Inside the Bizarre World of 'Murderabilia'

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."

Still, he acknowledges that his profits can be considered blood money. "Honestly," he says, "I don't see any other way to look at it."

Kahan blames the dealers, not the killers, for the growing trade in murderabilia.

"It's the dealers, people on the outside, living in a free society that essentially use the serial killers, simply to make a profit," says Kahan. "I find that even more repulsive in itself."

An Unwilling Cult Figure

Berkowitz, the serial killer who terrified New Yorkers during the summer of 1977, has become an unwilling cult figure in the world of memorabilia.

He says he now wishes he hadn't written letters to so many people during his early years in prison, because they are now being sold on the Internet for up to $200 a piece.

"I was, you know, fearful, angry, confused, lonely, and just coming into Attica State Prison," he says. "I probably wrote to just about anybody … not knowing that years down the road they would have other motives to sell."

Also for sale are manufactured items, such as a stained-glass tribute to Son of Sam, and a Son of Sam clock. There are even photos of Berkowitz and his father being offered for sale by a former pen pal of the prisoner.

Berkowitz, now 48, says: "The sale of these things really grieves my heart … "I'm terribly ashamed for the things that I had done in the past. I know what a nightmare it is to see these things marketed."

Now a self-described born-again Christian, he blames the six murders he committed on what he says was his Satan worship at the time.

"It's a long story, how it all came about, and I wish I could take it all back," he says. "I've never profited from anything that was done. I know many items have been sold, not with my permission or knowledge, but I would hope that one day some of this stuff could come to an end."

Who Buys Murderabilia?

Still, in most states, selling murderabilia is still legal, and other Web sites continue to sell it.

Staton believes that murderabilia appeals to a dark but fundamental part of human nature.

"People think that you know, all kinds of ghouls and creeps crawl out of the woodwork to buy this stuff, and they really don't," he says. "It's pretty much your average Joe Blow, you know, crime enthusiasts, obviously."

Staton knows many people — including his own family — are disgusted by his work. And yet, he says, they are fascinated by it.

"The minute they step into this room, they are glued to everything in here and they are asking questions, and they are genuinely intrigued by it," he says. "So it makes me wonder: Am I the one who is so abnormal, or am I pretty normal?"