Serial killers have breathed new life into David Johnson's sculpting career, and the Denver-based artist is somewhat ashamed.
But he is also unapologetic.
A year ago, Johnson says he was an artist struggling to sell his more conventional sculptures. But when he started making a line of action figures that included infamous serial killers Jeffrey Dahmer and John Wayne Gacy and began selling them over the Internet, his career took off.
"Yeah, it's a pretty shameful thing to do," Johnson said. "I'm making money off these grisly murders. But these guys were shameful long before I got ahold of them. I see them on [channels such as] A&E, Discovery every other day. People write books about them all the time and are making money off them."
Johnson knows the profit his serial killer action figures are generating is blood money, but he is not letting that stop him. His success reflects the popularity of "murderabilia" — memorabilia linked to notorious murderers, serial killers and murder cases. His action figures, which he sells from his own Web site, are in such high demand that he had to put a message on his site warning customers to expect the delivery of their orders to take four to five weeks.
Distasteful, Maybe Immoral … But Legal
Critics of Johnson and other purveyors and manufacturers murderabilia find their work repulsive and immoral — but it is not illegal. Victims' advocates are fighting for legislation to prevent murderabilia aficionados from making profits off crimes and tragedies such as the Columbine High School shooting and the Sept. 11 attacks.
California and Texas have adopted laws similar to "The Son of Sam" legislation that prevents criminals and third parties from profiting from the artwork, writings, and mementos of criminals. California was the first state to prohibit anyone from selling goods once owned or made by criminals. In Texas, murderabilia sale is not illegal, but proceeds go towards compensation funds for the families of crime victims.
Still, victim advocates admit they can do little to combat Johnson and others like him. Murderabilia laws do not cover manufactured items, and manufacturers are protected by their right to free enterprise and freedom of speech.
"As distasteful and revolting as some of these things are, the laws in Texas and California do not extend to manufactured items," said Andy Kahan of the Houston Crime Victims Assistance Division. "We've looked into extending the laws but have concluded that they just would not hold up in court. It would just be a waste of time."
Kahan was instrumental in getting Texas' "Son of Sam" murderabilia law passed in September 2001. He began his campaign against murderabilia in the fall of 1999 when he typed in "serial killer" at an auction site and found that he could purchase or bid on several mementos tied to history's most notorious killers. Kahan says he has been able to purchase anything on the Internet from a killer's clipped toenails to a Jeffrey Dahmer doll that had "Eat Me" written on it.
When Kahan came across Johnson's serial killer action figures as part of his research, he was not too surprised. He bought the figures, and they provided a visual aid at a victims' advocate conference in Colorado where he called on officials there to adopt murderabilia legislation similar to California and Texas.
"You know that expression, 'You thought you'd seen anything and everything'? It was pretty bizarre," said Kahan. "To see these killers made into dolls and action figures like Barbie and G.I. Joe … it's just wrong. It's nothing but blood money."
A Pain Relived and Trivialized
According to the Colorado Organization for Victim Assistance, state lawmakers are looking into adopting murderabilia legislation similar to Texas' law. But COVA officials also acknowledge that they cannot stop Johnson from making his figures and trample on his First Amendment rights.
"I don't think we can legislatively do anything to take away this guy's profits," said Jennifer Elizabeth Frank, COVA's Public Policy Analyst. "It's not like the money is going to criminals; it's going into his pocket. You can't legislate bad taste."
Frank said murderabilia collectors should remember that serial killers' slain victims are not their only victims. Others include often overlooked families who not only relive their tragedy when they see Johnson's figures and other murderabilia items but have to cope with the feeling that their loss is being trivialized.
"What we're trying to get the public to realize is that is the very idea of victimization is that these families are being victimized at least a third, maybe a fourth time," Frank said. "First they have this horrible thing happen to them, and then there's the trial. Then you come to the realization that someone is adding insult to injury, or even worse, trivializing your loss by making a toy, or something he considers artwork. We're trying to get to public to think, 'How would you feel? How would you feel if that was done to you?' It's reprehensible."
Frank conceded that she did not think Johnson was marketing his figures to children. But she believes he is twisting a wholesomeness associated with action figures.
"When you think of action figures, you think of heroes such as Spider-Man and Superman," she said. "But he has Dahmer, Bundy, John Wayne Gacy … these were some of the most disgusting serial killers around. When you glorify the actions of these guys, you send the wrong message out to society."
Serial Killers in Demand
Kahan believes murderabilia sales, especially on the Internet, were at their peak when eBay hosted auctions on the items. When eBay announced it would stop sponsoring murderabilia auctions last May, Kahan said many manufacturers and vendors were forced to set up their own Web sites.
