Recently TMZ broke the news that Zak Bagans, host of the of premium cable “reality” show Ghost Adventures, is in a “tug of war” over the Ted Bundy “murder kit,” as well as a large archive of Bundy related material, including case files, trial papers, audiotape interrogations, photographs, and even physical evidence, such as samples of victim Melissa Smith’s pubic hair taken from her autopsy. Bagans has put them in his “Haunted Museum,” a tourist attraction in Las Vegas full of “murderbilia” and other “haunted” artifacts.
I won’t mince words: I think Bagans is a charlatan with no respect for victims, and even less respect for an accurate historical record. Bagans doesn’t know the case history at all. This fact is extremely obvious when watching the “Bundy ritual house” episode of his TV show. In the episode, he dramatically accuses a random abandoned house in Utah of being the “Debra Kent murder site” and “portal to hell” where Bundy performed “Devil rituals.” That’s absolute hogwash.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. For the Bundy uninitiated, what’s now referred to as the “murder kit” is a duffel bag, confiscated as evidence in the wee hours of the morning of August 15, 1975, the night of Bundy’s first arrest. After being pulled over for evading police and suspicious behavior, Officer Bob Haywood noticed a brown duffel bag on the passenger side floor, where the seat should have been. Hayward also noticed the seat was actually sitting in the back of the car, as it had been removed. Bundy himself was dressed head to toe in black clothing. Something didn’t seem right. Hayward asked permission to search the vehicle, and Bundy casually replied “sure, go ahead.” Upon closer inspection, Officer Haywood was alarmed at what the bag contained: a crowbar, an ice pick, strips of cloth, rope, a flashlight, a ski mask, a homemade pantyhose mask with eye holes, gloves, wire, handcuffs, and a box of Glad brand trash bags. Bundy was promptly arrested for possession of “burglary tools” that night, setting off a chain of events that would eventually reveal the terrible true purpose of this kit.
When Bundy was brought to trial in early 1976 for the kidnapping of surviving victim Carol DaRonch, the kit was included as state’s evidence, demonstrating that the defendant frequently carried handcuffs. Items from the kit were also used as evidence in Bundy’s Colorado (the crowbar) and Florida (the pantyhose mask) trials. At some point after Bundy’s final conviction, Salt Lake County Sheriff Jerry Thompson quietly took the evidence home, as well as the entire Bundy police file. The archive sat in his garage, ironically (and for this archivist, painfully) stored in garbage bags, for the next 40 years. Thompson died in early 2019, and a few months later his widow Jean Thompson sold the kit and the archive to self proclaimed “paranormal investigator” Zak Bagans for a six figure sum. Whistleblowers informed of this infraction of records law tipped off the Utah State Archives and the Utah Attorney General that Bagans was now in possession of a massive archive of what was likely state’s evidence and government records. After seeing the paper trail of the Thompson-Bagans transaction, the Utah authorities decided to actively investigate the case and pursue recovery of their archives.
Those are the basic facts of this fiasco. But there has been a lot of confusion about whether the sale was legal, whether the materials really are state records, why Thompson had the records in his personal possession, whether his family had the authority to sell them, and whether the state of Utah has the authority to reclaim them. Here are some of those questions, and my answers. Disclaimer: obviously I do not claim to speak for the Utah authorities, and all opinions are my own.
“Was it okay that Jerry Thompson had [this archive] in his personal possession?”
As Salt Lake County Sheriff, Jerry Thompson was a government employee, and these records were created in the course of official government business (law enforcement). His working on the case in an official capacity as a law enforcement officer does not in any way equal personal ownership of evidence or case files. So no, state records should never have been permanently stored at a police officer’s personal residence after his involvement in the case ended. For example, I currently work as a government employed archivist at a state courthouse. Just because I am an employee of the court and work with the records as part of my job doesn’t mean I can go into the archives, remove some records, take them home, and eventually sell them. Neither could the judges for that matter, even though they were the ones actively involved with adjudicating the cases in an official capacity and creating the records. Doing so would constitute criminal misuse at best, and theft at worst. However to be fair, it’s quite possible he genuinely didn’t know the records laws, and no one in the department noticed or cared that he kept the records for himself at the time. Still didn’t make it legal to do so.
“What is the usual protocol with items such as these, do the police just keep them archived?“
According to the Utah records statute, which is actually fairly uniform across all states and has been since 1939, government records are the property of the state, and cannot be bought or sold, or otherwise disposed of without express permission of the state. However, to avoid drowning in records which are constantly being generated, not everything can be kept forever, obviously some must be regularly destroyed in accordance with what is called a records retention schedule. This is an official document, submitted by the creator agency with a list of their records series (categories of record types) and approved by the State Archives, which governs how long certain records must be retained and when they can be legally destroyed or moved to the State Archives for permanent storage and preservation. According to the current Utah records retention schedule, as felony investigation files these records should have technically been destroyed after a 5 year retention period at the conclusion of the case. It is unclear to me whether or not the destruction must be subject to archival review for historical value by the State Archives, as is the case in many other states. However I do not know what the retention schedule required in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
“So it’s a good thing that Jerry Thompson took them home, to prevent their destruction?“
I suppose you could look at it that way. But I doubt preventing their destruction was his original intention. If he was genuinely concerned about their destruction, he should have contacted the State Archives at that time and alerted them to the materials’ historical value. Regardless, “taking records home to eventually sell for personal gain” is not a legal disposition of government records. Destruction, permanent creator agency retention, or transfer to State Archives custody is. There are some exceptions which I will also address in this post.
“If the state can destroy such important files after five years, what do you think will happen if they gain custody of the murder kit and case files now? Will they destroy it?”
