Hell on Wheels: The Sordid History of Ted Bundy's VW Beetle
By Jake Rossen
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.
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.
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