by E.J. Hammon c. 2019
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Kathy Kleiner Rubin, who survived the Chi Omega sorority attack at Florida State University in Tallahassee, Florida in the 1970’s. To my surprise, I learned she’s much more than a survivor. Here is the story she shared about her experience.
It was a crime that shocked the nation and helped lead to the final arrest of brutal serial killer, Theodore Robert Bundy. In the early morning hours of January 15, 1978, four young women in Florida State University’s Chi Omega sorority house were brutally attacked while sleeping. Recently escaped from a Colorado prison, Bundy had been on the run for approximately a week before he made his way to Florida. After soaking in the sun and living on stolen credit cards for another week, the former law student, who’d held such promise just four short years before, made a decision that would seal his fate.
This was not the Ted Bundy we knew from the western region of the United States. There he had been careful. His actions were tempered and he took few chances. But by the time he made his way to Florida, Bundy was like a wild animal, an addict who hadn’t had his murder “fix” in years. He wasn’t about to wait another moment before killing as many women as possible. His brutality knew no bounds.
A NEW ADVENTURE
Two years before that fateful night, in 1976, eighteen-year-old Kathy Kleiner was just beginning her adventure at Florida State University. A native of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and already a survivor of childhood lupus, Kathy hoped to find her freedom there and to gain some independence from her overly-protective mother. Florida State offered the archaeology degree she sought and boasted a healthy, active Greek life on campus. She joined the Chi Omega sorority when her friend, already a member, suggested she pledge. Kathy felt good about the place when she met the residents. She was also excited to be part of such a popular campus society. The sorority house regularly hosted toga parties, encouraged service work within the community, and favored the young women spending time with their fellow sisters. After years of battling loneliness while her parents worked out-of-town, Kathy felt she finally fit in somewhere. She was finally somewhere she belonged.
At the same time, in Colorado, twenty-nine-year-old Ted Bundy was just beginning his life behind bars. He had been found guilty in the 1974 attempted kidnapping of Utah resident, Carol DaRonch, and was extradited two years later to Aspen to be tried for the murder of Michigan nurse, Caryn Campbell. Bundy’s first escape was from an Aspen facility in June 1977. A week later, he was found not far from the courthouse, disoriented and half-starved after his time on the run. Deemed a flight risk, he was subsequently moved to the jail in Glenwood Springs, Colorado to further await his trial. He escaped from his new cell on the night of December 30, 1977. After traveling for several days, he finally landed in Tallahassee on January 8, 1978. Renting a room near the Florida State campus, Bundy started prowling around the local area, searching for his next victim.
He was seen on the night of Saturday, January 14th at a local college bar, named Sherrod’s. Now thirty-one, Bundy stood out around the college-age students in the bar. Several young women remembered him leering, one noting he looked like “an ex-con.” Margaret Bowman was at the bar that night. Bundy probably saw her and later followed her back to her sorority, noticing an unlocked side door. It was then that he began planning his attack.
As the evening wore on, most of the sorority girls went to sleep. Kathy remembers getting back from a wedding earlier that day and doing her homework. Her roommate, Karen Chandler, had been sewing and both young women went to bed around 10:30 or 11:00 that night. In the early morning hours of January 15, 1978, Ted Bundy brazenly entered the Chi Omega sorority house on the campus of Florida State University. He ascended to the second floor carrying a piece of oak firewood that he grabbed from outside of the building. Entering Margaret Bowman’s room, he violently beat and strangled her to death using a piece of nylon pantyhose. Moving lithely across the hall to Lisa Levy’s room, Bundy beat, strangled, and sexually assaulted the young woman. He nearly bit off one of her nipples and left a bite mark imprint so deeply embedded on her left buttock that it was used against him in court.
He crept across the hall again, invading the room next door to where Margaret now lay dead. Kathy believes that after killing her two sorority sisters, Bundy came into their room high on adrenaline. She can remember hearing noise and thinks he tripped on the foot locker situated between the twin beds. She opened her eyes a bit and saw a silhouette above her holding the firewood up in the air before striking her. She was fully awakened when the shadowy figure brought the wood down with a thud on her right side. The action didn’t initially cause pain. Karen began stirring and waking after hearing noise in the room. Kathy later realized that the assailant began hitting Karen on the face and the shoulder before raining down more sharp blows on her. During the onslaught, time stood still. Seconds felt like hours.
Suddenly, a bright light came through the large windows in their room. A young man was returning sorority sister, Nita Neary, to the house and his car’s headlights lit up the room. The sudden brightness spooked their attacker and he quickly exited with no further brutality. Kathy believes Bundy felt he would be identified, not knowing that she couldn’t see him without her glasses. And just like that, the blitz attack on the sorority sisters ended, the ghost gone like a flash in the night. Unbeknownst to him, he had been spotted by Neary on his way down the stairs and she would prove to be a compelling witness in court.
