The Women Taking Back Their Lives From Ted Bundy
For six years, Elizabeth and Molly Kendall shared their world with the serial killer. Now they’re ready to tell their story.
In the fall of 1981, 36-year-old Elizabeth Kendall was visiting New York City from her home in Seattle. She was there for a junket for a memoir she’d just published with a small press. After one of the interviews, a reporter asked Kendall how she would spend her last few hours in Manhattan. She talked about wanting to see a movie, but she was frightened to go to a film by herself. “People tell me, ‘Be careful, you can get mugged in New York…’ I’m someone who had her worst fears come true.”
Kendall’s worst fears had already been exceeded in unfathomable ways. Her memoir, The Phantom Prince, described the years she and her daughter, Molly, spent in the company of Ted Bundy. Elizabeth was 24 when she first met Bundy in 1969 and would become his long-term girlfriend; her daughter Molly was three at the time. Bundy was in and out of their lives until 1975, the year he was arrested in Utah. He killed scores of women throughout his six-year relationship with Kendall. The tension between belief and doubt, between what Kendall knew and did not know, what she denied and could not deny, would torture her for years.
Nearly 40 years after her memoir was published, Kendall is reissuing The Phantom Prince in conjunction with a new documentary film, Ted Bundy: Falling for a Killer, featuring Elizabeth, 74, and Molly, 53, speaking out on camera for the first time. For decades, interest and news coverage about Ted Bundy focused on Bundy as a killer, privileging his perverse pathology and overweening ego over anyone else.
Now the focus has shifted to the women whose world Bundy inhabited: Those who died and those who survived, those whose lives intersected through random luck—and the women whose lives were bound up with Ted Bundy like family, kept apart from the unimaginable but living everyday horrors of their own. Women like Elizabeth and Molly Kendall.
The Kendalls’ participation in Falling for A Killer, produced and directed by Trish Wood, might not have happened had it not been for the announcement of a different film by a different filmmaker. In May 2017, Joe Berlinger, best known for the Paradise Lost trilogy, was set to make a feature film about Ted Bundy’s crimes from the vantage point of Elizabeth Kendall. “I was stunned,” Kendall wrote in the introduction to the updated edition of The Phantom Prince. She had learned about the existence of the film from the internet. “How could they tell my story without ever speaking with me?”
Kendall had been able to live her post-Ted Bundy life in relative obscurity. Now, in the wake of Berlinger’s announcement, she began fielding interview requests and inquiries from documentary filmmakers wanting to tell her side of the story. She sent them over to her attorney, who also had to sort out the vexing question of how Berlinger could make his film without optioning The Phantom Prince. But Kendall was able to reach an agreement with Berlinger, and ultimately, “the collaboration we had with the film was a good one,” she wrote. Elizabeth and Molly felt well-treated by the cast and crew of Berlinger’s film, which premiered on Netflix on July 24, 2019, as Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile, starring Zac Efron as Ted Bundy and Lily Collins as Elizabeth Kendall. “We were left with the feeling that Efron and Collins got it right,” even though Berlinger had to streamline, condense, and omit details. (Kendall didn’t comment on Berlinger’s companion documentary, Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes.)
After the film’s release, Elizabeth and Molly realized the time for hiding in obscurity was over. Reissuing The Phantom Prince was one step in taking back their story; actively participating in a documentary was quite another. It helped that Wood’s approach was to center the women in her film. “We all know Ted Bundy,” Wood told me in a recent telephone interview, “but no one can name the victims, who have kind of drifted into sepia-toned memory.” Wood felt Elizabeth’s struggle keenly. “Culturally, we were all told that we should strive for, date, and marry some aspirational Prince Charming. Ted Bundy fit that type, which made the revelation that he was a monster life-changing for me and for many of us.”
Elizabeth’s presence in the documentary is low-key; she reflects on the confusion of what Bundy once meant to her, love that was once potent but is now a long-distant memory. Molly, having never spoken on the record before, let alone on camera, emotes with more force and unprocessed emotion than her mother. She was a child all those years ago, first meeting Bundy at the age of three. She viewed him as a father figure, even as his behavior tipped into sexual abuse. Only now, in her fifties, can Molly look back with any degree of distance.
