'Murderabilia' market stings, repulses
The trade should be outlawed, a victim's father says.
By JUSTIN GEORGE
Published May 7, 2007
TAMPA - His daughter's killer is 170 miles away, behind bars, on death row, too far to hear. But a few clicks of the keyboard and child-killer Willie Crain's words appear on a handwritten letter for all to see.
Roy Brown, the father of 7-year-old Amanda Brown, who was murdered in 1998, doesn't buy what Crain is saying. But he can't discount it.
That's because the words really are worth something.
Bidding starts at $6. Shipping not included.
The two-page letter is for sale at murderauction.com, one of a handful Web sites that sell "murderabilia" - collectibles about murderers and their belongings, writings or art.
"Man, I'm telling you, this is just so wrong it's not funny, " Brown said. "Just when I think I'm getting over that hump, when Crain's not in my mouth anymore, this thing comes up."
He learned of the letter this month and has been on the computer since, checking the auction, e-mailing government officials, checking again.
He runs the Amanda Brown Foundation out of his home and wants to draw media attention to the macabre market and shut it down. He's not the only one. Some states have cracked down on the sales, thanks to the work of a Houston victim advocate who claims to have coined the term "murderabilia" and lists one of the nation's most notorious killers as his ally in a quest to pass federal legislation.
Detectives never found Amanda Brown's body but linked Crain to her murder after finding her blood on his toilet and underwear.
Crain's letter on murderauction.com appears to be an appeal to the court system. It's fraught with misspellings and focuses on DNA evidence.
Someone in Aurora, N.M., whose online name is "collector" put the letter up for sale. There were no bids as of Sunday evening.
Serial killer helps out
Andy Kahan, 47, director of the crime victims office of the mayor of Houston, remembers discovering a murderabilia market when a story reported Arthur Shawcross, the Genesee River killer, selling his artwork on eBay in 1999.
Kahan punched in other notorious names and found a vibrant online market.
He became a buyer to learn who was selling. He sent e-mails and acted like a groupie. He bought hair samples, toenail scrapings, clothing and artwork. He owns nail clippings from Roy Norris, part of a serial killing duo.
Kahan sent 20 murderers letters informing them that items belonging to them were being sold. One wrote back upset, hoping to help: David Berkowitz, the Son of Sam.
Kahan was skeptical about Berkowitz's intentions but more than two volumes of correspondence since has won him over. Berkowitz contacts Kahan when dealers ask him for marketing permission or personal effects.
"He has been an incredible asset for me, " Kahan said.
The strange alliance is all the more unusual considering Berkowitz was the reason "Son of Sam laws" were enacted to stop criminals from profiting from selling their published stories. The laws have been largely ineffective because of First Amendment issues.
Five states, including Texas and California, skirted that problem with "notoriety for profit laws, " which lets them seize money from inmates or dealers selling inmate property. EBay also banned such sales.
"Draw, doodle, paint, do what you want. But you're just not going to make a profit off of it, " Kahan said. "It's blood money."
He finds the dealers more repulsive than the killers, calling them vultures and cockroaches.
Todd Bohannon, 29, said he's not trying to hurt victims by running murderauction.com, the site selling the Crain letter.
He does not advertise his site, based in Commerce, Ga., and said his fascination with killers began when he wrote Charles Manson at age 13 after watching Helter Skelter. His e-mail address begins with the word "embalmer."
He said he's not too different from the general public, which watches cable channels like A&E, which devotes countless hours to killers.
"You have millions of housewives who are buying true crime novels and watching Court TV and Lifetime, " he said.
But his fascination is more personal. He sent killer Philip Jablonski care packages of honey, peanut butter, graham crackers and pencils. He spent two days with the Genesee River killer.
"It was like being with my grandpa, " he said.
He doesn't revere them all.
"If it was up to me, I'd go with the dad and we could hold Willie Crain's head under water, " he said. "That's how I feel about it."
Another round of pain
In Tampa, Roy Brown's haunted existence clings to hope that the next tip will uncover his daughter's body. He worries about Crain's appeals. Rent was raised and he fears eviction. His wife cries nightly.
Crain's letter is a cruel kicker to his rough straits. Brown wonders when the coloring books John Couey famously scribbled during the Jessica Lunsford trial will appear online.
"I'm not educated, " he said. "I don't know what I'm doing. I'm just sending out pleas:
"Please help me. This is wrong. Families have suffered enough."
Times photographer Kathleen Flynn contributed to this report. Justin George can be reached at 813 226-3368 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Notable "murderabilia" items for sale:
- Ted Bundy's prison correspondence, in which he asks someone, "would you mind picking up a couple of fruit pies tomorrow?" - $1, 700
- Jeffrey Dahmer's handwritten greeting card, on which he typed the poem Ode to Mary - $1, 700
- John Wayne Gacy's oil painting of a clown - $3, 900
- Charles Manson's watercolor titled The outer (space) ships - $350.
Sources: murderauction.com, supernaught.com