After the burst of light faded from the room, it suddenly seemed very dark. Kathy could feel sticky stuff around her in the bed and she suddenly became aware of a great deal of pain on her head and shoulder. Things didn’t make sense. “It was just kind of a dream,” she recalls.
She sat up in bed and tried to talk, but her jaw had been shattered. She could only communicate by making moans and groans. She kept wondering why Karen didn’t come over to help her, not realizing that she was hurt as well. “I was screaming in my head, wanting someone to help me but my jaw wouldn’t work!”
Kathy was unaware that her roommate Karen had wandered out of the room to look for help. One of the sorority sisters who had gone to the bathroom saw Karen and walked her back to the room. At that point, the women saw Kathy and noticed she had been hurt.
“Things were happening in slow motion. The paramedics came in to help us. I remember the paramedic being there and I asked him what was going on. He said, ‘It’s okay, lay down, you were shot in the face, we’re going to help you.'” The injuries to her jaw were so severe that they looked like a gunshot wound to a skilled medical technician. The frightened young woman was put on a gurney and taken down the wooden staircase from the second floor. She heard noise and didn’t understand what was going on. “I remember it was freezing outside, snowing, and couldn’t communicate. I was laying down but couldn’t ask what was going on. It felt like a carnival atmosphere.” She saw people looking at her and the waiting seemed to take forever. She was cold, vulnerable, and very confused.
On the way to the hospital, she didn’t lose consciousness, but found she couldn’t communicate due to the damage to her jaw. Kathy overheard some of the emergency medical technicians discuss the severity of her injuries and she became very self-conscious as people were looking over her injuries. When a doctor suggested running a rape kit on her, she became anxious and scared. She had only been wearing a nightgown and underwear when she was brought in and her nightgown had been cut off to assess her injuries. She recognized a nurse who was working on her and was relieved when the young woman talked the doctor out of doing the rape kit. The nurse argued that it didn’t make sense that a violent criminal would put underwear back on a victim after sexually assaulting her. Kathy felt like the nurse was an angel for helping her avoid further humiliation after everything she had already experienced.
Meanwhile, his need for blood not yet sated, Bundy made his way through a nearby neighborhood. Finding a darkened student apartment, he broke in and sexually assaulted Cheryl Thomas, a Florida State dance student. He was frightened off when her neighbor called her phone after hearing her moaning. The young woman suffered permanent physical damage and was unable to pursue her dream as a professional dancer. Bundy’s brazen attacks bespoke a desperate man feeding his addiction to murder in the most animalistic way. When the sun finally rose, two women were dead, and three had been mercilessly assaulted.
In the meantime, Kathy was being further assessed in the hospital. Doctors determined that her jaw was broken in three places. It had to be broken again in order to realign it, using three wires in the bone. Her jaw was wired shut for nine long weeks. Eating was difficult and usually included eating soft, runny food. Doctors also found that she had nearly bitten her tongue off. It could not be stitched, having to heal with time. Kathy’s shoulder had been fractured and her eyes were purple and puffy. The pain medication made her groggy. She woke up in single hospital bed with flowers all over her room, but she woke up alone. She wondered why none of her family or friends were nearby, only to find that police were guarding the room and not letting anyone come in. Finally, after protests from friends and family, they were allowed in begrudgingly, but no sorority sisters were permitted to enter. The sisters had been asked by police not to contact Kathy so that their conversations wouldn’t corrupt her memory of the crime.
ASSESSING THE DAMAGE
Once she was able to get around on her own, police asked Kathy to return to her dorm room to determine if anything was missing or out of place. She took heavy steps to get up the stairs to the second floor and was surprised to see yellow police tape over Margaret and Lisa’s rooms. No one had mentioned it to her and she hadn’t been prepared. The young woman, unsteady on her feet, entered her room and noticed that the blood-stained walls looked “very brutal.” Her brand new sheets that she received for Christmas were covered in blood. Whatever didn’t have blood on it had black powder from where investigators had attempted to lift fingerprints. “They wanted to see if anything was missing but in our case, Bundy was so startled, that he didn’t have time to take a souvenir,” Kathy says. She never returned to Florida State University for classes.
On February 9, 1978, Bundy kidnapped, sexually assaulted, and killed twelve-year-old Kimberly Leach in Lake City, Florida. He was in a frenzy and was psychologically unraveling. Found wandering the streets of Pensacola at 1:00 A.M. on February 15th, Bundy was arrested and booked on possession of stolen property. Once identified as the escaped killer on the loose from Colorado, police quickly linked him to the recent attacks in their communities.
