The ‘murderabilia’ market: a look inside the world of true crime art collecting
How much would you be willing to pay for a crayon and marker drawing done on cardstock paper? What if it was drawn by an infamous, convicted serial killer and rapist? How about $2000? That’s the current asking price for an original work by Richard Ramirez, a.k.a. the Night Stalker, on the Serial Killers Ink website.
Or maybe you want something more… personal? If so, the “Unusual Collectibles” section of True Crime Auction House is your best bet. There, you can find items ranging from the fingernail clippings of Brookey Lee West, who is serving a life sentence for killing her mother and stashing the body in a trash can, to the pubic hair of Dustin Lynch, who, at age 15, murdered his friend in an act of violence thought to be inspired by the video game Grand Theft Auto. If you’re looking for an item that’s more sought-after, it’s gonna cost you: a lock of Charles Manson’s hair is listed for a whopping $2400.
What was once an underground market with a niche customer base and virtually no economic viability, is now an unyielding pillar in the true crime community. At any given moment, there are at least seven websites dedicated to selling authentic items made by, owned by, or procured from the world’s most notorious criminals. These sites, along with larger companies like Etsy and Amazon, also offer collectible items such as action figures, mugs and tee-shirts inspired by those individuals and by the world of true crime fandom.
True crime collectible items, also known as ‘murderabilia,’ a play on the term ‘memorabilia,’ have become increasingly popular as entertainment media continues to add programming dedicated to true crime. Netflix lured in a sizeable portion of its 2018 viewership through violent crime stories like You and Making a Murderer: Part 2. This year, the streaming giant is making a Bundy investment with the recently released Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, and soon-to-be released Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile, starring Zac Efron, which they bought the rights to for $9 million.
A Career Built on Our Fascination With the Macabre
Eric Holler was Richard Ramirez’s art dealer from 1997 to 2000.
Growing up, Holler, now 49, wanted to go into law enforcement. When that dream didn’t pan out, he turned to another passion of his: true crime and serial killers. He compiled an address list of the nation’s most high-profile murderers and started mailing out letters. Ramirez, convicted of 13 murders, five attempted murders, 11 sexual assaults, and 14 burglaries, was the first to respond. He asked if Holler would sell his artwork on ebay in exchange for commissary money. Holler agreed. When the first batch of work sold out surprisingly quickly, Holler realized he was onto something. “It took off from there,” he reflects.
In 2008, he started Serial Killers Ink (SKI) and by 2010, the website was turning a profit. Holler says he has seen an increase in revenue every year since then. “This is what I do for a living. It pays my bills,” says Holler. “I’m living comfortably.” He currently resides in his hometown of Jacksonville, Florida.
So who is buying these items? “Back 10 or 15 years ago, you would walk into a Barnes and Noble,” Holler begins. “Go to the true crime section. You see the people sitting there reading true crime books? Those are my customers now,” he explains. Holler says it’s difficult to categorize or pin-down his clients. They range from one-time buyers to repeat customers he’s worked with for 10 years. He sells to people all over the world, from North and South America, to Europe and Oceania. Some of his customers are what Holler refers to as ‘average collectors,’ those who put these items up on their wall, or display them around their home. Others are in the academic field. For example, professors will sometimes buy specific letters to help teach their criminal law classes. He also sells to psychologists, attorneys and military people. Ultimately, there is no ‘typical customer,’ Holler says. “We sell to soccer moms for fucks sake.”
The most expensive items he offers are John Wayne Gacy paintings. Gacy was executed in 1994 for sexually assaulting, torturing and murdering dozens of teenage boys and young men. His best-known paintings include the character “Pogo the Clown” and sell anywhere from $2000 to $5000.
The Nitty Gritty
Payment is a complicated matter in the murderabilia business. It is a common misconception that there are “Son of Sam” laws in place to prevent criminals from profiting off of the publicity of their crimes. In actuality, Son of Sam laws were ruled to be unconstitutional in 1991 when the Supreme Court declared the legislation restricted free speech. Since then, most states have rewritten their laws to be compliant with the court’s ruling, thus loosening the guidelines for what it means to profit from a crime.
Andy Kahan, 59, is the director of Victims Services & Advocacy at Crime Stoppers Houston. He has been fighting to shut down the murderabilia business for more than a quarter century. As a young man, Kahan was distraught to learn about a serial killer in his hometown of Rochester, New York, who was selling his artwork on ebay. Kahan’s initial course of action was to call ebay and demand that the work be taken down. Ebay’s response was brisk: they weren’t the morality police. If it was legal, they were obligated to put it up for sale. Eventually, in 2001, Kahan succeeded and the site officially prohibited the sale of murderabilia items. And of that void, emerged websites like SKI and Supernaught.
Since then, Kahan has been pushing for a reformed version of the Son of Sam laws. He started crafting “Notoriety for Profit” laws, which have nothing to do with free speech, but rather, zero in on the issue of profit. So far, eight states have adopted the legislation.
Kahan says it’s not enough. Because the business is largely one of interstate-commerce, with most items being shipped across state lines, there is no way to enforce a notoriety-for-profit law on dealers sending items to states without those regulations in place. “What we truly need is federal legislation.”
Holler has developed his own method for compensating inmates in states that have occluding statutes. “My loophole, and it is a loophole, I freely admit that, is that I don’t pay these guys straight-up for their items,” Holler explains. “But, if they need [financial] help, I will help them.”
At first, Holler would get his items exclusively from the inmates themselves. Now, his process for acquiring pieces is a combination of direct shipments from inmates and trading or purchasing items from private collectors. To this day, Holler counts Ramirez among his most profitable partners. “I can’t keep Ramirez items in stock,” he says.
