Driving through the neighborhood recently, we passed a young man sitting in the middle of the residential street. He was probably in his mid- to late-20s, scruffy and unwashed, with a full backpack. We wondered if he was in trouble and slowed to carefully pass, but he made no sign and showed no interest. Returning an hour later, he was still in the street, though he had moved to a different spot.

“Think I should call the police? He’s either homeless or disturbed.”

“Nah, he looks harmless.”

A homeless person lies beside a shopping cart near a street and a Papa John's parking lot in New Mexico

A man, apparently homeless, lies on a gravel-and-cement surface, his shopping cart in the street. Is he dangerous? Is he more dangerous than the man or woman we sat beside at church? We simply cannot tell by looking and that is why we carry. Photo by Rick Sapp.

Remembering Ted

Ted Bundy was often described as charming. He was affable and handsome with black hair and blue eyes. Other words to describe him would include intelligent, thoughtful, even charismatic. Upon meeting him, you might hope that your daughter would one day bring home a man like this.

Despite Ted’s positive attributes, he ultimately confessed to killing 30 people, mostly women, between February 1974 and February 1978. He conducted a cross-country crime spree —kidnapping, raping, torturing, murdering and worse — from California to Florida, where he was eventually captured. Law enforcement believes he may actually have been responsible for 100 homicides.

Attorney Polly Nelson, a member of Bundy’s final defense team, wrote he was “the very definition of heartless evil.” For all of his apparent potential, Bundy was executed by electrocution on Jan. 24,1989 at the age of 42.

My friend Albert Isaac worked for Florida’s 8th District Medical Examiner in those days. He was a member of the autopsy team when Bundy’s body was brought from “Old Sparky” (the electric chair at Florida State Prison) and lain on the stainless-steel autopsy tray.

Albert describes a man who was “healthy as a horse.” Though “his head was shaved and now bore the typical circular burn ring on the top of his shaven scalp from where 2,000 volts of electricity had traveled through his head, and a second burn on his right leg where it had exited” he was still a handsome cadaver. Albert still remembers Bundy’s “icy blue eyes.”

Oh, Not That Guy!

Dennis Rader was the picture of the ideal, though unremarkable, neighbor. Unremarkable with male-pattern baldness, glasses and a quiet demeanor, he caused no outward problems. Rader was college educated, married with children and active in his church. He even volunteered as a leader for the local Cub Scouts. Rader was the opposite of the charismatic Bundy. The kind of guy you would pass, perhaps speak to on the street, and not recall seeing. If your daughter brought him home you would tell her, “You can do better, darling.”

Nevertheless, between January 1974 and January 1991, mild, unassuming Rader murdered 10 people in Wichita, Kansas. Rader, in fact, appeared so bland, so part of the usual background, that his murders were considered a “cold case.” Perhaps the very quality of being continuously overlooked led to Rader’s arrest, though. His ego got the best of him and he began to brag about his handiwork in letters to the police.

Rader is now serving 10 consecutive life sentences in solitary confinement for his protection (with one hour of exercise per day and showers three times per week) at the El Dorado Correctional Facility, Kansas.

Looks Can Deceive

Bundy was handsome and charismatic, while Rader was balding and boring. Neither “fit the bill” of a murder, and yet they both were.

We carry because we do not know what waits behind the closed door or in the dark of the parking garage. We’re unaware of who might be following us or studying our habits. We carry because we cannot tell — from looking at a man’s face or a woman’s shoulders — what lies behind the façade; what wish may express itself in violence.