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

12 Perfectly Spooky Halloween Decorations Under $25

Amazon/shopDisney
Amazon/shopDisney

Halloween is right around the corner—which means it’s officially time to bring out the jack-o'-lanterns, watch scary movies, buy your costume(s), and hang up your festive decorations. Although there are thousands of decorations to choose from, you don’t have to blow your budget while decking out your house or apartment in honor of the spooky season this year. With a little guidance, you'll find plenty of ways to create the perfect ambiance at home without going for broke. (And best of all, you can put the money you saved toward extra Halloween candy to stash away.)

From giant spiders to hanging ghosts and lawn decorations, here are a few of our favorite props under $25.

1. Halloween Pillow Covers (4-Pack); $17

ZJHAI/Amazon

These adorable Halloween-themed pillowcases make the perfect accessory for any couch, sofa, or mattress. Made with thick linen fabric, these are durable, sturdy, and designed to last for seasons to come. (Tip: To prevent the zipper from breaking, fold the pillow in half before inserting.)

Buy it: Amazon

2. Black Lace Spiderweb Fireplace Mantle; $12

Aerwo/Amazon

This versatile spiderweb prop is made with 100-percent polyester, and its knit lace spiderweb pattern adds a spooky touch to any home. Display it on your doorway, across your fireplace mantel, or atop your table. (It also makes a great backdrop for Halloween photo ops.)

Buy it: Amazon

3. Statement Halloween Signs; $16

Dazonge/Amazon

These festive, statement-making banners come pre-assembled, making them incredibly easy to install. They’re also weather-resistant and washable for both outdoor and indoor use. Use tape, push-pins, or weights to prevent the signs from blowing away.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Jack Skellington and Sally Plush Dolls; $23 (Each)

Disney

Celebrate your favorite holiday with a pair of adorable Jack Skellington and Sally plush dolls from Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas. Jack stands at 28 inches tall, while Sally is a bit shorter at 21 inches. Set them up on your sofa or against the window sill for all to see.

Buy them: Disney Shop (Jack and Sally)

5. Halloween Zombie Groundbreaker; $22

Joyin/Amazon

This spooktacular zombie lawn decoration is sure to scare all of your friends, family, and neighbors alike. Made with a combination of latex, plastic, and fabric, this durable Halloween prop is sure to last for years to come.

Buy it: Amazon

6. Hanging Ghost Decoration; $14

Moon Boat/Amazon

Drape this handmade, 14-foot-long hanging ghost decoration over your porch, doorway, or window. You can also hang it outdoors over a tree or a (very tall) bush. And, since it comes pre-assembled, you won’t have to waste time constructing it yourself.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Two-Piece Hanging Ghost Set; $17

GeeFuun/Amazon

This pair of ghosts adds a whimsical touch to any home. While they’re not “scary,” per se, they certainly are adorable. Display them in your front yard, on your porch, on a lamppost, or a tree. To hang, simply tie the ribbons and bend the wires, arms, and tails.

Buy it: Amazon

8. Pumpkin String Lights; $19

Eurus Home/Amazon

Not only are these solar-powered, 33-foot-long LED string lights good for the environment, they’re also incredibly easy to install (no long, tangly power cable chords necessary). Since they’re waterproof, you can use them both indoors and outdoors. Choose from eight different light settings, including twinkling, flashing, fading, and more.

Buy it: Amazon

9. Inflatable Ghost; $22

Joiedomi/Amazon

This adorable inflatable ghost (which dons a cute-as-can-be wizard hat!) features built-in LED lights and sandbags to help it stay sturdy. It also comes complete with a plug, extended cords, ground stakes, and fastened ropes. Simply plug it in and watch it magically inflate within just a few minutes.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Graveyard Tombstones; $17

meiguisha/Amazon

Turn your front lawn into a graveyard with this six-piece set. Each tombstone is made with foam and designed to add a touch of spookiness to your space. To install, insert one holder into the bottom of the tombstone, and one into the soil. You can use these indoors, as well.

Buy it: Amazon

11. 10-Piece Skeleton Set; $24

Fun Little Toys/Amazon

This skeleton set includes a skull, hands and arms, and legs and feet—plus five stakes to hold everything in place. Each “bone” and “joint” is flexible, allowing you to prop the skeleton into different frighteningly fun poses. Simply place the stakes into the bone socket and turn clockwise.

Buy it: Amazon

12. Outdoor Spider Web; $18

amenon/Amazon

This giant, ultra-stretchy spider web spans a whopping 23 feet. It also includes a 30-inch black spider, 20 pieces of fake spiders, one hook, and one nail. Its thick polyester rope—combined with the sturdy stakes—allows the spider web to stay in place all season long. Place the hook on a wall or tree, and expand the web using the stakes.

Buy it: Amazon

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6 Bizarre Halloween-Related Lawsuits

Halloween scares can sometimes invite legal action.
Halloween scares can sometimes invite legal action.
inhauscreative/iStock via Getty Images

For most people, Halloween is a time to be someone other than themselves and enjoy a party atmosphere. But occasionally, those relaxed inhibitions can result in legal trouble. Take a look at several strange cases involving costume malfunctions, collapsing pumpkins, and other spooky court filings.

