Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON - Once her daughter's killer was behind bars for life, Harriett Semander could finally think of Elena without thoughts of her murderer clouding her memories.
Then she learned a letter written by Coral Eugene Watts - the man who strangled Elena with her shirt and left her in a trash bin - was up for bids on the Internet, eventually selling for about $50.
"It brings all the grief back, all the pain and I know he's got a conviction, but I lost my daughter. He should not be profiting or anyone else be profiting from my loss," said Semander of Houston.
Watts confessed in 1982 to killing 13 people, including 11 in Texas.
Semander said just as she and other victims' relatives were beginning to move on, Watts' letter was offered for sale on the Internet. The opening bid: 30 cents.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, has proposed legislation cracking down on the sellers of so-called "murderabilia." His legislation would prohibit inmates from mailing anything for purposes of interstate commerce. Violations carry sentences of three to 10 years.
Sales of murderabilia "puts the lie to the truism that crime doesn't pay," Cornyn said.
Some items that have been offered for sale include a sketch of Osama bin Laden by Lee Boyd Malvo, one of the Washington-area snipers involved in 23 murders in eight states that was offered for $500; a license plate from a black van that belonged to John Wayne Gacy, who was put to death for the murders of 33 boys and men was offered for a starting bid of $3,000 and a signed, sketched self-portrait of Charles Manson was offered for $500, Cornyn's office said.
"This is an example of crime paying and paying pretty well," he said.
States have tried for years to prevent notorious criminals from profiting from their crimes beginning with New York, which passed the so-called Son of Sam law amid concerns that serial killer David Berkowitz might sell his story for a book or movie.
But that law was declared unconstitutional because it infringed on freedom of expression. States have written new versions of the law, but several have been overturned by state courts.
Andy Kahan, director of the Houston victims rights office, has crusaded against such sales since 1999. He started by contacting local media in communities where serial killers struck when artifacts related to those crimes were put up for sale.
His efforts were instrumental in eBay's decision to ban sales of such items on its site. He also has helped get "notoriety for profit" laws passed in five states _ Texas, Michigan, Utah, New Jersey and California. The laws essentially prohibit criminals from selling personalized items for profit.
"You shouldn't be able to, rob rape and murder and turn around and make a buck out of it," Kahan said.
But he says that only works if the dealer is based in one of the five states with such laws. So he sought help from Cornyn for a federal ban that would prevent sales of criminals' memorabilia nationwide.
Tod Bohannon, who operates murderauction.com, says on his Web site that he launched the site after eBay banned sales of true crime artifacts.
He considers himself a collector and says inmates don't share in the money generated by the sales, which usually cover just his mailing costs. He addresses some of the controversy on his Web site.
"Neither I nor the vast majority of the 600-plus members of my site condone murder or glorify serial killers," Bohannon said in an e-mail. "We have an interest in the criminal mind and a passion for a little understanding of the nature of ourselves as humans."
He argues that collecting crime memorabilia is a hobby that is no different than collecting artifacts of Billy the Kid or Al Capone. The real profiteers are Hollywood moviemakers, TV writers and authors whose material is based on true crimes or serial killers, he said.
"This is not a small corner of the Internet, where serious collectors quietly exchange rare items, this is IN YOUR FACE, all over the TV and movie screen, on magazine and tabloid newspaper covers. Where is the compassion for the victims here? Why is there not a proportionate reaction to and lobby against these industries?" Bohannon asked.
Susan Hawley, director of public policy for the National Center for Victims of Crime, said it hasn't taken a position on Cornyn's bill.
She said such sales do hurt families because sellers profit - or try to - from the worst things that have happened to the families.
But she also said the center works to ensure that victims get restitution, including from earnings a criminal may earn by selling artwork or other items. Some prisoners are allowed to work and earn wages to buy personal hygiene and other items from prison canteens.
Bohannon suggested that victims shouldn't visit his site if they oppose what it sells. But Semander said she can't ignore it.
"I could not ignore it if there's something inside of me that says it's wrong," Semander said. "If I can't stop it for me at least maybe I can try for someone else."
On the Net: Murderablia sites: http://www.murderauction.com; http://www.daisyseven.com; http://www.supernaught.com; http://www.skcentral.com
Sen. John Cornyn: http://www.senate.cornyn.gov