Hell on Wheels: The Sordid History of Ted Bundy's VW Beetle

DCTWINKIE5500, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

When Ted Bundy was working as a crisis hotline volunteer in Seattle while attending the University of Washington in the early 1970s, he would sometimes get a ride home from a co-worker. Some time later that same co-worker, future true crime author Ann Rule, found it odd that descriptions of a serial killer haunting the Washington area seemed to match Bundy's height and features.

What helped ease her mind was that encounters with the killer often included mentions of a Volkswagen Beetle. The assailant often lured his female victims to the car under the pretense of needing help carrying bags, with a fake cast on his arm or leg to diminish suspicion. The killer would then hit them with a crowbar and stuff them into the passenger side of the car, where he had ripped out the seat to better accommodate their unconscious and prostrate frames.

Although the physical description seemed to match Bundy and one witness overheard the assailant saying his name was “Ted,” Rule knew that the Bundy she had once worked alongside—and was still friendly with—didn’t own a car. Still, she harbored doubts. So she asked a friend on the police force to check his car registration, and was surprised to learn Bundy owned a tan 1968 Volkswagen Beetle.

By the time he was captured for good in 1978 (he had twice previously escaped police custody), Bundy had killed at least 30 women across multiple states. In the majority of cases, the Volkswagen acted as a sort of accomplice, providing a portable shelter for Bundy’s kidnappings and killings, housing his murder tools, and even offering illumination for Bundy's crime scenes.

The Beetle undoubtedly aided him in his deeds, a fact that has led to the model’s continued infamy some 80 years after its initial introduction (though the automaker recently indicated that, for a second time, it may cease production on it). But it was also a confessional. The Beetle and the secrets it contained would eventually deliver Bundy straight to the electric chair.

 
 

There is nothing inherently evil about the Volkswagen Beetle, a compact German car first introduced in 1938 that became extremely popular in the United States beginning in the 1960s. Its devoted owners often characterized it as cute, with an expressive front chassis and clever advertising campaigns that emphasized its irreverent features. But Volkswagen has often found itself attached to some rather morbid history.

The car was nudged along by Adolf Hitler, who wanted an affordable vehicle for German consumers (although no cars were delivered to customers until after WWII)

. Much later, a Volkswagen microbus—a multi-passenger derivation—was used by Jack Kevorkian to euthanize terminally-ill patients, earning it the label “Deathmobile.”

Bundy purchased his Beetle used and was driving it for the duration of his murder spree across Colorado, Washington, and Utah in 1974 and 1975, when he was believed to have averaged one murder per month. Witnesses who saw victims enter the car told police about it, who in turn began scanning roadways for the tan Volkswagen that may have been harboring a killer.

Donn Dughi, State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Being a passenger in Bundy’s Volkswagen often involved being only semiconscious, handcuffed to the car’s frame, and remaining prone on the car floor so passersby wouldn’t be able to see the dazed or distressed victim inside. Bundy had also removed the inside door handle so it couldn't be opened from within. Some victims were strangled while still in the vehicle; others were dragged out in front of the car’s headlights so Bundy could better see what he was doing. In Bundy’s hands, the car was a versatile tool: It provided a false sense of comfort, shelter from interruption, and theatrical staging.

On August 15, 1975, Bundy was in Granger, Utah when police spotted him driving the vehicle without the headlights on and breezing through two stop signs. They stopped him for a routine traffic violation. When police saw the dislodged front passenger seat, they asked to search his car. Bundy consented. They found an ice pick, a pair of handcuffs, two masks, plastic bags, and gloves. Although he was released, Salt Lake authorities arrested him six days later when the Salt Lake district attorney decided to charge him with possession of burglary tools.

Sensing trouble and out on bail, Bundy spent the following day thoroughly cleaning the car, and sold it to a teenager in Sandy, Utah a few weeks later. That October, a victim, Carol DaRonch, identified him in a lineup as the man who had tried to handcuff her in his car after telling her he was a police detective. She had managed to flee.

