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The Serial Killer Letters: A Penetrating Look Inside the Minds of Murderers
I am writing to you because I am interested in finding out what happened to you—how you ended up in prison. Right now I am corresponding with several incarcerated men who have been convicted of murder. Some of them say they’re innocent. Others admit their guilt. I know that there are innocent men in prison and guilty men. Those who are innocent are suffering for crimes they did not commit. And maybe the guilty men also suffer because they have to live with themselves. And many of them, both guilty and innocent, are facing death, living isolated on death row with no one to talk to. What about you? Are you guilty or innocent? I don’t think it’s possible for anyone, no matter how tough their skin, to ignore and abandon past "transgressions," especially when they are the worst, most violent hate crimes imaginable. I know what I’ve read about you in books, but I realize that these “biographical” books are not always accurate. I would like to hear your side of the story. Also, please rest assured that I’m an open-minded person and that I have no interest in judging you. In my opinion, honesty is all-important. It can set you free. It can help you live with yourself. That is not to imply that I’m assuming you’re guilty—I just want you to tell me—honestly—how you ended up in prison. Some of the guys who have written to me have bravely owned up to their crimes and have made generous efforts to explain what happened to them. Some have told me about their childhoods, most of which were horrible beyond belief. It’s clear to me (but I don’t think always to them) that many of them were victims themselves—victims of abuse and neglect. The things they’ve told me about their early years and especially about their mothers are so awful, it makes me cringe. Not that a bad childhood works as an excuse for killing people, but it certainly can have catastrophic effects later in life. The stories I have heard are scary and tragic, but I still want to know. Don’t you agree that it’s important to understand why things happen? Especially when they are as drastic as a murder conviction—or many murder convictions?
If you’re guilty, can you admit it? Or maybe you already have. What drove you to commit the crimes? Do you know? Or haven’t you been able to figure it out? Maybe you haven’t even tried to understand. If that’s the case, maybe now is a good time to start. I am not afraid to hear the truth. No matter how frightening or shocking your story is, I would be grateful if you would share it with me.
If you’re innocent, isn’t it important that others know? That you make an effort to make your voice heard? I’m sure you’ve already told the people who needed to know (lawyers, judges, jury, etc.), but will you consider sharing this information with me? I realize I’m asking you to divulge some very personal information, so it’s only fair that I tell you a little about myself. I live in Bellingham, Washington and I teach Sunday School. I am married and have two young children. I spend most of my time taking care of them. This may seem like a boring life to you, but it’s not to me. In fact, my love for my children is indirectly related to why I wrote to you in the first place. I love my children and I don’t want them to have to grow up into a world seething with hate and violence. Of course, I personally cannot stop either of these, but my thinking is that the more we understand how these things happen, the better equipped we’ll be to approach them, deal with them and maybe even prevent them from occurring in the first place.
Even though I am frightened and sickened by these crimes, I also believe in grace. I really do. No matter how horrible the crime, I feel everyone deserves the opportunity to be forgiven. Please write back to me. I know you don’t know me and that it might be difficult to reveal this personal information to a complete stranger, but at least it will give you a chance to speak your mind. I’m here to listen to you with an open mind and an understanding heart.
The above is a letter that I sent to one of over 50 incarcerated men who have been convicted of murder and in most cases, serial murder. Most of them responded and over the past two and one-half years, we ended up developing quite an in-depth discourse—their half of which makes up a majority of this book. Not all of them were so keen on the idea of telling me anything.
The following letter from a friend of Angelo Buono’s, Kenneth Bianchi’s partner in “The Hillside Stranglings,” is a good example of someone who was very angry that I wrote in the first place:
December 18, 1996
Dear Mrs. Frio,
I have been authorized by Angelo Buono to respond to several letters you have written to him seeking correspondence with him. I am here to say: KNOCK IT OFF! If you cant take non-response as an answer, you've got problems and Mr. Buono does not care to be burdened with them. He's got more than enough of his own as an INNOCENT man, wrongfully and maliciously prosecuted, convicted and sentenced to die for CRIMES HE DID NOT COMMIT! He does not care to be used by you as your latest addition to your collection of "murderers" nor does he feel this is the way you should be spending your time as a wife, a mother, and still a young person. If the way you are spending your time and energy is to go around DEMANDING the attention of persons you believe to be serial killers, Honey, YOU got problems and you need therapy! And Mr. Carpenter is not a therapist. In short, Mr. Carpenter is NOT going to respond to your letters, and I am telling you LAY OFF my man! I trust I have made myself clear.
