filed in In The News on Jul.09, 2007
Dealers in ‘murderabilia’ face legal challenge
By Jacqui Goddard in Miami, Sunday Telegraph
Last Updated: 11:35pm BST 07/07/2007
The knowledge that her daughter died at the hands of one of America’s most prolific serial killers was painful enough for Harriet Semander. Then she found that his prison jottings and autograph were being auctioned online as souvenirs.
But the grieving mother from Houston, Texas, discovered that this was just the tip of a macabre industry in which anything from convicted killers’ toenail clippings to tapes of their victims’ final screams for mercy, is for sale.
“It sickens me. My daughter’s killer shouldn’t be turned into a celebrity, no one should be making money out of her loss,” said Mrs Semander, 74, whose daughter Elena, 20, was strangled by Coral Eugene Watts in 1982.
Watts, now 53, is serving a life sentence for 12 murders, but he is thought to have carried out as many as 100.
Now, the US Congress is to consider passing legislation that aims to drive the purveyors of “murderabilia” out of business. It follows a seven-year campaign by Andy Kahan, who spent years as an undercover buyer researching the ghoulish trade. “I have purchased killers’ hair samples, fingernails, foot scrapings, bottled fluids, artwork, you name it,” he said.
Although Mr Kahan, who heads the mayor’s crime victims unit in Houston, persuaded the web auctioneer eBay to ban murderabilia, other sites popped up – including Daisyseven.com, which boasts the slogan: “Who says crime doesn’t pay?”
Mr Kahan said: “It’s like exterminating cockroaches. You drive them out of one room and they set up shop in another. People are making money out of some of the most heinous, diabolical crimes known to mankind.”
Daisyseven’s wares include letters written from behind bars by the Yorkshire Ripper, Peter Sutcliffe, to the poet and former porn model Sandra Lester. She used the papers as the basis for a book published last year.
There are also chilling prison drawings – one depicting a bowl full of eyeballs – by the self-professed vampire James Riva, who killed his disabled grandmother and drank her blood.
On murderauction.com, voyeurs can choose from a tracing of serial killer Alfred Gaynor’s right hand, and a signed letter from the cannibal killer, Jeffrey Dahmer, who murdered 17 and was found with human heads in his refrigerator.
Tod Bohannon, who runs the website, denies that he or his customers are doing anything wrong. “We are serious collectors and, much the same as the professionals who battle crime for a living, we have an interest in the criminal mind,” he said. He describes the site as a low-earning hobby, rather than a business. “We don’t sell on inmates’ behalf and the only money they ever receive is enough to cover mailing expenses,” he claimed.
But the money trail between some dealers and inmates is said to be decidedly suspect, while other prisoners profess genuine surprise at finding their items for sale.
David Berkowitz, the so-called Son of Sam serial killer, who is serving 365 years for six murders in New York in the 1970s, was so horrified that he wrote to Mr Kahan asking how he could help stamp out the trade. The pair now work closely, with Berkowitz “turning in” dealers who write to him asking for mementoes.
Mr Kahan said: “I don’t care if they only make one penny, it’s a penny too much. It’s blood money, plain and simple.”