Why serial killers are drawn to politics

Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy and other serial killers were active in politics. Experts weigh in on the connection

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published January 29, 2022 10:00AM (EST)

John Wayne Gacy, Nelson Rockefeller and Ted Bundy (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
John Wayne Gacy, Nelson Rockefeller and Ted Bundy (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

One of the most infamous serial killers of the twentieth century almost followed a very different path in life. His name was Ted Bundy and, during his formative years, he craved a career in politics.

Bundy was living in Seattle and taking classes at the University of Washington when he first considered working in foreign affairs, according to Katharine Ramsland. A professor of forensic psychology at DeSales University, Ramsland has written prolifically about murderers like Bundy. "His goal was to graduate from college, get a diplomatic position with the government and work on improving trade with China," Ramsland explained, referencing the book "Violent Mind: The 1976 Psychological Assessment of Ted Bundy" by a prison psychologist (Dr. Al Carlisle) who evaluated Bundy after he was accused of attempted kidnapping. In 1976, no one knew if Bundy was even capable of killing; it was unimaginable that one day he would confess to 30 murders, and experts believe he was guilty of dozens more.

Carlisle recalled that "importance, prestige and wealth were his primary goals," according to Ramsland. Eventually those objectives evolved into wanting to impress his wealthy girlfriend; Bundy would steal fancy clothes and boast about supposed big government connections in order to do so.

Bundy is not the only serial killer to have a nascent interest in politics. Because serial killers are some of the most psychologically analyzed individuals in history, and their psychological profiles and family histories are often public, we know that there are many peculiar connections between politics and aspirations to murder. 

While it may seem comedic to suggest politics and serial killing can be juxtaposed in this way (such as the viral joke comparing Ted Cruz to the Zodiac Killer), stories like Bundy's illustrate how the two passions — one evil and despised, the other neutral yet socially applauded — are rooted in similar parts of the human psyche. Both require a certain amount of grandiose thinking, and with it, self-involvement. Success in either endeavor depends heavily on being a skilled manipulator, and is rewarded with real power over actual human beings.

Then again, only politicians are capable of wielding that power to help people and make the world into a better place. Even though it is fashionable (and not unjustified) to be cynical about politics, there have been plenty of government officials who have used and continue to use their power for benevolent purposes. If there is a sliding scale that connects those individuals with undeniable monsters like Bundy, it raises troubling questions about what kinds of people gravitate to our political system — or may already be flourishing within it.

The Killer Clown and the First Lady

One serial killer who was interested in politics and did manage to create a political career for himself was John Wayne Gacy, the so-called "Killer Clown." Gacy is known to have sexually assaulted and murdered at least 33 young men and boys between 1972 and 1978, although there may have been more victims.

If nothing else, Gacy's party affiliation shows that there is bipartisanship among serial killers: Unlike the Republican Bundy, Gacy was a Democrat.

"It was never specifically said by Gacy, or generally known, why he became a Democrat," John Borowski told Salon. An independent filmmaker who has studied a number of serial killers (including Gacy), Borowski also wrote the book "John Wayne Gacy Hunting a Predator: The Pursuit, Arrest, and Confession." He has pored through countless details about the man's life — and admitted, ruefully, that there is not much to analyze right now in terms of his writing. Gacy would sometimes respond to letters he received while he was incarcerated, Borowski explained, and it is possible one of his correspondents has information about Gacy's political views that is currently unknown to the public. What we possess right now, however, is pretty thin.

Still, in his research, Borowski did find that Gacy's psyche was heavily influenced by his father, who by multiple accounts was an extremely abusive man. Like many victims of child abuse, Gacy grew up simultaneously craving his father's approval and deeply resenting the way he was treated.

Oh, and one more thing: Gacy's father was a Republican.

RELATED: Why Jack the Ripper and other serial killer narratives endure

"He was attempting to almost be the antithesis of what his father was in every single way," Borowski pointed out. If that was his mission, Gacy accomplished it. After his father learned about his son's political views, he denounced him as a "patsy" and inundated him with homophobic slurs.