There’s no way they would be actively pursuing replevin efforts right now if they only planned to destroy the records (I’ll explain what that word means shortly). These materials obviously are extremely valuable financially and historically. If you think about it, the Utah State Archives has a financial stake in this too. Generally when state archives are seeking funding from their state’s legislature, one of the metrics they use to determine funding is user activity. That is to say, how many finding aid clicks; how many people through the door; how many people requesting copies or appointments to view records. This will be BIG for them if and hopefully when they get the records back, especially now that the media is involved. Everyone is going to want to see them, publish photographs from them, write books using them, and their agency will be highly visible. They won’t be destroyed now, I can practically guarantee it.
“Was Mrs. Thompson in the wrong to sell the items?”
Yes, she was legally (and in my personal opinion, ethically) wrong to sell them for personal gain, though she probably didn’t realize it at the time or consider the implications. It’s quite possible that she was also completely unfamiliar with the law governing the retention and disposition of state records, and thought that they were her family’s property to dispose of as they pleased because they had been in her garage for 40 years. However, in my opinion and apparently in the opinion of the Utah authorities as well, she was incorrect.
“How can Utah get these records back? They’re in Bagans’ physical possession now, he paid for them, so they’re his, right?”
This question requires an explanation of the legal term replevin. It can mean a few things depending on the context, but in the world of government archives generally it means the power of the government to legally demand the return of its property; in this case, government records. If these records were illegally taken (by Thompson) from their rightful owner (the state) and illegally sold (to Bagans) the sale is null and void. The state has every right to reclaim its own property without any compensation to the person(s) it reclaimed them from. It does this by filing a writ of replevin in court.
“How are these artifacts any different than Bundy’s VW Bug? That was bought and sold lots of times and is on display in a private, for-profit museum!“
It is completely different actually. Bundy’s VW was sold at a sheriff’s surplus property auction in 1977 to a former deputy, Lonnie Anderson, for $925. This fact is well documented. If the sheriff’s department chooses to dispose of its own evidence property in this way and is authorized by the state to do so, it can and does, and the sale is perfectly legal. Police evidence auctions are still common today. It doesn’t matter how many times the car changed hands over the years, how much anyone paid for it, or where it is now. The VW is no longer government property and hasn’t been since 1977 when it was legally sold, so replevin cannot be applied. The ‘murder kit,’ records, and evidence were never legally sold by the government, they were just taken, so these two cases are apples and oranges.
“But these materials are so old! Surely none of these laws apply to stuff this old.”
The length of time since the records were first created or last used doesn’t matter; a government record is always a government record unless the government itself decides to sell it to a private party. Just because it’s old doesn’t mean the state loses its property rights. The only factor time would have here is that prosecuting the original “theft” would be out of the question due to the statute of limitations.
“What will happen if Bagans refuses to cooperate with the Utah authorities?”
He is already refusing to cooperate and has been ignoring contact attempts by the Utah Attorney General and State Archives, who wish to inspect the archive and officially determine rightful custody. The last update I’ve heard is that the Utah Attorney General is now working with the Nevada Attorney General to compel Bagans to comply with their demands. Since the sale involved an interstate transaction, and I doubt Bagans will give up anything without a legal fight.
“Why didn’t Utah come after the records before? Thompson didn’t exactly hide the fact that he had the murder kit, he even took it to friends’ homes and let them try on the ski mask!“
Believe it or not, outside the true crime interested niche, most people don’t follow who has what Bundy artifacts. Unless a Utah state archivist with a keen interest in Bundy news or books put two and two together, the likely answer is simply that no one knew about it, or assumed it had been destroyed long ago. State Archives are busy places, frequently underfunded and understaffed, and they don’t have time or money (unlike the federal government, which does) to hire investigative archivists to track down stolen records on their own initiative unless a whistleblower makes them aware of a lead first.
“What’s going to happen to all the money Bagans paid to Mrs. Thompson if Utah is successful in their replevin efforts?”
Honestly I don’t know. It will certainly be an interesting legal battle if he tries to get his money back from her. It would probably depend on whether she knew the sale was illegal or not. Which would be hard to prove even if she did, which I doubt. Bagans is a millionaire who drops cash left and right on ridiculous purchases and profits from the exploitation of victims and the gullibility of the public. He doesn’t need the ~$150,000 more than a police widow does so I hope she gets to keep the money.
“Can Bagans just give the State of Utah a large donation to make this go away?“
No, that would be a bribe. Those are illegal.
“Yeah well, what do you know anyway?”
In my work as a professional archivist, I have been involved with the recovery of multiple court records which were stolen from the Supreme Court Archives in 1972. They all had famous signatures (Sam Houston, Stephen F. Austin) or involved slavery, a popular topic for collectors. The thief sold them to antiques dealers around the country before being caught and arrested two years later. Since then, the Texas State Archives and the Attorney General have successfully filed writs of replevin, in state and out of state, to demand the return of our state’s property. As they pop up on eBay, auction sites, and even Antiques Roadshow somewhat frequently, and are fairly easy to identify as state records, hundreds of these case files have been returned, some voluntarily and some not so much. So I have some experience in this matter. If you’re interested in learning more, here’s an article about Texas’ replevin efforts in the Texas Bar Journal.
“How do you know all these details about the case which the media hasn’t reported?“
I was personally involved in a strictly advisory capacity with the whistleblowers in this case.
Needless to say, I find the fact that these materials ended up in Bagans’ possession at all quite sad. A six figure amount of money changed hands in order for intimate body parts of a murdered teenage girl to go on display, gawked at by giggling tourists paying $48 a head for the privilege. The intense lack of respect for the tragic history that these materials represent is palpable. They should have never been in private hands, much less someone who abuses their terrible legacy for profit.