Making money from murder
By Dannette Dooley
By Dannette Dooley
When Andy Kahan travelled to Ottawa from his home in Houston, Texas in April he had more than socks, shirts and underwear packed in his suitcase. Among Kahan’s possessions was a chunk of Charles Manson’s hair braided into a swastika and finger nail clippings from other notorious killers.
Kahan bought these and other items over the years to help law-makers realize that it should be illegal for those who rape and murder to “make a buck” off their crimes.
Kahan is the crime victims advocate for the City of Houston. Touted as the world’s leading expert on the sale of items connected to vicious, senseless killers and their crimes, he coined the term “murderabilia.”
Kahan has collected many gruesome items over the years and often takes them out as “shock value” when educating people about how murderabilia has grown over the years – not only in the United States and other parts of the world, but also in Canada.
Letters, autographs, artwork, autopsy reports and death certificates have found their way into numerous murder-related web sites, he says. Manufactured items such as comic books, coins, clocks, calendars and cards are also offered to the highest bidder.
According to Kahan, some people fascinated by murder contact killers to get their items to sell. In many cases, the killer gets some of the profits.
“This is probably the strangest project I’ve encountered in my 30 years of being involved in the criminal justice system,” he said during a telephone interview.
Kahan grew up in upstate New York. In the fall of 1999, while looking through a Rochester newspaper, he came across a blurb about the art privileges of a well known serial killer being rescinded because he had been selling his artwork on eBay.
“I figured where there was one there had to be others. I went on eBay and put a search in for serial killer and items came pouring out.”
Kahan thought at the time that making profit from murder was illegal, however eBay told him that wasn’t the case.
He became an “avid buyer” of murderabilia.
“It got to let me know how the industry work and get to know some of the dealers and how they operate and, of course, the old adage, when I’m talking before elected bodies or doing lectures it’s more of a powerful message when you are actually showing Charles Manson’s hair.”
After collecting more than five different hair samples from serial killers and other murderabilia, Kahan decided it was time to “out the industry.”
He began contacting newspapers in the United States, tipping them off that serial killers were selling murderabilia on the Internet. His tips would lead to a reporter calling him for a story, which helped him get the attention he needed to make these sales illegal.
“We decided we were going to start crafting legislation to deal with this emerging new industry that I nicknamed murderabilia.”
Kahan has been instrumental in having “Notoriety for Profit” legislation enacted in eight states, making it illegal for criminals to profit from their crimes.
While eBay has banned the sale of murderabilia (pat on the back for Kahan’s efforts) the industry is far from ousted.
“It’s like when you exterminate cockroaches from one room, they simple set up shop somewhere else,” Kahan says.
Dealers who once sold their gruesome finds on eBay began setting up their own web sites.
There are some five major dealers that operate their own personal web sites in North America, including one site based out of Montreal.
“There have been individuals like the late Clifford Olsen, who was quite prolific having items up for sale. Very rarely do you see probably (Canada’s) most infamous killer, Paul Bernardo… but there is a greeting card up for sale now for 13 hundred bucks.”
The items are often sold by dealers who strike up a friendship with the killers.
Dealers also sell the items on Facebook, Kahan says. One particular dealer has graphic crime scene photos of two women that were bludgeoned to death posted on his Facebook page for sale, he says.
The house where Ariel Castro held three women for over a decade was demolished on Aug. 7, according to the
Kahan says while some of the killers work in partnership with those on the outside, others have no idea items associated with their crimes are being sold for profit.
In conducting his research, Kahan contacted more than a dozen of America’s most notorious killers to let them know about the sales.
Several replied, he says, including serial killer David Berkowitz. Better known as the Son of Sam, Berkowitz murdered six people and wounded several others during his crime spree in New York in the 1970s.
“We’ve had over a decade of correspondence back and forth on this issue. (Berkowitz) has proven to be an incredible asset for me,” Kahan says, noting that legislation now in place forbidding criminals from profiting from their crimes are called “Son of Sam” laws.
“(Berkowitz) is adamantly against (these sales) and anything he gets from dealers, he ships it all to me. So I get to see how dealers groom these killers in order to get them to send them items.”
Kahan was in Ottawa April 7 to present at a workshop sponsored by Canadian Parents of Murdered Children and Survivors of Homicide Victims (CPOMC).
The workshop, which took place during National Victims of Crime Awareness Week, was made possible with support from the Department of Justice Canada’s Victims’ Fund.
Kahan says there are no laws in Canada prohibiting the sale of murderabilia.
“I am going to enlighten the people of Canada and the law enforcement community about what’s happening… Are the provinces going to sit back and allow this to happen or are you going to take a stand and prevent killers from profiting from committing these types of crimes?”
Yvonne Harvey and her husband Gary Lindfield co-founded CPOMC after Harvey’s daughter Chrissy Predham Newman was murdered in St. John’s, Newfoundland in January 2007.
“After Chrissy was murdered I, like so many other parents of murdered children, tried to find answers,” Harvey says.
“There are no answers that exist in processing the intentional and horrendous act in the taking of another life, outside the parameters that exist in a theatre of war. The search for understanding and, more importantly, support for those who are the parents and family survivors revealed nothing rational for a normal person to understand.”
Equally disturbing, Harvey says, was the realization that there was a huge gap when it came to services and support for survivors in Canada. CPOMC is working to fill that gap, she says.
“Over the time of CPOMC’s existence, we have been very fortunate to have received financial support and encouragement from the Department of Justice Canada. Without (the federal department of justice’s) financial support none of CPOMC’s work would be possible.”
Harvey is CPOMC’s manager, education and community outreach. Lindfield is the executive director.
The Ottawa-based organization offers numerous programs, including monthly support meetings, peer counselling and public awareness and education services.
Harvey says helping others through their grief is helping her cope with her daughter’s slaughter.
“It is only by reaching out and helping others who have experienced the same tragedy that I gained the strength to help myself.”
Harvey presented at workshop and notes many of the registrants were police officers.
“CPOMC wants to instill the same empathy and respect for murder victims that society affords victims and survivors of other tragedies. CPOMC would support the development of legislation that makes the sale and purchase of murderabilia in Canada illegal,” she says.
Visit www.cpomc.ca to learn more about CPOMC.