In 1974, during Robert Keppel’s second week as a major crimes detective with the King County Sheriff’s Office, he was assigned the cases of two women who had gone missing on the same day from Lake Samammish. They turned out to be two of Ted Bundy’s victims, and the beginning of Keppel’s career-long study of serial killers. Keppel left the Sheriff’s Office in 1982 to become the lead criminal investigator for the Washington State Attorney General’s office. At the same time, he worked on the Green River Killer Task Force. From death row in Florida, Bundy contacted Keppel, offering to help him find the Green River Killer by helping him understand how serial killers think. In 1995, the series of interviews with Bundy became a book, The Riverman: Ted Bundy and I Hunt for the Green River Killer.
Keppel earned a doctorate in adult education at the University of Washington. He is now a visiting professor of criminal justice at Seattle University, an associate professor at Sam Houston State University, and author of several criminal justice textbooks and true-crime accounts. Keppel also consults on major homicide cases around the country.
Meeting Hannelore Sudermann for breakfast at the 12th Avenue Café in Issaquah last winter, about a half mile from a famous site, Taylor Mountain, where Bundy dumped his victims, Keppel reflected on how he became a homicide detective, his work on the Green River Killer case, and his efforts to pull confessions from Ted Bundy.
Choose a career.
I was raised in an atmosphere of police officers. After my dad left the [Spokane County] sheriff’s department, he eventually became the senior liquor inspector for the state of Washington on the eastern side. He would have small poker games at our house with the chief of the state patrol, sheriff, the head of the liquor board, and they were all friends. I’d watch them play. They were delightful people. They were true professionals. And they just liked each other, and they worked together so nicely. They talked about cases and mutual problems. That’s when I decided I wanted to become a police chief.
Watch and learn.
My dad became a store detective for Rosauers supermarkets. He was chief of security. When I was in high school, I would run down shoplifters for him. I got to watch him interview shoplifters. It wasn’t a case where he wanted to take somebody to jail. It was a case where he wanted to get their confession [of previous shoplifting] so he could get restitution for the store. My dad never talked to me like he talked to them. He could twist around what somebody would say and get to the truth of things before 10 minutes were over. How did he know? How could he even tell that they were shoplifting? I couldn’t see it.
Go to the experts.
In those days, everybody [teaching in the program at WSU] was a cop. These people were like V.A. Leonard, the early guru of the police science program at WSU. He worked for August Volmer [who built up the Berkeley Police Department and went on to become one of the leading criminal justice experts in the country]. I used to hang around the police sciences office at night just to hear the stories. Then we had Henry Moore, who was a retired secret service agent and a splendid interrogator. And, of course, Felix Fabian [father of astronaut and WSU alum John Fabian]. He was a tremendous professor. I took fingerprinting and identification from him.
Take some detours.
I stayed at WSU and got a master’s degree. I was avoiding the draft at the time. I saw that there was a school exemption. I registered for graduate school and, lucky for me, the police science department needed a teaching assistant. My classmates were all military police, very experienced people. That summer I went directly into the King County Sheriff’s Office, I was on patrol for six months. But then I got my draft notice, and that was the end of that.
Come to your senses.
[Keppel joined the U.S. Army Military Police Corps, earned a commission, and went to Vietnam.] In the 11 months that I was there we patrolled our own people. We had every experience known to mankind: drug overdoses, suicides, murders, hostage situations in villages. It was a great police experience. I just about stayed in the army, but I came to my senses. I felt comfortable. I was ahead of my contemporaries. But the experience of being in King County, being a deputy sheriff, overrode all that stuff.
Writing well can help you.
I didn’t want to be a detective. I wanted to be a police officer. I was a uniform guy. But I wrote good reports. The captain of detectives came to me and said, “Would you please take that test?” So I did. After I became a detective, I never had a uniform on again. . . . I spent a year and a half as a burglary larceny detective first. Then they had an opening in homicide, because some guy stressed out, he had heart palpitations or something. So they wanted somebody young and energetic. . . . I knew nothing about homicide work.
Disarm your suspect.
With my first case . . . I had to go to Enumclaw. A factory owner up there in a cement factory had been stabbed a number of times. The suspect was in custody. I walk into the detention room they had this guy in. He gets up and I go like this [tilts his head way back]. He’s six foot seven, probably 280 pounds. It turned out he was only 17. He had been hitchhiking from Texas, befriended this guy [the victim] and was sleeping out in the truck in the back. He knew where this guy kept his cash inside. When he pried open the cash drawer, the bell went off. That alerted the wife and the owner in the back room, where they slept. The owner came out and the man grabbed a pair of calipers and stabbed him over 60 times. . . . I decided I would process him for evidence first. I felt maybe if I stripped him down that would be a weakness for him. It worked. Without his clothes he felt really out of place. He told me what happened.
Get the details.
Paperwork didn’t scare me. I knew it scared everybody else around me. They hated it. If you went to a crime scene back then there might be 20 officers at the scene. One guy writes a report and nobody else writes anything. Well I changed that. I started asking them for what they saw and what they did.
I used to go in in the morning at five o’clock and I’d get home six or seven o’clock every day, six or seven days a week. There was so much paperwork, I couldn’t stand not going through it. So I had to make time to do it.
Keep your memory sharp.
I can remember names, dates, times, places. That’s your business. My students go crazy because I say, “OK who were the four victims found on Taylor Mountain?” They want to know, “Why do we have to know that?” I say if you want to be a criminal justice person some day, you’re going to have to know names, places, case numbers, routing numbers, everything.
Serial killers—more are out there than we know.
Everybody knows the famous ones that the newspaper headlines cover. Nobody knows all the rest. All the rest are more dangerous. There are more of those out there that kill two, three, or four people.
Go in prepared.
I was Bundy’s primary contact. Dave Reichert [who later became the King County Sheriff] and I went in to interview him. He was shaking, he was sweating. He looked in ill health, because he just got out of 30 days segregation for having escape implements in his cell. He wasn’t really the Ted Bundy you’d expect, self assured. . . .
[Before going to Florida] I started talking to a clinical psychologist and a psychiatrist. . . We didn’t know what to expect from a guy like Bundy. . . . Not only were they giving us information to save our mental health, how not to become involved in the fantasy life of Bundy, but also how to structure questions in a such a way that when he answered them he would be answering them as though you were interviewing him for his crimes. He and the Green River Killer just happened to do the same stuff, like take two people in one d
ay. The question would be “Why would a killer like this take two people in one day.” He said, “The guy must be very active.” Then we asked him to elaborate.
We were interested in what Bundy had to say about the Green River Killer. But we were also interested in building a relationship with him, figuring in the future he would want to talk . . . . His confessions [to his own crimes] didn’t start until four days prior to his execution. About three weeks before that I got a phone call from his civil attorney asking if I would participate in a debriefing of him. She said he wants to talk about where remains would be found. [Bundy confessed to killing eight identified victims in Washington, helping Keppel close a number of King County cases].
Sometimes you keep it to yourself.
I don’t know why I did this. I never told my family anything about what I did. They’d see me on TV, in the film at a crime scene . . . . My wife knew that I was involved in things, but none of the details. My children didn’t really know my involvement in the Bundy case until Riverman was written. Then they were shocked. It wasn’t like I was in a homicide unit investigating a case, closing a case, opening another one. I was on this one for a couple of years before I got to do any of that stuff. That’s kind of the way things went.