Julie Cunningham, age 26, vanished from Vail, Colorado on March 15, 1975.
If you Google her name, you’ll undoubtedly find thousands of hits which reference her case; hits you likely wouldn’t find, had notorious serial killer Ted Bundy not confessed to her murder.
After sifting through it all, in an effort to dissect information specific to Julie and her case, there isn’t much. It’s mostly paraphrased versions of Bundy’s pre-execution confession, coupled with a physical description, and basic facts such as the date and town of her disappearance.
Bundy’s confession, which is the most widely published account of the fateful evening of March 15, 1975, asserts that Bundy, in his typical guise as an injured pedestrian, approached Julie as she walked alone down a road. He claimed that he used crutches, and asked Julie to assist him with carrying his ski boots to his car, which was parked nearby. According to Bundy, when Julie agreed to help, he made small talk with her as they walked to his Volkswagen Bug. As Julie bent down to place the boots in the car, he knocked her unconscious with a crowbar.
Bundy was quoted in The Bundy Murders by Kevin Sullivan as saying:
“I walked back toward the center of town, up the road, and I walked slowly, looking at the passerbys.” After a moment, he spotted Julie Cunningham “coming down the road, toward me, she was alone and walking on the outside of the parked cars… I used my crutch and fumbled with the boots and started to cross the street and I asked her help. I told her that I needed a little help to get to my car, it was parked only a short distance down the road in the direction she was walking.”
There was more to his confession, which I will get to.
Bundy’s confession sounds believable. I mean, it’s classic Bundy, from what we know.
However, this article, posted on the City of Vail website, brings Bundy’s account into question:
“On March 15, 1975, Julie Cunningham, a 26-year-old seasonal Vail employee, was reported missing by a friend who stated she failed to show up at the ski school where she was employed. Cunningham was seen by several people at a local bar the previous evening with a male she referred to as “Ted”, who said he was an attorney in Aspen.”
This article insinuates that Julie had met Ted Bundy prior to her disappearance – I wonder if any of the ‘several people’ were later able to confirm that Bundy was the man Julie was seen talking to.
Disturbingly, this account seems to have a ring of truth to it as well, especially when paired with the following passage from Ann Rule’s The Stranger Beside Me.
At twenty-six, Julie Cunningham should have had the world by the tail. She was very attractive and she had silky dark hair, parted in the middle. She shared a pleasant apartment in Vail with a girlfriend, and worked as a clerk in a sporting goods store and as a part-time ski instructor. But Julie wasn’t happy. She was searching for the one man she could really love and trust, someone to settle down with. She’d done the ski bum bit, but she was growing out of that. She wanted marriage and children.
Julie was not the best judge of men. She believed their lines, and she was becoming disillusioned. She’d heard “It’s been great. I’ll give you a call someday” much too often. Maybe Vail was the wrong place for her to be. Maybe the aura of a ski town didn’t lend itself to permanent relationships.
In early March of 1975, Julie was to suffer her last heartbreak. She thought she had met the man she wanted, and she was thrilled when he invited her to go to Sun Valley with him for a vacation. But she’d been “dumped on” again when they reached the resort made famous by Sonja Henie movies in the thirties. The man had never had any intention of a committed relationship, and she returned to Vail, crying and depressed.
Ann Rule would later add, in the same book:
On the Saturday night of March 15, Julie didn’t have a date. She called her mother that evening, feeling a little better when she hung up just before nine. She decided to get out of her apartment, and, wearing blue jeans, a brown suede jacket, boots, and a ski cap, headed for a tavern a few blocks away. Her roommate was there. She could have a beer or two. There was always tomorrow.
If Julie had indeed encountered a charming handsome man who claimed he was an attorney, given her state of mind at the time, I find it logical that she would have agreed to meet him again.
Perhaps he knew she was going to be walking down that road, and waited for her – however, the crutch and ski boot ruse would have been completely unnecessary.
I realize that the question of whether or not they had met previously makes no difference in the ultimate goal of locating her, but it does cause one to re-evaluate the validity of his confession.
