This article originally appeared on VICE CA.
If you’re interested in Ted Bundy, you should be interested in Stephen Michaud—he’s the main interviewer of Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes . He’s the man who infamously duped Bundy into revealing key elements of his own crimes for months. And he's the author of true crime novel, The Only Living Witness that details the events leading to Bundy’s execution. But ask Stephen Michaud what he’s interested in, and he’ll tell you to convince the world that Ted Bundy was a piece of shit.
“I wasn’t afraid of him,” admits a 70-year-old Michaud over a phone call. “He did a bunch of chicken shit crimes by creeping up behind defenseless women only to smack them on the head. That’s no hero.”
As a 31-year-old journalist, Michaud hardly knew about Bundy in the way most of us know of him today: the socially awkward kid who grew into a serial killer, luring at least 30 unsuspecting women into snares of, murder, and rape in the 1970s. Upon capture, he managed two separate prison breaks, charmed America into labeling him attractive, and inspired the FBI to examine serial killers differently.
For months, Michaud listened to Bundy talk in detail about the murders he was accused of in three seperate states (Colorado, Florida, Utah), lighting Bundy’s cigs and purchasing his lunches all the while. After those six months, he was mentally drained.
There’s a lot to said about the unnecessary glorification of Ted Bundy from afar, but I’ve wondered if that idolization was possible when knee to knee with that monster for months on end. In speaking with the one person who would know, Michaud made it clear that it wasn’t.
VICE: You’re obviously connected to the history of Ted Bundy. What are your thoughts about the continued obsession around his name over the years. I’m pretty sure Bundy would have loved this.
Stephen Michaud: Bundy’s been with me for a long time, so let me tell you something about my friend Bundy. He was narcissistic. By now, all of America knows what that means, but as a sociopath, he also dealt in paranoia. The narcissist in Bundy responded to the press attention and groupies, sure. But he also yearned to be free if you get my point. To be identified was to make it harder for him to get victims and that fed into his paranoia. I’m not saying he was torn between the two. Both were two very strong forces in his messed up interior world. They lead to his success and ultimate failure. At this very moment, Ted is on a billboard in Times Square, New York. He would of loved that, but at the same time he would have yearned to be in a small town so he could drag some girl out of a bar so to speak.
You were weren’t an FBI profiler. You were a 31-year-old journalist about to interview the most infamous serial killer in America. When did you think you could dupe him?
Ted Bundy was almost always described as boyishly handsome, with the boyish grin, boyish this and that. So it dawned on me, between my cheeseburger and second quarter of scotch, that he really was a boy. He was a case of arrested development, and that I was actually dealing with a 12-year-old in a 30-year-old body. For example, I thought of a scenario where a baseball would come through a living room window. So you go outside, see a kid with a bat, and you’re given a pretty good case for what happened. But if you were to ask the kid, he’d deny it. Ask how he thinks it might have happened however, where you remove the confessional eye, and you’ve given him a route to start talking.
So I tell Bundy, you have a degree in psychology, you’ve been a suspect in every case, and you’ve seen the discoveries. You know more about this saga than anybody. Tell me what you think happened. What forces created this man? How did he proceed? And how did he see the world? So he went on, and that was the next six months of Bundy telling me how to be a serial killer.
Were you nervous?
I was nervous on a lot of levels, but I wasn’t in any kind of awe of him, and I wasn’t afraid of him. He did a bunch of chicken shit crimes by creeping up behind defensiveness women only to smack them on the head. That’s no hero. My nervousness was actually about the ruse. This prison wasn’t about to let a journalist see the most infamous serial killer in the United States. So I had to go under the guise of an investigator on behalf of his appeals team. And I was certain they were going to bust me at some point, and give me a cell of my own. It was on my mind constantly. Through the six months, I was positive I’d be caught.
In the context of our conversations however, he gave me reasons to feel terrible. I had to live with those sick stories of his involving a sick man without betraying the fact that I loathed him in that room. If I gave it away, the dynamic would tilt. It was very stressful.
I think it’s easy to overlook the fact that you spent months with this man who many considered evil. What kind of emotional toll did that take?
It certainly wasn’t easy. I’ve managed to bury a lot. But I remember chatting with one of my sisters the other day who was around during it all. And she reminded me that I apparently looked like shit throughout that process. I wouldn’t stop talking about the fact that I refused to have a daughter at that point. But it’s funny, I’ve got one now, and she’s 25 and as well schooled as any women in this country due to my experiences. I’m not alone in these feelings either. There’s a lot of people who knew Bundy, from supporters, to cops, and his attorneys, and they all agree that he leaves a permanent stain on everything he touches. You never put him in the past. It stays with you. It’s not 24/7, but you never quite get rid of him either. It’s one of the more unanticipated rewards with getting tight with my friend Ted Bundy.
Beyond the apparent good looks, did you spot the darker side?
