Who would buy the Unabomber’s shoes, dishes, typewriter, rambling letters -- or even his copy of Strunk & White’s “Elements of Style”?
A lot of people, apparently.
When a federal appeals court last week ordered the government to sell thousands of pages of Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski’s papers and other personal property to the highest bidders, it created an immediate stir in the shadowy collectibles world of “murderabilia.”
“I know collectors in Florida, New York, California, Ohio -- they would probably love to get anything from him,” said Tod Bohannon, owner of www.murderauction.com, an auction website for murder memorabilia.
Bohannon’s site, created earlier this year after EBay banned the sale of murder-related items amid protests from victims’ rights groups, features dozens of items from killers, including John Wayne Gacy’s framed Illinois license plate and letters written by Dennis Rader, the BTK killer in Wichita, Kan.
Dealers believe the Unabomber’s journals could fetch more than $1,000 apiece, noting that some of the paintings Gacy created in prison purportedly have sold for as much as $10,000.
But it is just this kind of fascination with the macabre that the federal government cited in opposing the release of Kaczynski’s property, which has been in the government’s possession since the FBI raided his cabin in 1996.
A three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed, ruling that the property should be sold to help pay the $15 million in restitution that Kaczynski was ordered to pay his victims.
Federal prosecutors said the ruling will open up for sale not only thousands of pages of Kaczynski’s writing but also personal effects, including empty peanut butter jars, oatmeal containers, a rock, a plastic container with white clumpy powder and a brown envelope marked “autobiography.”
Some victims said they were appalled at the thought of the Unabomber’s letters going to the highest bidders, even if victims are the financial beneficiaries.
Gary Wright of Salt Lake City, who set off an explosive from the Unabomber in 1987 that sent a nail through his chin and left him with 200 shrapnel wounds all over his body, said he is most bothered at the possibility that bomb-making schematics and victims’ personal information would be among the items sold.
To “put it out there on [auction] or something, that’s a pretty big deal because they are releasing things that are impinging on others’ privacy,” said Wright, who took three years to recover from his wounds. “I don’t think there’s ever enough money to pay for damage to your body, or your mind, or your psyche. I don’t think [the money] will play a part in making me feel any sort of reconciliation with the event.”
David Kaczynski, the Unabomber’s brother, also criticized the release of the papers, saying it made him feel “heartsick” that there would be some “commercial value placed by some fascination of crime and violence.”
In 1995, after the Unabomber’s 35,000-word manifesto was jointly published by the New York Times and the Washington Post, David Kaczynski called the FBI because he thought the writing was similar to his brother’s. The tip led federal authorities to Theodore Kaczynski’s Montana cabin and to his arrest.
“Victims were horrified at the thought that we would be selling Kaczynski’s property like a celebrity,” said Assistant U.S. Atty. Ana Maria Martel. “Selling this as if he was John Kennedy instead of Ted Kaczynski, it was very offensive to them.”
Kaczynski, who once taught at UC Berkeley and has an advanced degree in mathematics from the University of Michigan, pleaded guilty in 1998 to sending bombs to victims across the country. The bombing spree from 1978 to 1995 killed three people and injured 23 others.
In his writings, Kaczynski warned that modern technology was destroying human freedom. He wrote in his manifesto that he had to kill people to get his message before the public and make a lasting impression. In pleading guilty, he avoided the death penalty and is serving four consecutive life sentences in prison.
The 13-by-13-foot cabin where Kaczynski lived and wrote his manifesto was painstakingly moved from the Montana woods to a former Air Force base in Sacramento, where attorneys preparing for the trial pored through its contents. But since he pleaded guilty, his property has been in limbo.
Kaczynski has been seeking the return of his property from the cabin so that he could donate his papers to the University of Michigan, which has a collection of materials documenting the history of radical thought.
On Thursday, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that federal prosecutors must come up with a plan for selling Kaczynski’s belongings “in a commercially reasonable manner calculated to maximize the monetary return to Kaczynski’s victims and their families.”
