Why Are Women Marrying Murderers?

ByABC News

Aug. 19, 2005 — -- Tamara West's wedding ceremony was traditional in many ways. She and her groom were married by a preacher and the familiar "Wedding March" was played before they took their vows. But after the ceremony, the new Mrs. West left without her husband. Troy West is serving a life sentence for murder at the Louisiana State Penitentiary.

Tamara West admits it's not the ideal situation. "This is not a place that anyone wants to be married. But if you truly love someone it doesn't matter," she told "20/20's" Lynn Sherr.

And it doesn't seem to matter to hundreds of other women every year.

"20/20" once watched while Rosalie Martinez, who left a husband and four children behind, married a convicted serial killer by speakerphone just before he was sent to death row.

Today, more than a dozen Web sites connect prisoners with potential mates, through personal come-ons as enticing as any on Match.com.

Attempted armed robber Eric Vasquez is a Taurus, who says he knows how to treat a lady. And murderer William Paxton likes cooking, lifting weights and R&B.

Write-a-Prisoner.com gets 10,000 hits a day, according to the site's founder Adam Lovell.

And the inmates are finding a receptive audience. "On a daily basis, we do receive correspondence from inmates asking to have their ads removed because they found that special someone," Lovell said.

But apparently, no dating services are necessary for infamous prisoners like Scott Peterson, who is on death row at California's San Quentin State Prison.

"Ever since he arrived, he's received an inordinate amount of mail. I've actually have saw (sic) three proposals of marriage to Scott Peterson," said San Quentin Public Information Officer Vernell Crittendon.

Both Erik and Lyle Menendez, who murdered their parents, got married behind bars. Erik's wife, Tammi, spoke to "20/20's" Barbara Walters.

"I'm very much in love with him and he's very much in love with me, and it's just something very special that I never thought that I would ever have," Tammi Menendez told Walters in a 2002 interview.

But why would anyone marry a convicted killer? Forensic expert Janet Warren, who studies prison relationships, has a few explanations.

"You look at it, and you say, 'well this really works, in a certain kind of well, pathological way.' ... If you are involved emotionally with an individual who everybody knows about, who's notorious, you become something special through that relationship," Warren said.

Asha Bandele, poet, author and executive with a nonprofit foundation, begs to differ.

"We don't all look like the nut on Jerry Springer," she said.

At 39, Bandele has been married for 10 years to Zayd Rashid, who is serving 20 years to life for murder. She wrote a book about what she calls their love story in order to break down stereotypes about women who choose prisoners as husbands.

Bandele grew up a child of privilege in Manhattan, and was married and divorced as a young woman. She met Rashid when a college professor invited her class to read poetry to inmates, and said she felt something right away.

"I liked him immediately ... He was just very gentle, very soft-spoken, very humble," she said.

But how did she get past the fact that she was interested in a man who murdered someone? For Bandele, Rashid was more than just his criminal past.

"I don't think I ever made Rashid just one thing. And most people are not. The totality of who they are is not the worst thing they've ever done, neither is it the best thing they've ever done," she said.

Rashid was 17 when he shot a man to death. "I've taken full responsibility for the crime, and have done everything I can to make amends with this crime," he said.

Today, at 43, and a model inmate, he's earned a master's degree in theology, and often acts as the inmate liaison with groups like Bandele's college class.

His attraction to Bandele came as quickly as her feeling for him.

"She was just so brilliant, and so full of energy, so that you noticed her immediately," he said.

But their courtship took seven years -- through visits, phone calls and countless letters -- all of them monitored by prison security. Still, Bandele wrote in her memoir, "The Prisoner's Wife," this was the most romantic time in her life.

She would take a van from New York City to an upstate prison twice a week to visit Rashid. The couple would talk for hours in the visiting room.

But their physical contact was limited to hand holding and a kiss and hug when she left. Eventually, they wanted more.

"I wanted to be alone with him, I wanted to cook a meal with him. I wanted him to wash my hair, I wanted to give him a massage, I wanted to have some sense of normalcy," she said.

New York is one of six states that allow conjugal visits for inmates with spouses.

After they were married, it took four months to get permission for what the prison calls a family reunion visit, two days of privacy in a two-room trailer on prison grounds.

The visits required a whole new routine. "I had to bring all the food, the sheets, everything else, and they would go through all of that and every few hours he would have to go outside and be accounted for," she said.

But there are no "family reunion" visits for Sheila Chenevert and her husband, Dave, who is serving a life term without parole at Louisiana's Angola Prison for murdering two people.

Dave and Sheila, childhood pals who grew up next door to each other, are both children of police officers. His crime horrified her. But 16 years later, in the midst of her second loveless marriage, Sheila found it possible to forgive her old friend. She ultimately got a divorce in order to marry him.

Sheila admits it's less than fulfilling physically, but she's willing to accept it. "It's never enough, but I have friends whose husbands travel all the time and their relationship is strained from it and it's not enough for them. When you know you're in the right relationship, you sacrifice," she said.

She says her marriage to Dave gives her things that were absent in her marriage to a free man. "Unconditional love, attention, respect. I think women are crazy for romance," she said.

It is said that some women seek out relationships with men who have a "bad boy" personality. And Chenevert agrees. "I've always liked the scruffy, the, you know, macho, the throw-you-on-the-ground type -- not in the abusive physical sense, but in the passionate sense. It's the passion that comes from the bad boy that I think girls like," she said.

The fact that her husband was capable of deadly violence still upset her though. "I'm still am extremely devastated by the fact that he was capable of that," she said.

But not devastated enough to keep away. Experts say prison couples can keep the romance going because they never have to deal with dirty socks or arguments over where to go on vacation.

Warden Burl Cain of the Louisiana State Penitentiary takes a more cynical view of the advantages for a prison wife.

"She knows where her husband is every day, that's for sure, and he's not running around on her, that's for sure," he said.

But it's lopsided, he says, and the inmates ultimately wind up with most of the benefits.

"They want money, they want help, they want to get out of jail, and they know that this legitimizes their life. They look like they're more stable. And they have someone out there who can be their spokesman," Cain said.

That's the case for Troy West. "I'm looking to get some help, be free real soon, and you know with her support that'll only better my chances you know," he said.

And that's an acceptable part of the deal for newlywed Tamara West, who is setting aside what she can from her meager salary to help free Troy.

But not everyone can hang in there indefinitely.

Bandele and Rashid even had a baby, a little girl named Nisa, conceived on a conjugal visit. The couple is now separated. Despite his near-perfect record, after 20 years in prison, Rashid was denied parole.

Both parents consider their daughter, now 5, a blessing, but the crushing constraints of life with a prisoner -- from the pre-dawn wake-up to take a five-hour bus ride upstate, to the extraordinary expense of daily collect phone calls, it all took its toll on their marriage.

"There was real money in paying those phone bills. That money shifted. And it was, you know, a level of engagement that I could have with Rashid and just focus on him, but I really have to shift that level of attention to my daughter. None of my love for him has changed," she said.

Sheila Chenevert remains focused solely on Dave, despite the bittersweet nature of their brief encounters.

"It's hard every time ... because you know that there is weeks before you can see each other again. It's overwhelming to walk away from something that you hold so dear," she said.

Although Bandele found a man she truly loves, she cautions women who might consider marrying an inmate serving a long sentence. She said, "He became my whole life, and you have to consider that. Are you really ready to give your entire life over?"

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