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Curbing a lust for crime memorabilia

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September 11, 2007

Round and chrome, it looks like an average hubcap from a vintage VW Bug. But this one has a history. And it’s for sale.

It’s off the tan 1968 Volkswagen Beetle that Ted Bundy drove as he roamed the West in the mid-1970s murdering young women. From Washington state to Colorado to Utah, Bundy is considered among the most diabolical serial killers in U.S. history.

Though he was executed in Florida’s electric chair more than 18 years ago, anything connected to Bundy is a hot commodity in “murderabilia” — items offered by a handful of Web sites that cater to those fascinated by the nation’s most notorious killers.

The starting bid for the hubcap from Bundy’s Beetle is $3,500. Or there’s a $1,700 starting bid for a “kite” — a signed note that Bundy smuggled to another prisoner on Florida’s death row.

Manufactured collectibles such as a Bundy action figure, a Bundy bust and a Bundy wall clock have been offered.

Along with things associated with Charles Manson, John Wayne Gacy, Jeffrey Dahmer and David “Son of Sam” Berkowitz, Bundy’s stuff is some of the most sought after, said Andy Kahan, director of the Houston mayor’s crime-victims office. Kahan has tracked the sale of murderabilia for eight years and has led the effort to limit such sales.

Even more recent serial killers, including Gary Ridgway, the “Green River Killer” who confessed to murdering 48 women in Washington state, are represented on the Web sites. The opening bid for an envelope hand-addressed by Ridgway, postmarked from Seattle just weeks after his arrest, is $100. Also available, for $4.99, is a glossy photo of Ridgway in court wearing a white jail jumpsuit with “Ultra Security Inmate” stenciled across the back.

“This is really upsetting,” said Susanne Villiamin of Seattle, the mother of Mary Sue Bello, who was one of Ridgway’s victims. “This brings back memories. I’ve not gotten over it. I can’t forgive him.”

U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Wash., a former sheriff who tracked the Green River Killer for years and even sought advice from Bundy during an interview on death row, said he, too, was upset by the murderabilia market.

“The families of these victims experience enormous, life-consuming pain by the crime itself, and don’t deserve this horrible, additional exploitation,” Reichert said in a statement.

Several years ago, Kahan helped persuade eBay to stop trading in murderabilia, only to see dealers launch their own Web sites.

“They are like cockroaches,” Kahan said. “People have always been interested in the macabre, but this is nauseating.”

Five states — Texas, California, New Jersey, Michigan and Utah — have passed laws aimed at limiting such sales. U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, has introduced legislation that would prohibit state and federal prisoners from mailing such items.

“The more notorious, the more violent the crime, the more morbid curiosity some people have,” Cornyn said. “For all the upsides and benefits of the Internet, this is sort of the dark side of technology.”

Reichert said he would take a “hard look” at introducing similar legislation in the House.

One of Kahan’s best-known supporters is Berkowitz, whose killings of six people terrorized New York City in the 1970s. In a letter to Kahan, Berkowitz said he had no control over his articles and writings that turn up on the Web, adding he was “bothered and troubled” by the auction sites.

Some prisoners benefit from the sales of their memorabilia. Others have no idea the letters, autographs, photos and virtually everything else they touch is being auctioned off, Kahan said. Some dealers will correspond with serial killers in an effort to secure items they can sell without letting the killers know what they are up to, he added.

Bundy was sentenced to death in Florida for the killings of two Florida State University sorority sisters and a 12-year-old girl. While awaiting his execution, he confessed to roughly 40 murders, though the total number of killings will never be known.

Kahan said Bundy has become a cult figure who has been immortalized in movies and books and whose popularity in the murderabilia market is understandable.

“He was charismatic, good-looking for a serial killer, and he sought attention. He had a huge ego,” Kahan said. “Like it or not, he was on a pedestal.”

Web-site operator Tod Bohannon said he and other collectors are being treated unfairly. He said efforts to limit such sales would violate their constitutional rights to free expression.

“The media has a lot to do with who is sought after,” Bohannon said. “It’s all about sensationalism. I think people have been collecting stuff like this since the days of the Old West. People probably have old guns tucked away.”