Few journalists are lucky enough to stumble into stories that grab the national consciousness for decades. And when they do, even fewer are lucky enough to know their subjects intimately enough before the news breaks to offer readers not just a scoop, but a kind of dual biography.
Ann Rule, who died Sunday at 83, was one of these. Though she would become a prolific writer — a woman who “reinvented the true crime genre and earned the trust of millions of readers who wanted a new and empathetic perspective on the tragic stories at the heart of her works,” as the president and chief executive officer of Simon and Schuster put it — Rule was just another anonymous writer in Seattle in 1971. A former police officer turned crime reporter on the wrong side of 40 with four children at home and a dissolving marriage, Rule volunteered at suicide crisis hotline one night a week.
There — fortunately and unfortunately — she befriended a young man who would commit dozens of horrific murders a few years later: Ted Bundy. This friendship between a great crime writer and her greatest subject was as unlikely as it was fated: the equivalent of Bob Woodward sharing a schoolyard see-saw with Richard Nixon.
“I liked him immediately,” Rule wrote in “The Stranger Beside Me,” the book about Bundy that brought her fame in 1980, ultimately selling more than 2 million copies. “It would have been hard not to. He brought me a cup of coffee and waved his arm over the awesome banks of phone lines.” Bundy’s first words to Rule: “You think we can handle all this?”
In an era when a mass killing seems to happen every week and David Duchovny stars in a TV series about Charles Manson, Bundy’s notoriety may have faded somewhat. But for a generation raised on true-crime pulp and TV movies about Bundy, he remains the face of serial murder in America — the killer of at least 30 women who was so terrifying because, unlike Manson and many of his ilk, he seemed like a stand-up guy.
”Ted Bundy was a complex man who somewhere along the line went wrong,” a prosecutor of one of his crimes said when Bundy was executed in 1989. ”He killed for the sheer thrill of the act and the challenge of escaping his pursuers. He probably could have done anything in life he set his mind to do, but something happened to him and we still don’t know what it was.”
If it’s rare to hear a district attorney pay a tribute of sorts to a man who beat women to death and sexually assaulted their corpses, it wasn’t for Bundy. People loved him. He volunteered for the Republican Party; with Rule beside him, he convinced people not to kill themselves over the phone; he dated; and he was kind of hot.
Rule, for one, thought he was smokin’.
“His physical attractiveness helped to make him a mythical character, an antihero who continues to intrigue readers, many of whom were not even born when he carried out his horrendous crimes,” Rule wrote in “The Stranger Beside Me.” Even further: “As far as his appeal to women, I can remember thinking that if I were younger and single or if my daughters were older, this would be almost the perfect man,” she wrote.
Yet, down the line, it became clear that Bundy fell far short of Mr. Right.
Beating the streets of the Pacific Northwest for stories, Rule, in 1974, followed the bloody path of a killer who preyed on young women. A witness reported hearing a suspect identify himself as “Ted” and police thought he drove a Volkswagen. Though Rule didn’t think Bundy owned a car, she was concerned that her old friend from the suicide hotline matched a description authorities were circulating, and tipped off an officer she knew.
The ensuing interaction went beyond tragedy into comedy.
“I don’t really think this is anything, but it’s bugging me,” Rule wrote she told police. “… His name is Ted Bundy. B-U-N-D-Y. Call me back. O.K.?”
The officer reported back: “Would you believe [he drives] a 1968 bronze Volkswagen Bug?”
Rule thought the officer was kidding. “Come on … What does he really drive?” she asked.
Officer: “Ann, I’m serious.”
Unfortunately, flooded with leads, police didn’t recognize Rule’s hot tip for what it was. Bundy continued to kill — and Rule continued to be his friend. Even after Bundy was initially arrested for kidnapping in 1975 in Salt Lake City, Rule had lunch with him in Seattle while he was out on bond and bought him a carafe of Chablis.
“When this is all over,” Bundy told Rule, “I’ll take you out to lunch.”
“I knew that he was a prime suspect but that was all I knew at the time,” Rule wrote. “I had no knowledge at all beyond the few innuendoes I’d read in the papers.” She asked Bundy if he had read about the missing women — after all, she was writing a book about them. He shrugged the questions off. In early 1976, they hung out again and talked for “five hours,” Rule reported.
“I have to tell you this,” she told Bundy. “I cannot be completely convinced of your innocence.”
Bundy: “That’s O.K.”
It was the last time Rule would see Bundy “as a free man,” she wrote. Bundy was convicted of kidnapping in 1976 and began a prison sentence as authorities in other states tried to build murder cases against him.
Still, Rule corresponded with him. She visited him. She sent him $20 — he paid for a haircut with the money. Then, in 1977, Bundy escaped, was arrested and escaped again. After the second escape, he killed three more women before he was arrested in Florida.
The jig was up. And even as she was being courted by Hollywood, Rule was trying to facilitate Bundy’s confession.
“I tried, literally, to save his life,” Rule wrote. “I began to phone Washington state agencies to try to arrange something that would allow Ted to confess to me, and, through plea bargaining, to be returned to Washington for confinement in a mental hospital.”
It wouldn’t work. Bundy was found guilty of capital murder in Florida in 1979 and sentenced to death.
Rule was on board — sort of.
“I believed that the verdict had been the right verdict, but I wondered if it had been for the wrong reasons,” she wrote. “It had been too swift, too vindictive. Was justice still justice when it manifested itself as it had in the less than six hours of jury deliberation?”
Ten years later, after his execution in the electric chair, she offered a postscript that stood in marked contrast to those who shouted: “Burn, Bundy, burn!”
“At long last, peace Ted,” she wrote. “And peace and love to all the innocents you destroyed.”
And 10 years after she wrote those words, Rule’s fondness for Bundy seemed to have faded.
“People like Ted can fool you completely,” she said in 1999. “I’d been a cop, had all that psychology — but his mask was perfect. I say that long acquaintance can help you know someone. But you can never be really sure. Scary.”
She added: “I felt sick when Ted was executed — but I would not have stopped it if I could. He was going to get out, and he would have killed again and again and again.”