Robert D. Keppel: consulting detective.
Subject: Peace officers (Beliefs, opinions and attitudes)
Peace officers (Works)
Author: Ramsland, Katherine
Pub Date: 03/22/2012
Publication: Name: The Forensic Examiner Publisher: American College of Forensic Examiners Audience: Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Health; Law; Science and technology Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2012 American College of Forensic Examiners ISSN: 1084-5569
Issue: Date: Spring, 2012 Source Volume: 21 Source Issue: 1
Persons: Named Person: Keppel, Robert; Keppel, Robert
Geographic: Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States
Accession Number: 280966764

ROBERT KEPPEL is best known for the central role he played in the investigation of Ted Bundy's string of homicides in the Pacific Northwest. Keppel had been a homicide investigator in the King County Sheriff's Office in Washington State for just two weeks in 1974 when two girls disappeared on the same day from Lake Sammamish State Park. Thus began a frustrating series of investigations that went cold, until they were eventually linked to Bundy. Only years after Bundy's conviction for murders in Florida put him on death row did he open up about his West Coast activities. When he finally unloaded a stunning confession, Keppel was there to record it.


Currently an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of New Haven, Keppel has consulted on over 2,000 homicide cases, many of which were associated with one of the 50-plus serial killers his work has covered. He has written or co-written numerous articles, book chapters, and books about homicide investigation; created software and databases for investigators; and crystallized best practices for interviewing offenders. As a consulting detective, he is eager to offer what he has learned to others in the field.

Among his books is the aptly titled The Psychology of Serial Killer Investigations: The Grisly Business Unit. In it, Keppel discusses the way jurisdictions either accept or deny that they have a serial killer operating in their area. He also describes issues that task forces face, especially as time passes without an arrest. They are not "profilers" who jump in from out of town to comment before moving on. They are stuck with the case until it is solved, and some are not happy about it. Keppel has seen resistance, despair, and even outright denial in the face of solid evidence. "Serial homicide investigations succeed or fail," he writes, "on whether the police know what they have on their hands, how they accept the truth, and how they manage it once they've accepted it."

Before he became an internationally renowned consultant, he gathered his experience as a detective. Surprisingly, this had not been among his career goals.


Keppel grew up in Spokane, Washington, and graduated from Central Valley High School in 1962, where he was a star athlete. He attended Washington State University on an athletic scholarship, developing his skill as a high jumper, and he just missed making America's 1964 Olympic team. After getting a master's degree in police science, he joined the King County Sheriff's Department as a patrol officer, but was then drafted. "I was an Army drill sergeant," he says, "before going to Vietnam as a captain." As part of the Army's Military Police Corps for nearly a year, he acquired plenty of investigative experience. He then returned to the Sheriff's Department to resume his patrol duties. His father, who died when Keppel was a junior in college, had been a significant role model.

"My father was in charge of drill sergeants in the Marines during WWII in San Diego," Keppel reports. "He was also a Spokane County Deputy Sheriff before he became a store detective for Rosauers Supermarket. Prior to that, he'd been a senior liquor inspector for the State of Washington." As a result, Keppel was exposed to uniformed officers, the notion of suspects, and methods of interrogation.

He wanted to remain in uniform, but because he had a master's degree his superiors pressured him to take the test to become a detective. "So I took it and I maxed it, because they had used O'Hare's criminal investigation book to write their test and I had just taken a class that had used that book. So I became a burglary/larceny detective for the southeast area of King County." Among his jobs was to investigate missing persons, and in June 1974, a woman named Brenda Ball had disappeared after leaving a local bar. Keppel had barely started on this case when he was asked to replace a homicide detective with a bad heart; so, now he was a homicide detective.

On July 1, he joined his new partner, Roger Dunn. Two weeks later, they were asked to assist on a disturbing case. "On July 14, two girls went missing from Lake Sammamish State Park," Keppel recounts, "and the chief of police from Issaquah turned the case over to us. Since we were the detectives for that area, we were stuck with it." Janice Ott and Denise Naslund had vanished on that sunny afternoon in front of a crowd of people. In fact, as Keppel discovered, there had been similar reports of missing women during the prior six months in various areas of Oregon and Washington--including Brenda Ball. However, there were no bodies. Although several people had described a young man named "Ted" speaking to Ott, these leads failed to pinpoint a suspect.

