Recent American True Crime Non-Fiction Reads

I. The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking [2013] by Brendan I. Koerner – ★★★★

This book by journalist Brendan I. Koerner focuses on the “Golden Age of Aircraft Hijacking” and on a peculiar case of an airplane hijacking operation carried out by Vietnam veteran William Roger Holder and his girlfriend Cathy Kerkow in 1972. Before airport X-ray machines and the careful vetting of all passengers, Holder and Kerkow had accomplished a crime feat in the air of unbelievable proportions, later escaping to and from Algeria and much later even becoming “celebrities” in France, mingling with the elite. This book is not only a fascinating story of their case that often reads like an exciting thriller, but also a deep insight into the most unbelievable period in the American commercial aviation history when airplane hijacking was so common people thought of it as just “one of those annoying inconveniences of flying” similar to jet lag.

One of the most fascinating elements of the book is the way it explains the early thinking of the American aviation industry and federal agencies as they first rolled out commercial airplanes and then tried to stop the growing series of hijacking operations. It is dumfounding to read that when the Federal Aviation Act was passed in 1958, the Congress overlooked the possibility that an airplane can be hijacked and thus “seizing control of an American aircraft was…perfectly legal, at least according to the letter of the law” [Koerner, 2013: 37]. That is not to mention the lack of any vetting, examination or other procedures carried out on passengers, with them being free to take with them whatever they wanted on flights and the ability of their friends and family members to say goodbye to them near departure gates. The astonishing thing is also that there was once the possibility to buy tickets “in flight” as people were already nearing their destination. 

All this “relaxed” thinking about aviation safety led to many hijacking incidents. Koerner tells us that between 1961 and 1972 there were some 159 commercial flights hijacked in the United States, and yet another statistic tells us that between 1960 and 1974 there were 240 hijacking operations and attempts between the US and Cuba alone. Koerner labels this as an epidemic, with the majority of criminals being disgruntled individuals and those angry about various political establishments and the Vietnam War. Media that always talked about hijackings, the possibility of living as “heroes” in Cuba, enjoying millions, and the instances of successful hijacking certainly fuelled the desire of some people to hijack more and more planes. For example, the most infamous case of successful airplane hijacking is probably that of D. B. Cooper, an unknown man who hijacked a Boeing 727 on 24 November 1971, extorted $200.000 and parachuted with the money out of the aircraft. His fate, whereabouts and true identity are unknown to this day. Then in January 1972, Richard LaPoint, an ex-Army paratrooper, hijacked a plane, got a ransom of $50.000 and also successfully parachuted from the aircraft, after previously releasing 67 passengers. He was promptly found and arrested. Then, on 13 April 1972, Ricardo Chavez Ortiz hijacked a flight from New Mexico to Phoenix and, unusually, did not want ransom but, upon releasing passengers, requested Spanish-speaking media and gave a thirty-minute speech on police brutality, racism and education policy. He later became a “hero” of the Chicano movement.

Things should be understood in a context and given the hijacking situations above, which rarely culminated in serious violence and took more of a political character, with hijackers often wanting either quick and safe diversions to Cuba or Israel or money or both, it becomes clearer why the initial alarms of the hijacking of a plane on 11 September 2001 were taken with relative calm. After all, there had been a number of hijacking situations in the 1990s too, and what passengers got to lose, anyway?, many thought at that time – probably, a number of hours or maximum a few days of unscheduled timetable. This is a chilling thought knowing how drastically different the situation became after 2001. Also, we may not be actually realising how much of our experience at today’s airports is actually the direct consequence of the governmental crackdown on hijacking of the mid-1970s. For example, the rule that only ticketed passengers are allowed at departure gates and the screening of people and bags were actually introduced just after December 1972 and only to deal with the possibility of hijacking.

William Roger Holder in Paris

Thus, when on 2 June 1972, Holder and Kerkow decided to hijack the Western Airlines Flight 701 from Los Angeles to Seattle, carrying 105 people aboard, and then demand $500.000 and the release of the activist Angela Davis only two things were stopping them: a bit of thinking about how to first announce to the crew and passengers that their plane is being hijacked and the high ticket price. Their plan was also eased by the 1960 memo from the government that stated that no employee should show heroism during any hijacking situation and comply with all demands of hijackers no matter how absurd they may sound. Thus, Holder got control of the aircraft mid-air by showing a threatening note and a plan of aircraft that illustrated possible bombs abroad. Holder and Kerkow then not only managed to divert their flight to Algeria and stay there, but, with the involvement of a leader of the Black Panthers, Leroy Cleaver, escape the country and move to France where they were considered “political activists seeking asylums” (not criminals) and the “living symbols of resistance to American tyranny”, supported and lauded by various French celebrities, including Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone Signoret.

