April 15, 2007 — -- Harriet Semander, a retired grandmother in Houston, has spent the past few decades struggling to get her life back in order after experiencing an unthinkable tragedy. Twenty-five years ago, her daughter Elena, a beautiful, talented college student and artist, was murdered by a serial killer.
"I really miss her terribly," she said.
One day recently, Semander had an experience that made all the feelings of grief come flooding back full force. She saw a letter on the Internet being auctioned off to the highest bidder. It was written by the Coral Eugene Watts, the man in prison for killing her daughter.
"It just brings all that pain back," Semander said. "And it's not gonna go away. It's gonna be here for awhile."
The letter is on a Web site called murderauction.com, which sells personal items of convicted serial killers also known as "murderabilia."
Todd Bohanon runs the site out of his home in Georgia. He has been a fan and connoisseur of what he calls true crime murderabilia for years and says what he is doing is perfectly legal.
"I don't know that I could look at a family member and say 'I'm sorry, what I'm doing is bad,' because you know, I don't feel like it is bad," Bohanon said.
While Bohanon admits to occasionally sending the killers money in jail, he says it is not a large amount.
"They might be able to buy some M&Ms or some cigarettes, but none of them are bankrolling a weekly salary," Bohanon said.
Web sites like murderauction.com have been popping up since 2001, when eBay banned the sale of murderabilia.
Andy Kahan, the director of the mayor's Crime Victims Office in Houston, has been fighting against the sale of muderabilia for years on behalf of victims' families.
"The industry's grown leaps and bounds," Kahan says. "You just shouldn't be able to rob, rape and murder -- and turn around and make a buck off of it."
These Websites claim to offer everything from California serial killer Roy Norris' fingernail clippings to a lock of Charles Manson's actual hair. The more notorious the serial killer, the higher the bids. John Wayne Gacy's art work sold on murderauction.com for as much as $10,000.
Kahan says while some prisoners are not even aware their things are being sold, others are directly supplying third-party dealers. Most prisons forbid convicts from selling items directly to the public, so the inmates have found a way to get around that by using dealers from the outside.
There are laws designed to keep criminals from profiting from their crimes by selling their life stories that are called Son of Sam laws. They were enacted in the 1970s after rumors that publishers were offering big money for the story of Son of Sam killer David Berkowitz.
But in 1991, the Supreme Court struck down one of the laws saying it violated the first amendment. Since then, some attorneys say, the laws have been difficult to enforce.
"There are Son of Sam laws in nearly every state," said Kim Ogg, former chief felony prosecutor with the Harris County District Attorney's Office in Texas, "and they are all virtually useless. And I think the public, like I was, is unaware of that."
So five states have enacted specific murderabilia laws to prohibit criminals from selling their personal things for profit. But in 45 other states, it is still perfectly legal.
For mothers like Harriet Semander, that's tremendously difficult to accept.
She, Kahan and Ogg would like to see a federal interstate commerce law enacted to ban the sale of murderabilia across state lines.
"I want the government to stop them," Semander said. "They shouldn't be making money off my daughter's murder. No one should."