But the documentary also widens the lens, looking at the impact Bundy’s missing and murdered women had on the fabric of second-wave feminism. Falling for a Killer features survivors like Karen Sparks Epley, assaulted and left for dead by Bundy in early 1974, and Carol DaRonch, who was abducted from a bookstore in Utah later that fall but managed to escape. It also gives voice to the women who helped catch Bundy: Kathleen McChesney, then 24 and the only female detective in Seattle’s police department, and Donna Schram, the psychologist who spearheaded a study of rape prevention in the city.
“We were all told that we should strive for, date, and marry some aspirational Prince Charming. Ted Bundy fit that type.”
The presence of those not interviewed also looms large. Ann Rule, the true-crime author who wrote the 1980 memoir The Stranger Beside Me about her friendship with Bundy, died in 2015. Carole Boone, the mother of Ted Bundy’s daughter, died in 2018 before Wood had a chance to contact her. “Learning of her death moved me,” she said. “It’s sad that Carole left this life of shameful anonymity. This documentary might have given her a chance to talk about it. She really did believe Ted was innocent.”
The documentary’s broader scope contextualizes Kendall’s actions before and during her relationship with Bundy. She met Bundy when she was a secretary at the University of Washington in 1969. She was trying to break away from the restrictiveness of her Mormon upbringing in Utah, a failed early marriage to Molly’s father, and a new life of independence. But she also wanted a happy ending in the form of love, marriage, and family.
Bundy appeared to fit the bill. He seemed to be a conservative-minded man amid a sea of hippies, set on becoming a lawyer and a good father. The potency of the relationship’s early heady days compensated for the literal and emotional distance that developed in later years. But nothing could paper over Bundy’s naked hatred of women — his desire to snuff them out, in brazen fashion. Even Kendall couldn’t ignore Bundy’s resemblance to the police sketch of a man calling himself “Ted,” spotted in Lake Sammamish Park where two women, Denise Naslund and Janice Ott, disappeared on the same summer day in 1974.
Wood’s documentary shows how misogyny and pandering didn’t just apply to the killer, but also the attitude of the police. On more than one occasion, Kendall spoke with detectives in Washington and Utah regarding her suspicions about Bundy. The investigators went through the motions, but the lack of belief in her claims mirrored her lack of self-confidence. Bundy had been ruled out as a suspect early on; the police thought Kendall must have been holding some underlying grudge against him. Coming forward caused her to shrink further back. When Bundy showed up at her door over the holidays in 1974, acting the part of the man she loved, Kendall took him back. He had already killed multiple women.
Their relationship couldn’t last, and Kendall, despite a deep well of self-denial, ultimately knew this. Bundy remained vague about whether he wanted Elizabeth and Molly to move in with him; he went back to Utah, studying law by day and killing women in his off-hours. The police arrested Bundy in 1975 for kidnapping and rape. However, the sentence he received after that trial — between one and 15 years in prison — still left the door open for Kendall to believe that justice had failed Bundy, not the women he’d harmed. (Bundy’s subsequent escape from prison only bolstered this idea, for her and for others.)
Kimberly Leach, the last person Bundy murdered, was 12 years old, just a few months older than Molly. After his 1978 arrest in Florida, Bundy insisted on calling Kendall. He wrote her letters from prison. He never confessed outright but told her he was “having a sickness.” He told her he could be in two different states of mind, loving and monstrous, at the same time. His words convinced Kendall to sever ties.
During his trial, one of the first to be televised, Bundy became a man the Kendalls did not recognize; media coverage overplayed his handsomeness and underplayed his capacity for savagery. Molly, now in her early teens, spent the summer of 1979 with her grandparents. She wonders to this day why they left her alone to watch Bundy’s trial day in and day out.
Doing so was transformative, though it would take Molly years to understand why. First, she had to endure a battle with alcohol and drugs and rebuild her life with spiritual guidance. “I see why people are obsessed with figuring him out,” she wrote in her coda to The Phantom Prince. “For years, I thought continually about how this same person I loved could do these cruel and violent things.” When Molly let go, she could finally live her life.
After the state of Florida handed down multiple death sentences to Bundy in 1979, Elizabeth Kendall decided to put words to her experience. For several years after ending her relationship with Bundy, she drank herself into oblivion. She was, as she later described herself, an “emotional mess.” Kendall had been so eager to please, so full of hope that love could somehow transcend what Bundy had been accused of. The facade of her happy, if distant, relationship with Bundy was too much to bear now that she knew the enormity of what had happened.