Though it is true that not every bit of information in The Skies Belong to Us is interesting to read about – for example, the detailed descriptions of Holder and Kerkow’s air crime and speculations about their motives are much more interesting to read about than their familial situations and backgrounds, this non-fiction is still a great book overall, shedding light on one fascinating topic rarely talked about since 1975 except in the context of 9/11.

II. The Only Living Witness: The True Story of Serial Sex Killer Ted Bundy [1983] by Stephen G. Michaud & Hugh Aynesworth – ★★★1/2

The preliminary remark is that I am against any “glorification” of Ted Bundy, a convicted American serial killer operating in the 1970s who raped, tortured and murdered some 30 young women and girls (though probably responsible for up to 100 deaths in total). Any “glorification”, “admiration” or “complimentary remarks” in Bundy’s direction is on a par with the “glorification” of extreme sadistic violence towards, and murder of, young girls and women, and this is totally reprehensible. I also consider his status as “a celebrity” to be one of the most atrocious things that happened in our modern legal history. Media without brakes of the 1970s was partly responsible for this status of his and Bundy’s prison-escapes, supposed “charisma”, law school, etc. should have been either ignored or not publicised the way they were so that our respect for his victims remained intact.

There are probably now hundreds of books on Ted Bundy, and though The Only Living Witness was published in 1983, it still remains the book to pick up if one wants to have an overview of this serial killer. This is because it contains some of his biographical information, the timeline of his murders, speculations about his motives, insights into his trials, and, most importantly, the text from his interviews that sheds light on his thinking and crimes and in his own words (though he speaks in a third-person). Bundy was a complete psychopath, sadist, narcissist and pathological liar incapable of guilt, remorse or shame and who enjoyed inflicting on others the maximum amount of pain for his own pleasure, while using and manipulating the rest. However, some things did differentiate Bundy from other serial killers, such as his relatively normal childhood with no real evidence of abuse (though some claim his grandfather did abuse Bundy and he saw much abuse happened in his grandfather’s house, including extreme pornography films), his education and his relationships with others (for example, he had a long-term relationship with Elizabeth Kendall). However, in my opinion, psychologically, it all boils down to two things that differentiated Bundy from other serial killers – (i) his sickening craving for attention and positive emotion from other people and his desire to control people emotionally and mentally, feeling that power over them and manipulating them into viewing him as normal and “good” (i.e. his wish to convert them into his “admirers”); and (ii) his ability to view his situation objectively (from the point of view of normal people) and being interested in the aspects of his crime and psychopathology from the position of an outsider (while, at the same time, sickeningly, being his own biggest “fan”).

The first characteristic, Bundy’s need for attention and wanting to manipulate others’ perceptions of him, is clearly evident in the response of some of his family members, ex-girlfriend and ex-work colleagues to him, with some of them claiming that they were “devoted to him for years”, and his mother, ex-girlfriend and ex-wife all once said that they “loved him” and that “he must have loved them”, even after all the allegations and convictions against Bundy. It does take much emotionally and mentally manipulative work to achieve that level of response in people and “bathe” in it afterwards. Bundy wanted status and relished the idea of others being dependent on him. For a misogynist, he was shockingly comfortable with daily female presence around him, “enjoying” “normal” lives with his ex-girlfriend and even “making them happy” (see Elizabeth Kendall’s biographical book My Phantom Prince [1981]). I want here to dispel the myth that Bundy did not kill his family members because “he loved them” or even because he, regarding himself as “God”, willed them to “live”. I am confident that he did not kill his girlfriend Elizabeth Kendall or any of his female “friends” because he was simply afraid of being detected – husbands, boyfriends and male acquaintances are always the first suspects in these types of murder cases. He also probably did not overtly abuse his girlfriend Kendall and her daughter Molly so as not to arouse suspicion. Besides, he could not use his usual modus operandi on his close family members because it was already well-known. Thus, Bundy once attempted to asphyxiate Elizabeth Kendall by blocking the chimney in her home and letting the place fill up with smoke and also once threw her off a boat and refused to help her when she struggled in the water.