Charging Bundy with DaRonch's attempted kidnapping, police seized the Beetle from the teenager Bundy had sold it to and began an exhaustive forensics study. Bundy hadn't cleaned the car thoroughly enough: It was a treasure trove of evidence. Inside, investigators found hairs matching three of Bundy’s victims, along with blood stains. The car was permanently impounded.

Incredibly, it was not the end of either Bundy or his preoccupation with the model.

Bundy was expedited to Colorado to stand trial, where he escaped not once, but twice: First from a courthouse, where he managed to stay free for six days, and another time from his jail cell in December 1977. After fleeing the second time, he assaulted and killed several more victims in a Florida State University sorority house. At some point around this time he also stole a Volkswagen Beetle—orange this time—and was detained by police for a traffic violation in February 1978 while driving in Pensacola, Florida.

DCTWINKIE5500, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

Bundy’s fate was sealed. He was convicted in July 1979 for two of the FSU murders (and later the murder of a 12-year-old girl)

and sentenced to death, though it would take another 10 years for that order to be carried out.

Bundy’s Beetle fared better. In the late 1970s, a former Salt Lake Sheriff’s Deputy named Lonnie Anderson purchased the car for $925 at a police auction. The transaction, conducted several years before the rise of the controversial “murderabilia” market for collectibles associated with criminals, raised a few eyebrows within the department. In speaking with the Deseret News, Anderson said he purchased it “as an investment.”

The car, which had long been stripped of most of its interior by forensics investigators, sat in a storage yard for the better part of 20 years before Anderson decided to try and realize a return. In July 1997, he placed a classified ad in The New York Times selling the car for $25,000. Relatives of the victims were dismayed, telling the News that it seemed opportunistic. Don Blackburn, whose daughter Janice was one of the murders Bundy confessed to, said the attempted sale “repulses me.”

 
 

In 2001, the car wound up in the collection of crime memorabilia collector Arthur Nash. Nash, in turn, leased the car to the National Museum of Crime and Punishment in Washington, D.C., where it went on display in the lobby in 2010. When the Museum closed over a lease dispute in 2015, the car migrated over to the Alcatraz East Crime Museum in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, where it currently resides. It is still owned by Nash, who plans to one day test it for DNA that may have been missed by authorities the first time around. Although Bundy confessed to 30 murders, some believe he may have been responsible for more than 100.

As for the “other” Bundy Beetle, the one he stole following his escape: Police returned it to its owner, massage therapist Rick Garzaniti, in 1978. No longer comfortable owning the vehicle, he sold it four months later to a father and his 16-year-old daughter. That it was once operated by one of the most dangerous serial killers in American history didn’t seem to matter to them, Garzaniti said. The teenager was just excited to have her first car.

Additional Source: The Stranger Beside Me

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Take Two: When Kim Jong-il Raised North Korea's World Cinema Profile By Kidnapping Two South Korean Stars

Kim Jong-Il, Choi Eun-hie, and Shin Sang-ok in a scene from Ross Adam and Robert Cannan's The Lovers & the Despot (2016).
Kim Jong-Il, Choi Eun-hie, and Shin Sang-ok in a scene from Ross Adam and Robert Cannan's The Lovers & the Despot (2016).
Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Choi Eun-hee knew there was trouble even before the needle sent her into unconsciousness.

It was 1978, and Choi, one of South Korea’s most prominent actresses, was struggling to regain the success she had achieved earlier in her career. A promise of a possible film partnership by a man claiming to be from Hong Kong had lured her to Repulse Bay, a waterfront locale in the southern part of Hong Kong Island, where she exited a vehicle and noticed a group of men standing near a boat. Choi sensed something wasn't quite right, but before she could consider it any further, she was grabbed, sedated, and thrown onboard.

