I was reluctantly pulled into the macabre market of "murderabilia" after the killer featured in my latest book, Lost Girls, signed and wrote an apology in a copy that is now being offered for sale at $275 on a website called "darkvomit.com."
"I'm sorry for all the pain that I have caused," he wrote. "John Gardner."
My first thought was, if Gardner truly didn't want to cause any more pain to the families of his two victims -- San Diego area teens Amber Dubois and Chelsea King, for whom Chelsea's Law was named -- he shouldn't have done this.
But if Gardner had good judgment, he clearly wouldn't be where he is today. Even he admits that he needs to be medicated and behind bars.
As expected, news of the autographed book's sale offer disgusted and upset the victims' families. When I found out about it, I was particularly disturbed that Gardner had signed his inscription on the page opposite my dedication to his victims.
"What are you going to do?" a TV reporter asked me.
Well, what could I do, really? Ours is a free capitalist country, where people can say, sell and buy almost anything they want on the Internet. People also collect all sorts of weird and obscure things. And although many find these items despicable, there must be dark souls who enjoy living vicariously through serial killers and putting a piece of them on their nightstands (which is creepier still because serial killers are known to collect souvenirs from their victims) or the murderabilia market wouldn't exist.
The web has only helped expand this market, which was once conducted quietly via an underground network of dealers and collectors. But today, these creepy keepsakes can be purchased by anyone with a computer. And for the handful of dealers trading in this netherworld -- who are apparently all male -- what was once a hobby has become a booming business.
With my extensive knowledge of Gardner, I decided to dig deeper into how and why this book found its way into this market. After talking to officials at Corcoran state prison, where Gardner is serving a life sentence, I contacted Andy Kahan, a murderabilia watchdog and victim advocate for the city of Houston.
Kahan has spent the last decade single-handedly monitoring, exposing and trying to stop these sales -- ever since he was challenged by an eBay representative who said the auction site refused to be the "moral police." In doing so, Kahan has corresponded with dealers and high-profile killers, including David Berkowitz, and has purchased numerous items.
To his knowledge, mine is the first true crime book to be signed for sale by the same killer whose heinous acts are chronicled in its pages.
"You name it I've seen it, but I've not seen this," Kahan said.
The term "murderabilia," he said, generally encompasses artifacts made by and in the likeness of serial killers, including their original artwork, fingernail clippings, used deodorant, or trading cards they've autographed as though they were celebrity sports figures. Foot scrapings. Samples of Charles Manson's hair shaped like a swastika. Or dirt from their victims' graves.
Pre-made items range from action figures to snowglobes, featuring a smirking John Wayne Gacy, to a Jeffrey Dahmer doll, advertised as "open me up for a sure delight and see who I ate for dinner last night. You unzip the doll and body parts fall out."
Kahan has persuaded eBay to remove such items from its site, and he is now working on getting Facebook to do the same. He has found a number of objectionable murderabilia pages there, including Serial Killers Ink, which has posted grisly crime scene photos of nude decomposing murder victims and a killer-rapist's crude pornographic illustration of a bare-bottomed nun giving oral sex to Jesus. So far, Facebook has declined to take down these pages or sale items.
Kahan said he wonders whether Gardner was even aware when he signed the copy of LOST GIRLS that it would be hawked online. "A lot of times ... some of these guys are absolutely clueless that their stuff is being sold."
Gardner told officials at Corcoran state prison that his mother sent the book to him, he signed it, and he sent it back out. But I don't believe that. She has previously told me that Gardner had suggested she sell his belongings online -- something at which Manson, his famous cellblock-mate, has apparently been quite successful -- but she refused, saying enough people hated their family already.
She also requested that I ask my publisher to send him a copy of my book directly, which is the only way inmates are allowed to receive them because prison mail is a pathway for drugs and other contraband. When I emailed her about the recent controversy, she said she knew nothing about it, but thought he got the book from my publisher. If so, this certainly wasn't the use I intended for it.
Either way, the question is, how did it get in and out of a supposedly secure facility?
It's not likely it came with a visitor, who would have been searched and scanned upon entering. Even with prior authorization, I was only allowed to carry in a clear plastic bag containing my driver's license, 10 sheets of blank paper and a pen, which I used to interview Gardner for five hours one Saturday in 2011. However, no one searched me as I was leaving.
Prison spokesman Anthony Baer said books may be carried into the initial waiting area, but they must be returned to visitors' cars before the person enters the prison proper.
Kahan said dealers often groom killers through letters and sometimes follow-up visits too, urging items to be mailed or handed over in person. Sometimes, profits are shared.
Baer said inmates are allowed to send books out through the mail, in fact, prison policy encourages it. Once prisoners have collected a certain number of books in their cells, they must send extras to family or friends or donate them to the prison library before they can receive any more.
But a book with a signed inscription like this should have been pulled, Baer said. If Gardner sent it out in the outgoing mail, "That's our bad, because obviously the cops didn't catch that. They probably just thumbed through it and it went out."
Kelly Hutchison, a pinup portrait artist in San Diego and the dealer who runs darkvomit.com, told one media source that he got the book from another dealer. He didn't respond to my requests for an interview.
Because Gardner owes tens of thousands of dollars in victim restitution, he shouldn't be able to share in any profits if the book does sell, because money credited to his inmate fund should go toward paying that debt. It is possible, however, that he could receive a care package, of which he is allowed to have three each year.
"For the most part," Kahan said, prisons are "clueless to what's happening behind their doors."
New York Times bestselling author Caitlin Rother has written or co-authored nine books, including Lost Girls and Poisoned Love. Her next book, I'll Take Care of You, will be released in January 2014.
Follow Caitlin Rother on Twitter: www.twitter.com/caitlinrother