Then on September 7, Keppel was called out to a woodsy area a few miles from Lake Sammamish where human bones had been discovered. When he arrived he realized how little he knew about what he faced. It was daunting to be in charge, but he rose to the challenge. "The bodies had been dragged along animal trails for maybe 300 or 400 feet," he recalls. "The Search and Rescue people showed up, but I had no experience working with them. I just knew that the woods had to be searched. I didn't know anything about skeletons or dental work, so I researched this area to learn where animals would drag things."

This setting turned out to be the dumping ground for Ott and Naslund, as well as a third young woman who remained unidentified. The following spring, parts of the skulls of four female victims turned up near Taylor Mountain, 11 miles further east. There was little doubt that a serial offender was committing multiple murders.

"Recognition is the single most important concept in a serial murder investigation," Keppel states. Without it, the probability of solving the cases diminishes, while the likelihood of more murders rises. A key error, he says, is the mismanagement of information-failing to collect, analyze, and organize it according to effective priorities. This is why he believes that of the types of consultants one might hire for a serial homicide investigation, the consulting detective with experience in effective information management is the most valuable. Detectives who have been on a serial homicide task force know the truth of Sherlock Holmes' credo, "It is a capital mistake to theorize before you have all the evidence. It biases the judgment."

Never one to shirk writing reports, Keppel took on the task of feeding lists of names into a mainframe computer, which eventually narrowed the cache of more than 3,000 suspects to 25. Even so, he estimated that it would take them a year to fully investigate this many. Among them was Ted Bundy. A week later, Utah authorities phoned Seattle investigators to tell them that Bundy had been arrested for an attempted abduction. This was the break they needed.

Keppel learned that Bundy, out on bail, was back in Seattle, so he went to where Bundy was staying. He remembers meeting the elusive suspect face-to-face: "He showed up to his friend's apartment with some groceries, so Roger and I confronted him at the door. He wasn't nervous. He agreed to talk with us in the future. But then he went back to Utah. I gave his attorney times and dates and asked if Bundy would supply alibis. I never heard from him." Bundy, convicted in Utah of an attempted abduction, was sent to Colorado to stand trial for murder, but he escaped and disappeared.


The co-ed murders remained unsolved when Keppel decided to look for other work. In 1978, after Bundy was apprehended in Florida for a sorority house attack that left two dead, Keppel returned to school for another master's degree. Then in 1980, he enrolled in a unique doctoral program at the University of Washington that allowed him to focus on more than one area of study. He selected seven, which took him twelve years to complete but exposed him to several exceptional experts. "Forensic psychiatrist John Liebert supervised the psychiatry section of my Ph.D. study," he recounts. "Dr. Elizabeth Loftus and Dr. John Berberich assisted me with the psychology section. Other sections of my Ph.D. program were forensic pathology, forensic dentistry, sociology of violence, law of murder, and physical anthropology." His doctoral advisor, Dr. Joe Weiss, then co-authored a book, Murder, with Keppel and they used it to team-teach a sociology course.

After he had begun his ambitious program, Keppel went to work as chief investigator for the Washington State Attorney General's Office. There he had the opportunity to investigate homicides around the state, two of which he considers to be quite unique.

In August 1980, Captain Rolf Neslund, a former ship's pilot, had disappeared from his home on Washington's Lopez Island. His wife, Nettle "Ruth" Neslund, claimed that they'd argued over money, so he had left her to return to his native Norway. However, no one could locate him there, either. Although Neslund was 79 years old, aside from diabetes he was in good health. Friends urged the police to check and Ruth told them to ask his girlfriend in Norway, with whom he had had two sons. She was there--with her new husband.

