Greg Houston

Serial killer Ted Bundy drove a tan Volkswagen Bug. It was a run-down car, but he had a thing for Volkswagens. He thought they were good for transporting cargo.

In 1974, a woman was on her way to a meeting at Northgate General, a hospital that used to be attached to Northgate Mall. She was headed north on Interstate 5 when she took the wrong exit and got lost. She saw a tan Bug in her rearview mirror. Seattle's harrowingly narrow streets were hard for her to navigate, and she was desperately trying to find her way back to the freeway. Through it all, every wrong turn and backtrack, the tan Bug was behind her.

"I was frightened," the woman wrote in an e-mail to true-crime writer Ann Rule years later. "The guy driving it couldn't possibly be taking the same mixed-up path I was on. The last turn had no outlet—unless you backed up. I pulled up to where the pavement ended in a field of weeds and stopped. The guy in the VW parked behind me."

The woman immediately locked her car doors. "But the man—with wavy brown hair—reached for the door handle anyway, and stared at her angrily through her driver's side window," Rule wrote in an updated edition of The Stranger Beside Me, her classic book about Bundy.

Out of sheer luck, a gaggle of high-school boys pulled up just then and parked next to the woman and Bundy.

"I don't know why," the woman wrote, "but they probably saved my life."

Spooked by their presence, Bundy sped away. The boys led the woman back to the freeway. A bit shaken, she went on her way to Northgate for her meeting at the hospital.

It wasn't until years later, when the woman read Rule's book, that she realized the man who'd followed her that night and tried to open her car door was Ted Bundy. He ended up being convicted of 36 murders, a figure that detectives "found hard to believe," Rule records in her book. When they asked him if that was the correct number of women he'd killed, Bundy reportedly replied, "Add a digit on that, and you'll have it."

His victims were typically white women, college-age, with long brown hair parted in the middle. He was known for strangulating and bludgeoning his victims, for sodomizing their long-dead corpses, and for tossing their decapitated heads at Taylor Mountain, a burial ground of his between North Bend and Auburn. Detectives discovered only neck bones and skulls there. He scattered other bones elsewhere.

In 1974, though, Bundy wasn't yet known as a serial killer. Back then, he was known as a University of Washington graduate, who won high praise from his psychology professors, and an active Republican. He was instrumental in electing members of the Washington State GOP to office, and he worked for the Washington State Department of Emergency Services.

He was even nominated by the Seattle Police Department to become the director of the Seattle Crime Prevention Advisory Commission. That came after an incident in the parking lot at Northgate Mall in which Bundy appeared to be a neighborhood hero.

It was one of those dark Monday nights outside the mall when it's nearly impossible to tell where the black asphalt ends and the dark sky begins. The parking lot was seemingly endless—after all, the mall was built with cars in mind, and it accommodated 1,700 of them.

The mall door flew open, and a purse snatcher clutching a handbag raced out into the parking lot. He might have made a clean break except for a second man who emerged unexpectedly from the darkness of the parking lot and gave chase. The second man was Bundy. He held the purse snatcher until the cops arrived, and then Bundy handed the woman back her purse, which had $34 in it.

No one stopped to wonder: What was he doing hanging out in a dark parking lot in the first place? Little did they know the Northgate parking lots were a familiar haunt of his. Bundy was a creature of the night, but he was also a creature of the road.

In those years, women were disappearing left and right. The University District—where Bundy lived—saw a lot of activity. Women disappeared from bedrooms near the University of Washington (he crawled in through basement windows), they disappeared from alleys (he kidnapped a woman behind her sorority house along Greek Row), they disappeared on their way to class (including at the Evergreen State College and Oregon State University), and they disappeared from alongside the freeway (especially hitchhikers and runaways). Several of his victims were found in parks and trailheads in close proximity to I-5.

"Wearing a fake cast on his arm or leg, Bundy would approach women asking for help loading something into his car," says a 2010 McClatchy Newspaper article about Bundy's car becoming a tourist attraction in Washington, DC. "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 usually was. If she was still alive, he'd handcuff her so she couldn't escape."

The time Bundy spent on the freeway, particularly I-5, was one of the things that later linked him to the murders. In fact, his car was the reason he eventually got caught. He filled up his gas tank constantly—he had a weird paranoia about running out of gas. The receipts from these gas stations linked him to murder sites.

In addition to the removed passenger seat, Bundy had tools in his car—he had even taped a lug wrench to the interior of his girlfriend's car (which was also a tan VW Bug). When she confronted him about the lug wrench, Bundy said he never knew when he was going to get embroiled in a student riot. He hated student riots. He especially hated when protesting students would wade onto the freeway and shut down I-5. Ted was a firm believer in the system.

***

Northgate Mall is a sprawling mass of retail, signage, and cracked asphalt. I'm sure it was once a glorious enterprise, fun for the whole family, and a sanctuary for the automobile, but now everything about it feels faded.

Northgate was the first indoor mall in the United States. It has existed since 1950, and it has a colorful history. Multiple serial killers have been placed at the mall, and a white-supremacist group once carried out a bank robbery there.