Even though Mr. Buono didn’t want to have anything to do with me, his friend’s letter addresses a valuable point: Why would a young mother like myself get involved with a dark project like this in the first place? I suspect that the first thing a lot of people will think is that I am some kind of nut. Or that I have some kind of weird obsession with killers and that I am celebrating or glorifying them with this book. None of these is the case. I consider myself to be a pretty normal person and I’m interested in killers because I am afraid of them and sickened by the things they do. I believe that the more we know about people who commit these crimes, the better equipped we’ll be to combat the hate and violence that is so prevalent in our world. I also suspect that a lot of people feel that subjects like this are simply too ugly to read about, that they’d rather just not know about them. I can fully appreciate this attitude, but I think it’s important to educate ourselves about people who rape and murder. How else can we stop them—and, for that matter, help them?
Murder is so common these days that not a single day goes by that there isn’t a news report of another tragic killing, the perpetrators of which are any race, any age, any gender. In some ways, serial killers are different. Defined in the literature as murderers who kill a succession of people (three or more) over a period of time (at least 30 days), serial killers are their own special breed of murderer, a subculture. Most are men, most kill women. Most of them are not insane. In fact, many seem completely normal, at least on the surface, meaning that they can easily live and lurk undetected in our communities, killing over and over again, never stopping until they get caught. This fact is frightening beyond words. And most of them do more than kill. They overkill, raping, torturing and mutilating their victims. Anyone who is does things like this has to have something very wrong with them and must be dealing with some pretty intense “issues.” I wanted to know what these issues were, not from a psychologist’s point of view, but from the killer’s themselves.
There are other reasons for my interest in murderers. Growing up, I was surrounded by murder—murder that was suspected of being the work of serial killers. When I was 11 and living in Redding, California, a man (allegedly Randall Woodfield) killed a mother and her 14-year-old stepdaughter who lived close to my house. About a year later, also in my home town, a 12-year-old girl I knew was raped and murdered. I vividly remember feeling so sorry that she would never reach adulthood and know what it was like to be married or have children, that her life was cut short at such a tragically young age. Also in the Redding area, around the same time, Cameron Hooker abducted a young woman named Colleen Stan, locked her up in a box the size of a coffin for ten years, and made her his sex slave.
In Sacramento, where I went to school, I lived in the same apartment complex where Richard Chase, the notorious “Vampire Killer,” had lived a few years before. While I was in college, I knew a woman who was murdered after her car broke down late at night on Highway 99. Only blocks from my house in Sacramento, serial killer Dorothea Puente had murdered as many as 13 men and women in the late 1980s. Later, after I had gotten married, three librarians were shot and killed in our local library. Then, a woman was taken from her car at the grocery store where I shopped almost every day and was raped, killed and decapitated. And when we moved to Bellingham, Washington, I discovered this was where Kenneth Bianchi, one of the “Hillside Stranglers,” had committed his last two murders.
It seemed that everywhere I went people were being killed. And I know I wasn’t the only one who experienced this. This is the case all across America. Somehow, when it happens to someone you know, it seems a little more real and a lot more frightening. Gradually, I wanted to know more about the men who were doing the murdering. I just couldn’t fathom the kind of person who would be motivated to snatch a poor unsuspecting soul out of her safe world and hurtle her into his nightmare world, a hell really, and cause an innocent victim blinding fear, dizzying pain and death. Who could do something like that? And more importantly, why?
Even though research has been conducted and books have been written on serial killers and the motivations behind their crimes, much of it is inconclusive and general. For my own peace of mind and safety, for the protection of my children and the rest of the world, I wanted to know more. So, I began to write letters to convicted serial killers. I asked them quite bluntly: “If you are guilty, why did you do it, and if you’re innocent, why are you in prison?” Some of them admit their guilt, others deny it. In fact, many of them deny it. This does not mean that their letters lack value in any way. To the contrary, denials of guilt are every bit as informative as admissions of guilt. You can decide for yourself who you choose to believe.
I started this project to find answers to my own questions, but it didn’t take me long to realize that these letters were too important to keep to myself. I think you will agree with me that they are simply remarkable. After all, they are unedited, first-person accounts of incredible life experiences that most of us know nothing about, and situations and circumstances we cannot even imagine.
When I asked each of my correspondents for permission to publish their letters, some of them were furious, refusing because they thought I had misrepresented myself. They said they didn’t know I was a writer and if they had, they wouldn’t have opened up to me the way they did. (In all fairness to me, I had no intention of publishing their letters until far into the project, although I guess none of them believed this.) Others refused because they said they had written to me alone, not to the rest of the world. I have respected the wishes of those who did not want to be included in the book, but I didn’t leave their letters out. I simply omitted their names and whenever necessary, I changed identifying information. The letters of those men who agreed to let me share their thoughts with others are printed exactly as I received them, word for word. Even the punctuation and emphases (underlining, etc.) have been copied with painstaking accuracy.
I cannot begin to express how very grateful I am to these men for allowing me this window into their hearts and souls. I am especially appreciative to those who made the extremely difficult effort to speak openly and intimately about experiences that are painful, embarrassing and ugly. It is my opinion that every one of them succeeded in communicating their stories with a depth and impact never before achieved. I thank them for that.