A search of the home turned up Neslund's possessions, including eyeglasses and medication. He had not renewed any of his prescriptions, nor had he contacted anyone who knew him. No one had received his typical card at Christmas. Further investigation revealed that during the month before he had disappeared, Ruth had transferred $80,000 from their joint accounts to her sole account. Several friends knew that Neslund had discovered this and had decided to change his will to favor his sons. He had also confided to a friend that he feared that Ruth might prison him. Ruth's relatives confirmed that she had threatened to kill her husband, and her brother told police that she had confessed to him that she had shot Neslund in the head while their brother Robert held him. They had then dismembered the body and burned the parts in a barrel before dumping the ashes in the manure pile.

The investigators discovered bloodstains matching Neslund's type under new carpet, with high-velocity spatter (as from a close-range gunshot) on the ceiling and walls. (Ruth said this was from nosebleeds and home improvement accidents.) In Ruth's dresser was a bloodstained .38 revolver. Since there was no body, this became a precedent-setting case for the state, but the wealth of evidence was solid. There was enough blood at the scene to state that the chances that the victim had been mortally wounded were high. In 1985, Ruth Neslund was convicted of first-degree murder. Since her accomplice was now in a nursing home with dementia, he escaped the same fate.

Keppel re-opened another case that begged for a revised opinion. Donna Howard had been a rodeo trick rider, but in January 1975, she was discovered dead in the stable of her Yakima County farm. Her husband Russ had surmised that one of her horses had kicked her in the head. The coroner had accepted that her wound was consistent with a kick, but Donna's family had sought an independent inquiry. They had reported that the unfaithful Russ had often hit her. One of Russ's girlfriends later informed police that he had killed his wife with a hammer, which launched the new investigation.

Keppel had Donna's body exhumed and he sent her skull for examination by specialists. To him, the blow to her head looked consistent with a hammer, but he needed more evidence. He invited blood spatter expert Rod Englert, who had worked with him on the Neslund case, to examine grainy photos of bloodstains in the stable. Englert confirmed that Donna was probably the victim of a homicide. The case went to trial in 1986 and Russ Howard was convicted.

By this time, Bundy had popped back into Keppers life in an unexpected way.


In October 1984, Bundy sent a letter to the Green River Task Force, via a judge in Pierce County. "The detective assigned to get it brought it to me," Keppel recalls. "So I wrote back to Bundy and he corresponded with me." Bundy had read about the series of "Green River" murders in the newspapers and believed that, since he knew those areas, he would have some insight into the offender's behavior. Keppel, who was assisting with this investigation, decided to go talk with him face to face.

First, he carefully prepared. He consulted with two former doctoral mentors, Liebert and Berberich, who had taught him a great deal about the psychology of killers. "I remember some guidelines they went over with me," he says. "First, question the interviewee at his level. Use the same words that he uses and the same sentence structure. This would make Bundy feel comfortable. Don't ask questions over his head intellectually and, at the same time, don't ask questions below his intellectual level or he will never cover what you want."

Just over a month after Bundy's first letter, Keppel went to Florida with Detective Dave Reichert from the Green River Task Force to interview the notorious killer on death row. Keppel wrote about his encounter in The Riverman: Ted Bundy and I Hunt the Green River Killer, which became a made-for-television movie for A&E.

Hoping to avoid giving Bundy a sense of importance, Keppel told him that his visit was just a side trip: "I made it appear that my trip to Florida was for other reasons, and I had just stopped by because it was no trouble and I was so close by, anyway. He never knew that the only reason I went to see him was to keep our relationship going."

Meeting Bundy was one thing, but watching the behavior of a life-long liar for deception or deflection was quite another. "One strategy," Keppel recalls, "was to ask Bundy a question that was blatantly false and determine his style, looks, vocabulary, and sentence structure when he defended the truth. He'd lied so much over the years that he looked highly comfortable when doing it."

Sometimes Bundy's responses were uncharacteristically vague and Keppel soon realized why. "He would talk a lot about nothing when things approached the truth about him. I believe he wanted to confess so bad that he would be void of detail when his answers were close to what he would have done. This was a signal to me that I was getting dangerously close to his self-admission. This was a signal that he was answering things about himself. Go any closer and he might clam up."

