Ted Bundy’s fried hair. Sperm from college campus shooter Wayne Lo. Dirt from the crawl space where John Wayne Gacy stored 26 bodies. All are collectors’ items in the macabre world of murderabilia. The more notorious the killer, the bigger the price tag.
At least for now. U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and a Houston city official are working to exterminate the industry they say allows murderers and rapists to make money from their crimes and exploit the suffering of their victims. “It is reprehensible that criminals who are supposed to be paying their debt to society are exploiting their notoriety and profiting from their deplorable crimes,” Cornyn said in a release.
Though some consider it unseemly, website owners who peddle prisoners’ personal wares say they don’t make much money — and the prisoners get nothing, they claim, save for an ego stroking. Prisoners’ families worry that lawmakers’ efforts to stop the sale of criminal memorabilia could cut them off from their imprisoned loved ones by giving prison officials an excuse to seize mail and the like. Murderabilia peddlers, for their part, insist they operate in good taste. “We don't advertise, we don't push this into anyone's face, and we certainly don't contact victim family members,” said William Hartley, owner of murderauction.com.
Cornyn and U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., introduced a bill three weeks ago that would attempt to wipe out the murderabilia industry by preventing prisoners or a third party from mailing objects from state to state with the intent of profit. The bill also would allow murder victims' families to sue murderabilia vendors for damages. “I intend to push this legislation until this despicable industry becomes extinct,” Cornyn said.
Longtime murderabilia opponent Andy Kahan, director of Houston Mayor Annise Parker's Crime Victims Office, is helping Cornyn fight the industry. He’s been a member of the Houston chapter of Parents of Murdered Children since 1992, and he worked with Cornyn on a similar bill in 2007, which failed. “There is nothing more nauseating or disgusting than knowing that these cases are being gutted open all over again with items being sold through third parties,” Kahan said.
When Kahan began his battle, he said, he tried to keep these items from getting into anyone else’s hands by becoming an active buyer in the market. He believed it was important to have possession of these items and get to know these sellers to create a powerful impact with the politicians. He now keeps all the items in his office, he said.
During that time, items connected to Texas killers were second in popularity only to those of California killers, Kahan said. But the murderabilia business has suffered in Texas since state lawmakers cracked down on the industry in a 2001 law. Now, Kahan and Cornyn, peeved that murderabilia still thrives in other states, are taking their fight to the federal level.
Most murderabilia dealers ventured into that world by befriending prisoners. Eric Gein, owner of serialkillersink.net, has been writing inmates for the last 15 years. His pen pals started sending him artwork, and Gein started selling the murderabilia on eBay. That stopped in 2001, when Kahan and other murderabilia opponents won a two-year battle with eBay, pressuring the site to shut down sales.
After that, most murderabilia sellers, like Gein, set up their own sites. “It’s maybe five websites, at most, that do this,” Gein said. The sites include serialkillersink.net, murderauction.com, redrumautograph.com and supernaught.com. “We surprisingly do business with some doctors and psychologists that buy items from us,” Gein said. “We have some college professors. We have your everyday person that buys these items.”
But his biggest customer base is overseas, including buyers from France, Germany and the U.K. “These inmates don’t write people overseas because it costs more money,” Gein said. “The overseas collectors pretty much have to turn to us in the states to get the items.”
Some of the most popular trinkets on the market are connected to some of Texas’ most notorious murderers, including serial killer Anthony Shore, convicted of five murders in the '90s; Angel Resendiz Ramirez a.k.a. “The Railroad Killer,” who was executed in 2006; and John King, who is on death row for the dragging death of James Byrd. Items like a drawing of Angelina Jolie by Shore, the Bible of Ramirez and a T-shirt autographed by King can still be found for sale on the sites.
But Gein and murderauction.com owner Hartley said the most popular murderabilia aren’t the big-ticket items like Bundy’s hair or Lo’s sperm. Prisoners’ letters and artwork are the biggest sellers, they said. The average letter can sell for anywhere from $25 to $40. A piece of art may have a starting bid of $2,000. But both Gein and Hartley said the murderabilia “industry” is actually more of a hobby — they have other careers that pay the bills. “This is nowhere near a multimillion-dollar business,” Gein said.