A population boom led to the creation of Northgate Mall in the first place. Boeing had drawn thousands upon thousands of people to Seattle. By 1948, Seattle had one of the largest percentages of homeowners of any city in the country, and all those people needed somewhere to shop. But an outdoor mall was not going to cut it, not with our weather.

The mall was designed by John Graham Jr., a student of the University of Washington's architecture school and the son of renowned architect John Graham. He was a former merchandising manager of the Bon Marché department store, and he ingeniously designed Northgate to maximize sales.

A big part of Northgate's initial success was its proximity to the new I-5 corridor. The anchor of the mall—the Bon Marché at the time, now Macy's—was built so it would be eye level to people driving on the freeway.

Graham Jr. planned Northgate as a one-stop shop for all of the suburban American family's needs. That weirdly enough included a hospital. Northgate General was operational in the 1950s but defunct by the 1990s.

Most of the people who remember Northgate General were born there. It was attached to the mall on the northwest side, near where the California Pizza Kitchen is now. Being born in a mall is peak Americana.

Loren Bogaard, 58, was an orderly at the hospital back in the 1980s. He remembers the hospital a bit better than those who were born there. It was his first medical job. "It was right next to the movie theater," Bogaard said. "There was a little lobby you'd enter and take an elevator up to the hospital. The Red Robin used to be right below it."

Bogaard had initially wanted to work ski patrol—he liked skiing—so he enrolled in an emergency medical technician course. That eventually led to his role at Northgate General. The first thing he remarked about at the hospital was the emergency room. It was small, about 300 square feet, with two beds.

"People would come in needing to have suturing to their fingers," Bogaard said. Anyone from "the whole neighborhood kind of west of there. It's an old neighborhood. You'd get geriatrics who would come with heart failure. There was surgery there, appendicitis, gynecological stuff. Standard fare hospital stuff."

Bogaard stayed at Northgate General Hospital for only about a year. He made more money waiting tables. But he had good stories. One of the other orderlies, an aspiring medical student, used to steal drugs from the medical supplies. He would "siphon off some of the cocaine from the medicine case and then he would put it on rolling papers and smoke marijuana with cocaine," Bogaard said, making sure I knew it was that fellow and not him who did that.

A woman who got her wisdom teeth out at Northgate General in the 1970s said she was told that the mall was haunted. She was told this by Northgate Mall security guards, who reportedly saw ghostly children roaming the mall's long, straight corridor after dark.

The only evidence I have been able to find of any hauntings at the mall was a haunted house hosted in the abandoned hospital in the early 2000s. It was promoted by STAR 101.5 radio. "Get scared as you tour several floors of haunted hospital," read the advertisement. "Each visitor will walk through the abandoned Seattle General Hospital wearing 3-D glasses to more vividly experience the surprises on every floor."

It's hard to imagine Northgate Mall as a blossoming center of suburban life. When I went to the mall the other day to ask if anyone felt like it had ghosts, I had to put my back into it just to wedge the stubborn door open.

Once I was inside, I asked a security guard if the mall was haunted. His name was Jim.

"No," Jim said with a straight face. "I've lived here my whole life. Never heard of that."

I trekked down the mall's single corridor, drawn back to this plane of existence by Jim's sobering eloquence. The corridor seemed to stretch on endlessly. Light came weakly into the mall through the small, narrow windows. It was dismal, with no reprieve from the oppressive gray sky outside. My stroll ended in the flickering neon signs of the food court.

I was too freaked out about the research I'd been doing to chat up anyone in the parking lot.

As for Bundy, he evaded arrest in Washington State, despite one afternoon where witnesses saw him at Lake Sammamish State Park, where he introduced himself to one woman using his real name. "I'm Ted," he said, while trying to convince her to go with him to help hook up a sailboat to his car.

Later he fled to Utah under the guise of going to law school in Salt Lake City, where he murdered more people, and then to Colorado, where he murdered still more. He was caught prowling suburban streets there, but he escaped from prison twice.

He would hijack cars and follow freeways to escape. They eventually led to his capture in Florida. After a slew of horrific murders in a Florida State University sorority house where he had bashed multiple girls' heads in with a wooden plank and, later, the kidnapping of a 12-year-old girl, Bundy was caught by a highway patrolman who suspected the car Bundy was in had been stolen.

It had. It was another VW Bug.

These days, Ted Bundy is dead—he was executed in Florida State Prison in 1989—and Seattle is undergoing a population boom again. Half a century ago, Seattle had never had to worry about planning before, and the Northgate Mall was part of the city's plan to accommodate sudden and rapid growth.

It feels like we're mirroring that time period. This time, however, the growth is not centered on cars, but light rail. Sound Transit is currently burrowing toward Northgate at a not-fast-enough pace. By 2021, the light rail will have a stop up there. A complete redevelopment of the area around the station—including changes to the mall—is under way. Some new apartment buildings are going up.

The majority of the mall as you know it, including its parking lots, will be torn down and replaced with a transit-oriented, walkable neighborhood. Our next serial killer will have to have an ORCA card.