Rhonda Stapley

The Ted Bundy Survivor

Rhonda Stapley

"His eyes were almost black."

On October 11, 1974, Rhonda Stapley had a terrifying encounter. On that day, the 21-year-old University of Utah pharmacy student was waiting at a bus stop in Salt Lake City, Utah, when a man suddenly pulled over and rolled down his window. The man, driving a Volkswagen Beetle, offered her a lift and told her his name was “Ted.”

In an effort to put the young woman at ease, the man told her he was a law student, and it seemed the young man was a fellow college student offering to help out one of his own. “I was offered a ride by a nice looking-guy in a tan Volkswagen,” she later said. Believing the young law student had a ‘friendly and inviting smile’ with ‘boy next door’ looks, she accepted the ride.

During the long journey to campus, the driver asked Stapley whether she minded if he ran an errand on the way. She didn’t, she told him. But soon the situtation became uncomfortable. “The ride started to become strained, he stopped talking to me altogether – he just had both hands on the steering wheel just driving,” she said.

“And in my mind, I think he’s looking for a place to pull over and park and make out.” Afraid the man might try and kiss her, Stapley became even more uncomfortable, especially considering she had grown up in the Mormon faith and was still a virgin at the time. Eventually, the driver veered off the road near a secluded canyon picnic spot that was surrounded by trees and turned the engine off.

Rhonda Stapley’s Encounter with Ted Bundy

Rhonda Stapley recalled the tense situation many years later. “He turns in his seat, so he’s almost facing me in the car and leans in really close, and then very, very quietly [says]: ‘Do you know what? I’m going to kill you.’ Then he puts his hands ’round my throat and starts squeezing and shaking me.”

“I’m thinking, ‘Why? Why does he want to kill someone and why is it me?’,” Stapley said. Over the course of the next three hours, Stapley says she was choked in and out of consciousness, and also physically and sexually assaulted by the man named Ted. “At some point, he was angry – more angry than I’ve ever seen anybody.”

“His fists were clenched and his veins were bulging on his forehead and his neck, and his face was bright red,” she said. “His eyes were almost black.” As he continued to choke her in and out of consciousness, Stapley said her attacker would shout at her, “You should be thanking me that you are even still alive. I can kill you any time I want.”

An image of Serial killer Ted Bundy, the kidnapper of Rhonda Stapely.
Serial killer Ted Bundy, the kidnapper of Rhonda Stapely.

At one point, the man named “Ted” likely assumed Stapley was dead, Stapley managed to make a run into the nearby woods. He’d been distracted by something near his Volkswagen which gave her the opportunity to escape. “As soon as I jumped up and started to run I realised that my pants were in a wad around my ankles,” she said.

“And so I tripped just one or two steps, and I was falling, but I fell into a fast-moving mountain stream, which swept me away from my attacker and is probably what saved my life.” Managing to get herself out of the stream, far enough away from her attacker, Stapley then walked the approximately 16km back to her home.

She decided it best to walk through the woods, scared her attacker would find her if she walked along the main highway. “I thought I was going to die, it’s the most horrifying thing you could experience,” she said. Although she survived her encounter with the stranger named “Ted,” Stapley felt she could not report the incident to police.

Rhonda Stapley: Ted Bundy Survivor

Instead she chose not tell anyone, fearing she would be blamed for accepting a ride from a complete stranger. It was her Mormon upbringing that had also contributed to that fear of being judged, despite the fact it was a sexual assault perpetrated against her. “I imagined people whispering, ‘That’s that girl who was raped.’ I didn’t want attention. I still don’t.”

“I felt ashamed and embarrassed and stupid… stupid for even getting into such a dangerous situation,” she said. “The teachings in the LDS church [The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints] at that time was that your virtue and your chastity were the most important thing a young woman could have, and if you come to a point giving up your chastity or your life, you’re better off eternally if you die.”

