Antonio Manaligod/Dose

Was he paranoid or did he know the truth about everything?

What happens when you work for the good guys your whole life, and then discover they might not be so good? Ted Gunderson made a fine career with the FBI and, upon retirement, dropped into a dark world of madness.

Gunderson first joined the FBI in 1951. He didn’t have any law enforcement experience, but after a friend of his landed a job at the agency, he figured it was worth a try. It certainly beat his current job selling hams for Hormel in Dearborn, Michigan.

He got the gig, and over the next few decades rose through the ranks, but was never attached to any high-profile cases. His personnel files contain little more than commendations for neat grooming and appearance.

Gunderson retired from the Bureau in 1979 to become a private investigator, and that’s when things really went off the rails.

In 1980, defense attorneys for Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald hired Gunderson. MacDonald had been battling accusations for the past decade that he’d brutally murdered his wife Colette and daughters Kimberly and Kristen, viciously beating them and stabbing them with knives and an ice pick.

MacDonald was slightly injured in the attack, which he blamed on a quartet of hippies who forced their way into his house and chanted “Acid is groovy, kill the pigs” as they killed his family. That story quickly fell apart during the police investigation, and it wasn’t long before he was the prime suspect. His own injuries almost certainly came from his wife as she tried to fight off his murderous rampage, or were simply self-inflicted to make him look innocent.

K. Thor Jensen

After his 1979 conviction, MacDonald hired Gunderson at the rate of $100 an hour to clear him. The private eye’s methods would prove to be … unusual.

Gunderson tracked down a discarded suspect, a drug user named Helena Stoeckley, and promised her immunity, relocation to California and a part in a movie in exchange for a full confession. That confession was lurid, bizarre and totally inadmissible in court. She claimed to be part of a “Black Cult” that killed the MacDonalds as part of a ritual.

Needless to say, this story didn’t hold any water and the case was eventually dismissed. MacDonald was given three concurrent life sentences, and Gunderson moved on to other things.

He couldn’t get the bad taste out of his mouth, though. If the Black Cult was real — and Gunderson was totally convinced it was — then the government refusing to prosecute it meant that they were compromised as well. He had no choice but to go rogue and blow the whole mess out of the water.

The thing with conspiracy theories is that if you believe one of them, you might as well believe them all. Over the next few decades, Gunderson became one of the country’s leading proponents of high-level nonsense. With Satanic ritual murderers around every corner, the former FBI agent began speaking out against the shadowy threats that imperiled America.

Everything that happened was a sign. Sonny Bono’s 1998 death by skiing accident? Killed by the government because he “knew too much.” Same with diminutive actor Gary Coleman. Airplanes are purposefully dumping toxic chemicals as “chemtrails” to reduce world population. 9/11 was an inside job. The Obama administration ordered “30,000 guillotines to murder its critics, and has stashed 500,000 caskets in Georgia and Montana for the remains.” Around every corner was a new hidden enemy. And behind it all was the Black Cult, a worldwide conspiracy to torture and murder children just like Jeffrey MacDonald’s family.

What drove Ted Gunderson into the arms of conspiracy theory? Intelligence agents are, in a way, storytellers. They’re given seemingly random pieces of evidence and tasked with assembling them into a coherent narrative. But cases like the MacDonald murders, where the most obvious explanation — that a human being could brutally slaughter his family and then lie about it to police — are too insane to make sense of. How much easier and more comforting to blame malicious forces just out of view, pulling strings to inflict misery on us all.

Ted Gunderson died of cancer in 2011. He lived a remarkably long time for someone so obsessed with exposing the crimes of the powerful. But his legacy holds on. The credibility of a former FBI agent emboldens conspiracy theorists around the globe. Most recently, proponents of the Pizzagate conspiracy theory started passing his videos around as “proof” that, once again, the Black Cult was real.

There’s a famous logical maxim that comes in to play when dealing with conspiracy theorists: “you can’t prove a negative.” It doesn’t matter to them that Gunderson never proved the Black Cult existed or arrested any of its members. The evidence is always just around the corner, waiting for one last puzzle piece to fit it all together. Ted Gunderson spent 32 years looking for that final piece and the picture he was trying to assemble is still as unclear as ever.