The Stranger Alongside Me

In 1974, a few months after I started working in the same doctor’s office that I wrote about in Little Women, I triaged a woman with a severe and painful case of shingles. As we talked she told me something as if she were desperate to unload a terrible secret. She had witnessed the aftermath of a murder and then been chased by a pickup truck, and was tailgated so closely she couldn’t see its license plate. I ushered the woman into an exam room so “Bernie,” the doctor I supported, could see her. Afterwards, he and I didn’t discuss the woman’s diagnosis, but I did tell him how I’d been pursued by a pickup just before coming to work with him.

In about June of that year, between my internship and employment, I took my son and his friend on a weekday outing to Venice Beach. This was a “nude beach,” but I decided not to disrobe because by this time the police were known to patrol and demand that people clothe themselves. (Who knows what they’d have done if they saw me topless with the kids.) The beach also attracted a few crazies who acted like they’d never seen a naked body before.

Around 3:00 we left the beach and stopped by Alex’s friend’s place to get more clothes because he was going to spend the night with us. We lived in a fifth-wheel travel trailer in Simi Valley. I asked Alex’s friend’s father for an old beach towel. My menstrual period had started that day and I had only one tampon—not enough for the gush I was undergoing—because even though I was only 33 I was in pre-menopause.

We started home in my VW bug on the Santa Monica Freeway and headed north on the 405. Traffic was heavy until we got over the Santa Monica Mountains. At some point I noticed a white pickup truck behind me but didn’t pay it much attention until it passed on the right and came up alongside me. The handsome driver looked over with a big all-American smile. Being polite, I smiled back. He slowed down and pulled back behind me.

I continued to my Devonshire Street offramp in the north San Fernando Valley. As I exited I noticed the pickup did too. I thought, “What does this guy think he’s going to do? I’ve got two little kids in the car.” My son was 7 and his friend was 8. I traveled west in the left (faster) lane on Devonshire to De Soto Avenue, which would take me north to the then-partially completed Simi Freeway. The pickup followed. Meanwhile two women in a convertible, wearing halter tops, pulled alongside us. I’d been looking at the pickup’s driver in my rearview mirror and his expression changed from the smile he’d given me on the freeway to something deranged. The women, who were listening to music and talking, never saw him. We all stopped at a light, with the women alongside him, as he leered.

I said to myself, “This guy’s really crazy and I’ve gotta get away from him.” As I approached the next stoplight I gunned it and ran the yellow. I looked back as he ran the red. I made up my mind that if I got on the freeway and he still followed, I’d drive to the Simi police station and start honking my horn. I changed lanes, turned right on De Soto towards the freeway, and so did he, honking his horn and waving at me to pull over. I drove under the freeway overpass to the onramp and noticed a woman there bending over, wearing short-shorts and a halter. I thought she was selling flowers, so I passed her by without concern. But she actually was hitchhiking. As I entered the freeway the pickup stopped and she hopped in with a puppy and backpack.

“At least he’s not following me,” I said out loud. Then I realized, “Oh my God, she’s in trouble, she’s in real trouble!” Alex’s friend woke up and asked, “What’s wrong, Andrea?” I said, “That woman’s in danger. Something bad is going to happen to her.” If I could have, I would have backed down the onramp, but it was too late. The truck was behind me and I told Alex’s friend, “We have to get his license number. I’ll get off at the next exit,” three miles away. That way we could get out of my car and stand on the overpass and see the pickup and license plate as it drove beneath us. Except that as we exited, he did too, just two cars behind. But by then he’d forgotten about me, being too preoccupied with his passenger. At the bottom of the overpass I turned right onto Santa Susana Pass Road, leading home.

Santa Susana Pass and Spahn Ranch satellite image
The route of my frantic drive east from the offramp and overpass, lower left, to Spahn Ranch. For more detail see map.

He turned left, heading back to the San Fernando Valley. At this point I considered it a kidnapping and I said so to Alex’s friend. “I have to chase him.” I made a U-turn and started driving east in the winding pass. The truck got away. When I got to Spahn Ranch (which I knew the Manson Family had made their home) I told Alex’s friend, “I’m just gonna go to the police.” I was in the process of making another U-turn when Alex’s friend said, “I see the end of his pickup truck straight ahead!” I pulled out of my U-turn and drove to the truck. I parked right in front of him so he’d have to back up to get away, and maybe I could still block him.

The driver never even heard me. He was pulling off the woman’s halter top. She was screaming at the top of her lungs. (The driver’s window was open!) She saw me and pleaded, “Help me, please help me, will you help me?” I yelled back at her, “Yes! Just get out of there and come with me.” When the driver heard my voice he turned and his mouth dropped, seeing “the one who got away.” I reached over and unlocked my passenger door.

