A real life Silence of the Lambs

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Detective Robert D. Keppel stares blankly into the eyes of a monster. Even with a long history in criminal justice, he is not prepared for this tryst with evil. The man who stares back is the same man that Keppel helped apprehend for deflowering the innocence of American college campuses years before in the 1970’s. And now, years later, he has to trust this man to help put another rapist and murderer behind bars – the notorious Green River Killer.

Ted Bundy squirms – he likes the attention Keppel offers him. This is the reason he volunteered: to get aroused from the vicious crimes of his innovative counterpart, to relive his days of glory through a serial killer still on the loose.

Keppel looks beyond Bundy’s smarmy smile and begins seeking information that will help the Green River Killer case. Irony has not left him; he is using the modern day Jack the Ripper to help catch another fiend.

While this may seem like just fiction out of the mind of an illustrative novelist, Sam Houston State University associate professor, Dr. Robert D. Keppel, knows all too well that this is far from an imaginary tale. It is the tactic he used in 1982 to help launch the infamous Green River Killer case, the inspiration for Thomas Harris’ book and movie, “The Silence of the Lambs,” and an experience that he uses day after day to educate new generations of criminal justice students.

Ted Bundy and the Green River Killer were two of the worst serial killers in American history. College campuses were plagued with fear as they left a trail of bodies in their psychopathic frenzy. Twenty-three women died at the hands of Bundy from 1974 to 1978. The Green River Killer was responsible for another 42 brutal murders and evaded police for 20 years. With years of education in Police Science in hand, Robert Keppel took on the Ted Bundy case in the hopes of stopping a violent murderer, but ended up creating a new investigative technique when he used Bundy to help catch the Green River Killer.

Even though Keppel has obtained a veteran level of expertise with almost four decades of experience in criminal investigations, he was only a rookie detective when he began working on the Ted Bundy case in 1974. The disappearance of two girls at Lake Sammamish State Park in Washington is what sparked the investigation and several King County detectives were assigned to the case to assist the Issaquah Police — one of those detectives was 30-year-old Robert Keppel.

After piecing together facts from related homicides in the area, Keppel and a major task force formed between the Seattle and King County police were able to identify Ted Bundy as the main suspect in the murders. Bundy was convicted but escaped while on trial by jumping out of the courthouse library. He was caught a week later but escaped again by walking out of the jail’s front door after sawing a hole through the ceiling of his cell. After raping, torturing and murdering a slew of women across the country, Bundy’s nation-wide killing spree was finally brought to an end again with his arrest in Florida in 1980. He was sentenced to death for the slaughter of 11-year-old Kimberly Leach.

In March of 1982, Keppel became Chief Criminal Investigator for Washington State Attorney General’s Office. By July of that year, the body of 16-year-old Wendy Lee Coffield was found floating in the Green River in Kent, Washington.

The bodies of four more women were found slain on the banks of the Green River in the following months. Thus the Green River Killer was born. America was shocked by the Green River killings, in which the bodies of women were found sexually assaulted, strangled and then dumped in isolated areas.

When publicity escalated about the murders around the Green River, police began finding bodies with similar inflictions farther away from the river. After piecing together facts from the homicides, they concluded it was the same killer. Investigators never found bodies near the river again, but the nickname the Green River Killer was already burned into the hearts and minds of Americans.

In 1984, an enhanced task force had been assembled to work on the case and Keppel started working full-time. While compiling a criminal profile for the Green River killer, in a move similar to the Silence of the Lambs storyline, he was contacted by the same man he helped to incarcerate years before – renowned serial killer Ted Bundy – who offered to aid him in his efforts.

“He volunteered by writing us a letter,” said Keppel of how Bundy came to work with police to establish a criminal profile for the Green River Killer case. “Of course, it came into my desk. I wrote him back and asked him how he could be of use to the investigation. He replied and explained that he knew a lot about murder. We ended up paying him a visit later and he confirmed everything we were already doing.”