When she awoke, Choi found herself in the captain’s quarters. Above her was a portrait of Kim Jong-il, then the chief of North Korea’s Propaganda and Agitation Department. Kim’s father, Kim Il-sung, was the leader of the country, a communist regime that had now seemingly absconded with Choi—for reasons the actress couldn't imagine.

Roughly eight days after being kidnapped, Choi found herself in Pyongyang, where Kim greeted her not as someone who had been forcibly subdued and delivered to him, but as an honored guest. In a way, she was. In Kim’s mind, Choi and her ex-husband, award-winning film director Shin Sang-ok (who would soon join them, also involuntarily) were the very people the country needed to spearhead a new era in North Korean filmmaking, one that would make the entire world sit up and take notice.

That both Choi and Shin would be captives of the state was of little concern to those in charge. Regardless of how their guests got there, they were there. And Kim had no intention of letting them leave.

 

Kim, who eventually succeeded his father as leader of North Korea and ruled from 1994 until his death in 2011, was a movie buff. He reportedly owned more than 30,000 films—including a great deal of pornography—and ordered traveling diplomats to bring back copies of international films for his enjoyment. Kim even authored a book, 1973’s On the Art of Cinema, that was intended as an instructional guide for filmmakers in the country. He preached a devotion to a singular, unified vision and bemoaned that North Korean films had too much ideology and crying in them. All but ignored by the rest of the film world, Kim wanted the North producing features that would be embraced by film festivals.

Kim Jong-il loved movies so much he decided to abduct some talent.Getty Images (Kim Jong-il) // JurgaR/iStock via Getty Images (Movie Theater). Photo composite by Mental Floss.

At the time, it was not uncommon for North Korea to fill a need for trained workers simply by kidnapping them. It had worked for the country when they wanted to learn more about South Korea; between 1977 and 1978, they abducted five South Korean high school students who became instructors for future undercover Northern operatives. They also once attempted to kidnap a concert pianist, who grew wise to the situation when he arrived for his private appointment and heard several people speaking with North Korean accents. (He fled.) Even so, Kim used a similar strategy when he decided that kidnapping an actor and director would be the most effective way to achieve his movie aspirations.

Choi was only one part of the plan. Once she was grabbed, Shin began a desperate search for her. The two, who had once been considered a “golden couple” in South Korea, had divorced in 1976 following Shin's affair with a younger actress, but they remained close.

Of course, Shin was a cinematic superstar in his own right. Though his career had also recently cooled off, he was a celebrated director who had once been referred to as "the Orson Welles of South Korea." Though there are different stories as to how Shin ended up in North Korea, the official version is that he wanted to help locate his missing ex. And when that trail eventually led him to Hong Kong, Shin, too, soon found himself with a bag over his head, being hustled to Pyongyang. While Choi had resigned herself to some acceptance of her fate—she was living in a luxurious villa surrounded by guards—Shin was more combative. After numerous escape attempts, he was sent to prison.

For four years, Shin subsisted on a diet of grass, salt, and rice, never once seeing Choi or getting any update about her safety. As far as Shin knew, she was dead. Finally, in 1983, Shin was released and “invited” to a reception. To their mutual shock, the former couple was reunited, neither one knowing the other had been there the entire time.

Kim apologized for the delayed meeting, saying he had been busy. On the subject of Shin being imprisoned for four years, he dismissed it as a misunderstanding. It was only then that Kim explained why the two were there: North Korean filmmakers had no new ideas, he explained, so he wanted Shin and Choi to make films that would establish North Korea in the movie business.

None of it was presented as a choice. That same year, the couple remarried—also reportedly at Kim's suggestion.

The filmmakers spent years trapped in North Korea.NatanaelGinting/iStock via Getty Images

There was discussion of escape, particularly when the couple was allowed to travel to Berlin to scout locations for productions, but Shin dismissed it.

"What's the matter with you?" Shin recalled telling Choi in his 1988 memoir, Kingdom of Kim. "I will not make an attempt unless it's 100 percent certain. If they caught us, we'd be dead."