The attack occurred in October 1974, shortly after serial killer Ted Bundy had arrived in Utah from Washington to attend college. Around this same time, one young woman, 16-year-old Nancy Wilcox had already gone missing. Others would soon follow. Just seven days after Rhonda Stapley’s terrifying encounter, 17-year-old Melissa Smith vanished. “I felt with all my heart that it was my fault,” she explained. 

An image of Ted Bundy victim Melissa Smith.
Melissa Smith, who went missing 7 days after Rhonda Stapely's encounter with serial killer Ted Bundy.

“I believed that if I had come forward, the bad guy would have been warned. I did not have the courage to speak up. It was a very scary time,” said Stapley, one of only a select few who have encountered Ted Bundy and lived to tell the story. By the end of October and beginning of November 1974, two more girls would disappear in Utah. “Everything changed for every woman in Utah,” Stapley said. “It just started destroying everybody’s trust level. It changed it forever.”

Despite the disappearances, Stapley remained quiet, ashamed about what happened to her. When she saw the other young women go missing, she feared her attacker might be behind it. Then, in August 1975, a man was arrested after a victim escaped. Carol DaRonch was abducted by a man impersonating a police officer, but managed to get out of his car, a Volkswagen Beetle.

When Rhonda Stapley saw images of the suspect, whose name was Ted Bundy, she realized she had escaped a serial killer. Even after Ted Bundy‘s execution in January 1989, she never told anyone about the ordeal she suffered. It would be almost four decades before Rhonda Stapley felt comfortable enough to reveal the truth.

Rhonda Stapely: “I Survived Ted Bundy”

The catalyst that led to her talking about her encounter with Ted Bundy, came from the most unlikely of sources. At the time, she was dealing with a bullying incident at work, and Stapley recalled how the boss who was treating her terribly used similar language to her attacker, a major trigger that brought her feelings about the previous attack to the surface.

“I couldn’t control my tears, I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat,” she said. “But I knew it had to be related to the Bundy stuff, because that’s what my dreams and my nightmares and my panic attacks were about.” Unknown to Stapley, she wasn’t alone in surviving an encounter with Ted Bundy, with at least five or six others who share her nightmares. It wasn’t until 2011 that she was finally able to tell the story after her family persuaded her to go to therapy.

“I think my experience with Ted Bundy affected every aspect of my life. It changed my level of self-confidence, it changed my trust, even my trust in myself. I became more introverted, less outgoing.” In an effort to express her fears and the impact on her mental health, Stapley wrote a book about her escape that night and the experiences she’s had to deal with since that day in October 1974.

An image of Rhonda Stapley, who survived an encounter with serial killer Ted Bundy.
Rhonda Stapley, who survived an encounter with serial killer Ted Bundy.

“I Survived Ted Bundy,” details the attack she suffered at Bundy’s hands, and also the traumatic aftermath. She goes on to describe the moment the accepted a ride from Bundy, as well as describing the man who attacked her. “Ted looked like a typical university student. He had slightly curly dark brown hair, a nice complexion, and his smile was friendly and inviting.”

“He was polite,” she said. “He didn’t talk much, but when he did, his voice was confident, his conversation articulate. He turned off the engine, and we sat alone, isolated in his Volkswagen… I didn’t want to kiss him, but I didn’t know how to get out of the situation without embarrassing myself by making a fuss.”

“His face was inches from mine when he finally spoke. Very quietly he said: ‘Do you know what? I am going to kill.’ His hands, she says, then started squeezing her throat. ‘I was surprised to be alive,'” she continued. “‘My adrenaline pumping, I turned away from the light – away from the Volkswagen and my attacker.”

“I could not see a thing in front of me but fear propelled me forward into the night. As I gathered up the painful memories and prepared to release them, they became so vivid that it was the as if the specter of Ted Bundy was in that room. I tasted blood. I smelled his sweat. I needed to remember that I had value. I am smart and strong and capable. And I survived.”

Written by Nucleus

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