Another strategy was to ask questions that could seem like they were about the Green River offender but could just as easily be about Bundy's motives and methods: "The questions we asked, such as why would a killer murder two victims on the same day, were the type of questions we might ask about the Green River Killer. We hoped we might get Bundy to use the first-person when answering." Bundy did not confess during this first encounter, but the seed had been planted: Bundy now knew Keppel and was comfortable enough to confess if he ever decided to.

In 1988, Keppel returned to get more information about the way serial killers operated, and now Bundy was fidgety. "I could tell that something was really bothering him. Unknown to me, he had just spoken to his advisers, attorneys and psychiatrists, and was plotting to confess to me." However, Bundy's advisors had persuaded him that a confession now would undermine his pending appeals. Even so, in retrospect, Keppel was able to see that Bundy had been giving him indirect guidance: "He was actually telling me how he wanted to be interviewed by me."

For example, Bundy told Keppel that the best way to interview a serial killer was to leave aside all judgment. The interviewer who could understand that for the killer some murders were "okay" because they satisfied a need was the person best poised to receive the most detailed and intimate information. "And that's the level of interview a good investigator should be able to have with a suspect," Keppel later wrote.

While questioning Bundy, Keppel noted his paranoia and grandiosity, especially as Bundy described to him how superior he felt whenever he eluded law enforcement's efforts to identify him. Even with only indirect references, in his attempt to show off his cunning and intelligence he gave up plenty of information about his movements. Keppel duly recorded every detail. Among the things he learned was that Bundy considered his crime scenes and dumpsites to be sacred: "The interesting question was, why did he return? Because the process of possession and necrophilia were important to him."

Finally, Bundy was scheduled for execution in January 1989. Keppel was invited to "debrief" him. He arrived for his final interview and Bundy was ready. He revealed that he often beheaded his victims and gave up several names to help Keppel close cases. He admitted to the Ott and Naslund murders and put a name to the female victim whose remains had been found with theirs. He also described abducting Brenda Ball, whose disappearance Keppel had investigated in June 1974. Bundy confirmed the eight victims on Keppel's list and suggested three more, but resisted admitting to some for which Keppel suspected him. Bundy admitted to an FBI agent that he had killed a total of thirty but told his attorney 35. To this day, Keppel believes Bundy took many secrets to his grave. "When he said 'three figures' to the police officer in Pensacola, I didn't think that was impossible. Looking back, I think that number is realistic."


Bundy's cross-country murder spree indirectly inspired the FBI's computerized ViCAP database, which offers investigators around the country a way to compare homicides and sexual assaults across jurisdictions. To better serve the state of Washington, Keppel and his colleagues developed a similar software program after they received an NIJ grant to examine solvability characteristics of murder. They called it the Washington Attorney General's Homicide Investigation Tracking System, or HITS. It was designed to improve the apprehension rate of violent offenders.

The study of homicide solvability factors remains Keppel's driving passion, especially when several cases can be connected. Besides assisting with the development of technology, Keppel is interested in educating future investigators and researchers. At the University of New Haven, he teaches such courses as "Advanced Investigation" and "Death Investigation: From Scene to Court" and he is working on numerous projects with colleagues and former graduate students. In addition, he continues to consult on cases.

"The business of gaining serial killer information came from the necessities of my job, over 30 years of homicide investigation experience," Keppel adds. "My specialty is helping detectives solve their unsolved cases."





