On a recent sunny Saturday in Utah, Carol DaRonch spent more than an hour talking about the worst night of her life: when Ted Bundy, already with a trail of dead or disappeared women in his wake, tried to abduct and murder her in the Salt Lake City area more than 40 years ago when she was 18.
“It’s still really scary to me that I survived, that I was even able to survive,” DaRonch, now 62, tells PEOPLE.
She did more than that: A little more than a year after escaping him in the fall of 1974, DaRonch, at 19, confronted Bundy in court at his trial for aggravated kidnapping.
“She never wavered at all,” says retired district attorney David Yocom, who prosecuted the case. “She obviously didn’t like the idea of testifying, but she knew it was her duty.”
“I thought she was an excellent witness,” he says.
In 1976, Bundy was convicted of DaRonch’s violent abduction — the first proof of his rampage across the West and a crucial development in unraveling what was then a mystifying web of missing-persons cases and homicides.
Bundy was adept at leaving little trace of his crimes, and experts believe he murdered at least 30 people. But DaRonch was an exception. She shares her story in the Netflix docuseries Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, out now.
“She represents that rare person who was able to get away,” says director Joe Berlinger. “I thought was very important for people to understand the horror of who this guy is and how he is a master deceiver and manipulator.”
“He generally was able to kill people before they even knew what was going on,” Berlinger says.
In an exclusive interview with PEOPLE, DaRonch — fiercely private about the parts of her life Bundy has not touched but long used to relaying what she simply calls “the story” — takes another view on her brush with America’s most notorious serial killer, when she was an “extremely shy teen.”
“It made me angry to think that he thought he could just take me like that,” she says of their encounter.
“I think that I couldn’t be this shy little girl anymore,” she says. “I mean, I had to stick up for myself.”
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Escaping Ted Bundy
Bundy approached the teenage DaRonch at a mall in Murray while she was out shopping one night in November 1974. As he had with his other targets, he lured her to his Volkswagen with a lie: He claimed to be a police officer investigating a break-in of her own vehicle — complete with a badge to flash, reassuring her.
Describing that evening now, DaRonch makes clear she wanted only to be helpful to an authority figure. She was not persuaded by Bundy’s appearance or personality — qualities which led to media fascination with him after his crimes were revealed.
“I thought he was kind of creepy. … I thought he was a lot older than he was,” she says, noting that she smelled alcohol on his breath. (From behind bars, Bundy later said he usually drank heavily before killing.)
Once inside his car together, Bundy struck and the fight of DaRonch’s life began.
She tells PEOPLE that it was luck that spared her. Bundy unsuccessfully tried to handcuff both of her wrists, and she had declined his suggestion to put her seatbelt on as they drove about a half-mile away from the mall.
Though he wielded a crowbar and brandished a gun, “I was able to open the door on my side and get out, and he came out after me over the seat, and we just fought outside of the car,” DaRonch recalls.
By the side of the road Bundy tried to bludgeon her into submission, DaRonch says. But then Wilbur and Mary Walsh approached them in a car from the other direction.
Hysterical but determined, “That’s when I broke away,” DaRonch says.
When she leapt into the passing vehicle, Bundy’s pair of handcuffs dangled from her wrist.
Unbeknownst to DaRonch, Bundy, foiled in one murder plot, went later that same night to a nearby high school where he made 17-year-old Debra Kent his next victim.
Belva Kent, Debra’s mother, tells PEOPLE that DaRonch was “the lucky one.”
“She suffered a lot, and she was very blessed … to go on and testify and do what she needed to do,” Belva says.
Making Him Pay
Initial news reports about DaRonch testifying against Bundy described her as tearful — fearful even — but looking back those aren’t the emotions she describes.
“I was totally happy to do it. I thought that the sentence he got [for kidnapping], the one to 15 years, I thought it wasn’t enough,” DaRonch says. “I thought, ‘This monster tried to murder me, and he might be out in two years.’ I thought, ‘I will go and help them get a murder conviction and have him put away.’ So I never felt that I wouldn’t testify. I thought it was really important that I do.”
The initial scene from 1976 — DaRonch a quiet teen coming forward about a lunatic still unknown to most of the rest of the world, with Bundy sitting just a few feet away — replayed multiple times until his death sentence in 1980.
After being found guilty in Utah, Bundy was sent to Colorado to be tried for murdering Caryn Campbell, a 23-year-old nurse. DaRonch pursued him to Aspen. By that time Bundy was acting as his own attorney, as he would in subsequent trials, which allowed him to cross-examine DaRonch.
“He was so arrogant,” she says of their face-offs at trial. “I just think he thought he was going to get away with everything.”
Says Yocom, the prosecutor: “It was quite a confrontation in the courtroom.” He remembers a dramatic moment when Bundy questioned his onetime target: How can you be sure it was me that night?
According to Yocom, DaRonch told him, “I would never forget your face.”
“I surprised myself of the strength I had to get through all that,” she says, “but I had a lot of support.”
For all of her efforts, though, it’s impossible to say if DaRonch could have prevented more deaths: Bundy twice slipped out of custody in daring escapes — the second time for more than a month, when he traveled to Florida and killed two college students and a 12-year-old girl.
When he was charged in those crimes, DaRonch headed south.
“My relationship with him was purely to make him pay for what he had done,” she says.
Her Life Now
As much as people have always asked her about Bundy (“I just think I’ll always be known as the girl that got away”), in truth he occupied only a small part of her life, DaRonch says. Even during his various prosecutions, she traveled to court a few days here and there.
Otherwise, she says, “My life continued normally.”
“I was able to detach myself from an event that could have ruined my life,” she explains. “It may not be a reasonable solution for everyone, but it is how I have been able to move on.”
Except for an early incident very soon after the kidnapping, when a magazine-seller approached her car in a grocery store parking lot, DaRonch says no terror lingered.
She grew “more cautious around strangers, more aware of my surroundings and less trusting,” but Bundy didn’t take up space in her head. She did not have nightmares about him.
Bundy’s periodic trials were only pauses in her return to normalcy, including her night classes in business management and weekend lake trips with her boyfriend.
DaRonch earned a degree in business management and has long worked in the telecommunications industry, where she met her partner of more than 15 years, Michael. They live together in the same part of Utah, around Salt Lake City, where she was living with her parents when Bundy first approached her.
“Even reliving it now, I’m not entirely comfortable,” she says. “I enjoy my anonymity — when I have it. I also realize that it is an important story to tell, and if someone can benefit in a positive way from it, then that’s what I want.”
DaRonch’s son, Levi, 28, convinced her to participate in the Netflix series, she says: “We both agreed that I had an important story to tell. It needed to be heard again.”
Were she not talking to reporters about her life’s crossing with Bundy, DaRonch says her daily life would be unsurprising. She loves the nearby mountains and lakes — “I’m just minutes away from all the major ski resorts” — and Utah’s embrace of all four seasons. She golfs often.
“I’m really happy and healthy and just live a normal life,” she says.
Since The Ted Bundy Tapes premiered in late January the response from friends and family, even strangers online (or at her local coffee shop), has been very positive. That, in turn, has boosted a Facebook page where she posts about Bundy victims and other cases.
“It is still hard for me to talk about his victims and their families,” DaRonch says. “Bundy destroyed a lot of lives, and I came so close.”
Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes is available now on Netflix.