Were Ted Bundy’s first murders at the Jersey Shore? Or could another serial killer been behind unsolved Garden State Parkway Murders
The morbid lore of serial killer Ted Bundy’s rampage across America has been revisited in numerous fictional and investigative examinations in the decades since his execution at the Florida State Prison in 1989.
Unanswered questions about Bundy’s travels and the victims he may have stalked continue to preoccupy investigators and pique the interest of historians in their pursuit of justice and truth.
One local mystery has remained a subject of frequent Bundy speculation for more than 50 years: the unsolved murders of two 19-year-old college students who had just spent Memorial Day weekend in Ocean City, New Jersey, in 1969.
Some wonder whether these young women, Susan Davis and Elizabeth Perry, were the first of Bundy’s many victims across the country at a time when serial killers had gained terrifying prominence.
The actual number of people Ted Bundy murdered is unknown. He confessed to killing, kidnapping and raping more than 30 women in seven states between 1974 and 1978, mostly in the western part of the country. Bundy ultimately was convicted and sentenced to death for three 1979 murders. Two of the victims were women at a Florida State University sorority house, where he also gruesomely assaulted three others, and the third was a 12-year-old girl he abducted from Lake City, Florida, a few weeks later.
But there are those who suspect the number of women Bundy killed could be significantly greater.
Richard Larson, Bundy’s biographer, speculated in “The Deliberate Stranger” that Bundy may be responsible for killing as many as 100 women and girls, including his documented and corroborated confessions.
That along with Bundy’s presence in the Philadelphia region around the time Davis and Perry were killed in 1969 would seem to at least partly support the theory he could have been responsible for their deaths.
In the Philadelphia area, the serial killer is well-known for having attended Temple University for a semester in January 1969. Though he was born in Vermont, his mother was from Philadelphia and Bundy is thought to have briefly lived with his grandparents at a home on Ridge Avenue in Roxborough.
His grandparents also owned a home in Ocean City, New Jersey, where he would sometimes visit as a boy, and he later briefly lived with his aunt in Lafayette Hill, Montgomery County, after he dropped out of Temple.
A Cold Case Reexamined
Davis and Perry’s deaths have been an investigative ground zero for attorney and author Christian Barth, who has written two books about the unsolved case.
“The Origins of Infamy,” published in 2009, is a fictionalized account of the murders in which Barth explores Ted Bundy’s alleged involvement in the killings.
The second book, “The Garden State Parkway Murders: A Cold Case Mystery,” was published last year and retraces the steps of the investigation, mining open questions about whether Bundy or another serial killer may have been responsible.
On an episode of podcaster Kevin Moore’s “The True Crime Show,” Barth spoke extensively about the case and his research process, which included interviews with detectives, federal agents, possible witnesses and family members of victims.
Barth, who now lives in Connecticut, grew up in Cherry Hill and remembers the shock of the murders when he was a kid.
In a recent interview with the Asbury Park Press, Barth said he believes Perry and Davis fit the profile of women who could have been targeted by a serial killer.
“They came from affluent homes, very sheltered, they were just very trusting people,” Barth said. “I could see how a person with the right approach, a sociopath, whomever, could easily dupe these girls, be it Ted Bundy or whoever.”
On May 30, 1969, Perry and Davis left Ocean City around 5 a.m. and stopped at the Somers Point Diner, about two miles away, to get breakfast. They disappeared and were not found until three days later, when a maintenance worker discovered their bodies about 200 feet off the Garden State Parkway, near mile marker 31.9.
Davis had died from a wound to her neck that cut her larynx. Perry, whose body was discovered about 10 feet away, had suffered a wound to her chest that pierced her right lung. Both women had wounds to their necks and abdomens and had been repeatedly beaten. Davis was found nude with her clothes in a pile beside her. Perry was still dressed, but had her underwear removed. Their bodies were decomposing by the time they were found.
Hours after the women went missing, Davis’ blue Chevy Impala SS convertible was mistakenly reported abandoned about 150 yards from where the bodies eventually were discovered. A New Jersey State Trooper had the car towed, not yet knowing that the two girls were missing.
MURDERED Memorial Day 1969. Susan Davis, from Camp Hill, PA, and Elizabeth Perry, from Excelsior, MN, 200 feet in from…
An autopsy report did not conclusively determine whether Perry and Davis were sexually assaulted, but it is believed that they were killed shortly after they left the diner around 5:45 a.m.
“They still haven’t been able to determine, because of the decomposition, whether there was any conventional sexual assault,” Barth said. “There were, however, some other indications at the scene that suggests that it was a sex crime notwithstanding that.”