Ted Bundy, and media accounts, have been consistent in the statement that that Bundy buried Julie’s remains near a ‘circular drive’, north of Rifle, Colorado.
From No Stone Unturned by Steve Jackson:
He handcuffed her and drove her 80 miles west of Vail, to a desolate spot several miles north of the town of Rifle in Garfield County. There he raped and strangled her, then buried her body.
Bundy told the investigators that he had returned and re-buried her “a number of times.” He described an area at the base of one of the tall buttes that rose from the valley floor. There was a circular drive and large trees. He said he couldn’t be more specific than that.
From The Bundy Murders by Kevin Sullivan:
Quickly getting onto I-70, Bundy drove for a time before exiting onto a state road, which he followed until he came to what he thought was a small lake, then he got off onto an unpaved road. This particular setting was partially secluded by rows of Juniper trees, and these, he believed, would serve nicely for what he was planning to do.
Detectives with cadaver dogs unsuccessfully searched one area that seemed to fit the description given by Bundy – but there are tools available now, that weren’t then. One of those tools is Google Earth.
Bundy’s description of the terrain seems to be legitimate. From I-70, there is a state highway that leads north to Rifle, and eventually runs right into the Rifle Gap Reservoir, which could be perceived as a small lake. I found three spots in the vicinity that appear to be circular drives. I am not sure which one was searched.
And an overall view of all three:
Once we get past the circular drive, and the general vicinity of the location, there are more contradictions.
From The Bundy Murders by Kevin Sullivan:
Ted Bundy would kill Julie Cunningham shortly after arriving at this location. Her death, however, would come only after Bundy had sufficiently toyed with her. Having attacked her in the car, Bundy choked her until she passed out. He then had sex with her and deliberately left the passenger door open and waited for her to wake up. When she came to, she perceived the open door as a possible avenue of freedom (just as Bundy hoped she would) and immediately jumped out of the car and started running for the road. But there was no one around this isolated area for miles, and after letting her run and scream for a short distance, the very athletic law student chased her down and strangled her to death. Pulling the body under a juniper tree, he left the completely nude remains, gathered up her clothing and personal items and left the area. Having placed everything in a large trash bag, he tossed it into a dumpster somewhere down the road.
Bundy admitted driving back to this spot all the way from Salt Lake City on two separate occasions. On his second trip, he buried the body (or what was left of it), he said.
From No Stone Unturned by Steve Jackson:
From Detective Lindvall they knew that Bundy said he had pulled off the highway and driven a short distance to a circular turnaround near some large trees. The only trees in this area were pinion pines.
The site where they were fit those parameters, but supposedly Bundy had said that after he hauled his victim’s body out of the car, he hadn’t carried her very far. Lindemann surveyed the area for a hundred yards from the circular drive, and didn’t see any place with enough soil to bury a body more than a foot deep.
So, did he chase her down and strangle her as she was running for the road, or did he haul her lifeless body out of the car and carry her a short distance to her final resting place? Or is his whole confession doubtable?
A female skull was located in Colorado sometime during the 1970’s, and it has not yet been identified. There seems to be some confusion surrounding the circumstances of the discovery. NamUs lists the skull with a ‘Date Located’ as 2003, however the ‘Circumstances’ tab states that the skull was found in the 1970’s. The probable year of death is listed as between 1950-2003, which clearly doesn’t jive. The location where the skull was located is listed as Durango, Adams County, Colorado – although Durango is in La Plata County. Adams County is 1-2 hours from Vail, while Durango is 5-6 hours in a completely different direction. I think it needs a second look, to determine if this female skull could be connected to Bundy’s Colorado victims.
I tried contacting the now retired Detective Lindvall via email in an attempt to find out the official position on these discrepancies, but so far have received no response.
I think it’s time to try again. We have Google Earth, ground penetrating radar, and the ability to test the smallest of bone fragments to confirm identity. It’s been 38 years. Julie was not just a Bundy victim. She was a person with family and friends. She needs to be brought home.
I highly recommend the following books, the following are links to snippets only.