Wendy Lavin, whose daughter, Jennifer Still, was killed on July 6, 1999, was surfing the Internet recently when she found something that stunned her.
Letters and envelopes belonging to her daughter's killer, John Eichinger, a death-row inmate in Waynesburg, Pa., were on sale for $20.
"I had to take a few moments," said Lavin, 55, of Upper Providence Township. "Nobody has a right to profit from somebody else's pain. It's wrong."
Lavin had come face-to-face with a modern reality: There are those who hanker for "murderabilia" - the hair, nail clippings, autographs, photos, writings, drawings, clothing, and legal papers of killers.
Lavin and Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman met with media members yesterday to call attention to what they called a largely unknown practice.
Sales of the items began more than a decade ago and run to $250,000 a year, estimated Andy Kahan, who began looking into the practice in 1999 and coined the term murderabilia.
The term refers to items that inmates mail from their jail cells and then have others advertise online for sale at online auction sites such as daisyseven, supernaught, rotten, and MurderAuction.
Some prisoners aren't aware that their items are being sold, Kahan said, but others directly supply third-party dealers. There is no way of knowing to what degree inmates profit.
On June 7, when Lavin found the references to letters linked to her daughter's killer on daisyseven.com, she alerted Ferman. Ferman contacted the Web site and asked that the posts be removed. They were.
"It's horrifying beyond words," Ferman said, calling those who traffic in murderabilia "the worst kind of bottom feeders."
Robert Newsome, spokesman for the daisyseven auction Web site, said the site's detractors were wrong.
"We are probably the most misunderstood site on the Web," Newsome said.
The Eichinger items were among a batch of autographed materials purchased two years ago; they were listed for sale for more than a year.
"We don't like collectors," Newsome said. "We sell to academics, professors, students, handwriting experts, forensic scientists. There is no record of us ever having paid a killer."
Newsome added: "We have never been in contact with Mr. Eichinger or anyone on his behalf."
Newsome said the items were removed "as a courtesy" to Lavin after the matter was brought to the site's attention. He said the site rarely did that.
How the items got from Eichinger to the party that sold them to the Web site isn't clear. Dan Davis, assistant superintendent at the State Correctional Institution in Greene County, said inmates were "not allowed to be in business."
The prison monitors incoming mail for contraband but does not specifically check outgoing mail for goods to be sold "unless we get a complaint that something is going on," Davis said.
So far, Eichinger has not come under scrutiny for mailing goods to be sold, Davis said, but he might be, now that the issue has been raised.
According to Kahan and Ferman, the overarching problem is that selling murderabilia isn't illegal. Some states have specific murderabilia laws to prevent criminals from selling their possessions for profit, but the law doesn't cross interstate lines, Kahan said.
"Individual state laws might make us feel good, but they won't address the problem. We need something to address this nationally," Ferman said yesterday.
The "Son of Sam" law was passed in the 1970s to prevent killers from selling their life stories for profit. In 1991, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the New York law on the grounds that it violated free speech.
Kahan, director of the crime victims division of the Houston mayor's office, is pushing for a federal statute, known as the "Notoriety for Profit Law," that would prohibit criminals from selling murderabilia through third parties on the Web. The bill surfaced in 2007, sponsored by Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas. Kahan said it has languished for lack of a Democratic sponsor.
Kahan and Lavin plan to lobby to get the law passed this year, to spare relatives of crime victims the pain of seeing murderabilia items for sale online.
Lavin, cofounder of the Montgomery County chapter of Parents of Murdered Children, said the incident had brought the pain of her daughter's stabbing death in Bridgeport flooding back.
"If it's happening to us, chances are it's happening to others," Lavin said.