CRIME

Murderabilia: The Market For Serial Killer Merch

Halloween is peak season for true crime collectible sales, but it doesn't come without concerns

CRIME
John Wayne Gacy "Pogo the Clown" self-portrait — WireImage
Oct 22, 2016 at 10:11 AM ET

Eric Holler, like lots of business owners, says his biggest months of the year fall between Halloween and Christmas. But, his wares aren’t your typical stocking stuffers: Holler runs Serial Killers Ink, one of the top sites for what’s known as murderabilia — collectibles owned by real-life mass murderers, from their letters and paintings to their underwear.

“People are getting in the mood for spooky, dark things,” Holler said by phone from his home in Jacksonville, Fla., where he has run Serial Killers Ink since 2009. “But it also has to do with Christmas shopping.”

Gift options for your loved ones this holiday season could include this crude watercolor painting, titled Angelic Rain, going for $50 by Teodoro Baez, a Chicago man who murdered and dismembered two people with a Samurai sword in 1999 over a drug dispute, and was sentenced to death in 2004.

Or this Pogo the Clown oil painting by serial killer John Wayne Gacy, who killed at least 33 young boys and men in the mid 1970s in Chicago, often burying their bodies in his crawl space. It’s $2,700.

Holler’s bread and butter has always been older serial killer merch, from the classic serial killers of yore. “The most high-dollar items are always John Wayne Gacy paintings,” Holler said. “He’s been dead since 1994, so he’s long gone, but the paintings are still circulating and they’re the most expensive in the business. A Pogo painting can go for $3,000. Any item from Manson or Gacy moves very quickly.” (Gacy would perform at parties and charity events as “Pogo the Clown” during the years he committed his murders.)

That said, those types of guys are a dying breed. “Serial killers ain’t like they used to be,” Holler laments. “Back in the ’80s and ’90s, serial killing was an epidemic. You had Henry Lee Lucas, Ted Bundy, [Richard] Ramirez, [David] Berkowitz, [Jeffrey] Dahmer, you could go on and on. The advances of tech and DNA testing and law enforcement, now, you just don’t see a lot these days. Nowadays, the latest high profile one was the BTK serial killer Dennis Rader, the Kansas strangler guy.”

Holler has filled in his inventory with items from newer headline-grabbers to keep pace, like Jody Arias, who murdered her ex boyfriend Travis Alexander in 2008 in Arizona. He sold some signed O. J. Simpson photographs a few years ago. There are also a number of the hand tracings of death row inmates, crime scene photographs, holiday cards sent out by murderers, signed Bibles, personal effects, and other lurid items that are appeal to those with a morbid true crime fascination.

And while the old guard is a mainstay on the site, he can also bank on new hooks for collectors to spark renewed public interest in them again — like clowns.

A recent spate of clown sightings and incidents nationwide has led people to Holler’s site looking for more Gacy than usual. One of the more interesting items moving quickly on the site are resin busts of Gacy in his Pogo the Clown face that sell for $135.

“Those are not from Gacy, they’re made by an artist in Pennsylvania, and they’re flying off the shelves,” Holler said. “People are buying those up for Christmas for friends and family who are into true crime. These clown sightings add to it a little more. That might be a little more reason why these Gacy Pogo busts are selling so well.”

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While it may seem like a distasteful way to make a buck, Serial Killers Ink and other sites on the web similar to it, like Murder Auction and Super Naught, have been hawking such items for years. Holler once sold a Santa suit worn by kidnapper John Edward Robinson for $1,600. A few years ago, he sold a pair of signed prison underwear from death row inmate Christa Pike, who at 18, murdered a classmate by bashing in her skull with a rock, then carving a pentagram in her chest. His top-selling item on the site so far was a Christmas card serial killer Ted Bundy mailed from prison in 1988, a month before his execution by electric chair. It went for $3,000. But other sites have sold weirder items still—an unused paper towel, and the foot skin of “Railway Killer” Angel Resendiz.

For sellers of this type of ware, how distasteful is too distasteful is often a personal judgment call.

“I would never list anything like [foot scrapings],” Holler explained. “That’s why I’m at the top and these other guys are at the bottom. The whole Christa Pike panties, I really didn’t want to list those because I thought it was beneath me. But things like foot scrapings, or a half-eaten sandwich from Charles Manson. I think it’s comical and disgusting. Never in a million years would I have something like that on my website. I try to have items that are at least socially redeemable.”

But when it comes to the personal effects of convicted, notorious murderers, social value is a relative concept. One man’s valuable piece of Americana is another’s depraved glorification of violent crime. For instance, Holler says he won’t sell the possessions of pedophiles — but he will sell items related to people who kill pedophiles, though. Holler made headlines this year when he sold a $40 hand tracing by convicted murderer Joe Druce, who strangled and stomped the pedophile Catholic priest John Geoghan to death in a prison cell in Massachusetts in 2003. Druce was already serving a life sentence for murder. Holler said he considers Druce a hero.

But when told that John Wayne Gacy was also a pedophile, Holler took exception because Gacy’s victims ranged in age. “My specific line [I draw about what to sell] is specifially people who just prey on kids. True pedophiles. I don’t consider [Gacy] a pedophile—he was a serial killer.”