When Keppel interviewed Bundy, it was one of the first times a detective utilized the ‘professional’ opinion of a serial killer to aid an investigation. The interviews resulted in several useful insights. Bundy was only piecing together the details of the investigation with newspaper clippings, but he still conjured theories that were consistent with those of the detectives.

“There were a few things, details he knew and suggestions on how to catch the killer,” said Keppel. “He suggested that we have a sex-slasher film festival and set up video surveillance. You know, have it to where they have to park in the theatre and then put cameras on all of the cars and the people. We couldn’t do that, but he said we would probably get video of all the future serial murders.”

Bundy also provided details that detectives knew only a murderer could know. Keppel said that he suggested that police stake out recovery sites where fresh bodies were found. According to Bundy, the killer usually returns to the scene of the crime because that is what he did.

“He turned out to be right,” said Keppel, “but there was no way we could have done that because we never found any fresh bodies.”

Even though the detectives on the Green River Killer case utilized new tactics, such as using computers to help compile of the information on suspects and using a known serial killer as a consultant for profiling efforts, the case failed to produce a viable suspect. The killings stopped in 1983 and there were no solid leads regarding the identity of the killer until 2001.

Keppel went on to author and co-author several books about criminal investigations and the interviews with Bundy. The interviews also inspired Thomas Harris, who Keppel said was in consultations with the FBI, to write the book “Silence of the Lambs” in 1988. The book was later created into the 1991 film starring Anthony Hopkins as Dr. Hannibal Lector and Jodie Foster as Detective Clarice Sterling. Dr. Robert D. Keppel recalls how his investigations went from real life to an Academy Award winning Jonathan Demme film:

“It is an interesting story,” he said. “At the time, in late 1984, I sent a transcript of the Bundy interview to the FBI Behavioral Science department. I expected them to read it and give it back with suggestions for the next interview. Instead, Thomas Harris, the writer of the book, “The Silence of the Lambs,” was convinced it would make a good storyline, so he copied the idea from my work with Bundy. In “The Silence of the Lambs” movie credits, the FBI was credited with giving him the idea when it was really from my work with Bundy. In my movie which came out on A&E called “The Riverman,” if you slow the credits at the end, the idea was credited to my interviews with Bundy.”

Although Keppel still resides in Washington, he teaches at Sam Houston State through the use of teleconference. He came to work at SHSU four years ago and lived in Texas in 2003 for two years teaching at the University. He now uses the latest live teleconference technology to teach criminal justice students. With experience teaching at universities for over 35 years, he instructs classes a Sam such as Criminal Investigation, Serial Murder, Criminal Profiling and Crime Scene Investigation. All of his experience and knowledge about criminal investigations continues to aid him in his teaching efforts.

“The experiences help because from one crime scene, [the students] can learn about all of the forensic science disciplines,” said Keppel. “The errors made in the investigation an all the good things that happened help the students understand. That and Ted Bundy was the poster child of serial killers.”

Ted Bundy was executed on January 24, 1989 in the Florida electric chair for the murder of Kimberly Leach. By 7:16 a.m., Bundy’s reign of terror on the American public had officially ceased, but the Green River Killer was still on the loose.

Twelve years later, 52-year-old Gary Leon Ridgeway was arrested while leaving his work in Renton, Washington. He is suspected of seven of the Green River killings with DNA evidence linking him to four. He has pleaded guilty to 48 counts of aggravated murder. Ironically, he was one of the first suspects in the case in 1983. Ridgeway was sentenced to 48 life sentences without a possibility of parole.

With the help of Dr. Robert D. Keppel, these two serial killers will never murder again, but America will always be plagued with sociopaths reeking havoc on society. With all of the work he has done in criminal investigations, one thing he is passing on to the next generation of Sam Houston State criminal justice students is that no matter how good they are at imitating actual events, real life is never like the movies.

“Students don’t know a lot about things,” said Keppel, “they only know what they see on TV. What I’ve done [in the Ted Bundy and Green River Killer investigations] helps to spell out the myths they see in movies and TV.”