Murderabilia: When Does a Fascination With Crime Go Too Far?

US News

John Schwenk's computer room at home is covered in a quilt-like pattern of serial killer artwork. Some drawings depict ghoulish skulls, others portray nature and animals.

Schwenk, 46, cares deeply about the quality of the artwork he has been collecting during the past eight years.

"Every [artist] has a different style," he says. "The art is an expression of the person and who they really are ... It amazes me that so many of these people have a real art talent and could have made something of themselves if they hadn't committed the crimes they did."

Schwenk is among what experts estimate to be thousands of collectors of "murderabilia," or items linked to crimes and criminals. Objects collected can vary from cars and houses to clothing and weapons, from letters and drawings to crafts and killers' strands of hair.

"In my eyes my hobby is no different than collecting salt and pepper shakers, coins, stamps or even mortuary items," Schwenk says. "In many people's eyes it is a taboo, but in reality these items are a part of our history, things that have happened throughout the years and will never be forgotten." He has received some artwork from his correspondence with murderers, but he buys most of it online from a third-party vendor.

Victims' rights advocates are opposed to the open market of murderabilia. There are laws barring convicted felons from profiting from their crimes, but opponents say the transaction alone gives murderers notoriety they don't deserve. They also argue that the presence of a murderabilia market is gut-wrenching for victims' families, who should be the only ones to profit from the sales.

Meanwhile, defenders of murderabilia sales cite their right to free speech and say the transactions are no different from the sales of true-crime novels or documentaries. Underneath the debate lies a brazen reality: Crime sells. And the murderabilia market exists because humans are fascinated by serial killers.

The collector's testimony

Schwenk, who lives outside Philadelphia, is a true-crime aficionado. His collection is comprised of about 100 pieces of pencil and marker drawings, about 70 of which are not yet framed or hung. Other items he has collected include hair samples, clothing, a Christmas stocking and dentures.

Inmates call Schwenk about five times a week and write him letters. He has corresponded with Charles Manson, a criminal who led and manipulated a cult-like group to commit brutal murders during the 1960s; Jeremy Jones, a man on death row who was convicted of murder; and Martin Kipp, a convicted rapist and murderer.

"They talk about "normal everyday things," Schwenk says.

Schwenk searches the Internet daily for new collectibles and watches crime shows religiously.

"My wife gets annoyed with me someteimes because that's all I want to watch," he says, although his fascination has rubbed off - his wife also corresponds with some inmates.

Sharon Talbot is another collector, though she keeps her 100-piece assortment of artwork, pictures and letters private, filed in individual plastic sleeves in a binder. She declined to share her real last name out of concern for harassment by those who may disagree with her hobby, which she hasn't even shared with her parents. Collecting murderabilia is something she does only for herself, she says.

Talbot, who works in a hospital in Boston, has been collecting true-crime pieces for eight years because she is fascinated by why people commit horrendous acts. She wants to know about their backgrounds, understand them as part of history and make herself aware of the signs of being in danger.

She knows some serial killers blend easily into society: John Wayne Gacy, for example, was a businessman with a family who was active in his Chicago community. He also killed 33 young males, burying most of their bodies under his home. He became a prolific artist while in prison awaiting his execution -- which occurred by lethal injection in 1994 -- and Talbot has a marker drawing Gacy did of Elvis.

Another drawing in Talbot's collection is a hand tracing by Richard Ramirez, who was known as the "Night Stalker." He raped and tortured more than 25 victims over two years, and was convicted of 13 murders .

"It's weird to think that you're that close," Talbot says, adding that she puts her hand on the tracing and thinks: "This hand actually strangled somebody."

Ramirez died of complications related to blood cancer earlier this year while in a California prison, so the value of his artwork has gone up. Collectors like Talbot do not think about committing crimes themselves, she says.

"I have been fascinated by this stuff for years," she says. "I have never killed anyone. I have never even thought about it."

Scott Bonn, a criminologist and professor at Drew University in Madison, N.J., writes in his forthcoming book, "Why We Love Serial Killers," that the appeal of serial killer artwork is highly personal and subjective. People find comfort in collecting items and holding tangible things, he says, whether murderabilia or baseball cards.

"It rekindles childhood memories," he says. "Many people started out by just loving monster movies as children."

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For some people, a collection could be a way to manage their fear and confront it directly, Bonn says. Some also may collect murderabilia as a way to protect themselves under what Bonn calls the "Talisman Effect," or the idea that items are endowed with magical powers that protect the owner.

People also have the need to understand their own essence, he adds.

"As a species we don't deal well with uncertainty and ambiguity," he says. "How and why did they step over the edge into the dark side and become serial killers It helps us understand our own dark nature."

Some ardent fans who take their interest and zeal to extreme ends even will become groupies, lovers or spouses, falling in love with infamous predators because they believe them to be misunderstood, Bonn writes.