Critics, on the other hand, make no such distinctions about the offensiveness of these items. The industry has long battled attempts to shut the true crime collectibles industry down. Andy Kahan, a victims advocate in Houston who came up with the term murderabilia, is the leading opposition, and has long fought to pass laws banning the sale of these items, an industry he’s repeatedly called sick and despicable. Attempts at federal bans have been introduced in Congress four times without traction, so Kahan is working on notoriety for profit laws that zero in on the money that changes hands. Some eight states have those on the books, but they can’t regulate sales coming in from out-of-state websites.

After the Son of Sam murders in New York in the ’70s, lawmakers banned criminals from making money off their crimes — over fears that the killer would get rich off selling his life story. Now, so-called Son of Sam laws exist in most U.S. states, but selling of murderabilia, because a third party is making the profit, are usually exempt.

As a result, third party dealers often take on more roundabout ways of making a payment for the items. For instance, the owner of MurderAuction, G. William Harder, was banned from visiting Texas prisons in 2014, but insisted he never paid for items, only sometimes helped inmates with necessities.

eBay banned the sale of such items in 2001, a move widely considered responsible for pushing the industry onto the larger web. An eBay spokesperson said he didn’t have the backstory on the reason for the ban, but pointed Vocativ to its policy on the listing or selling of items related to violent felons, which only permits items over 100 years old, or books, documentaries, and Hollywood-style movies related to violent crimes. The reason cited is out of “respect for the families and friends of victims.” Banned items include personal letters or artwork or novelty items that “glorify violent felons.”

Holler said that is all Kahan’s doing. “Andy Kahan harassed and strongarmed eBay into banning [murderabilia],” Holler said. “That in turn did me a favor, because the guys selling, we all went out and started our own websites. That’s when the industry really took off. We had a presence on the internet, we showed up in search results. It put us out there. That’s what made this industry blow up into what it is today.”

Kahan, who has been monitoring the industry for 16 years, says he applauds eBay’s decision for taking the right stand to ban murderabilia. “From a victim’s perspective, as someone who is on the board for parents of murdered children, it’s the most nauseating, disgusting thing in the world to find out person who murdered your love ones has items being hawked by third parties for pure profit,” he told Vocativ. “It’s like being gutted all over again.”

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After years in business, Holler said most inmates find him now and offer up their wares. Holler got his start back as a true-crime obsessed twenty-something in the late 1990s by selling artwork sent to him by the “Night Stalker” Richard Ramirez. Holler formed a friendship with the serial killer and rapist after writing to him in prison while Ramirez awaited 13 death sentences, and they soon began talking on the phone. At some point over their lengthy conversations, Ramirez asked Holler to be his art dealer. Ramirez sent Holler a package of his drawings, which he listed on eBay. They sold immediately. Figuring there was money to be made here, Holler began writing to other inmates to see what he could dig up, eventually building up contacts in the prison world and third party market.

But like Harding, Holler makes it clear that he doesn’t technically buy anything from those convicted killers, either. “If John Doe, Inmate 3267 in New York, sends me a painting, when that painting sells, I don’t pay him for that item,” Holler said. “But if he needs help, if he’s down on money or necessities, I will help him out with money. They know I’m not going to pay them outright for items. But if they need help, and let’s be honest, they’re inmates, they aren’t making any money, they need help. I don’t have any problem if someone needs 50 bucks or 100 to buy necessities. I have no problem with helping these guys out. They’re paying my bills, so.”

The rest of his stock comes from third parties, and it’s a fairly small group of people, with goods that are easy to authenticate. Holler said there aren’t a lot of fakes in the industry, though. “It’s not like the sports or celebrity autograph industry,” Holler said. “True crime memorabilia is not that huge, and the guys that do sell are very experienced, so we’re not going to let a fake get into the market.”

Besides, he said, you can’t easily fake a Charles Manson. “It’s so crazy and chicken scratch and very unique,” he said. Plus, by now, he knows all the prison stamps on the envelopes.

He cites government auctions, like the recent sale of Unabomber Ted Kaczynski’s hoodie and sunglasses, that sold for over $20,000, and Whitey Bulger’s personal effects, including his Asics sneakers, that prove there’s always a longstanding interest in getting your hands on these pieces of American history. But those proceeds went to victims’ families.

Holler makes a comfortable living off the profits of true crime memorabilia he sells, but he’s made efforts to help victims, too, by selling their murderabilia. He sold a bullet riddled purse and jacket worn by Carli Richards, a surviving victim of Colorado shooter James Holmes, who was in the theater the night Holmes terrorized a crowd watching The Dark Knight Rises in 2012, killing 12 people and injuring some 70 others. Richards needed help paying her medical bills, and Holler said 100 percent of the proceeds went to her.

He admits he would have also sold artwork by Holmes too, though, if he could get his hands on it. “Yes I would,” he said. “It’s what I do for a living, how I pay my bills. But if I can help a victim, I’m going to help them, too.” He said he’s also sold the letters of school shooters to psychologists, and other artifacts to professors who use them in lectures.

It’s the sort of business that always does better when things get worse. “Any negative stuff just brings sales to the website,” Holler said.