Regarding Bundy’s second characteristic – the need to “objectify” his crimes and his interest in seeing them from the point of view of “normality” is evident from him working at one point for a suicide helpline and for the Washington State Emergency Department, trying “to catch himself”, from him writing a leaflet on how women should guard themselves at night against burglars, from him wanting to write a book on psychopathology and acting as his own lawyer in court, and finally from him “helping” to catch the Green River Killer while being on Death Row. From his upbringing, Bundy knew what a normal behaviour was, how to achieve it and what to say and do to be “liked” by others. Unusually for psychopaths, he could actually recognise what others might have felt or thought and shifted his behaviour accordingly – otherwise he would not have achieved certain telling results as a manipulator. Of course, he had no (proper) feelings on others’ thoughts and feelings in return, but that does not mean he was not aware of them. In the book Bundy is being quoted (speaking of himself in a third-person): “this person was constantly attempting to be objective and to determine whether or not any of his psychopathological tendencies were being exposed”.

Some survivors of serial killer Ted Bundy (clock-wise): Kathy Kleiner, Cheryl Thomas, Carol DaRonch and Karen Chandler

I also like the fact that this book by Michaud and Aynesworth tries to downplay Bundy’s apparent “charm” and “intelligence”, which, in reality, were both very superficial. Bundy was not half as intelligent as most tend to believe, nor half as “charming”, for that matter. What was his “charm” or “intelligence” exactly? His low-to-average academic results or just his ability to speak his native language relatively freely in front of an audience? If he was “so very charming”, why would he make himself disabled and a police officer to lure his victims? He was a coward who preyed on the most vulnerable and often attacked girls in their sleep. He manipulated many people into believing he was much more intelligent than he was and also tried to manipulate others into believing he was innocent and/or sympathetic. His long-winded talks and sentences always had elements of nonsense and lacked substance – one of Bundy’s acquaintances in the book recalls: “Ted was almost one-dimensional, if I think about it. It’s like there is a very beautiful storefront that’s attractive and lures you in, but when you get inside to see the merchandise, it is sparse to say the least [Michaud & Aynesworth, 1983: 86]. Knowing this, it was particularly disturbing to read about Bundy’s “female groupies” and his fan-mail. He was finally executed by an electric chair in January 1989.

The conclusion is that The Only Living Witness may be just a little too apologetic an account that sometimes even shockingly “humanises” the killer, but it is also a well-written one and definitely provides a good introduction on Ted Bundy, his crimes and the American justice system’s response to him in the 1970s. There is no denying that Ted Bundy was one of the most evil entities that ever walked this earth and the fascination with him by others has probably a lot due with the fact that he displayed so many paradoxical and contradictory behaviours and personalities. His crimes destroyed so many lives and families, and since he is known, he should only be known as a sadistic monster that he was. On the other hand, his victims and survivors deserve more recognition and should be known/remembered for their beauty, goodness, strength and courage (for example, see this short documentary that actually focuses on Ted Bundy’s survivors).


8 thoughts on “Recent American True Crime Non-Fiction Reads

  1. Interesting reads, very well presented, Diana. A lot of what you said about Ted Bundy resonates with me so much. People tend to glorify serial killers and ignore their victims all too often. I’ve been listening to the Ripper Retold podcast this week, which is a unique examination of the case in that it focuses on the victims: who they were, how they lived their lives and how ultimately they ended up as murder victims. Moreover, it debunks the myth of their killer being exceptionally charming and intelligent. The podcast author even suggests that he attacked his victims, all vulnerable women sleeping rough, while they slept.

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    1. Thank you for reading, and yes, I agree with you and also like the focus on the victims. I was not aware of the Ripper Retold, it sounds interesting and at least in the case of Mary Jane Kelly there is a very strong possibility that she was asleep when she was killed/attacked.

      And, yes, it is a myth that serial killers are some “super-beings” with “otherworldly intelligence” and possessing some “unbelievable charm”. People tend to forget that opportunity actually plays a big part in all their crimes – and Jack the Ripper and Ted Bundy were no exceptions. Seriously, how much “charm” or “intelligence” is needed to attack a sleeping girl in the middle of the night with a crowbar? And Bundy started killing just when hitchhiking was again gaining enormous popularity. Jack the Ripper also operated in the highly crime-ridden area of London where extreme poverty was the reality of a day – that made it easy to prey on vulnerable women needing money desperately. And that was before the police even had any concept of a “serial killer” – so they had no idea how to deal with the situation. And Ted Bundy’s killing spree? That was before DNA and it is a fact that there was some very gross police incompetence and mistakes being made in relation to the investigation of his crimes and guarding him.

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  2. Interesting piece. This isn’t usually my genre, but I recently read ‘In Cold Blood’ by Truman Capote for the first time (which is a ‘fictionalised-non-fiction’ hybrid) for an MA I am studying for, and found it engrossing, despite my reluctance to read it. I wonder if you have read it – if not, would definitely recommend! : )

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