In the gruesome world of "murderabila," collectors can buy everything from Timothy McVeigh's death certificate to serial killer wall calendars or a lock of Charles Manson's hair in the shape of a swastika.
What was once an underground market has come into mainstream America via the Internet. Lawmakers and victims' families are calling for an end to it, and they have an unlikely ally — some of the murderers themselves.
"I know what a nightmare it is to see some of these things marketed," said David Berkowitz, the convicted killer known as "Son of Sam" who terrorized New York in the late 1970s. "The sale of these things really grieves my heart."
Andy Kahan, a former parole officer in Texas who now runs the mayor's crime victims' office in Houston, is an outspoken critic of the murderabilia business.
"No one should be able to rob, rape and murder, and then turn around and make a buck off of it," says Kahan, who recently displayed for a committee of Texas legislators some of the unusual murderabilia he found listed on eBay last year. They included fingernail clippings from a California serial killer (which sold for $12.99) and a half-smoked cigarette from Charles Manson (for which the opening bid was $20).
Mark Klaas, whose 12-year-old daughter Polly was abducted, raped and murdered in 1993, has also spoken out about the business that could profit his daughter's killer. Last year, he found out that letters written by Richard Alan Davis, who is now on death row in California's San Quentin prison, were up for bid on eBay, along with pictures of Davis shirtless.
"I was as angry as I had been since the day I found out what had happened to my child," said Klaas.
At Kahan's urging, Klaas wrote to his state legislators, and as a result, California became the first state to make it illegal for prisoners or dealers to profit form the sale of murderabilia. Texas recently passed a similar law, and in May, eBay announced it would prohibit murderabilia from being auctioned on the site.
"We owe crime victims the dignity and respect that they deserve," says Kahan, "by shutting this industry down."
Making a Killing
But others say it's a business like any other.
"As long as people are interested in it and there is somebody out there that wants to purchase this stuff," says Rick Staton, a mortician from Baton Rouge, La., who is a collector and dealer of murderabilia. "For whatever reason, they get some kind of a thrill or a kick out of this, then I don't really see the harm in that."
Staton has a garage full of killer collectibles: a jar of dirt from the grave of Ed Gein, the murderer who inspired the movie Psycho; a complete set of serial killer trading cards, many of them autographed; signatures of cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer and John Lennon's killer, Mark David Chapman.
Staton cultivates relationships with criminals — especially those who are well-known, because the more notorious the murderer, he says, the more valuable their work. Staton even went to death row to pick up paintings from serial killer John Wayne Gacy, helping him make tens of thousands of dollars before he was executed. Staton generally keeps 30 percent of the sale price, and deposits the rest in the killer's prison bank account.
"I wasn't doing it to make John Wayne Gacy rich or any of these other guys rich or anything like that," said Staton. "I was doing it because I had an interest in their crimes, their past."