A million scenarios ran through my mind. Perversely I thought, “What if I might be the monster who will take this woman home and tie her to a tree as a sex slave?” Then strategically: “If he doesn’t let her go, the only weapon I have is my bloody beach towel, but first I’ve gotta get the kids out of the car. I’ll have them run to the first house they see up the hill and call for help. Then I’ll wipe down his beautiful white truck with my blood and take the towel and push it in his face and ask, ‘Is this what you want?’”

We were both parked at the edge of a dropoff in the pass. Somehow the woman in the pickup, even with puppy and backpack, was surefooted enough to get out, and as she walked between us she yelled, “You son of a bitch. You bastard!” She kicked his bumper and slammed her fist on the hood. “Lock your door,” I said when she got in. “I can’t believe you stopped,” she said. “Somebody else drove by and I was screaming at them to help me.” I replied, “I could have passed you too, thinking you were fighting with your boyfriend or husband.” I admitted, “That guy wouldn’t have been in that spot to pick you up if he hadn’t been following me for twenty-some miles”—more if he’d first seen me in Venice. “I felt like I had a responsibility to come and find you.” While she was settling herself in the car I showed her my hands, shaking from fear. I told her about the bloody beach towel, but that didn’t seem to register. I guess it wasn’t something she would have done herself.

I asked, “Where do you want to go? To the police station? Because I’ll take you.” She answered, “To my mom’s house.” I asked, “Where’s that?” She said, “Simi.” “I live there too,” I told her. We continued to talk on the way. She said the pickup driver had his penis out and was playing with it. He was driving erratically, going fast around the pass’s curves. For both reasons she’d been really scared.

When we got close to her mother’s house she asked, “How can I ever repay you?” I said, “You don’t owe me anything. The next time you see somebody in trouble, just do the right thing and step in and do what you can to help them out.” Her eyes bugged out. As with the bloody towel, I could see that doing a thing like that never would have occurred to her.

And of course we never got that man’s license plate number.

Still I’m Haunted

About ten years later a roommate gave me a copy of Ann Rule’s The Stranger Beside Me, her portrayal of serial killer Ted Bundy with whom she had an unwitting friendship.1 (They met while working on a suicide hot line, of all things.) Reading the book I was struck by similarities with what I witnessed in 1974. Bundy drove a VW bug like I did, as did his girlfriend Meg Anders.2 He also had a white pickup.3 Like the driver in Santa Susana Pass, Bundy showed a Jeckyl-and-Hyde personality, as told by Lisa Temple after only a single weekend: “One minute, he was nice, and the next he acted like he hated me.”4 Bundy’s victims almost exclusively wore their long hair parted in the middle, just as I did in 1974 (and maybe every other young woman at the time!).5 Like the assault I saw, some of Bundy’s murders took place in daylight.6 And Bundy was thought to be handsome, just like that pickup driver, with a smile that was “something special.”7

Over the years I’ve told my Santa Susana Pass story to friends and family many times, including the pickup driver’s resemblance to Ted Bundy. But this week, having gone back to Ann Rule’s book, I find it’s a stretch that Bundy had the time in June 1974 to travel from his room in Seattle8 to Los Angeles for a midweek rampage—travel that Rule surely would have mentioned had Washington cops found a credit card trail.

Naslund and Ott article
From a Tri-City Herald article three days after the disappearance of Naslund and Ott, listing the names of other missing women.

Those cops would have been interested in any such side trips by Bundy that June. Because my ordeal took place only days before July 14, when by daylight at Lake Sammamish near Seattle, Bundy, his arm in a fake cast, persuaded Janice Ott and Denise Naslund, hours apart, to help him with a boat, only to be found dead on September 6.9 So brazen was he that day at the lake, eyewitnesses had no trouble in describing him—in such detail that when Ann Rule herself read their descriptions in August she had to admit the women’s suspected killer might be her old friend Ted Bundy.10

I was an eyewitness too, close in time but miles away. And with conscience, persistence, and luck, I helped a woman, but still I’m haunted. And while I’ve told and retold this tale, I have questions. Could she and I have done more? Was a third woman—our stand-in, our sister—sexually assaulted that June weekday by Ted Bundy or his lookalike?

If only we had gotten that license plate number.

Notes
  1. Ann Rule. 1980 [1986]. The Stranger Beside Me, New York: W. W. Norton [Signet]. This was my introduction to the true-crime genre.
  2. Rule, 159.
  3. Rule, 105.
  4. Rule, 168.
  5. Rule, 174.
  6. Rule, 82–85.
  7. Rule, 28, 91.
  8. Rule, 18, 105
  9. Rule, 82–85, 106–108
  10. Rule, 98.

3 Replies to “The Stranger Alongside Me”

  1. Andrea, you are indeed a rescuer, something I’ve always known about you! And a writer, which I didn’t know!

    1. Actually Andrea tells me the stories and I convert them from oral history to narrative, trying not to get in the way too much. I guess you could say she rescued me forty-four years ago this month! We’ll have to have Andrea tell that tale some day.

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