What was initially a business relationship, eventually became a genuine friendship. “Ramirez was good to me. He was a true friend,” Holler reflects. “I miss that guy.” Ramirez died in 2013 from complications related to B-cell lymphoma; he had been on death row for over 23 years.
“Some of these guys are monsters for what they’ve done, no fucking doubt about it,” says Holler. “But at the end of the day, they’re paying for their crimes. They’re in prison, they’re in a cell all day, they’re on death row. I don’t condone what they’ve done, not for one minute, but that doesn’t exclude them from being human beings.”
A Clash of Ideologies
Not all inmates, however, are looking to profit from their crimes. Kahan says when he first became involved in the industry, he came to the conclusion that many killers weren’t even aware that their items were being sold. David Berkowitz, the man for whom “Son of Sam” laws were named, has been particularly outspoken against the murderabilia business. Son of Sam laws were passed after Berkowitz, who would leave a note signed “Son of Sam” at the scene of his crimes, received several high-price offers for the exclusive rights to his story. Kahan has been working closely with Berkowitz for over 15 years to eradicate the industry.
“Berkowitz has been a tremendous asset on this issue,” he says. “He has given me notarized statements to use when I testify in front of elected bodies. When dealers reach out to him and try to procure items, he ships it all to me.” In one instance, an Ohio company that was developing a line of serial killer greeting cards sent Berkowitz some prototypes. He immediately forwarded them to Kahan. “I’ve got two volumes of correspondence from Berkowitz on this, and he makes it very clear that he is extremely remorseful for his actions and in this small way, at least he can give back to society by helping and working with me.”
“They have every right to do what they’re doing, just like I have every right to be doing what I’m doing by trying to shut them down,” Kahan says of dealers. “I think it’s in our country’s best interest to make it as difficult as possible to profit from their crimes.”
Holler pushes back against those who criticize him by pointing out that entertainment media exploits events of violent crime in the same way he does. “I’ve heard it all: you’re romanticizing these killers, you’re propping them up on a pedestal, you’re giving these killers an outlet. Yeah, I am,” he says. “And so are television producers; so are movie producer; so are true crime authors, because true crime sells.”
For Kahan, that logic isn’t sufficient in justifying the harm that the industry does to a victim’s legacy and to their family members. “I have worked with homicide survivors for over a quarter of a century and I can unequivocally say that from a victim’s perspective, there is absolutely nothing more nauseating and disgusting than to find out that the person who murdered your loved one now has items being hawked by third parties for pure profit.”
Media and Murderabilia
Dr. Julie B. Wiest, an associate professor of sociology at West Chester University of Pennsylvania who focuses on culture and media, says the phenomenon of true crime collecting is not surprising given the level of celebrity these killers have achieved.
For a true crime collector, discovering a rare item from an infamous killer brings about the same degree of excitement that a baseball fan may feel when tracking down an autographed baseball from a well-known player. Wiest says this type of collecting is a product of celebrity culture. The proliferation of merchandise inspired by notorious criminals, such as the ‘Charlie don’t surf’ tee-shirt from the ‘80s that prominently featured Manson’s face, is also a result of that celebritization. The popularity of these kinds of items in certain groups can be explained by the sociological term, ‘act of resistance.’ It is an expression by a group that lacks power, of striking back against the powerful. “That’s why you a see a lot of young people committing petty, stupid kinds of crimes like vandalism and graffiti,” says Wiest.
The entertainment industry has done great things for the murderabilia business. To Kahan’s dismay, Netflix’s Ted Bundy docuseries has given Holler a boost in profits as the number of customers looking for Bundy-related items has jumped. “As a result of the Netflix series, Ted Bundy is now back in vogue,” says Kahan.
Holler vehemently denies that murderabilia plays a role in influencing potential killers. Wiest disagrees, stating that the industry re-enforces the idea that extreme violence or extreme forms of murder are a way to achieve social goods.
“The murderabilia industry absolutely supports this celebritization. The way we cover this in the news media supports that same celebritization. Our entertainment media supports that same celebritization,” Wiest says. Holler is right in that there is no one to one causation effect between purchasing a murderabilia item and committing a murder. But, in concert, the entire true crime industry is absolutely leading to more incidents, she asserts. “We’re really getting a very clear message that this is an available path to celebrity.”
Wiest says there is a slew of evidence to support the notion that serial killers are often inspired by and fascinated with past killers. Among these would-be killers, it is common practice to diligently research former killers and their crimes. Mass shooters, in particular, often site previous incidents as contributing factors in their decision to carry out their crimes; a 2015 report published in the Public Library of Science journal PLoS ONE confirms this theory. In recent years there has also been an increase in studies suggesting that media coverage of mass killings inspires copycat crimes. In the wake of Christchurch’s recent massacre, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has been lauded for her decision to deny the killer notoriety by refusing to refer to him by name. Thousands have signed petitions calling for the PM to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for her response to the attack.
“Whether or not they bought murderabilia is, I think, beside the point,” says Wiest. She points out that potential mass killers rarely have the financial means to purchase costly murderabilia items. “Those who are thinking about committing one of these acts, admire real killers, whereas, I think a lot of the purchasers of this stuff just have a sick fascination,” Wiest distinguishes.
Regardless of your opinion on the morality of the murderabilia industry, there is no denying that as long as the current fervor surrounding true crime continues, collectors will seek out merchandise and true crime-related items. As Holler noted, he has seen an increase in profits every year. “If it wasn’t for my customers, I would’ve gone out of business 10 years ago.”