Yet the same Democratic Party affiliation that Gacy's father cited as just one more sign of the young man's worthlessness actually became a vehicle for real achievement. Gacy was active in local politics and community projects, first on a smaller level when he lived in Iowa and then much more so after moving to Illinois. Because he had prospered as a businessman, Gacy offered up his employees to clean the party headquarters free of charge, served on his township's street lighting committee, became a precinct captain and directed Chicago's annual Polish Constitution Day Parade. He even was photographed with First Lady Rosalynn Carter, a major Secret Service blunder considering that Gacy had already been convicted of a violent sex crime.

"With any type of politics comes that stature, and that prominence, and Gacy loved attention in any way he could get it," Borowski explained.

What drew Gacy to politics in the first place? "One, of course, is that feeling of power, to say he is involved with the Democratic Party or he was given the title of Norwood Park Lighting District Commissioner, and he had his own little business card," Borowski said. It helped Gacy feel better about himself — and reinforced the image of normality that he needed to get away with his crimes. Indeed, Gacy's status as a respected local politician even played a direct role in putting his victims at ease.

"When you look further in Gacy's plans, when he would bring his young victims to his home, or even police officers who had come to inquire about some of the victims — which they did during his whole killing spree — he would bring them into his den and he would show them his pictures with the president's wife and his meeting Mayor [Michael Anthony] Bilandic in Chicago," Borowski told Salon.

Borowski noted that some of these hypotheses were, of course, informed speculation.

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The serial killer who campaigned for a Rockefeller

In Bundy's case, we actually have confirmed evidence about which politicians he admired.

Richard Larsen, a Seattle Times reporter who interviewed Ted Bundy and authored a book called "Bundy: The Deliberate Stranger," writes that Bundy had worked for local Republican candidates in Washington State before managing a grassroots campaign there during the 1968 election to draft New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller for the presidency. Bundy even attended the Republican National Convention that year as a Rockefeller delegate. He also served as a driver, bodyguard and overall assistant to lieutenant governor candidate Arthur Fletcher, the first African American to seek statewide electoral office in the western United States. According to Larsen, this gave Bundy a sense of "belonging and accomplishment."

By 1972, Bundy was a high-ranking volunteer for the reelection campaign of Gov. Daniel Evans, at one point being observed by witnesses impressing Evans with his detailed notes about a speech delivered by rival candidate Albert Rosellini, a Democrat. He was later rewarded for his efforts with a job as an assistant to Ross Davis, chairman of the Washington Republican Party.

It later came out that Bundy had obtained his dirt on Rosellini through methods that would seem like normal political dirty tricks under different circumstances, but take on a potentially ominous cast in this context. Bundy had infiltrated Rosellini's campaign by pretending to be a college student and not disclosing his connection to the Evans team. Republicans denounced the story as a "distortion" (a 1970s equivalent of crying "fake news"), but Larsen recalls that Bundy was excited to discuss what he had done. When asked if he wanted to run for office, Bundy said that he had "given that some thought" and was planning on becoming a lawyer in keeping with those potential aspirations. In a separate interview with The New York Times, Bundy was pointedly blasé about being caught in an act of deception.

"I'm not the least bit uncomfortable with what went, on," Bundy told the journal of record. "It was just part of political campaigning. You have to know what your opposition is saying and doing."

As with Gacy, it is easy to develop leads on the deeper meaning of Bundy's political predilections, but difficult to arrive at any definite conclusions. Born in 1946, Bundy would have taken an interest in politics around roughly the same period in history as Gacy — the 1960s. The Republican Party had undergone its metamorphosis into a predominantly conservative organization during the 1964 election, yet within that now-avowedly right-wing body Bundy consistently supported the dwindling faction that could still be described as moderate: Rockefeller, Fletcher and Evans were all noted for taking liberal stances on issues like civil rights and the environment.

The serial killer who was both a Democrat and a Republican

While Bundy and Gacy are the most famous serial killers to also enter politics, they are not alone. Randy Kraft, whose crime spree from 1971 to 1983 included the rape and murder of dozens of boys and young men, is actually still alive at the time of this writing. Like Bundy and Gacy, Kraft was born in the 1940s (1945 in his case), and became extremely passionate about politics in his adolescence. Kraft started out as a conservative Republican, stating that his ambition was to become a United States senator. In 1964 he campaigned for Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater, the presidential candidate who made that year's election into an ideological turning point for the Republican Party. Kraft was also an outspoken supporter of the Vietnam War and even attended pro-war demonstrations.