Given what we discussed, the darkness enveloped us naturally. He had a flatter demeanor the deeper we got into some of the gory, and crazier stuff. But one of the things that kept him talking to me was that he enjoyed reliving those killings. I gave him an opportunity since he didn’t have to speak in the first person, though he would from time to time. He could relive what he did. These guys love to do that, and here he was, with someone that would light his cigarettes, buy him lunch, and listen to him as he told these stories. He would shut his eyes, and I knew he was going back to those crime scenes that served as memories. So yeah, he gave off a lot of weird shit. No doubt about that.
We’re of course told endlessly that Ted was charismatic and good looking. Some people I’ve heard mention about being conflicted emotionally when they talk to people of his kind. How did that lineup with your experience?
I honestly wasn’t full of self-awareness back then and was making it up as I went along. I’d be lying or twisting the truth if I said I was really in charge of that conversation. The plan was to stay one step ahead of him, and learn from my mistakes, and believe me, I made a lot of them. Some days, I’d piss him off, and I wouldn’t even know how I did it, on other days it would be the opposite. What actually saved me was that Bundy was such a creature of his own aberrance that he punched through it because it was a thrill to him even as he refused to learn from his mistakes. He would go so far and deep into stories that seemed self-incriminating with a person he shouldn’t have spoken to in the first place.
If you think of the way he was tricked, he’d have to be pretty fucking stupid to go through with it. But it gives you a sense of how much he was obsessed with his own obsessions. His mistakes were a part of the thrill.
What surprised you the most about him?
How generally personable he could be. I’m mindful that he had a mask, and they called that mask insanity. But he could also be very funny and spontaneously witty at times. I remember when he stopped in the middle of a gruesome description, and he says, “you know what Stephen, I think you’d make a really good serial killer too, I think you got it in you.”
What was your response?
I just stared at him. But, another time, I was prodding him, and I taunted him as I said, “you’re such a celebrity now Ted, you should start doing endorsements, maybe crowbars.” He then scowls at me and smile before saying, “no, I want to do socks.” He had a real fetishistic thing for socks. So he describes the commercial with a camera focusing on him standing in a frame, hands on some cell bars, and he tell me, “Hello, I’m Ted Bundy, I’m going to wear my Burlington's to my execution.” I never bought Burlington’s after that.
There’s an argument that the Netflix documentary did nothing to get us closer to understanding what made Ted Bundy tick. You practically smelled the man. What did you think motivated Bundy?
I’ll answer that on two levels. Bundy and I talked about his behaviour, and it was a contention that the determining factor was environmental. Specifically, that modern American life was too unstructured. Too unplanned. Too full of surprise. From that, I viewed Bundy as a man afraid of his environment. Like any predator, he didn’t like surprise. The world seemed like a hostile and scary place, and that combo made him afraid and angry. But let’s not ignore the fact that there was a huge amount of misogyny behind his actions as well.
Why should we still talk about Bundy after all that we know. Some say it dehumanizes the victims as a result of his fame.
Bundy once said that in a morally restricted environment, a person can very well turn out to be a demon stamp collector without anyone knowing it. Yes, Bundy was traumatized as a little boy, the stories are out there, but Bundy thrived on people who weren’t ready for his kind of trauma. He operated at a time when the American population was newly mobile in a world of new faces. He called it the anonymity factor. And he was able to take advantage of that lack of critical attention. People don’t read each other anymore, they just go by them. So at the time, young women and men had not been schooled to know about that kind of danger, and they died because of it.
I don’t know if this generation needs to have Bundy again as an example of the sorts of people still out there, because Bundy was by no means unique. He is only one of the few really successful serial killers that we’ve had. But if Bundy were around today, he’d be on a laptop working his deals. If you’re reminded, even for the generations who haven’t grown up being taught of these men, to have a wary eye for the unexpected, it can be the difference between life and death. If Bundy has to be the occasional boogeyman in a way that may be flawed to some, so be it. If necessary, use a new boogeyman then.
You mentioned that you were sick of Bundy at one point. We’re decades later, and we’re still talking about Bundy. What are your thoughts of having to relive this man.
I have to admit, I’m not comfortable getting plunged back into this period. Going on TV or whatever, flapping my gums (laughs) about this guy doesn’t do it for me. But there’s nothing about what I’ve said in my book or otherwise that I’m ashamed of. I didn’t lionize Ted Bundy. I did quite the opposite. Every nasty detail I could find about him, I used. I tried to portray him as the worm that he was. That he in fact knew that he was. To look beyond that toothpaste smile, and see him for what he is felt like a goal. So if the public at large wants to turn him into some kind of evil genius, or handsome scarlet pimpernel, well then I can’t help that. I made a point to say that serial murder is a simple crime to commit and get away with. It involves complete strangers in remote places.
It’s probably harder to be a serial shoplifter and get away with it than it is to kill unsuspecting women and strangers. I tried my best to demonstrate that without diminishing the people who were murdered, and tried to state that Bundy was no evil genius in the slightest. I wanted him to reveal himself for what he was, a piece of shit, and I’ll stand by that.
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