Instead, Shin pondered the opportunity. Kim gave him the equivalent of $3 million as an annual salary, for both personal and professional use. His production offices grew to more than 700 employees. Aside from some firm edicts—Kim wanted to project an image of North Korea as a political titan, while somehow softening its image as a totalitarian terror—Shin had a large degree of creative freedom. He filmed North Korea’s first onscreen kiss. He made Runaway, a 1984 film about a wandering Korean family in 1920s Manchuria, that Shin believed was the best film of his career.

Most famously, he directed Pulgasari, a monster movie clearly inspired by Godzilla that featured an oversized monster aiding an army of farmers looking to overthrow a cruel king. Kim even convinced several filmmakers who worked on the Godzilla films to come to North Korea to assist with the production by guaranteeing their safety. Kenpachiro Satsuma, who was the second person to wear the Godzilla suit, performed as Pulgasari. Thousands of North Korean soldiers were used as extras.

 

Kim was very happy with the work Shin and Choi were producing, which grew to seven films. Some had even made it to festivals in the Eastern Bloc. Gradually, he gave them more and more freedom to travel, eventually allowing them to take an escorted trip to Vienna in 1986 to help stir up a possible European distributor that would make a North Korean film easier to circulate. As they were preparing to leave for Austria, the two decided to act.

"To be in Korea living a good life ourselves and enjoying movies while everyone else was not free was not happiness, but agony," Shin wrote.

Choi Eun-hee and Shin Sang-ok in The Lovers & the Despot (2016).Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

The two got in touch with a Japanese film critic they knew and met him for lunch. With North Korean guards in pursuit, Shin and Choi took a taxi to the American embassy and explained their eight-year ordeal as creative captives of Kim. Within a week, they were telling their story to reporters in Baltimore, Maryland, as well as the CIA.

North Korea denied that the two had been there against their will, arguing that they simply wanted to escape the restrictive nature of South Korean filmmaking. But Choi had seen to it that they came back with evidence. She had snuck an audio cassette recorder into her handbag during one meeting with Kim, who advised that if they were ever asked what they were doing in North Korea, to say that they were there voluntarily. She had even managed to have the tape smuggled out of the country before escaping, a stunt that could have resulted in her death if the betrayal had been discovered. For those in the U.S. government gathering intelligence on North Korea, it was the first time Kim’s voice had ever been heard.

Shin and Choi remained in the United States, where they had been granted political asylum. Shin even directed the 1995 film Three Ninjas Knuckle Up and produced several more movies under the pseudonym Simon Sheen. They eventually returned to South Korea in 1999, though some South Koreans believed Shin had gone to the North and pledged allegiance to communism voluntarily and treated him with suspicion.

"I could not dare return [to South Korea] without evidence that I had been kidnapped to the North," Shin said in an interview. "If [the Seoul government] charged me with entering the North on my own and cooperating with the North Koreans, I would have had no evidence to deny it."

Shin and Choi's story was explored in depth in Ross Adam and Robert Cannan's documentary The Lovers & the Despot, which was nominated for a Grand Jury Prize at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.

Shin died in 2006, Choi in 2018. In a 2015 interview with Korea JoongAng Daily, Choi said that she still had nightmares about being pursued by North Korean agents. "Even though [Kim Jong-il] did not use the right means to get what he wanted, I understood his desire to develop the North Korean movie industry," she said. "He mentioned that he wanted to bring about change to North Korean movies, all of which were similar in terms of directing and acting. But please don't misunderstand that my forgiveness of him means that I agree with the North Korean system, because I don't."

Though North Korea never did admit to abducting the pair, in 2002 Kim Jong-il did come clean about snatching several Japanese tourists in the late 1970s and 1980s, and issued a formal apology.

When it finally received a wider release, Pulgasari was dismissed as silly. Now under the leadership of Kim Jong-un, North Korea has yet to make any impact on the international film scene.