What she thought was love more closely resembled co-dependency. A second brief failed marriage only exacerbated these feelings. But her choices, however wrongheaded, were also about survival. If she had told Bundy to go away on the day he showed up at her door in Seattle, “Would he have accepted that? Or would it trigger the explosive rage that we know now was in him?”
Kendall began writing to contend with all the questions and conflicting thoughts roiling within her. Her short manuscript — less than 200 pages — found a home with a Seattle-based publisher. Because The Phantom Prince promised insight into what the media viewed as an uncommonly extraordinary subject, Kendall received a sizable amount of attention before and after publication. Much of that attention was, unfortunately, negative.
When Bundy showed up at Kendall’s door in 1974, acting the part of the man she loved, she took him back. He had already killed multiple women.
One reporter who profiled Kendall’s book declared, with disappointment, that it “will not be a best seller. It probably will not even be a pretty-good seller,” due to the lack of gory details about Bundy’s crimes. This, Kendall said to the reporter, was a deliberate decision on her part. “I fought with my editors about that. I refused to write anything I didn’t know firsthand. This isn’t a book about crime and violence; it’s a book about a relationship. It’s a woman’s story. I think other women will be interested in it.”
They were. But the mostly male reviewers were dismissive. “Another bland tribute to the power of morbid curiosity,” concluded the Salt Lake Tribune, which criticized Kendall for her “failure to explore the more intriguing psychological questions surrounding the nature of Ted Bundy.” The Jackson Sun went even further: “While one can have some compassion for a woman who discovers her lover’s sideline is hacking women into itty-bitty pieces, it’s no excuse to shell out 11 bucks for a wretched, whimpering, miserable bit of scum such as this.” The Tampa Tribune was even more brutal: “It’s a wonder Bundy spent more than one night with her. The reader isn’t forced to do even that.”
The reaction to Kendall’s book mirrored that of British journalist Sandy Fawkes’ 1977 memoir Killing Time, which described a weeklong fling she’d had with a man who later turned out to be a serial murderer of more than 20 people across the country. That man, Paul John Knowles, behaved similarly to Bundy and exhibited many of the same compulsions and perverse desires for women and girls. Like Bundy, Knowles was also portrayed by the media as being an attractive young man; his “clean-cut” look at odds with the barbarity of his crimes. Fawkes would suffer mockery and scorn before her death in 2005.
The reception to Fawkes’ and Kendall’s memoirs are markedly different from the current response for narratives featuring loved ones of serial killers. Kerri Rawson’s 2019 memoir, A Serial Killer’s Daughter, in which she describes learning that her father was the BTK Killer, tries to make sense of the enormity of this knowledge. Reviewers heaped the book with critical acclaim, helped in large part by Rawson’s desire to find spiritual meaning. “The Clearing,” a 2019 podcast by journalist Josh Dean, tried to unravel the tangled truths and lies surrounding the serial killer Edward Wayne Edwards, aided by Edwards’ daughter, April, whose curiosity and anger make her the podcast’s key witness.
Today, with audiences willing to listen to and watch the seemingly incomprehensible, it makes sense for the Kendalls to control the use of their stories. So many others had spoken for them, often with considerable error or misinterpretation. The only way to make things right is to speak for themselves.
Forty years later, Molly realizes she protected no one by silencing herself. “I stayed quiet out of fear,” she writes. “Fear of exposing myself publicly. And because I wanted to live a life of my own creation, not one that endlessly orbits this evil man’s story. But most of all, I remained quiet out of fear that my perspective would further hurt the others — the victims’ loved ones and Ted’s family — who, like me, have been repeatedly hurt by the continual emergence of this story.”
In the afterword to the reissued Phantom Prince, Elizabeth Kendall reflects on the “cringeworthy” final line of the original edition: “The tragedy is that this warm and loving man is driven to kill.”
She understands now why her 36-year-old self wrote that line. “Although I was sober and getting counseling at the time… I was still in denial,” Kendall writes. “The experience of our relationship seemed so real, and the things I learned about his brutal attacks seemed completely surreal.” Now Kendall ends her book with a different line: “The tragedy is that this violent and manipulative man directed his murderous rage at innocent young women to satisfy his insane urges.” The reissue of The Phantom Prince and the release of Falling for a Killer shows the depth of harm Ted Bundy wrought upon the women he left behind — they also demonstrate the breadth of life these women were able to live once he was gone.