Sniper's art sale draws outrage

The Baltimore Sun

A Web site that peddles the personal effects of notorious killers has posted for sale a drawing of Osama bin Laden said to be the work of Lee Boyd Malvo, prompting outrage from the families of victims in the 2002 sniper shootings near Washington.

The drawing, a cartoonish, black-and-white sketch on a rumpled sheet of paper, appears to depict bin Laden, a shaggy beard falling down his chest. It was posted April 14 on an eBay-like auction site called "murderauc" by a seller known only as "Redrum," the word "murder" spelled backward.

The authenticity of the drawing could not be confirmed, but it is consistent with rage-filled artwork the sniper was known to produce while in jail awaiting trial in Virginia in 2003. His attorneys used some of it in an unsuccessful effort to mount an insanity defense in that trial. But neither his Maryland nor Virginia lawyers knew about the current art auction.

Relatives of victims contacted yesterday were incensed at the apparent commercialization of the art.

"Are you serious?" asked Denise Johnson, whose husband, bus driver Conrad E. Johnson, was the last person gunned down by the snipers.

"I think that's ridiculous," said Victoria Snider, the sister of Sonny Buchanan, who was shot in the back while mowing grass at a car dealership in Kensington. "I don't think he should be allowed to make any profit at all. If they make anything, it should go to the prison and go to getting them help."

As of yesterday afternoon, no one had bid on it. Visitors to the Web site could bid on the drawing or purchase it outright for $500.

On the Web page, it was described in a message with numerous misspellings as "a drawing of Oussama Bin Laden. ... It was done from prison by ... Washigton sniper Lee Malvo."

The site also goes on to say that Malvo signed the drawing twice, and that it is "100% Authentic !!!"

Efforts to reach via e-mail the Georgia-based operator of the site or the seller of the drawing were unsuccessful. The seller, whom the site lists as being based in Canada, has a wide range of other items for sale on the site, including a letter purportedly written by "Son of Sam" killer David Berkowitz and an autographed O.J. Simpson picture.

The selling of what is said to be Malvo's work follows a trend that has existed nationwide, said Andy Kahan, the director of crime victim assistance for the city of Houston. At least three other Web sites have sprouted up in recent years selling similar merchandise, Kahan said.

"The bottom line is that you have people profiting off the grief of crime victims and their families," Kahan said. "This would be a worthless piece of junk if it didn't have Malvo's name on it."

Among the items murderauc says it has sold are John Wayne Gacy's T-shirt, California serial killer Roy Norris' fingernail clippings and a lock of Charles Manson's hair.

Experts say some people are drawn to the macabre kitsch of well-known criminals, not unlike the people who buy pop idol merchandise.

"I think that there is a celebrity factor -- a reverse celebrity factor involved," said Michael Greenberger, a law professor at the University of Maryland who specializes in terrorism and has closely followed the sniper cases. "People like notoriety, and [Malvo] is a notorious person."

Still, he said, "I think it is a sort of a perverse attitude of a person who would bid on it."

Malvo, 22, is serving multiple life terms in prison for his role in the sniper shootings that left 10 people dead and three wounded in the Washington metropolitan area. His mentor, John Allen Muhammad, 46, is on death row in Virginia.

The pair prowled the region for victims in Muhammad's beat-up Chevrolet Caprice, a dark blue car with a gun port cut into its trunk to hide a rifle-wielding killer. Investigators said they suspect the pair in nearly a dozen additional shootings as far away as Washington state, Alabama and Florida.

Malvo was a prolific jailhouse artist, producing violent and disturbing writings and sketches in his Virginia cells and in the courtroom in Chesapeake during his trial, some of which focused on bin Laden and anti-American violence. The early ones were signed John Lee Muhammad, the name he used to identify himself as Muhammad's "son." Some became fodder for the argument by his lawyers that he was insane and full of rage.

The blue-lined paper pages were sometimes taken from his cell by jail officers during contraband inspections, and at other times Malvo crumbled them into balls and flung them through his jail bars.

Malvo's art took center stage during his 2003 murder trial in Virginia. At the time, defense attorneys offered hand-drawn images of Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein and characters from the action movie The Matrix and anti-American messages he wrote as evidence that he was mentally ill.

Malvo, who contended that he was under Muhammad's spell, testified last year against Muhammad, saying he now regrets his actions.

Yesterday, one of Malvo's lawyers, William Brennan, questioned whether the image for sale was one of Malvo's.

"There's no way we can know," he said.

Brennan also said he doubts Malvo posted the image online himself because he is in Virginia's Red Onion State Prison, a super-maximum security institution that does not allow Internet access.

Larry Traylor, spokesman for the Virginia Department of Corrections, said he was not sure whether the image was Malvo's, but would turn the information over to management. It is within inmates' rights, though, to correspond through mail with the outside world, he said.

"We know that inmates are sending things out to people all the time," he said. "That's their freedom of speech."

Raquel M. Guillory, spokeswoman for Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, said the attorney general did not feel the sale of the drawing should be allowed.

But Gansler, who was state's attorney in Montgomery County when Malvo was prosecuted for the murder of six people, said he would be surprised if Malvo is doing this on his own.

Maryland has a so-called "Son of Sam" law designed to prohibit criminals from profiting from their crime, but Guillory was not sure whether it would apply in this case, even if it could be shown that Malvo was involved with the sale, since he is imprisoned in Virginia.

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