1. An Inflammatory Situation

Homemade Halloween costumes carry risks.hudiemm/iStock via Getty Images

In 1984, Michigan natives Frank and Susan Ferlito attended a Halloween party. Susan was dressed as Mary of Mary and Her Little Lamb fame; Frank was her animal sidekick. Susan achieved Frank's lamb look by gluing cotton batting made by Johnson & Johnson to his long underwear, effectively covering him in flammable material from head to toe. For reasons known only to Frank Ferlito, he decided to light a cigarette using a butane lighter. His left arm was set ablaze, and Frank suffered burns on over a third of his body.

The coupled sued Johnson & Johnson. In 1989, a jury awarded Frank Ferlito $555,000 and Susan Ferlito $70,000. In 1991, Johnson & Johnson was successful in petitioning for a new trial, in part because the Ferlitos had each admitted to knowing that cotton would burn if it was exposed to flames. While the plaintiffs argued that the cotton didn’t have a warning, Frank also admitted he ignored the warnings on cigarette packages, meaning it wouldn't have altered their behavior. A Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled in favor of Johnson & Johnson in 1992.

2. A Rotten Inflatable Pumpkin

Inflatable pumpkins should not be used as shelter.peterspiro/iStock via Getty Images

For years, Milwaukee resident Jon Majdoch enjoyed a brisk seasonal business operating a number of temporary Halloween shops named Halloween Express. The “shops” were actually housed underneath a giant, 100-foot diameter inflatable pumpkin. Though high winds had once blown one along a freeway, there were no major issues. In 2017, however, Majdoch custom ordered a smaller inflatable pumpkin so that he could set up a smaller store in the parking lot of a home goods store. The item came from Larger Than Life Inflatables and another company, House of Bounce, assembled it. One day, it rained so hard that water pooled on top of the pumpkin and prompted it to collapse. No one was injured, but Majdoch’s inventory was ruined. His insurance company, Hastings Mutual, paid out a six-figure policy and sued both Larger Than Life Inflatables and House of Bounce alleging manufacturing defects. The litigation is ongoing.

3. The Eyes Have It

Cosmetic contact lenses are illegal to sell without a prescription.sdominick/iStock via Getty Images

If you’re considering wearing cosmetic contact lenses for Halloween, you might want to rethink that decision. A number of retailers have faced lawsuits from state attorney generals and consumers owing to eye damage caused by the non-prescription lenses. In 2016, Missouri attorney general Chris Koster filed a lawsuit against Gotcha Costume Rental for selling the lenses without a prescription, a violation of both state and federal laws. (Gotcha Costume Rental owner Aaro Froese agreed to comply with the law and only sell contacts to customers with prescriptions.) The lenses, which may not fit properly, can scratch the cornea and cause infection or even blindness. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) routinely offers a consumer warning that contacts are medical devices and should never be worn unless prescribed by an eye care professional.

4. Banana Appeal

The banana costume has been the subject of multiple lawsuits.sdominick/iStock via Getty Images

With dozens of costume makers all over the world making every kind of costume imaginable, it’s easy to find similar products on store racks. But in the case of the banana costume, it turns out they may still be subject to copyright law. In 2017, costume manufacturer Rasta Imposta sued a number of companies, including Kmart and Kangaroo Manufacturing, for selling a banana costume they felt was infringing on their own. Citing things like the color and shape of the costume, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia agreed, affirming in 2019 that Rasta Imposta’s banana was distinctive. In its ruling, the court wrote that the company was “entitled to the veritable fruits of its intellectual labor.”

5. Fright Night

You can sue a haunted house for scaring you, but you probably won't have a very convincing argument.darkbird77/iStock via Getty Images

Thanks to liability waivers, it's notoriously difficult to sue haunted houses for delivering what they promise: a good scare. In 2011, Scott Griffin and friends went to The Haunted Trail, a haunted attraction in San Diego, California. When Griffin reached the exit, he thought it was over. Instead, a man wielding a chainsaw moved toward him aggressively, catching Griffin by surprise and prompting him to run away—then fall and injure his wrist. Griffin sued the operators but couldn’t find any satisfaction. A trial court ruled in favor of the defendant, with the 4th District Court of Appeal affirming the ruling in 2015. It was, the judges determined, a case of someone paying money to experience “extreme fright” and receiving “exactly what he paid for.”

6. Spider Man

It's not acceptable to open fire on fake spiders in an office setting.abzee/iStock via Getty Images

While this Halloween tale didn’t result in a lawsuit, it did affect a few attorneys in West Virginia. In 2015, Logan County assistant prosecutor Chris White reacted (some might say overreacted) to a small army of fake spiders that had been strung up for Halloween by pulling a gun and insisting that he was going to begin shooting the replicas. Logan County prosecuting attorney John Bennett was forced to suspend White over the incident, explaining that White really hates spiders and that the gun wasn’t actually loaded. The spider decorations were eventually removed.