Did a broken-down car cause Ted Bundy to go on a murder rampage?

When five students were attacked on a Florida college campus, Ted Bundy became a suspect. But why had the notorious serial killer — who was known for abducting his victims — changed his method of killing?

"48 Hours" Live to Tell: Surviving Ted Bundy

Notorious serial killer Ted Bundy targeted three women in one of his final attacks. They survived and share their terrifying ordeal and long road to recovery in "48 Hours" Live to Tell: Surviving Ted Bundy," reported by CBS News correspondent Tracy Smith. 

On New Year's Eve 1977, an intense manhunt spread across the western United States. The night before, notorious serial killer Ted Bundy had escaped from a Colorado county jail, where he was about to go on trial for murder. No one knew where he would end up.  

Bundy was the suspect in the murders and disappearances of dozens of women in Washington State, Oregon, California, Utah, and Colorado. He was known to be intelligent, personable, and extremely dangerous.

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 Ted Bundy had been convicted of an attempted kidnapping in Utah in 1976, and was charged with a murder in Colorado. In late 1977, he escaped from jail. King County Archives

"Obviously the Colorado authorities were lookin' for him," Larry Simpson, a former assistant state attorney with the Leon County State Attorney's Office told CBS News. "The Washington authorities were looking for him. The Utah authorities were looking for him. But quite frankly, here in Florida, we weren't looking for him."

Former Leon County Sheriff Ken Katsaris says he arrived at the scene of a brutal attack on five students just off the campus of Florida State University in the early morning hours of January 15, 1978. All of the victims were women who had been beaten in the head with a club-like object. The attacker first struck at the Chi Omega sorority house, where he sexually assaulted and killed two women, Margaret Bowman and Lisa Levy. 

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Florida State University students Lisa Levy, 20, left, and Margaret Bowman, 21, were murdered at the Chi Omega sorority house in the early morning hours of January 15, 1978. Getty Images

Just down the hall, he left two more sorority sisters Kathy Kleiner and Karen Chandler critically injured. Then he went several blocks up the road and bludgeoned a dance major named Cheryl Thomas. Kathy, Karen, and Cheryl were taken to a local hospital with severe injuries but miraculously they survived. Unfortunately, none of them could identify their attacker.

Katsaris says that while he was still at one of the crime scenes the day of the attacks, he got a call from Colorado authorities about an escaped criminal. "They said, 'Do you know Ted Bundy?' I said, 'I've heard of him,'" says Katsaris. "They said … 'We don't know where he is.'" Katsaris says he wrote Bundy's name down on a legal pad, but he did not give it much weight at that time, because he didn't believe the method of operation in the Florida State case was anything near similar to the Bundy cases out west, except for being an attack on young women. 

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Attack survivors from left, Kathy Kleiner, Cheryl Thomas and Karen Chandler.

"Ted Bundy was known to lure women away with his charm and then abduct them, or pick them up at a bus stop and say, 'Can I give you a ride?'" says Katsaris.

But then, a month later, Bundy was arrested in nearby Pensacola, Florida, with stolen property on him that linked him to Tallahassee, and the area around the Florida State campus at the time of those attacks.

"All of a sudden," Katsaris told CBS News, "all this is now swirling in the air …  and we're processing a lot of information… All of this is now coming together, and we're beginning to think that Ted Bundy was obviously the individual involved."

But just having a suspected serial killer in the area at the time of the FSU attacks was not nearly enough to actually charge him with the crimes. First, authorities had to establish why his method of operation would have changed.

"He typically was organized," says Katsaris. "He would plot, pick up… and then abduct the young lady … Here, it was obvious that he had gotten disorganized."

Authorities believed that after having been locked up for almost two years, Bundy was likely on the hunt for victims once again. As they investigated Bundy's movements while he had been in Tallahassee, they also began to believe that — as with his previous suspected crimes  — Bundy had originally selected one woman to target while in the college town, but when his plans went awry, he went into a killing frenzy.

That original primary target, they believed, had been Cheryl Thomas — the dance major who lived down the road from the sorority house, and was the last victim that night.

Larry Simpson told CBS News there were indications that Bundy had cased-out Cheryl's place ahead of the attacks. Cheryl lived by herself, in a duplex where two female friends lived next door.

 "There had been a guy … that I'd seen ride his bicycle by my house," says Thomas. "Ted Bundy looked similar … So I sometimes wonder if maybe that was him."

Early the night of the attacks, investigators believed that Bundy had initially gone to Cheryl's residence. "And when he got there," says Simpson, "apparently there was a car that had broken down right in front … And there was a man there working on the car." "He found that, kinda got spooked," says Simpson, "but he had not completed what he had set out to do that night. And he then went… to the Chi Omega house."

At the sorority house, Bundy strangled, beat, and sexually assaulted both Margaret Bowman and Lisa Levy, and headed down the hall to Kathy Kleiner and Karen Chandler's room.

"I heard our bedroom door slam open," says Kleiner. "I was opening my eyes a little bit because it kind of brought me into consciousness… And I'm awake enough to know someone's there… he raised his arm… And he had something in his hand. And I thought it was a pipe or a stick. I didn't know what it was." Kathy goes on to describe her memories of the attack. "He came down and hit me in the face," she says. "it just felt like pins and needles and knives in my face."

Kathy says that a bright light from a car shining into her room caused the attacker to run before he could hit her again. Investigators believed that Bundy's rage was again interrupted, and he returned to Cheryl's house, where by then both the car out front, and the man working on it, were gone.

"I compared Ted Bundy to a killing machine, like a shark," says Katsaris, "because the shark is just feeding in a frenzy off of whatever is available… Just like the shark has the need to eat, he had the need to murder."