Then, one year after he was arrested for lewd conduct for propositioning an undercover police officer, Kraft suddenly became a liberal. Before long he was a Democratic Party organizer and enthusiastic backer of New York Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, who was running for the 1968 Democratic Party presidential nomination as the most left-wing alternative. This radical shift may seem like a possible clue into his pathology — but, as a Kraft biographer pointed out, plenty of people transitioned from being conservative Goldwater supporters to liberal Democrats during the tumultuous 1960s. According to Dennis McDougal, an author and investigative journalist who wrote a book on Kraft called "Angel of Darkness: The True Story of Randy Kraft and the Most Heinous Murder Spree of the Century," the stress of America's political situation in the 1960s and 1970s could have exacerbated Kraft's preexisting pathology simply because everyone suffered due to those political stresses. In Kraft's case, politics offers not only insights into the mind of monster, but also into the conditions that created one.

In particular with Kraft, McDougal observed, it is telling to look at how he chose his victims.

"Why select Marines?" McDougal asked. "Why go out and trawl for sailors or for any kind of military personnel that he sees as his prey of choice? I think that you can probably draw a pretty distinct line between his Goldwater politics shifting to [Kennedy] politics as being influential with that pathology. He's out literally exorcising his own sexual demons with people who are in the military doing the bidding of whichever other political party happens to be in power. That just happens to chime in with his sexual identity and whatever pathology drove him to those extremes in the first place."

For Kraft, the ideologies that he may or may not have sincerely held likely mattered far less than the malicious fantasies he enjoyed reenacting for sexual pleasure. It was the fantasy, not the politics, that seemed to drive him.

Not all psychopaths are serial killers

"Serial killers are driven by fantasy," Dr. Scott Bonn, criminologist and author of the book "Why We Love Serial Killers," told Salon. "They are driven by a fantasy need. It's the reason that they kill. And you happened to pick two serial killers [Gacy and Bundy] that fall into the category of power and control killers. Their fantasy need that was served by killing is the need to dominate and control others."

Borowski echoed Bonn's observation.

"It comes down to their lust and desire for tension and power, domination and control," Borowski said. "That's what leads the serial killer in their day to day life, and that power, domination and control could bleed into any other profession, whether it's politics or law enforcement." He later added that "whether they're actually killing someone with their hands or killing them with a pen on a mass destruction scale, I think it's all pretty much the same."

As Ramsland put it, "That's what people would get confused about. They think all psychopaths are serial killers and all serial killers are psychopaths. That is not true."

Does this mean that there are people in politics today who, even if they are not serial killers, pursue that passion for the same reasons that a serial killer might do so?

"I'm sure there are," Bonn told Salon. He later added: "To have a cold-blooded nature, where you simply don't care about stepping on others and hurting others, you could see as actually a benefit to someone who wants to succeed in business or politics."

Yet psychopaths can certainly possess sincere political ideologies, though that sincerity often gets tied back in some way to their pathology. Take Gacy: At a time when the gay rights had not yet been associated with either major party, Gacy's adamant hostility toward homosexuality was a tragically normal sentiment. In his case, however, that opinion intersected with Gacy being what Bonn described as a "power control killer."

"It's important to understand that serial killers are motivated by different things," Bonn explained. "Some of them are motivated by sex. Some of them are motivated by a mission they might think they have about eliminating the world of gay men." As Gacy justified his actions by describing his victims as "worthless little queers and punks," and insisted that as a respectable member of society he was not himself a homosexual, one can reasonably assume a link existed between his views on homosexuality and the horrific murders he perpetrated.

Despite their very different reasons for acting, however, the main thing that connects these serial killers' political pursuits is that their passions make them more enigmatic rather than less so. All we know for sure is that the same urges which drive people to run for office can motivate them to commit the most heinous crimes imaginable. It is an important piece of the puzzle for anyone who wants a better picture of the face of evil.

It does not, however, complete the puzzle.

Read more on crime and psychology:

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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Deep Dive John Wayne Gacy Nelson Rockefeller Psychology Psychopath Randy Kraft Serial Killers Ted Bundy