ONLINE EXTRA: An Underground Market Moves to Mainstream America
In a Q&A, Andy Kahan of the Houston Crime-Victims Office talks about his crusade against auctioning of "murderabilia" on eBay

Since 1992, Andy Kahan has run the crime-victims office for the mayor's office in Houston. Kahan, a former parole and probation officer in Texas, is a leading critic of online auctions. He says some items being sold over eBay were produced by serial killers and are being sold by them for personal profit -- or the profit of third-party dealers. Kahan has begun collecting such items as part of a program he started in the fall of 1999 at the Houston mayor's office and has been traveling throughout the South and Southwest lecturing law-enforcement officers about the issue.

During those lectures, he says, he shows audiences samples of what he has been able to buy on eBay in what he calls "murderabilia" auctions. Kahan has also been an advocate for state legislation to bar criminals from being able to profit from the items sold online.

Business Week Technology Strategies Editor Marcia Stepanek interviewed Kahan in October. Here are edited excerpts from their conversation:

Q: What's wrong with murderabilia, as you call it, being sold over eBay and other auction sites?
We're of the opinion that you shouldn't be able to rob, rape, and murder, and then turn around and make a buck off of it. As much as I'm a believer in free enterprise, you have to draw the line somewhere. And this is where the line should be drawn.

We're looking at legislation with regard to online auctions. We had legislation passed in California that would seize proceeds from third-party dealers, so that neither they or serial killers can profit off the items sold over online auctions. The proceeds would go to victims' families. In some cases, killers themselves have contracts with these third-party dealers.... The killers, in some cases, are already boasting about how marketable they are while they're getting booked.

Q: What kinds of stuff is being sold, specifically?
For example, I've been able to purchase hair samples, fingernail clippings, socks, letters, autographs of serial killers -- all online, in online auctions. It's all pretty much eBay. I started researching the issue in September, 1999. It has been an ongoing project. We've been pulling items left and right. Auction items come and go quickly. I'm on it morning and night now, monitoring.

Q: What was the most bizarre item you've found so far?
Dirt from John Wayne Gacy's crawlspace. It was going for something like $28 when I checked out, in a plastic baggie. Something like 28 people went for it before the bidding stopped.

Q: Is this stuff for real?
Put it this way, I've been able to buy it off eBay. I'm from upstate New York, and I was scanning through my hometown paper in the Rochester suburbs one morning in the fall of last year, and I read that here's serial killer Arthur Shawcross being found selling items on eBay. So I figured where there was one, there were probably others. So I went to eBay and I punched in "serial killer" and voilà. It has been rather fascinating. At that time, there were only 30-40 items in total at any one time. But I've seen it grow since them by leaps and bounds. I've seen it peak at 286, and today, it's 259. It's pretty much now consistently around the 200 mark.

Q: What does this say about society and/or online auctions?
What was once an underground market now has come into mainstream America via the Internet. This has enabled [sellers] to broaden their market base umpteen-fold. Because anybody has access to this -- like kids or anybody -- that's the troubling part of this. Crime-scene pictures are quite graphic and from a victim's perspective, I can't imagine anything more nauseating or disgusting than finding out that the person who murdered your loved one now has items for sale for everyone in the world to gawk at. And somebody's making a buck off of it.

Q: What about the reactions of victims?
Take Mark Kless, the father of the abducted child, Polly Kless. That was a famous case some years back. The person who murdered his daughter, Polly, had items up for bid back in January by outside dealers. Mark was enraged. California leads the league as far as killers having items for sale. There are, for example, a lot of things that Charles Manson has for sale pretty much regularly. Why does California lead? They have more high-profile names. Like in any marketing, you've got to have a name, and California has the big high-profile killers compared to other states -- the Mansons, the nightstalkers, the whole Manson family. Texas and Florida are tied for second place in that camp.

Q: You've protested to eBay. What has been their response?
eBay says they don't like it, but they say they are not the morality police, and they don't dictate what's to be sold in the marketplace or on the site -- as long as it's legal. They tell me that if people can get legislation passed that deems this murderabilia illegal, then eBay would probably be more than happy to take this stuff off the site if they spot it, or if someone in the eBay community, as they call it, spots it.

But we use the analogy of Sears. Sears months ago carried Benetton products, and Benetton came out with controversial ads that [showed] people on Death Row. Sears ultimately took the high road and removed Benetton products off their shelves, even though they were being sold legally. Something tells me that if eBay were to remove this stuff, their profit margins would not diminish dramatically. But they won't budge.

Q: So you're now organizing campaigns for state laws?
We're speaking out in favor of this, and yes, I hope my lectures help to make people aware. California was the first to pass the so-called notoriety-for-profit bill, making it illegal for third parties to sell items and profit. And if they do, profits will be seized. That bill goes into effect in January. We're going to follow in Texas. Our session here begins in January.

I've also been doing these workshops throughout the country, letting everybody know as much as possible the fact that this industry is going on and that it's legal. People think we have Son of Sam laws that prohibit this, but the truth is, we do not. There are no federal or state laws prohibiting the sale of this stuff. Everyone believes there are, but there are not. In 1991, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the Son of Sam law unconstitutional. The court told the states to go back, revise, and redraft -- and nobody did...

Right now, there's a case pending in California involving Frank Sinatra Jr. Columbia Pictures offered his kidnappers a movie deal for rights to their story, and Sinatra Jr. sued, and it's going all the way up to the California Supreme Court. So you're seeing more public activity in this area now.

Q: How does the Internet complicate the public sale of all these kinds of things?
The Internet opens it all up to millions and millions more potential buyers and gives easy access to children. And it sends a negative message to society. What does it say about us? We continue to glorify killers and continue to put them in the mainstream public. That's not right. Everybody knows who a Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy is. But nobody ever remembers any of their victims because these people are...made larger than life by books, movies, posters -- you name it.... And the Internet just glorifies it and magnifies it and makes it readily accessible for anybody to have access.

Q: Actually, though, who would really want this stuff?
People who want to be cool or fearless or who simply find pleasure in somebody else's pain. I can't, personally, fathom why any other individual would want to purchase these items. My best guess also is that some people are so enthralled with the dark side and the macabre that this would be a way for them to be connected to that particular individual. If you look at the volume of mail serial killers get, you'd be amazed and shocked.

We're talking about manufactured items, like those things you shake around Christmas, those snow globes? Except these have the pictures of serial killers inside them. The sickest I've seen is a Jeffrey Dahmer doll that's described as having a zipper across its stomach, which you can unzip and basically see who he ate for dinner last night. You unzip the doll and body parts come out. There are also serial-killer wall calendars for sale on eBay, barbecue aprons, clocks.

Q: Is it just eBay?
Mostly, because eBay is the king and people who sell on eBay know they have the largest audience there.

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EBIZ Cover Image, link to ebiz table of contents
EBIZ Contents for issue dated Nov. 20, 2000

Making a Killing Online

TABLE: Pushing the Limits

ONLINE EXTRA: An Underground Market Moves to Mainstream America

E-Mail to Business Week Online

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