A gruesome news story can provoke a certain frisson when it pokes a corner into one’s everyday life. That’s what Louise Farr felt when, one evening in 1980, her mother said that a regular customer at the Bullock’s Northridge beauty parlor had been arrested in a series of murders.
Farr’s mother was manager of the beauty parlor. She said the woman, Carol Bundy, was accused of teaming with serial killer Doug Clark in some of his crimes. Clark, a suspect in 25 killings, eventually was convicted of six. Bundy (who is not related to Seattle serial killer Ted Bundy) confessed to killing two people, including a former lover named Jack Murray, whom she decapitated.
Farr’s mother said Bundy, a nurse with dim eyesight and a weight problem, was known in the beauty parlor for her bawdy conversation.
“She would bring in photos of Doug and Jack,” Farr’s mother said at the time. “Nobody could understand how someone as homely as that could have two boyfriends.”
Farr read accounts of the crimes. They were called the Sunset murders, because many of the victims were runaways or prostitutes picked up on Sunset Boulevard. Most of the bodies were dumped in the San Fernando Valley. Clark was accused of shooting or stabbing some of the victims during sex acts. Bundy told Farr it was a way he could achieve orgasm, an assertion confirmed during testimony by a nightclub dancer who had talked to Clark. Bundy also said Clark had sex with several of the bodies.
Bundy told Farr she had taken pride in her man’s actions. At the trial, it came out that she had bought him two guns.
“I was riveted by the story,” said Farr, 50, a magazine writer at the time. “It was fascinating to me that a woman could be involved in something so brutal. I wanted to know what had brought this woman described as an average Valley housewife to the point of being a criminal.”
Farr, who lives in Van Nuys, did a story on the murders for Los Angeles magazine. She considered the case interesting enough for a book, and continued researching.
But the trial was slow to start. Farr didn’t want to write a book until all the evidence was presented and the verdicts were in. Other work took priority. Farr spent three years as West Coast arts editor for Women’s Wear Daily. She did a stint on the staff of TV Guide. Then, in 1989, she revived the Sunset murders project and got an advance from a publisher, Pocket Books hardcover division.
For the next two years she steeped herself in the story of Carol Bundy and Doug Clark, tracking down those involved, interviewing more than 80 people, reading police reports and twice plowing through 52 volumes of trial transcripts. The effect was indelible.
“Once you come into contact with this kind of material, you can never look at the world in the same way again,” Farr said. “I used to look at violence in almost an intellectual way. I was fascinated by violence in movies and books. Now I’m far less tolerant of it. Now I feel very emotional about it.”
Farr was surprised and saddened by the number of people who had been affected: scores of friends and relatives of the victims and the killers.
“Crimes like these reverberate outward,” she said, “and the circle keeps getting bigger and bigger.”
Also unsettling were the jailhouse interviews with Bundy and Clark.
“I had a terrible time sleeping afterward,” Farr said. “I made the mistake of spending too long a time with Doug and Carol. I would spend several hours. They’re manipulators. They’re manipulating all the time. After you leave you have the feeling something’s been done to you.”
Farr’s book, “The Sunset Murders,” came out in April, and the publisher has ordered a second printing. The book is rich in detail. The reader knows that the ice cream truck outside Bundy’s Van Nuys apartment blared “Yankee Doodle,” and that Clark played the board game Battleship with Bundy’s two children the first night he stayed there. But Farr’s book also is psychologically rich.
“She does an excellent job of presenting what goes on in the minds of these people,” said Joseph F. Walsh, who was one of Bundy’s attorneys. “How could they commit these crimes? She explains that.”
Clark, nice-looking and prep-school educated, met Bundy in the Little Nashville bar on Sherman Way in North Hollywood. It was just after Christmas in 1979. He was 31, she was 37.
“He was very good at murmuring in women’s ears in country bars and getting them to sleep with him and give him a place to stay,” Farr said. “He was essentially a leach.”
His allure was such that several ex-girlfriends testified for him at the trial. One, from prep school many years before, said she still loved him.
“Doug Clark is incredibly smooth,” Farr said. “Lots of sociopaths are. He’s incredibly well read, and a little pretentious about it. He sprinkles Shakespeare through his conversation and uses French phrases. . . . He has a beautiful, slightly European-speaking voice.”
Farr interviewed several women who said Clark was an incredibly passionate lover but would get more and more abusive over time.
For Bundy, who told Farr she had been seduced by her father at 14 and had left a husband who beat her, Clark was exciting. Court records showed she had spent time in a halfway house for battered women.
“Carol told me she was a mousy little person and her experiences with Doug were the most amazing adventure she had ever been in,” Farr said.
Bundy testified that Clark--always a smooth talker in bed--used fantasies to introduce the idea of committing violence. In one fantasy, the two of them captured a woman and kept her locked up in a castle. Soon Bundy was riding with Clark as he cruised for real victims.
“The police described Doug and Carol as oversexed, but if anything they were undersexed,” Farr said. “They talked about sex all the time, but they never were satisfied. There was incredible sexual confusion for both of them.”
Both are in prison. Bundy is serving a life sentence. Clark’s death penalty was affirmed in July by the state Supreme Court.
Where to Go
What: “The Sunset Murders” by Louise Farr; Pocket Books; 308 pages.
Location: Available at Crown and other bookstores.