said, 'I thought you were going to take me to the zoo?' Y'know, kinda joking with him. And he said, 'No, I said NEAR the zoo." That is not a comforting technicality. When a stranger starts saying shit like, I said we'd get there in one piece; I did not vouch for the integrity of that piece, you know things are about to go wrong. So did Rhonda, though she didn't know how wrong.
"We should have turned right to campus. Instead he turned left and went up another canyon ... and that's when the ride started to feel uncomfortable, because he stopped talking to me. All this time we'd been talking about school and campus, new buildings, road construction ... the stuff that people who don't know each other well talk about. Light chatter ... And then he starts slowing down as we go around corners ... he's looking at side roads, turn-offs. I'm thinking, 'He's looking for a pull-off where we can stop and make out ... I'm not really a makeout girl, I don't really know him, my mouth is gonna be sore from the dental surgery.' So I'm trying to think of how to fend off a romantic advance."
Perhaps Bundy himself would describe the things he did as "romantic," but very few would agree.
Ted Bundy Tried To Murder Me
Shit, this is fan.
"He pulls in finally to a picnic area that's kind of deserted. He pulls back into the trees a little way and stops the car and turns it off. And then he turned in his seat so he was almost facing me, and leaned in really close. I thought he was going to kiss me. But instead he said, 'You know what? I'm going to kill you.' And he put his hands on my throat and started squeezing and shaking me."
Imagine that moment, when it all changes. You were frightened enough of a sexually aggressive man, but murder? That thought never entered your head. Now, as far as you know, it might be the last thought you ever have.
Bundy strangled Rhonda in and out of unconsciousness, raped her, woke her up, and repeated that -- over and over again. "So I was kind of in a state of going into unconsciousness for most of the evening. The last time I regained consciousness ... the passenger door was open and the dome light was on. So I could see him, that was the only light in the whole canyon ... I could see him standing over there, facing away from me, doing something in the backseat of the car."
Knowing what we know about Bundy's other murders, he was probably readying his murder kit. Here's what the police found in his car a year later, in 1975:
The only thing missing is a photo album titled "My Murder Scrapbook."
Rhonda was awake, but hurt and alone. And 20 feet away, Ted Bundy was gathering his killing tools.
I Only Survived By Sheer Accident
"I just jumped and ran in the other direction, into pitch blackness. I just took a couple of steps because my pants had been pulled down around my ankles. So I tripped ... and tumbled, but I fell into a mountain river that wasn't really deep, but it was really, really swift. There were boulders and bushes and tree limbs sticking out ... the water swept me away from him, and it's probably what saved my life."
Rhonda has no idea how long she was in that stream. "It could have been moments. It could've have been a long time. I had no idea. I remember thinking, 'I'm still going to die. I was going to die before, and now I'm still going to die.'" It's just one impossible cliffhanger after another. We know Rhonda survived, but ... how? Turns out she was only saved by the state of Utah's diligent placement of debris grates. She eventually ran into one of those silly little dam things, and then climbed out of the water. Bundy hadn't bothered to take Rhonda's boots or pants off; he'd only pulled them down. That meant she still had her shoes and some clothes, albeit soaking wet ones, but at least this story doesn't end with a pantsless 15-mile walk back to her dorm room. Which, really, is the least the Universe could have done for her at that point.
I Kept Silent For Decades Because I Was Taught Being Raped Was Worse Than Death
For a very long time, Rhonda didn't tell anyone. She talks about it now, obviously -- she's even published a book about the attack and her subsequent battle with PTSD. But she didn't say a word about any of this for decades. "The first thing I thought 'No one can ever know' ... everyone would think it was my fault. Why would I get in the car with a stranger?"
Only about a third of rape victims ever report the crime to police. And that's today. "I was raised very conservative , and actually what church leaders would say to young women was, 'The most important thing a young woman can have is your virtue. You're probably better off if you lose your life.' And I had lived. So I had that guilt also."
Rhonda kept quiet and went on with her life. But over the next few months, other young women went missing around Utah. "I thought was an isolated incident ... and then ... another girl turned up missing. And her father was on the police force ... and he was on the news because he was sheriff, to get publicity for his daughter. And he was asking the public for help ... and when I saw that, I recognized things ..."
There were no pictures of Bundy circulating yet, so Rhonda didn't know for certain that it was the same guy. But women kept disappearing, and on November 8, Bundy botched a double kidnapping. He was in the news now. "And that's when I knew ... it had to be the same guy. And that's when I really started feeling guilt. If I had come forward earlier, maybe those other girls wouldn't have gotten ..."
Well, no, it's not Rhonda's fault that she grew up believing some deeply fucked up things about "virtue." And it's definitely not her fault that Ted Bundy was a goddamn serial killer. What's important is that survivors survive.
When I Did Speak Up, They Called Me A Liar
Rhonda broke her silence in 2016. She followed Ted Bundy's capture, two successive prison breaks, and trial with all the interest you'd expect. She was obsessive, but no one in her life knew why -- not even her husband. "When we got married, you think you should share everything ... so I shared with him that I had been raped. He said it didn't matter. He didn't mention it again and neither did I. And that was all I said about it for 37 years."
She became a pharmacist, and generally went about her life for a few decades, until her new boss happened to look a bit like Bundy. He put her on a year's probation for letting one of her workers eat a piece of licorice in the pharmacy. When she complained about the treatment, he even talked like Bundy: "He said things to me, almost the same phrasing Ted Bundy had used in the canyon."
Bundy had said: "You don't have the right to cry and whine at me, you should be thanking me that you're still alive."
Her new boss: "In the same tone of voice ... 'Rhonda, you don't have the right to tell people I'm treating you unfairly ... you should be grateful you even still have a job.'"
PTSD often takes years to hit, and it can be triggered by something as simple as a smell. In Rhonda's case, it was triggered by an asshole boss. She decided to reach out to other Bundy survivors in the hope that they might understand what she went through. Thankfully, by then the internet existed.
"I'd type things like 'who survived Ted Bundy' ... and I found this article, 'I Survived Ted Bundy' ... I figured out how to contact the author, and she became my secret pal. I talked to her. Her 'adventure' wasn't as intense ... but I could tell her things ... she encouraged me to find a counselor and really start healing. And so that's what I did."
Rhonda also started reading up on some statistics about rape, whereupon she learned that the vast majority of women never report it. So she published her book, I Survived Ted Bundy: The Attack, Escape, And PTSD That Changed My Life. She did everything she could to talk about the assault. The assault she'd hidden for decades, mostly for fear that people would blame her for the whole thing or call her a liar. Can you guess what happened next?
Go on, guess.
At least her publisher had warned her about this: "They call 'em Amazon trolls ... 20 minutes after it went live, people were giving it bad comments, saying a liar no one will believe it anyway." But people did listen to Rhonda's story. Ultimately, she's happy that she wrote the book, and happy that she said something. But she's also pretty pissed off at the "trolls."
"That part, sadly, has not changed in the 40 years since my experience. You still have girls in college campuses who will not come forward for the same reason. People blame the victim somehow. Really, the message is, 'It doesn't matter in sexual assault. It's never the victim's fault.'"
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