During the time between the attack and Bundy’s trial, Kathy tried to call the Chi Omega house to speak with her sisters. She could only reach the new pledges who were supposed to take messages for the senior members, but nobody ever called her back. She felt isolated from the people who could have given her strength during the time she needed them most. When her friend Susie died two years later, Kathy attended the funeral and ran into some former sorority sisters. They hugged her, but it was too little, too late. She pushed them away and asked why they never called her back. They simply told her, “You were bad publicity for the sorority,” adding, “We couldn’t get new pledges if we talked to you. We couldn’t get any money.” Suddenly, the one place where Kathy had been most comfortable in life had been ripped away from her through no fault of her own.
PREPARATION FOR TRIAL
When a Grand Jury convened to discuss laying charges in the sorority attack, Kathy returned to Tallahassee. She entered a room and found herself at the opposite end of a long table from Ted Bundy. Ken Katsaris, the Sheriff of Leon County who brought the indictment against Ted, was kind to her and made her feel at ease during the process. While answering questions, Bundy looked at her and she looked back at him, neither one looking away. Kathy wasn’t going to be intimidated and was determined to hold her ground. The interviewer asked if she had seen her attacker’s face and she had to admit that she couldn’t see his face in the dark room. She’d never even heard of Ted Bundy because most of his crimes happened almost three-thousand miles away.
Despite her inability to identify her mysterious attacker, police had enough evidence to charge Bundy and take him to trial. Later, his attorneys entered a change of venue request and his trial was moved to Miami to begin in July of 1979. Kathy waited for the trial to start in a conference room with Karen Chandler, Nita Neary, other sorority sisters and the paramedics, all of whom were witnesses for the prosecution. Kathy immediately stood to thank the paramedics and gave them hugs. She wanted to let them know how much she appreciated them. They were her heroes.
Kathy on the witness stand.
None of the witnesses were allowed to be in the courtroom while the others gave their testimony. Kathy’s parents and aunt attended for a couple of days, but found the subject matter difficult to endure. They were in the room while she was on the stand and she admits she wasn’t scared, despite having been through so much. Bundy’s hands were up under his chin as he watched her on the witness stand. Though she couldn’t confirm to the court that Bundy was her attacker, she told the story about that night and kept her eyes on the defendant while talking, never daring to look away. Bundy’s defense team didn’t have any questions for her, possibly indicating they weren’t concerned about her testimony.
A frowning Ted in court.
Ted Bundy was found guilty of the Tallahassee charges against him based on bite-mark evidence and Nita Neary’s eyewitness testimony. He was found guilty on three counts of attempted murder, two counts of burglary, and two counts of murder. Bundy was sentenced to two death sentences on the murder charges. Six months later, tried in the murder of twelve-year-old Kimberly Leach in Orlando, he received another death sentence.
Throughout the next decade, execution dates were set and overturned, frustrating his surviving victims and the families of other victims. Kathy was initially interested in attending the proceedings, but was disappointed with the various stays. “You give him a stay, why don’t you let your daughter date him? It hurt so much. A lot of it was for Margaret and Lisa. They weren’t there to ask for a stay.”
The night before Bundy’s execution, Ken Katsaris called and updated Kathy throughout the night. The next day, Tuesday, January 24, 1989, she received a call telling her that her attacker had been executed. She recalls being in her Boca Raton condo with her fiance Scott and she sat on the sofa, wailing, for about fifteen minutes, mourning the loss of Lisa and Margaret. Once she let her grief out, she stood up and felt a weight lifted from her shoulders.
Though the nightmare of Ted Bundy would never fully disappear, Kathy was finally able to move on. There’s a sadness to her voice when she talks about her deceased sorority sisters. “Margaret was older when I moved into the sorority,” she recalls. “She was so cool and pretty. Everyone liked her and she was one of those sisters you looked up to. I remember hanging out with Lisa, painting our nails.” The emotion is palpable despite all of the years that have passed.
In the years that followed, Kathy Kleiner Rubin overcame her anxieties by working in a lumber yard to overcome her mistrust of men and later found a position at a hospital to get over her fear of hospitals. She overcame breast cancer in her thirties. She had two miscarriages, but now has a grown son with whom she is close. She is happily married to her husband, Scott, and cares for two very lively dogs in their household. Kathy is excited about the new movie about Ted Bundy because she feels it will give people a chance to see what he did. Watching movies and reading books about him have helped her come to terms with the attack. After every difficult experience, she has moved beyond it to thrive in her life. Her family has been there to help her so she didn’t have to do everything for herself which she cites as helping tremendously.
When asked if she has any advice to give others, Kathy suggests, “Stay strong, keep a positive attitude. If you go to a place in your mind that’s safe and happy, go there and visit. It will take you away from that nasty violent thing.” She also recommends when experiencing something difficult, “Grieve, let it out. Over time, you can eventually let it go.” Finally, speaking about herself, she relates, “I’m so much more than a survivor. I do things my way…I just keep going! I want to live, there’s so much to do!”