One of those manufacturers was Johnson. The 31-year-old sculptor says he "fell into" his business last year when an acquaintance — who happened to be an action figure collector — asked him to make one of a serial killer. Johnson made a Ted Bundy action figure.
When others saw the figure, Johnson says, they also wanted one. With encouragement from some friends, Johnson put one of his figures up for auction on eBay and received more than he expected — $160. When eBay stopped sponsoring murderabilia auctions, Johnson decided to set up shop with his own Web site last November.
Johnson's set of figures include Dahmer, Gacy, Bundy and Ed Gein, the basis of the classic cinematic thriller Psycho. He says he has seen his sales climb from approximately 100 figures in December to "several hundred" in February, which he considers remarkable because he has no advertising outside of media coverage.
"I had to raise the price just because I had trouble keeping up [with the orders]," Johnson said. "But most people wind up just getting the whole set. … People get a price break if they buy the whole set."
Allure of ‘God-Like’ Murderers
And who buys murderabilia items? Almost anyone, but particularly those who have a fascination with crime. Part of the murderabilia's allure, experts say, if the cult status serial killers gain through the slayings.
"The gruesome acts that make these killers infamous turns them into mythical, god-like figures," said Kahan. "The more infamous the killer, the more they're in demand. The media coverage these guys get turns them into celebrities."
Some people, Kahan said, collect murderabilia because they fascinated with and want to feel close to the killer. Others simply like collecting odd and interesting things.
"With some, they see the figures as dark humor," said Johnson. "With others, it's about having ownership over something. Some are just fascinated with the bizarre."
Gacy, the serial killer who performed as a clown at parties and buried his victims underneath his home, is the most popular figure because of its design — Johnson depicts Gacy in full Pogo the Clown gear. Johnson says he receives many requests to make a Charles Manson figure, but cannot make one because Manson has exclusive rights to his image.
However, Johnson says he does have boundaries. He will not make figures of Osama bin Laden or Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, the culprits behind the Columbine massacre.
"I wouldn't do Osama bin Laden. I watched that happen on TV … I have some personal qualms about that. I have no interest," he said. "People ask me about Klebold and Harris, but that's too close to home for me.
"I live in Denver," he said. "It wouldn't be too safe for me if I did … people take exception enough as it is with what I do. Besides I knew people who were affected by Columbine."
Free Speech and Enterprise: Murderabilia's Greatest Allies
The fight to keep criminals from profiting from murderabilia and their own crimes has clashed with freedom of speech and right to free enterprise. And that conflict has hampered Kahan's fight against murderabilia. Last year, Kahan noticed that a CD by Charles Manson, while not likely to be sold openly in mainstream record stores, could be sold on Web sites such as Barnes & Noble, Circuit City, Best Buy, and Borders.
Kahan said he wrote a complaint letter to the companies and asked them to remove the Manson CD from their sites' search engines. Circuit City stopped selling Manson's album on its site. Kahan said Barnes & Noble did not respond to his letter. Best Buy took the album off its site temporarily, but today it can be found through use of a search engine.
Borders refused to stop selling the CD, telling Kahan it was a First Amendment issue and that selling Manson's music was not different than selling books written about him.
First Amendment issues aside, Kahan said retailers could take the "high road" with potential murderabilia items.
"Retail companies cannot prevent someone from expressing themselves but they do have a right to decide what they want to sell to the public, what products they want to offer to the public," Kahan said.
The decision on whether to carry murderabilia items depends on a retailer or Internet auction site's definition of murderabilia. Within a week after Andrea Yates' conviction for drowning her children, documents from her case were up for auction on eBay. Texas' law does not cover public documents, and eBay officials said they had discretion to decide which items fall under their murderabilia ban.
‘Serial Killers: Series 2’ On The Way
Despite legal obstacles, Kahan is proud of the progress that has been made in combating murderabilia profits. Though he cannot legally stop the profits made from manufactured murderabilia, Kahan takes solace in that vendors and criminals themselves will not be able to cash in their clipped hair and toenails. And he hopes others states like Colorado will adopt similar murderabilia laws.
"We're willing to work with any state who needs help," said Kahan. "We've made a lot of strides, but like a Tom and Jerry cartoon, it's a battle."
Meanwhile, Johnson is working on another set of action figures that will include famous prolific killers Jack the Ripper, Alferd Packer and Lizzie Borden.
And as long as his action figures are in demand, Johnson has no plans to stop soon.
"I didn't make these guys famous," he said. "These guys were famous long before I got here. If the interest wasn't there, I wouldn't be here."