New Jersey State Police Detective Shaun Clark told the APP that the women were found to have digested food about 20 to 30 minutes prior to dying.
Oddly, none of the victims’ valuables, including jewelry, had been taken from the scene of the crime.
Davis was a native of Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, and Perry was from Excelsior, Minnesota. After their visit to New Jersey, they had planned to see Davis’ family near Harrisburg and then travel together to North Carolina for Davis’ brother’s college graduation.
When the plans broke down, the victims’ families immediately suspected foul play. But limited investigative methods at the time – no DNA analysis and no surveillance cameras to capture key evidence – meant that critical information couldn’t be found as readily as it may have been today.
Despite decades of investigation, there’s still no definitive answer about who killed Davis and Perry.
Is Bundy a valid suspect? Another serial killer?
Barth has become an expert on the Garden State Parkway murders, especially their links to the Philadelphia area, and sometimes refers to the case and where it took place as the “perfect murder.”
“It was a weekend, and I guess no one’s really paying attention to it,” Barth said on “The True Crime Podcast.” “It was just constantly crowded. You had a lot of all-night bars there. So I’ve always felt that whoever did this was out all night drinking.”
Bundy often admitted that he would drink and smoke marijuana before murders in order to build the courage to carry them out. But the level of sophistication in pulling off the Parkway murders, as well as some other Bundy cases, suggests the killer remained in control of the situation, throughout.
Linking Bundy to the killing of Davis and Perry requires a certain amount of inference in sifting through the veracity of his own statements.
Barth points to a conversation Bundy had with psychologist Art Norman while the murderer was on death row in 1986. During these interviews, Bundy famously spoke in the third person with an air of grandiosity, leaving room for doubt about his truthfulness. His remarks about Ocean City follow this pattern, even though Bundy seemed to suggest these were his first murders.
“He said to Art Norman words to the effect of … he didn’t have a lot to do, he had just finished school, it was 1969, so he went to the Jersey Shore, hung out on the beach, and met a couple of girls and it wound up being the first time that he did it,” Barth said on the podcast. “And he felt this sense of taboo, of despair, this being the first time.”
Norman didn’t reveal this conversation he had with Bundy until years later. He didn’t want to violate Bundy’s confidentiality, Barth said, and the statements Bundy had made were imprecise.
In another interview with criminologist Dorothy Lewis, held the day before Bundy’s execution in 1989, Bundy spoke openly about Ocean City “without any solicitation whatsoever,” Barth said.
Atlantic County prosecutors found nothing to corroborate Bundy’s vague allusions to the case, however, and Bundy, himself, turned around and denied involvement the next day before dying in the electric chair. His aunt in the Philly area claimed, during one interview with Barth, that Bundy had an alibi for the weekend of the murders.
It’s possible Bundy’s awareness of the case was a formative moment that pushed him toward his eventual killing spree. There are some who believe he may have committed his first murder much earlier, in 1961, at the age of 14, when an 8-year-old girl went missing in Tacoma, Washington. Bundy spent much of his childhood there, too, and committed his first documented homicides in Washington state in 1974.
During this so-called “Golden Age” of serial killers, the difficulty of pinning down culpability for scores of unsolved cases has left much room for theorizing. The phrase was used by investigative historian Peter Vronsky in his recently published book, “American Serial Killers: The Epidemic Years 1950 to 2000,” which examines the roots of what led to the rise in these violent sprees and the public fixation they engendered.
Some serial killers are known to take credit for crimes they didn’t commit, usually to build their notoriety or toy with investigators. This may have been the case with Bundy and the Parkway murders.
And while no hard evidence connecting Bundy to the killing of Davis and Perry has ever been established, Barth believes Bundy can’t be ruled out entirely. His knowledge of Ocean City and his presence around there in 1969 are too glaring to dismiss.
“To the extent that serial killers like to scope their grounds and like to familiarize themselves with where they’re going to kill people, he certainly had ample opportunity to do so,” Barth said.
The decades-long investigation of the Parkway murders also has pointed, at times, to another serial killer, Gerald Eugene Stano.
Stano, ironically, was a neighbor of Bundy’s on death row in Florida. He was convicted of killing at least 22 women in New Jersey, Florida and Pennsylvania and claimed to have killed 41 women between 1969-1980. He was executed in Florida in 1998.
Stano, too, claimed he killed Davis and Perry.
