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The Detective Who Used a Serial Killer to Advance Forensics

Robert Keppel’s long game with Ted Bundy gained insight for innovation.

Key points

  • Homicide detective Robert Keppel, who recently passed away, used insights from investigating serial killer Ted Bundy to improve his field.
  • Among the key advancements was a focus on homicide solvability factors.
  • Learning how best to interview Bundy assisted to close open cases.
Source: Art by Author
Robert Keppel 1944-2021
Source: Art by Author

A recent backlash to the announcements of two more forthcoming movies about Ted Bundy arrived on the heels of an obituary for the most prominent detective who pursued the infamous serial killer. Robert Keppel died one day short of his 77th birthday. If there’s another Bundy movie, it should feature Keppel’s painstaking approach. Investigative resources 50 years ago were scant. Keppel helped to improve this.

I once interviewed him. To honor his memory, I offer excerpts below.

Keppel was best known for his role in the investigation of Bundy’s string of homicides in the Pacific Northwest. He’d been a homicide investigator in the King County Sheriff’s Office in Washington State for just two weeks when two girls were abducted from Lake Sammamish State Park. Thus began a frustrating series of investigations that went cold until they were definitively linked to Bundy. Only years after his murder convictions in Florida put him on death row did he open up, and Keppel was there to record it.

Among Keppel’s first assignments as a detective was to investigate missing persons. In June 1974, Brenda Ball disappeared. Keppel had barely started on this case when he had to replace an ailing homicide detective. On July 1, he joined his new partner, Roger Dunn. Two weeks later, Janice Ott and Denise Naslund vanished from the lake. Although several people described a man named “Ted” and his car, no clear suspect emerged.

On September 7, Keppel was called to a woodsy area where human bones had been discovered. He realized how little he knew about what he faced. “The bodies had been dragged along animal trails for maybe 300 or 400 feet,” he recalled. “The Search and Rescue people showed up, but I had no experience working with them. I just knew that the woods had to be searched. I didn’t know anything about skeletons or dental work, so I researched to learn where animals would drag things.”

This was the dumping ground for Ott and Naslund, along with one more victim. More remains were found near Taylor Mountain. Keppel realized they had a serial killer.

“Recognition is the single most important concept in a serial murder investigation,” he stated. “Without it, the probability of solving the cases diminishes. A key error is the mismanagement of information—failing to collect, analyze, and organize it according to effective priorities.”

Keppel fed lists of names of potential suspects into a mainframe computer, which eventually narrowed the cache of more than 3,000 to 25. Even so, he estimated it would take a year to investigate them all. Bundy was among them, but he’d left the state. Eventually, Utah authorities reported Bundy’s arrest. Out on bail, he returned to Seattle, where Keppel approached him.

“He showed up to his friend’s apartment with some groceries, so Roger and I confronted him at the door. He wasn’t nervous. He agreed to talk with us in the future. But then he went back to Utah. I gave his attorney times and dates and asked if Bundy would supply alibis. I never heard from him.”

Bundy escaped from prison and was recaptured in 1978 in Florida. During this time, Keppel was studying in a doctoral program at the University of Washington that let him focus on several subject areas. He selected seven, which exposed him to exceptional experts, including forensic psychiatrist John Liebert and memory researcher Elizabeth Loftus. He also began to work as chief investigator for the Washington State Attorney General’s Office. Then Bundy came back into his life.

In 1984, Bundy sent a letter to the Green River Task Force. “The detective assigned to get it brought it to me,” Keppel recalled. “So I wrote back to Bundy and he corresponded with me.” Bundy knew about the series of Green River murders and said he could offer insight into the offender. Keppel decided to hear him out.

To form his ground rules, he consulted with his former mentors. “First, question the interviewee at his level. Use the same words that he uses and the same sentence structure. This would make Bundy feel comfortable. Don't ask questions over his head intellectually and, at the same time, don't ask questions below his intellectual level or he will never cover what you want.”

Keppel went to Florida with Detective Dave Reichert. Watching the behavior of a life-long liar for deception proved challenging. “One strategy,” Keppel said, “was to ask Bundy a question that was blatantly false and determine his style, looks, vocabulary, and sentence structure when he defended the truth. He’d lied so much over the years that he looked highly comfortable when doing it.”

Still, Keppel spotted patterns. “He would talk a lot about nothing when things approached the truth about him. I believe he wanted to confess so bad that he would be void of detail when his answers were close to what he would have done. This was a signal to me that I was getting dangerously close to his self-admission. This was a signal that he was answering things about himself. Go any closer and he might clam up.”

Bundy didn’t confess during this first encounter, but the seed was planted: Bundy was now comfortable with Keppel should he ever decide to confess. Just before his execution in 1989, he wanted to speak with Keppel. Bundy admitted to the Ott and Naslund murders and named the victim whose remains were close to theirs. He also described abducting Brenda Ball. Bundy confirmed eight victims on Keppel’s list but resisted admitting to some for which Keppel suspected him.

By then, Keppel and his colleagues had developed an innovative software program to examine solvability characteristics of murder—Keppel’s driving passion. They called it the Washington Attorney General’s Homicide Investigation Tracking System, or HITS, which “collects, collates, and analyzes the salient characteristics of all murders and predatory sexual offenses in the State.” It was designed to improve the apprehension rate of violent serial offenders like Bundy.

Keppel added what he learned from Bundy to his knowledge base. He later taught his insights to several generations of graduate students. I was fortunate to be among them.

RIP, Kepp.


Keppel, Robert D. with William J. Birnes. (1997). Signature Killers: Interpreting the Calling Card of the Serial Murderer. Pocket.

Keppel, Robert D. and William J. Birnes. (1995). The Riverman: Ted Bundy and I Hunt for the Green River Killer. Pocket.

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