Selling murder: The vendor's case

Eric Holler wanted to be a police officer when he grew up, not knowing that his passion for true-crime stories would lead him to become a successful businessman. He describes Florida during his childhood and teenage years as being filled with an "epidemic of serial murders," including victims of Ted Bundy, a serial killer and rapist who was connected to at least 36 murders during the 1970s.

Holler would try to understand what caused killers' actions.

"It fascinated me that the human condition could allow you to go out and do these things without conscience," he says.

He became an expert on serial killer history, devouring books at the library and taking in news reports. In 1996, he started writing to Manson and Ramirez in prison, trying to get inside their minds. He then decided to put a couple of Ramirez's items on eBay. They sold fast and well, and Holler says he realized he could make a good living from selling taboo items to people who were interested in dark subjects.

EBay since has banned the sale of murderabilia, so Holler started his own site, Serialkillersink.net, in 2008. He also has a Facebook page with nearly 3,000 "Likes." Facebook does not have a policy that explicitly bans the posting of murderabilia, though it does have a "community standards" section where users can report abuse.

Sales increase every year, Holler says. A Christmas card Bundy wrote sold for $3,000 -- the most he has made from the sale of a single item. A hand-written letter by Manson will net $200 to $400. Holler declined to give specifics about his income, but says he gets an adrenaline rush when he receives a new item to sell, thinking about the money he will make from it.

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Though considered controversial by some, Holler's business is legal because he collects all profits - they do not go to the prisoner, he says. Other website vendors of true-crime collectibles include Supernaught.com, Murderauction.com and Darkvomit.com.

The customer base is vast. Other than true-crime aficionados, it includes criminal law professors, members of the military, police officers, lawyers, movie stars, musicians and psychologists. Some people simply buy a piece or two to spark conversation.

"I am selling dark history," Holler says. He insists that his business also has social value, in that it allows experts to examine works of art and letters to analyze the minds of criminals - and perhaps prevent future crimes.

The law: Going after murderabilia

Andy Kahan, director of the Mayor's Crime Victims Office in Houston - and the man who coined the term "murderabilia" - has been fighting against the open market for such items for 14 years. He first became involved in the field as an active buyer in order to research the subject. The murderabilia industry has grown by "leaps and bounds" over the years, Kahan says, because it is fed by the accessibility of the Internet.

As part of his victims' rights advocacy, he shows his audiences serial killers' hair or fingernail clippings, both of which were bought online, he says. He isn't opposed to collecting, but he believes any money made from the sale of true-crime collectibles should go only to victims' families. In 2011, for instance, the government auctioned items that belonged to Ted Kaczynski, "The Unabomber," a mathematician who sent letter bombs during a 20-year period, killing three. Proceeds went to victims and their families.

Murderabilia vendors aren't alone in profiting from murder, counters Holler, who is 44 and works out of his home in Jacksonville, Fla. His business is no different than selling true-crime books or profiting from documentaries, movies or entire networks devoted to murder, he says.

In Milwaukee, visitors can take a 90-minute tour of where Jeffrey Dahmer,"The Milwaukee Cannibal," stalked and killed seven of his 17 victims. His crimes involved rape, murder, dismemberment and cannibalism.

The National Museum of Crime & Punishment in Washington, D.C., displays items serial killers have owned and weapons they have used. Janine Vaccarello, chief operating officer of the museum, says there is a distinction between an open market for true-crime collectibles and displaying items in a museum.

"Our mission is to educate, to tell our nation's history of crime and punishment and also to show how we have formed laws through the years," she says. "The impact of seeing the photos and objects leaves a profound impression."

Vendors of murderabilia insist felons aren't profiting, but Kahan says he has found evidence to the contrary.

"You shouldn't be able to rob, rape and murder and make a buck off it," he says. He also says he has seen people misrepresenting themselves to serial killers in letters as fans or groupies in order to obtain items to sell.

Crafting legislation to curb the murderabilia market has been difficult and mostly unsuccessful. On Sept. 25, a bill was re-introduced in Congress for the third time by Sen. John Cornyn, R.-Texas, to combat the sale of murderabilia. The law is meant to ban a specific list of criminals from sending anything outside of prison by mail.

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Forty states and the federal government also have passed "Son of Sam Laws," which are designed to prevent felons from benefiting financially from their "celebrity" status and to divert money to victims' families, Bonn, the criminologist, writes in his book.

"When you commit extremely violent crimes, you lose certain rights and privileges. One of them is the ability to tell your story," he writes.

Sometimes the laws face issues with freedom of speech, however. In 1991, the U.S. Supreme Court voted unanimously that New York state's law was inconsistent with the First Amendment.

"Having true freedom of speech means protecting not just speech we like; the First Amendment's protections apply equally to unpopular speech and unpopular speakers," says Lee Rowland, staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union's Speech, Privacy and Technology Project.

Victims' rights advocates, however, say the murderabilia market poisons the memory of the victims, who often are forgotten in the face of violent crimes.

"From a victim's perspective there is nothing more nauseating and disgusting than finding out the person who murdered one of your loved ones now has items being hawked by third parties for pure profit," Kahan says.