Any money is too much for Kahan. “I don’t care if they make one bloody red cent,” Kahan said. “The issue is not how much they make. The issue is that they are making blood money.”
Gein and Hartley said no one pays prisoners. “They did some despicable, horrible things, but for the most part, most of these guys are very narcissistic and have huge egos," Gein said. "When they learn that, wow, my name is still out there because somebody just bought some piece of art that I did, I think in a way, that gives them gratification.”
Banning the business
Whether or not inmates are profiting from their murderabilia, it’s against the law to sell it in some states. Eight states, including Texas, have so-called Son of Sam laws, which prohibit an offender from profiting from his crime. If the criminal writes a book, makes a movie or TV show, or uses his name to make money, the third party doing business with the prisoner must pay all the profits to the state.
Kahan worked to pass the law in Texas in 2001, but he soon found out that the measure wasn’t stopping determined sellers. “I can’t enforce a Texas law when a Florida dealer is selling to people in Texas,” Kahan said. “The only true way to eradicate this despicable industry is through this bill with interstate commerce.”
Cornyn’s bill would make it illegal for murderabilia sellers and prisoners to mail items destined for sale to any other state or overseas. “The beauty of these laws is that we’re not dealing with the issue of free speech,” Kahan said. “We are dealing with the issue of profiting.”
The federal measure would leave some loopholes, however. Because it would only apply to items sent through the mail, it wouldn’t prevent sales like the recent auction that saw Lee Harvey Oswald’s cab sold for $35,750 in Texas. The federal measure would also exempt nonprofit operations that sell prisoners’ work. So places like the Texas Prison Museum in Huntsville and the Crime Museum in Washington, D.C., could continue to collect fees.
Cornyn said his measure wouldn’t affect prison craft stores, either. Most prisons across the country have craft stores. For prisoners, work in a craft store is a privilege, and usually inmates are put on a waiting list depending on their behavior and if they have a particular talent. In the stores, prisoners make woodwork, artwork, boots, metalwork, saddles and other items. In Louisiana, the infamous Angola Prison — “The Farm” — holds a prison rodeo every year, open to the public, that has blossomed into a big business. Proceeds from prisoner craft sales go into a fund for inmate educational and recreational supplies.
In Texas, prisons with craft shops don’t sell to anyone except state employees. In some other states, anyone can buy — including murderabilia dealers. When inmates' items sell, the money goes into their commissary accounts, and they pay taxes on their earnings. The account allows inmates to buy goods at the prison commissary store, which sells everything from shampoo to typewriters.
Michelle Lyons, spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, said individuals who work in the craft shops are not notorious. “The items they craft do not have value because of their infamy,” Lyons said. “High-profile offenders — those on death row and under life sentences — don't work in the craft shops.”
‘Stealing’ inmate mail
Hartley said Cornyn’s bill is a civil rights violation waiting to happen. He fears that if the bill passes, a guard with a vendetta would cite the murderabilia bill and start confiscating letters to an inmate’s mother, wife or children as punishment. “Anyone who has a loved one in prison knows the hardships that are faced every day by inmates,” Hartley said. “Now, officers will have a legal method to steal inmate mail.”
Susan Kenner knows what it’s like to have a loved one in prison. She is a member of the Texas Inmates Family Association and has a son in the McConnell unit in Beeville. Kenner doesn’t approve of the murderabilia industry, but she worries the legislation could interfere with her son sending her his artwork and craftsmanship. “My son is not a famous murderer, but he is a murderer,” Kenner said. “There are only a few inmates this applies to, and they are trying to punish everybody.”
Kenner fears the law could unfairly punish well-behaved inmates by keeping them from sending their art to friends and family, because it’s unclear which mail would be considered murderabilia and which would be simply considered a piece of artwork going to a friend or loved one.
For sellers like Gein and Hartley, it’s an issue of fairness. They don’t understand why their businesses are targeted while no one makes a stink about Oswald’s cab selling for so much, or about museums and prison craft stores making money off prisoners’ work. “They are telling me I’m not allowed to sell my personal property because someone else says it’s inappropriate?” Hartley said. “That’s just un-American. It shouldn’t be against the law to have bad taste.”
Texas Tribune donors or members may be quoted or mentioned in our stories, or may be the subject of them. For a complete list of contributors, click here.