* JANUARY 4: JONI LENZ (pseudonym) (age 18): Bludgeoned and sexually assaulted in her bed as she slept; survived

* FEBRUARY 1: LYNDA ANN HEALY (age 21): Bludgeoned while asleep and abducted; skull and mandible recovered at Taylor Mountain site

* MARCH 12: DONNA GAIL MANSON (age 19): Abducted while walking to concert at Evergreen State College; body left (according to Bundy) at Taylor Mountain site, but never found

* APRIL 17: SUSAN ELAINE RANCOURT (age 18): Disappeared alter evening advisors' meeting, Central Washington State College; skull and mandible recovered at Taylor Mountain site

* MAY 6: ROBERTA KATHLEEN PARKS (age 22):Vanished from Oregon State University in Corvallis; skull and mandible recovered at Taylor Mountain site

* JUNE 1: BRENDA CAROL BALL (age 22): Disappeared after leaving the Flame Tavern in Burien; skull and mandible recovered at Taylor Mountain site

* JUNE 11: GEORGEANN HAWKINS (age 18): Disappeared from alley behind her sorority house, UW; skeletal remains recovered at Issaquah site

* JULY 14: JANICE ANN OTT (age 23): Abducted from Lake Sammamish State Park in broad daylight; skeletal remains recovered at Issaquah site

* JULY 14: DENISE MARIE NASLUND (age 19): Abducted four hours after Oft from the same park; skeletal remains recovered at Issaquah site


* OCTOBER 2: NANCY WILCOX (age 16): Ambushed, assaulted, and strangled in Holladay, Utah; body never found

* OCTOBER 18: MELISSA ANNE SMITH (age 17): Vanished from Midvale, Utah; body found in nearby mountainous area

* OCTOBER 31: LAURA AIME (age 17): Disappeared from Lehi, Utah; body discovered by hikers in American Fork Canyon

* NOVEMBER 8: CAROL DARONCH (age 18): Attempted abduction in Murray, Utah; escaped from Bundy's car and survived

* NOVEMBER 8: DEBRA KENT (age 17): Vanished after leaving a school play in Bountiful, Utah; body left (according to Bundy) near Fairview, Utah; minimal skeletal remains (one patella) found, but never positively identified as Kent's



* JANUARY 12: CARYN CAMPBELL (age 23): Disappeared from hotel hallway in Snowmass, Colorado; body discovered on a dirt road near the hotel

* MARCH 15: JULIE CUNNINGHAM (age 26): Disappeared on the way to a tavern in Vail, Colorado; body buried (according to Bundy) near Rifle, 90 miles (140 kin) west of Vail, but never found

* APRIL 6: DENISE OLIVERSON (age 25): Abducted while bicycling to her parents' house in Grand Junction, Colorado; body thrown (according to Bundy) into the Colorado River 5 miles (80 km) west of Grand Junction, but never found


* MAY 6: LYNETTE CULVER (age 12): Abducted from Alameda Junior High School in Pocatello, Idaho; body never found

* JUNE 28: SUSAN CURTIS (age 15) Disappeared during a youth conference at Brigham Young University; body buried (according to Bundy) near Price, Utah, 75 miles (121 km) southeast of Provo, but never found



* JANUARY 15: MARGARET BOWMAN (age 21): Bludgeoned and then strangled as she slept, Chi Omega sorority, FSU (No secondary crime scene)

* JANUARY 15: LISA LEVY (age 20): Bludgeoned, strangled and sexually assaulted as she slept, Chi Omega sorority, FSU (No secondary crime scene)

* JANUARY 15: KAREN CHANDLER (age 21): Bludgeoned as she slept, Chi Omega sorority, FSU; survived

* JANUARY 15: KATHY KLEINER (age 21): Bludgeoned as she slept, Chi Omega sorority, FSU; survived

* JANUARY 15: CHERYL THOMAS (age 21): Bludgeoned as she slept, eight blocks from Chi Omega; survived

* FEBRUARY 9: KIMBERLY LEACH (age 12): Abducted from her junior high school in Lake City, Florida; skeletal remains found near Suwannee River State Park

By Katherine Ramsland, PhD

KATHERINE RAMSLAND, PhD, CMI-V has published over 1,000 articles and 40 books, including The Mind of a Murderer: Privileged Access to the Demons that Drive Extreme Violence. Dr. Ramsland is an associate professor of forensic psychology and criminal justice at DeSales University in Pennsylvania and has been a member of the American College of Forensic Examiners International since 1998.
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