A car with a heinous history

WASHINGTON - It may not be the Lincoln Memorial or the Smithsonian, but the tan 1968 Volkswagen Beetle driven by Ted Bundy, one of the most prolific serial killers in history, is now a tourist attraction in the nation's capital.

The car, with spots of rust, missing trim, a cracked windshield and a somewhat tattered interior from where police tore it apart looking for evidence, sits in the lobby of the National Museum of Crime and Punishment.

A 1976 vehicle inspection sticker issued by the Utah State Patrol is still attached to the windshield. The front passenger seat is missing. Bundy removed it to make room for the bodies of his victims.

A native of Tacoma, Bundy drove the car as he preyed on mostly young women in Washington state, Oregon, Idaho, Utah and Colorado in the 1970s. Police believe he used the car to commit 11 kidnappings and murders. At one point, Bundy is believed to have been killing one person a month.

After escaping from jail twice, Bundy was finally caught in Florida, where he eventually was convicted of brutally murdering two members of the Chi Omega sorority at Florida State University and a 12-year-old girl. He was executed in that state’s electric chair in 1989.

Before he died, Bundy reportedly admitted to 40 murders in a dozen states. Some people put it at more than 100.

“I think it’s creepy,” Janine Vaccarello, the museum’s chief operating officer, said of the car. “He is the most notorious (serial killer) ever.”

The privately run museum, two blocks or so from FBI headquarters, offers visitors an up-close look at some of the nation’s most infamous criminals and cases. It includes everything from Tennessee’s electric chair, in which 125 men were executed, to Al Capone’s jail cell, and from a padlock used by escape artist Harry Houdini to the studio for the television show “America’s Most Wanted.”

Bundy’s Bug replaced a 1933 Essex-Terraplane auto that John Dillinger used as a getaway car.

Vaccarello acknowledged that some might find displaying Bundy’s car macabre, but she said people remain fascinated by crime.

“Some people say it’s distasteful, but it’s an artifact like in any museum,” she said.

The car also is a teaching tool, reminding people, especially young women, to be cautious of even the most charming and intelligent strangers, Vaccarello said.

“If that message gets out, that’s great,” she said.

If the car could talk, it would undoubtedly tell a grisly tale.

“It’s kind of eerie,” said Curt Bailey of Madison, Wis., who visited the museum Monday morning. “It is a car of evil.”

Wearing a fake cast on his arm or leg, Bundy would approach women and ask for help loading something into his car. He was smart, handsome and filled with charm. If a woman helped, Bundy would hit her over the head with a crowbar. He would then load her into the space where the passenger seat was normally located. If she was still alive, he’d handcuff her so she couldn’t escape.

Some women are actually thought to have been killed in the vehicle. Police found hairs from four of the victims and blood under a door panel.

Bundy was also known to break into the victim’s home and kill there before putting the body in his car and driving it to a remote location, where he buried it.

When Bundy was captured, police found behind the driver’s seat a knit ski mask, handcuffs, a mask made from panty hose, a crowbar, gloves, a bag of green garbage bags, an ice pick and a flashlight.

Bundy seemed to have a thing for Volkswagen Beetles. The one in the museum is the second he owned. When he was finally arrested in Florida, he was driving a stolen orange Beetle.

His West Coast killing spree ended in the summer of 1975, when a patrolman stopped him while he was driving the 1968 Beetle near Granger, Utah, outside Salt Lake City. He was originally charged with suspicion of burglary. But eventually, police in Utah and Colorado pieced together his background, including reports of a man named Ted driving a tan Beetle who had been seen near where some women had disappeared.

Bundy was charged and convicted of aggravated kidnapping in 1976 and then was transferred to a jail in Colorado to await murder charges. He escaped twice. The first time, he was caught. The second time he eluded police and eventually made it to Florida by way of Chicago.

In the late 1970s, a retired Salt Lake County sheriff’s deputy bought the car for $925. Years later it was purchased by a New York collector, who is leasing it to the museum.

Vaccarello said most people know of Bundy and take time to look at the car.

Asked if the car was haunted, Vaccarello said no one knows. She added that museum employees joke that the Tennessee electric chair is haunted.

Even so, Vaccarello said, “it doesn’t bother me being in here alone at night.”

Les Blumenthal: 202-383-0008