Robert Keppel was a rookie homicide detective with the King County Sheriff’s Office when he was assigned the twin disappearances of two young women, Denise Naslund and Janice Ott, from Lake Sammamish State Park on June 14, 1974. They were the fifth and sixth young women who had disappeared from Washington and Oregon since that January.
Using the scant clues available — the suspect possibly drove a light-colored Volkswagen Beetle and had been overheard introducing himself to another young woman as “Ted” — Keppel combed through thousands of automobile-registration documents, laboriously feeding them into a huge mainframe computer to analyze and sort. The final list included a University of Washington psychology student named Ted Bundy.
The Bundy case would set Keppel’s course for decades to come: A dogged and irascible Washington detective, educator and law-enforcement innovator, Keppel spent much of his lifetime chasing and studying serial killers, including Bundy and the Green River killer. Keppel, a longtime Bellevue resident, died June 14 at age 76.
Keppel was a founding member and a force behind the formation of the Criminal Division at the Washington Attorney General’s Office in 1982, which now bears his name. As chief investigator there, he investigated and helped win convictions in several notorious and high-profile homicide cases of that era, but he is most lauded for his development of the state’s innovative Homicide Investigation Tracking System (HITS), which has been used in hundreds of homicide and sex-crime investigations and widely copied by other states around the country.
HITS is a massive database of information contributed by law-enforcement agencies about violent crimes and enables agencies to look for “signatures” or markers that might link one seemingly disparate crime to another.
“Nobody would have pulled that together but Bob Keppel,” retired King County Superior Court Judge Greg Canova said. “He was the only person with enough respect in the law-enforcement community to cut through the turf and red tape.”
Canova, who helped lure Keppel away from the King County Sheriff’s Office to establish the AG’s criminal division, called Keppel “the most exceptional investigator I ever knew.” Canova was a senior deputy prosecutor with King County when then-Attorney General Ken Eickenberry decided in 1982 he wanted to establish a criminal division in the office.
The first two hires were Canova, as director, and Keppel, as his sole investigator, who would later recall that the fame that accompanied his involvement with Bundy helped secure the funding needed to pay for the new division and get HITS off the ground.
“Nobody in Olympia wanted to talk to Eikenberry. He tried to be in the Senate and introduce what was going on an nobody listed to him,” Keppel said in a 2015 videotaped interview with the AG’s Historical Committee.
“After that first experience, I did all the talking after that,” Keppel recalled. “I asked [Eikenberry] if it was OK because he wasn’t going to get anything from anybody. But I was. Because of Bundy, and they all knew.”
After the murders of Naslund and Ott, Bundy left Washington for Utah, where he attended law school and continued killing young women. He was arrested at 3 a.m. on Aug. 16, 1975 while driving through a Salt Lake City suburb in a tan VW that contained “burglary tools” — pantyhose, a ski mask, a crowbar, an ice pick and handcuffs.
The VW and handcuffs caught the attention of Utah detectives who were investigating the attempted abduction of a young woman named Carole DaRonch from a suburban mall on Nov. 8, 1974. Bundy was arrested and convicted of attempted kidnapping in March 1976 and sent to prison, while Keppel and others gathered evidence that would show him to be responsible for at least 30 killings, including nine in Washington and Oregon and seven in Utah.
Bundy would escape after being extradited to Colorado to face murder charges, eventually making his way to Florida, where he was executed on Jan. 24. 1989 for the murder of 12-year-old Kimberly Leach. Bundy ultimately confessed to 30 murders in an attempt to stave off the death penalty, but police suspect there were more.
What Keppel learned about information-management and evidence gathering in serial crime cases went into his development of HITS, but also served to make him a sought-after consultant in serial-killer cases, and the author of several books on the topic. He was brought in as a consultant during the Atlanta child murders, later attributed to Wayne Williams, and consulted with the Green River Killer task force. In 2003, Gary Ridgway — long a suspect in the case — pleaded guilty in King County to killing 48 women in order to avoid the death penalty.
In 1986, Keppel and Dave Reichert — then the head of the Green River Task Force — flew to Florida to spend two days talking to Bundy. Reichert, who would later go on to become county sheriff and serve seven terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, called Keppel “a remarkable detective.”
“He could be a very critical partner,” Reichert recalled. “He demanded 110% all the time from everybody” and those who he didn’t think were up to snuff knew it, he said.
“I could never rise to his level of ability, but he took me under his wing,” he said.
Reichert said he still has and cherishes two letters of recommendation Keppel wrote for him, as well as a copy of a “pretty critical review” of the task force’s work he authored.
Keppel’s pursuit of Bundy apparently earned the killer’s respect, as well, as Bundy reached out to Keppel during the Green River case to offer insight and advice. The result was the book, “The Riverman: Ted Bundy and I Hunt for the Green River Killer” and a FOX Network movie. Keppel was among the last investigators to talk to Bundy before he was executed in Florida in 1989.
“Bundy baffled Keppel as he did almost everyone,” recalled Dallas, Texas, author Stephen G. Michaud, who co-wrote the seminal book on Bundy’s crimes, “The Only Living Witness.” He and co-author Hugh Aynesworth’s extensive death-row interviews with Bundy were the basis of the hit Netflix documentary, “Conversations with a Killer.”
“But [Bundy] didn’t reckon with Bob’s tenacity,” Michaud said in a statement. “He was still pushing the killer for answers just before Bundy’s 1989 execution.”
“Bob Keppel was an irascible, old-fashioned cop,” Michaud said. “He once told me that he liked to start his work days with an arrest on the way to the office.”
Keppel attended Central Valley High School in Spokane, where he was a talented basketball player.
He earned his undergraduate degree in police science in 1966 and a master’s from Washington State University the next year. According to his son, Keppel was an All-American high-jumper who qualified for the U.S. Olympic Trials. According to The Spokesman-Review, Keppel cleared a jump of 7′ 41/2.”
Keppel went on to earn a doctorate from the University of Washington and taught at Seattle University, Sam Houston State University and the University of New Haven. He’s also responsible for training a generation of homicide detectives who took his extracurricular night classes at the state police academy, according to the AG’s historical interview.
Keppel worked briefly as a King County deputy before joining the Army in 1968, where he served six years, including a deployment to Vietnam as a military police captain. He returned to the sheriff’s office in 1974.
Keppel was preceded in death by his wife, Sandra Kay Keppel, whom he met in high school. She died in 2018. They had three children, David, Allie and John, and three grandchildren, according to the family.
Attorney General Bob Ferguson extended condolences to Keppel’s family and noted that the office renamed the Criminal Justice Division in Keppel’s honor in 2017.
“During his expansive career, Bob investigated some of Washington’s most infamous crimes and was instrumental in expanding the work and role of the Criminal Justice Division,” Ferguson said.