Instead, he says, murderers become more notorious.

"We give them infamy and immortality that they richly don't deserve, all achieved by committing some of the world's most cold-blooded, diabolical crimes in this country's history," he says.

Accused: Society and its fascination with murder

In "Why We Love Serial Killers," which will be released by Skyhorse Publishing in fall 2014, Bonn writes that the public's fascination with serial killers is multifaceted and complex. The fascination comes about because people cannot understand how someone could commit a horrendous crime against strangers, often without motive, he writes.

A physical response also takes place. Those watching stories about serial killers or reading books about them receive a jolt of adrenaline, which is a hormone that produces a powerful, stimulating and even addictive effect on the human brain - similar to a person's reaction during a roller coaster ride or monster movie.

Monsters are thought of as "scary fun," Bonn writes, just as serial killers are. Horror is pleasurable to people when it is presented in a controlled setting, such as in entertainment or on the news.

"People are drawn to serial killers because they elicit excitement similar to disasters such as train wrecks or earthquakes," he writes.

The public both humanizes and dehumanizes serial killers, Bonn concludes. People humanize serial killers by realizing that something within the human condition - that is, something from within the world we do understand - created the serial killer, he writes.

"They are driven by inner demons that even they may not comprehend," Bonn writes. "Like it or not, the serial killer is one of us."

Concurrently, the public, media and justice system dehumanize serial killers by portraying them as "larger-than-life celebrity monsters," he writes. This occurs because the framing of serial killers clarifies certain moral boundaries separating good and evil in society: Serial killers often are viewed simply as "evil," Bonn writes, and therefore society views itself as separate from the killer.

For example, someone might think, "I may not be a saint, but at least I don't kill people!" The danger with such a construction is that it desensitizes the public to the actual horrors endured by the victims of serial killers and their loved ones, according to Bonn.

"The harsh reality of serial homicide is comprehended by individuals only ... when a loved one is unfortunate enough to fall victim to a psychopathic predator," Bonn writes.

Damages: Victim's families

Harriett Semander's greatest regret is that she never attended her daughter Elena's soccer or field hockey games because of her severe allergies.

Elena had received a field hockey scholarship to the University of Denver. She then joined the soccer team, which won the division championship that year, and was vocal about the disproportionate funding between men's and women's college sports. Frustrated, she returned to attend college in Houston and lived at home.

Elena planned to be a math teacher and coach - just like her father. She was the oldest of four siblings -- three girls and a boy.

"She would help me with homework, take me shopping and give me advice on friends and boys," says JoAnna Nicolaou, her sister. "I remember one time she told me, 'Never let a boy get the best of you. And if he does, never let him know it!' Great advice for a 15-year-old girl!"

Elena coached the church basketball team and danced in the Houston Greek Festival in a long red-and-black dress. She stopped wearing hosiery long before it was a fashion statement, Nicolaou says, and it didn't take long for her sisters to follow.

"She often would go out with her friends, wearing a very fashionable outfit, but then would put her own signature on the outfit by adding a baseball or cowboy hat," Nicolaou says.

On Feb. 7, 1982, Elena didn't return home from a night out with friends. Semander went to church while her husband made phone calls. At the time, Semander wasn't concerned because, after all, Elena was an adult.

The Semanders finally received the call from police: Elena's body was found in a dumpster.

She was the victim of Carl "Coral" Eugene Watts, a man who killed at least 11 others. If Watts hadn't confessed six months after the murder, Elena's family never would have known who killed her.

Elena could have been saved. She hit her car's horn and cried for help, but a drunken man in the car parked behind hers assumed a lovers' quarrel was occurring and didn't help. Two cars drove by and did not stop. Watts hit her on the side of the head and put a choke hold on her. He dragged her into the bushes and strangled her to death.

Elena was one week from turning 21. Watts died in 2007 of prostate cancer in a Michigan prison.

"Once he died a great burden was lifted off me," Semander admits. It was the end of seemingly endless parole hearings and checking up on her daughter's killer.

She finally was able to put him out of her mind.

"People don't understand that the criminal and the victim are bonded together with that act," Semander says.

The reminder of her daughter was constant. Semander would begin setting the table for six, and then remember there were only five to feed. But just as Semander's healing and grieving process was taking shape, an item for sale online surfaced: one of Watts' letters.

"I remember I got this sick feeling in my stomach," Semander says. "It's just not right. It glamorizes the criminal. It's someone's freedom to buy or sell these items, but their freedom is stepping on my freedom."

"When it hits you personally, you can't ignore it," she says.

Semander thinks about her daughter much during the holiday season, but suppresses her grief for the sake of her other children, who now are grown and have families of their own. She allows herself to grieve openly by herself every year around Elena's birthday.

Semander finally went to the University of Denver a few years after her daughter's death. She went to the athletic field, taking in the green grass and picturing Elena running up and down with her field hockey stick.

Says Nicolaou: "Time has put distance between the pain of yesterday and the reality of today, but the weight of the loss will remain forever."

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