The first one I can remember is Ted Bundy. I was five years old and living in Florida, and I remember my parents watching the news coverage of his execution on television. A few years later, when I was seven, Danny Rolling was on the loose. I remember my mother telling me that he was a serial killer—he killed people, she explained, and in some cases "he posed some of the people he killed for shock value."
It's hard to say why those memories made such an impression on me, but I developed a fascination with murderers. It struck me that while they were national spectacles—the graphic stories of the way they killed people splashed across the news—I didn't really know anything about them. And so on a whim, in 2009, I wrote Richard Ramirez a letter.
I forgot about it almost as soon as I'd sent it. That is, until I checked the mail three weeks later and found an envelope addressed to me. The return address was scrawled unintelligibly, but I could make out that it was from San Quentin State Prison.
The letter itself was actually rather boring. He came off as polite and fairly normal, save for a bit where he asked me to send him photos of women at the beach. He asked me what kind of cars I liked and what kind of music I listened to. If I hadn't already known him as the Night Stalker, it would've been impossible to tell if he was in prison for petty theft or for serial murder. He wrote that he liked AC/DC, and my stomach turned as I remembered the AC/DC hat he was rumored to have worn while he killed.
Since then, I've written to upwards of 50 serial killers, school shooters, and mass murderers.
Of all the killers I've corresponded with, there's only one whom I can honestly consider a "friend." Barry Loukaitis was 14 years old in 1996, when he walked into his algebra class at Frontier middle school armed with a hunting rifle and two hand guns. He opened fire on several students and a teacher, killing three and injuring one. I wrote Barry not knowing what to expect, but I found an extremely intelligent man who has spent more of his life in prison then he has out of it. We shared many things in common: We're both unabashed atheists; both interested in politics; we're close in age, and we grew up enjoying the same video games and movies. Something that struck me about Barry was that he had genuine remorse for those his crime affected. He refuses to speak with journalists out of respect for his victims. He had also spent quite a bit of time self-reflecting and analyzing the decision that landed him in prison for life. When I initially asked about this, he replied:
To put it simply, I was an asshole. I felt isolated from everyone, and didn't fit in. Rather than see this for what it was and embrace individuality, I chose to be mean to people. I had a very puerile 'they're not worth befriending anyway' attitude, which insulated me from the feeling of rejection. Suffice it to say that I adopted an identity which wasn't really who I was. Deep down I knew this but I ignored it. I tried to project a fearsome image, but would never act accordingly. When I was challenged, I backed down. After this happened several times I felt I needed to prove myself, that I was what I claimed to be. The result was me murdering people.
He wrote that he's fantasized about going back in time, trying to reason with his younger self. "Also, cliché but true; I needed a role model."
I didn't feel bad for Barry—he is where he deserves to be, without question—but I understood his situation. He told me that the guilt was absolutely overwhelming to him, I found the entire situation to be tragic. He can never undo what he did, but through our letters, I was able to connect with him on a human level.
But not all killers are like this. My letters from Phillip Jablonski—a brutal and sexually-motivated serial killer on death row in California—illustrated the gruesome, sickening logic of some murderers. Phillip and I corresponded for a few years, and our conversations were weighed down by his fantasies of violence and murder. Phillip is what you might imagine as a stereotypical serial killer: He bragged about his crimes, he spoke of horrible fantasies, and he sent my wife homemade holiday cards (much to her dismay). It amazed me how he could seemingly turn his extremely violent nature on and off at will.
I've had many nightmares about Phillip. Such is the cost of digging into these people's heads: sometimes they hide in yours.
Most of my letters were, for lack of a better word, boring. I read military stories and theories about God from Robert Yates (the Spokane serial killer). I talked about Combat sports with Marc Sappington (the Kansas City Vampire), and received cooking recipes from Bill Suff (the Riverside prostitute killer). James Whitey Bulger told me stories from Alcatraz and about life on the run and warned me—as if I needed a warning—against a life of crime. He also told me what his last meal would be if he were to receive the death penalty: T-bone steak, cooked medium; salad with onions; a glass of red wine, or a Coca Cola.
I would send my correspondents money for postage and phone time to write and call me, so they wouldn't have to use their personal resources when I was the one pursuing them. After a few years I have had quite a few conversations with at least a few dozen of America's most infamous and hated individuals. I've received letters from Susan Atkins, Ed Edwards, and Karl Myers, all weeks before their deaths. For a period of time, I had a relentless stream of mail from Robert Bardo, the stalker and killer of Hollywood actress Rebeca Schaeffer, who fervently requested information about his favorite celebrities. In many cases, there were requests for something from the offenders I contacted—they'd ask for money, or for books. Some, like Jack Spillman (the werewolf butcher) asked for photos of "sick-looking girls." But when all's said and done, the people I engaged were looking for something from me just as much as I was looking for something from them.
The more I spoke with them and the more I learned, the less curious I was. I've learned now, after five years of writing to these criminals, that behind every murder is a person, and those people are not all alike. Barry Loukaitis shot his classmates as the result of depression and an identity complex. Michael Carneal was—and still is—severely mentally ill. Andrew Williams was bullied intensely. They were all extremely withdrawn before they committed their crimes. William Clyde Gibson was motivated by sex and used drugs and alcohol to enable and embolden him to act on his fantasies. Tommy Lynn Sells was motivated by rage developed from a rough life, and Paul Reid was motivated by greed. All of them were seeking a degree of power and control through killing. Knowing this doesn't soften their crimes, but it somehow feels important to know. It feels important to have an answer rather than grasping in the dark about why someone would kill another person. Though some things are the same, there are many differences in these criminals and their crimes. It's not as black and white as most would like to believe. And it's not as simple an answer as a person being naturally "evil." There is much more behind it.
I'm often asked if I feel more sympathetic toward killers, given the extensive conversations I've had with them. In actuality, this experience has increased my sensitivity to their victims. These stories have become intensely real to me—no longer an article in a newspaper, a page in a true crime book, or a segment on the nightly news.
I haven't written to any offenders lately, but I have recently completed my first criminal and geographical profile with the assistance of Dr. Maurice Godwin, on the Daytona Beach serial killer cold case. I also consulted on a book called Invisible Killer: The Monster Behind the Mask, about a little known serial killer named Charlie Brandt. My interactions with different types of offenders have enabled me to better understand them as criminals, offering insight that can't be learned in any book. If not by outright speaking to them about their crimes, then it was through observing firsthand their behavior, manipulations, social interaction, personal life, and their past in conversation. This information brings these offenders and others like them into light. I now use my knowledge to help expose them.
Former FBI profiler John Douglas said: "To understand an artist, you have to look at their art." But to understand the art, you also have to look at the artist. And to truly understand a crime, you have to take a long, hard look at the criminal.