“Here are the fingernails,” says Andy Kahan, pulling them out of a duffle bag in his office. They belong to a California serial killer named Roy “Tool Box Killer” Norris, and even come with a “certificate of authentication” so that Kahan is sure that they are the real deal.
He pulls out a lock of Charles Manson's hair. A patch of cloth from John Wayne Gacy's prison shirt. Artwork made by Keith Hunter Jesperson, the “Happy Face Killer.” A serial killer coloring book. A Jeffrey Dahmer doll. Serial killer trading cards. Serial killer action figures. Even used deodorant from a guy nicknamed “The Cross-Dressing Cannibal.”
“Welcome to the big wide world of murderabilia,” Kahan says in a voice that sounds like Sweeney Todd introducing a Tim-Burton-themed circus. “I've lived and breathed in it since the fall of '99 when I had a full head of hair.”
Andy Kahan, a victims rights advocate with the City of Houston, is probably murderabilia's biggest collector but also its biggest threat. Ever since he came across a newspaper story about a New York serial killer selling his artwork on e-Bay in the fall of '99, he has become obsessed with wiping out this strange market, where serial killers and third-party online vendors try to make a buck selling artifacts tied to “some of the worst crimes known to mankind,” as Kahan puts it. Kahan is literally the guy who coined the “stupid word” murderabilia in the early 2000s.
Kahan also travels across the country to give lectures on the subject, pushing for legislation to make it illegal to sell these creepy things at all. He brings his duffle bag with him. “If you ever want to have fun, travel with me through the airport,” he says.
Texas made it illegal in 2001 for inmates themselves to profit from their infamy. But as for the rest of the free world, it's fair game. And besides, if inmates ship off their pretty pictures or their fingernails to a dealer who runs a sinister version of eBay (i.e., murderauction.com, darkvomit.com, serialkillersink.com), there's no way to guarantee that that dealer isn't just sending them a check in the mail once their items are sold — which is why Kahan, along with U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, is calling for the total obliteration of the murderabilia market.
Kahan said that the rise of social media has added another challenge in recent years. Just last week, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice had to reach out to Facebook after finding out that Elmer Wayne Henley Jr., an accomplice in the infamous Houston mass murders in the 1970s, had his own page, likely operated by someone else. It included posts showing Helmer's handmade jewelry and artwork, running for $40 to $400. Facebook took down the page immediately.
Kahan says that Texas serial killers are actually somewhat tame with their murderabilia compared to the rest of the country. “It's hard to top someone selling fried hair from Ted Bundy or dirt from John Wayne Gacy's crawl space,” he said. Nevertheless, here are the most nauseating items of Texas murderabilia Kahan has seen across the web over the years.
5. A greeting card from Darlie Routier, who murdered her five- and six-year-old sons in 1996, allegedly because she was running low on money. “Greeting cards are really popular,” Kahan said. Routier is on death row, though she has maintained her innocence.
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4. A drawing of actress Salma Hayek by Anthony Shore — “better known as The Strangler,” said Kahan. “If you're a serial killer without a nickname, you're nothing.” Attached to the drawing was Shore's inmate trust fund. He was sent to death row in the early '00s after he was found responsible for murdering four girls and one woman, using a tourniquet.
3. Letters written by Andrea Yates — plus her psychiatric evaluation. Yates was found not guilty by reason of insanity after drowning her five children in a bathtub in her Houston home in 2001. She has been living in a state hospital since then.
2. Pavement and rocks from the site where white supremacist John King dragged James Byrd to death for three miles behind a pickup truck. To make it worse, the online dealer was also selling dirt from Byrd's grave. "That's as low as I've ever seen someone go in all the years I've been tracking this industry," Kahan said.
1. Foot scrapings from Angel Maturino Reséndiz, a.k.a. The Railroad Killer. Reséndiz murdered as many as 15 people in the U.S. and Mexico, most of whom were killed near railroad tracks, since Reséndiz would often search for victims after jumping off a train he was traveling on illegally. Before he was executed in 2006, Kahan says, he got a little cocky. “He said one time, 'I will no longer sell anything for less than $50, because I'm famous now,'” Kahan said. “The sad part was, it was true.”