Listen to our new that's life! podcast How I Survived, where Rhonda recounts her terrifying escape from the clutches of notorious serial killer Ted Bundy.
For 37 years, Rhonda Stapley hid a terrifying secret...
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Rhona, 64, tells the story in her own words.
I￼t was a perfect autumn day, but my patience was beginning to wear thin. Half an hour and still no bus! I thought, frustrated.
That afternoon, I’d had dental surgery and my mouth had started to throb mercilessly. Just as I was about to walk away, a tan Volkswagen pulled up. Rolling down the window, the cute driver smiled warmly. ‘Where are you going?’ he asked. ‘Up to the campus,’ I said.
Just 21, I was studying pharmacy and lived in a dorm at the university. ‘Me too! Hop in,’ he said. I’d never have dreamed of sticking up my thumb and hitchhiking, but he was a fellow student. Clean-cut and handsome with slightly curly brown hair, he didn’t seem dangerous. Besides, it was 1974, and it wasn’t uncommon for strangers to offer lifts. It’s my lucky day, I thought.
Climbing in, I reached for the handle to close the door, but it wasn’t there. Leaning over me, he pulled it shut, using the open window to grip. It didn’t strike me as odd, as all my friends’ cars were missing radio knobs or sun visors. He told me his name was Ted and he was a first-year law student. Driving for a couple of blocks, Ted took a wrong turn. ‘Where are we going?’ I asked, glancing at him.‘I hope you don’t mind, but I have a really short errand to run up near the zoo,’ he replied. Not at all! I thought. I was in a car with a very cute law student.‘Sure,’ I said.
Ted was polite, but he wasn’t very chatty, so I tried to make conversation. Driving up towards the zoo, Ted went right past it. ‘Hey!’ I exclaimed. ‘I thought you were taking me to the zoo!’ ‘No, I said near the zoo,’ Ted replied, in a flirty voice. As we drove, the road became more unpopulated. He definitely doesn’t have an errand to run, I realised. But I wasn’t worried. Maybe he’s trying to find a place to make out, I thought. Growing up in a religious family, I wasn’t up for that.
Silent, Ted gripped the steering wheel with both hands. The road twisted and turned and he slowed the car as we passed various picnic areas dotted along it. He’s looking for somewhere to stop and fool around, I thought, worried. As I racked my brain for a way out, Ted pulled over in a secluded spot and twisted in his seat so he was facing me.
Finally breaking the silence, his face was just centimetres away from mine. Very quietly, he spoke. ‘Do you know what? I am going to kill you,’ he said. Latching his hands around my throat, he squeezed. Is he joking, I panicked, as his grip tightened. With all my might, I tried to push him away, but he was too strong. Air! I need air! I panicked, desperate for oxygen. Releasing his hold, his eyes, filled with fury, locked with mine.
Catching my breath, I screamed and fought back. Choking me again, everything went black. Coming to, I was lying on a picnic table, while Ted slapped my face repeatedly, ripping open the stitches the dentist had carefully sewn. Blood exploded in my mouth. Yanking me off the table, he held me up by one arm and slugged me in the stomach, over and over again. ‘Don’t!’ I pleaded, vomiting as tears spilled down my cheeks.
Shoving me over, I lay in a heap, begging him to stop. Enraged, Ted stood over me, his fists clenched and the veins in his neck and forehead bulging.‘You should be thanking me that you’re even still alive. I can kill you anytime I want!’ he spat. ‘Are you grateful?’ the monster screamed. ‘Yes,’ I stammered, terrified, but the vicious attack continued until I lost consciousness again. When I woke up, Ted seemed happy. ‘Good girl! Don’t die yet! You wouldn’t want to miss the best part!’ he exclaimed.
Tugging my pants down, he raped me. Just let me die, I prayed, exhausted, as his hands closed vice-like around my neck once more. Blinking my eyes open, I was face down in the dirt.I had no idea how much time had passed, but the sky was now pitch black. The darkness was punctuated only by a dim light emanating from Ted’s car. Standing with his back to me, he was fiddling with something behind the seat. Barely conscious, instinct propelled me.
Heart hammering, I pulled my broken body off the ground and ran into the night, my trousers still around my ankles. Stumbling just a few steps, I tripped over. Frozen in slow motion, time stood still and it felt like I was suspended in mid-air. Then, crash, I plunged into icy cold water, which immediately swept me away. I’d fallen into a fast moving river and now I was hurtling away from my attacker. But I was still petrified. I’m going to die! I panicked, trying to stay afloat. If he doesn’t find me, I’m going to drown.
Like a rag doll, I was thrown around the swirling water, smashing into rocks. Slamming into a pile of debris that had caught against a metal grate, I halted to a stop. Teeth chattering, I scrambled up on to the bank. My spirit had been shattered and I was terrified. Still, red-hot shame coursed through me. ‘You did what?’ I imagined my friends and family saying when they found out what had happened. If my mother found out, she’d make me drop out of school and move home. No-one can ever know!
I decided, starting the long trek to campus. Pitch black, I felt my way through the darkness, following the river towards the city. If I’d had a torch, I wouldn’t have turned it on, though – the monster was still out there. Reaching the main road, each time I saw headlights my heart skipped a beat. I kept looking around, expecting him to jump out and slit my throat. Trudging all night, I finally made it back to my dorm. I’d walked at least 25 kilometres. Thankfully, my roommates were away.
Soaking for hours, I felt filthy, like I’d never scrub away the guilt and humiliation. What had I been thinking accepting a lift from a stranger? I would take my secret to the grave. In the following weeks, I learnt that a pretty 16-year-old, Nancy Wilcox, had gone missing just before my attack. She was last seen getting into a tan Beetle.Then, three more girls went missing in my area – Melissa Smith, Laura Aime, and Debby Kent, all 17. Like me, they were all petite with long brown hair parted down the middle. It can’t be the same bad guy, I reasoned. But when Carol DaRonch, 18, came forward to tell of her horrifying escape, there was no doubt.
Lured into a VW by a man masquerading as a police officer, he’d tried to handcuff her and hit her with a crowbar. She’d broken free and was able to bring her attacker, Ted Bundy, to justice. Seeing him on the news, I recognised him instantly. In time, he was also charged with the other missing girls’ murders. In total, he’d killed 36 innocent women from all over the country. I could’ve saved some of them by coming forward, I thought, disgusted with myself.
Shoving my feelings down, I somehow finished uni and began working as a pharmacist. Marrying my hubby Barry, I had two beautiful daughters. But it wasn’t until 2011 that I shared my secret. Seeing me riddled with panic attacks and anger, my family pleaded with me to get counselling.
By now, Ted Bundy had been dead for years, having been executed by electric chair in 1989, aged 42. But as I shared my ordeal, it felt like he was in the room with me, his breath hot and putrid in my face. ‘I just liked to kill,’ he’d said matter-of-factly, in explanation for his crimes, before he’d died.
Diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder, I decided to start writing my story to help other sufferers. Penning my book, I Survived Ted Bundy, has been incredibly cathartic. Many readers have since come forward to share their own inspiring journeys. They survived the worst, and on my dark days, I remind myself I did too.
Read more in this week's issue of that's life! and listen to Rhonda's story in our new podcast, How I Survived.