“Gerald, as it turned out, lived in the Philadelphia area in 1969 – Norristown,” Barth said. “Gerald confessed to the Parkway murders … you almost wonder if while (Bundy and Stano) were on death row, they talked about it.”
Stano signed a confession to the murder of Davis and Perry around 1982, but later implied his confessions were coerced, according to Barth, and the information he gave to authorities didn’t add up. That matches with Stano’s reputation as a “serial confessor,” as covered in Bailey Sarian’s popular “Murder Mystery & Makeup” series.
The New Jersey State Police detectives who interrogated Gerald Stano in Daytona Beach told Barth they were skeptical of the explanations Stano provided.
“They felt that Gerald was being fed information and they didn’t believe any of it, so they left there completely unconvinced that Gerald had done it,” Barth said.
There were other strange links to Stano, however, like Davis and Perry’s bodies being covered in sticks at the crime scene. That was a signature Stano had left in other murder cases, and Stano more commonly used knives to kill his victims than Bundy, who often favored strangulation or a crowbar.
Stano also had been childhood friends with the first prime suspect in the Garden State Parkway murders, Mark Thomas.
During the initial stages of the investigation in 1969, Philadelphia police received a tip about Mark Thomas and brought him in for questioning. His answers on a lie detector test – an often unreliable tool – came up “fuzzy,” according to Barth.
Lacking jurisdiction, Philadelphia police turned Thomas over to New Jersey State Police and he agreed to extensive questioning, even when he was considered free to go. Thomas later became a visible figure in the Pennsylvania Ku Klux Klan and was involved in crimes around the United States.
Barth never thought Thomas made a great suspect because his lifelong narcissism seemed to be a better explanation for his murky links to the Parkway murders.
Still, the connection Thomas had with Stano and Stano’s younger brother, whom police had tracked to Ocean City at the time of the murders, points to the larger pattern of unusual relationships in the case.
“You’ve got this intricate web of people that are involved here,” Barth said. “Every witness seemed to connect in a way.”
Police interviews with numerous potential suspects and witnesses repeatedly point to one of the most plausible names in the murder investigation, Ronnie Walden.
Walden was a drifter from Georgia who was traced to Atlantic City and elsewhere at the Jersey Shore at the time of the murders. A wrist watch found at the murder scene was linked to Walden by a woman who had heard about the murders in the press. She had gone on a date with Walden shortly before he drove up to New Jersey from the South and had seen him wearing the watch.
When New Jersey State Police found out that Walden had fled the state in a stolen vehicle, they tracked him down in Colorado. He had been incarcerated there on auto theft charges.
In a bizarre connection to Bundy, Walden was being held at the Garfield County Jail in Glenwood Springs in the same cell that Bundy later escaped from in 1977, when he famously exited through the ceiling.
Walden had attempted to hang himself at the jail in the hours before New Jersey State Police arrived to interview him. He passed a lie detector test and authorities stopped pursuing him despite incriminating evidence.
A woman who knew Walden and had spoken with police about him in 1969 gave Barth a copy of her notes from the time.
“The notes indicated that (police) found half a finger print of Ronnie’s on the girls’ car, that he was a schizophrenic and spent time in a mental hospital and that they were (99% sure) he did it,” Barth said, claiming his source’s information was credible.
Walden was in and out of jail for the rest of his life for various crimes, including a shooting in South Carolina that landed him in prison in 1984. He ultimately took his own life in prison in 1989 using a smuggled gun, which he had wielded in a hostage situation involving a prison guard.
Barth’s research has pointed most clearly to Walden as the suspect with the most corroborating evidence in the Parkway murders. And yet the crime remains unsolved.
The Ted Bundy connection persists in part because of the lack of closure in the case. Even Perry’s mother, Margaret, stated to reporters in 1993 that she felt Bundy’s execution marked justice in her daughter’s death.
“We loved her dearly, but we couldn’t bring her back, and we had to move on,” Margaret Perry said. “We are convinced that when Ted Bundy died, our daughter’s killer got his comeuppance.”
The publication of Barth’s book last year has spurred renewed interest in the unsolved murders, and the author remains committed to following leads he receives.
“You get the random Bundy sightings – some credible, some not,” Barth said. No one has ever produced a photograph that would confirm Bundy was in the area that Memorial Day weekend.
Fifty-two years later, New Jersey State Police are still hoping to determine who killed Davis and Perry. Anyone who was in the area of Ocean City, Somers Point or the surrounding stretch of the Garden State Parkway at the time and has information is asked to contact the state police Cold Case Unit, by email at [email protected] or by phone at (609) 882-2000 ext. 5257.