There are five main websites that sell homicide-related memorabilia. For example, www.supernaught.com is offering serial killer Ted Bundy’s 1988 Christmas card for $1,200, a birthday card sent by Jeffrey Dahmer for $1,700 (“with original mailing envelope”) and a $99 “blurry photograph” of Charles Manson and his followers at the Spahn Movie Ranch in the Santa Susanna Pass. (A nail from the ranch is selling separately for $20 as a “Manson Family Relic.”)
Bohannon, owner of www.murderauction.com, said he is most interested in the Unabomber’s personal effects. Kaczynski’s hairbrush or a toothbrush, he said, could go for about $500 each.
If the government goes through with the auction, it is highly likely that at least some of Kaczynski’s items will show up on murderabilia websites, said Andy Kahan, director of the Houston mayor’s crime victims office. “This stuff is going to be sold no matter what,” he said.
Kahan led the effort in 2001 to have EBay ban the sale of murderabilia on its auction website. But since then, traders in murder memorabilia have created their own websites to auction and sell the items.
The Unabomber case is unusual, Kahan said, because the court is ordering the sale of Kaczynski’s property, with the proceeds going to his victims. Normally, dealers obtain memorabilia from the killers themselves or from people who own items -- anything from signed receipts to pieces of clothing.
In just the last few weeks, Kahan has seen letters written by convicted murderer Scott Peterson selling for up to $500 each. A few years ago, dirt from Gacy’s crawlspace, where he allegedly buried his victims, went for $30 a scoopful, he said.
Four states, including California, have passed laws prohibiting criminals from profiting from murderabilia. Kahan said auctioning the Unabomber’s possessions would be allowed in California, however, because the money would go to victims.
Robert Thompson, a professor of pop culture at Syracuse University, said murder memorabilia has become more popular with the advent of the Internet, which allows people to anonymously bid on items from around the world.
“Ever since we were civilized enough to have a prohibition against murder, we were civilized enough to be fascinated by people who broke those prohibitions,” he said.
Despite the market for murder memorabilia, some high-end auction houses said offering property from a killer like the Unabomber crosses the line.
“This is somebody who is a terrorist,” said Catherine Williamson, director of fine books and manuscripts for San Francisco-based Bonhams & Butterfields. “He was famous only for wreaking terror.... He’s not famous for writing or performing or acting in any way, except in an anarchistic, violent way.”
The University of Michigan has been collecting the Unabomber’s papers for its library collection. Officials said they aren’t sure if the university will bid on his property but expressed concerns about its going up for auction. “This will take them out of the public domain, making them inaccessible to researchers and to everyone,” said Julie Herrada, curator of the university’s Labadie Collection.
But Erica Angelakos, whose father, Diogenes, was wounded when he opened up a package sent by the Unabomber in 1982, doesn’t see a problem with selling Kaczynski’s papers.
“I don’t think there is any reason why his writings shouldn’t be out there,” Angelakos said. “It could be of interest to someone, and if it is, I think it’s silly to keep it locked up forever. I don’t see the value of the papers held as governmental evidence.”
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Here are some items found on murder memorabilia websites:
* William George Bonin, known as the “Freeway Killer” -- 13-inch Sony stereo sound and color television; offered for $750
* John William “Possum” King, who dragged to death a black man in Texas -- autographed T-shirt; offered for $2,000
* Charles Manson -- Manson’s handprint, signed, and a drawing done by another inmate depicting Manson behind bars with a saw; offered for $900
* Scott Peterson, killer of his wife, Laci, and their unborn son -- a letter written from the county jail during his trial; sold for $500
* Richard Ramirez, the “Night Stalker” serial killer -- photocopy of two childhood pictures of Ramirez with his inscription, “On a tricycle rolling on a highway to Hell, Richard”; offered for $200
* Aileen Wuornos, serial killer and subject of the movie “Monster” -- a handwritten envelope mailed from death row; offered for $300
Sources: Andy Kahan, director of the Houston mayor’s crime victims office; www.supernaught.com
Los Angeles Times