Serial Killers On-line
Andy Kahan sits at his Compaq computer and summons forth the Internet auction house eBay, which boasts of helping "people trade practically anything on earth."
Among the items up for bid are more than 90 pieces of speciality collectibles -- locks of hair, photo prints, autographs, artwork, even authentic samples of nothing more than dirt.
But the souvenirs are not from your average Hollywood or rock-and-roll celebrity. Kahan, director of Houston's crime victims assistance office, is appalled to learn these items are the products of much darker stars, a smorgasbord of serial killer memorabilia.
An oil painting of a white horse is on the auction block for a beginning bid of $420. The artist: Texan Henry Lee Lucas. Along with accomplice Otis Toole, he confessed to killing more than 600 people.
A $9.99 envelope sounds expensive, until prospective bidders read that its writing comes from Elmer Wayne Henley's hand, the same hand that helped strangle some of the 26 victims of the murder ring headed by Houston's Dean Arnold Corll in the early 1970s.
"This envelope is completely handwritten and a nice addition to any crime collection!" says the Web page touting the Henley relic. It was going, going, gone by last Thursday.
Bids begin at $49.99 for crime scene photos of one of the victims of coed stalker Ted Bundy. And eBay is the Macy's for John Wayne Gacy's treasures. One item for sale is actual dirt collected from the crawl space of Gacy's Chicago home, where the remains of 27 of his 33 victims were found.
For a minimum $41, there's a sketch done by Gacy himself. While the former amateur clown's style is somewhat cartoonish, he can relate to his subject: fellow serial slayer Jeffrey Dahmer.
A recent addition to the eBay auction site is a wire story clipped from the Houston Chronicle about the sentencing of Michael Fortier, who was involved in the Oklahoma City federal building bombing. However, the clipping is signed not by Fortier but purportedly by Angel Maturino Resendiz, a.k.a. Rafael Resendez-Ramirez, the man accused of being the railway serial killer.
Those auction items and more are available in time for the early Christmas shopping season, for that really hard-to-buy-for person on every gift list.
Paul Wishnow, a Houston appraiser of collectibles, says it is difficult to determine the ultimate value of such grisly items. Market interest in them is tied to the fact that their creators are infamous criminals, rather than for the quality of the artwork, but that element can attract customers. "There are plenty of kooks out there willing to buy," Wishnow says.
Kahan is no critic of the free enterprise system. "But you have to draw the line somewhere. And I don't think a reputable site like eBay ought to be taking convicted killers and mass murderers and putting them on a pedestal," Kahan says. "There's something about that that's just not kosher. This is pretty sick stuff."
Kahan became interested in the eBay site about a month ago. That was just after he saw news reports about protests by relatives of the victims of Arthur Shawcross, a cannibal who butchered 11 young women in New York state during the 1980s.
Families of the murder victims complained that Shawcross was marketing his prison paintings and autographs electronically via eBay.
Kahan suspected that if there was one serial killer on-line, there were bound to be more. He was right. Along with the Shawcross items, Internet shoppers could bid on macabre souvenirs from at least 20 other mass murderers. Potential buyers only had to enter the names of the murderers or "serial killer" into the eBay search engine.
Each item is offered through an anonymous broker, making Kahan wonder where the money goes and if the killers are getting a cut of the profits. He also points out there are few restrictions preventing someone under 18 years of age from purchasing serial killer merchandise.
Last week Kahan sent e-mail to eBay's Community Watch urging the company to pull the items.
"Give victims' families some piece of mind," wrote Kahan, "with the notion that none of their family members will have the nauseating feeling of seeing the person who murdered their family member selling their personal wares for the world to gawk at."
In response to his letter, Kahan received a friendly, albeit anonymous, non-committal form-letter reply from eBay:
"We appreciate you taking the time to send us this information on either a prohibited, questionable or infringing item," wrote eBay's Community Watch. "We understand your concern and will be happy to look into this matter for you."
If Kahan is expecting eBay to remove serial killer memorabilia from its auction site, he may be disappointed. Company spokesman Kevin Purseglove says eBay plans to continue selling anything and everything, as long as it's legal.
"The bottom line is if the item is appropriate or legal to sell between two private individuals in the real world, that item can be listed [for sale] on eBay," says Purseglove. "These are items that can be sold on a street corner or a bookstore or a mail-order service. It's the exact same thing."
Purseglove also maintains there are safeguards to ensure that minors are not buying restricted items. Additionally, he says, eBay does not sell that material in states such as New York, with laws that prohibit inmates from profiting from their crimes.
Texas has a law that relates to the issue. The state Code of Criminal Procedure says, "the victim of a crime shall be the first one compensated from any revenue collected from the perpetrator of the crime for that purpose."
However, enforcing that regulation may be difficult with regard to eBay activity. A spokesperson for the state attorney general's office reviewed the Web site and pointed out that since sellers are anonymous, it is difficult, if not impossible, to determine who actually gets the money from the electronic auctions.
As for the families of the victims of serial killers, Purseglove maintains that if they are upset, they should focus their attention on pressing for new laws in their state to prevent killers from making money off their celebrity.
But his words are of little comfort to 74-year-old Walter Scott. His 17-year-old son, Mark, was the last identified victim of the Henley-Corll murder ring.
Twice in the last couple of years, Scott was outraged when Henley's artwork went on sale in a one-convict show at a Houston gallery. He is equally disgusted by on-line sales involving serial killings.
"I just don't know how people can do this," says Scott. "There ought to be a law against it."
E-mail Steve McVicker at email@example.com.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.