Two weeks ago, I bought a portrait of a Chinese woman, a paint-by-numbers of a kid fishing, and a beautiful, hand-colored photograph from the turn of the century of a man dressed in a kimono. I purchased a photo taken in 1918 of a fat woman all dressed up, an ancient postcard of a parade float teeming with young girls now long dead, and a surreal oil painting of a group of pigs.
The place was a framing/print shop going out of business, one of those shabby stucco Phoenix buildings that sit in the heat and pass in a blur; what caught my eye was a Day-Glo orange sign with a Magic Marker slash through the "75%," and "80% OFF" scrawled beneath it. I'm a sucker for a lot of things, especially when they're reduced by 80 percent.
The lady in charge tallied up these treasures, and I still had money left. There was a large portrait of Raquel Welch stuck in a dusty corner that had caught my eye. Raquel, pictured from the waist up in her roller-derby outfit from the film Kansas City Bomber, jersey slightly unzipped, skates slung across her shoulder, set against a Miami-pink background. A very straightahead rendering, realistic, uninspired, but, at 12 bucks, a work not to be passed up.
And next to Raquel was a Thriller-era Michael Jackson, predominantly in shades of dark blue, obviously by the same hand. Like I said, I'm a sucker. I toted them out, the lady toted them up, then she leaned back and looked at me.
"Since you're buying those, I've got to tell you something," she said. "Now, I have no actual proof of this, but the guy we acquired those from said they were done by Ted Bundy."
Really? Sure enough, there in the corner of each piece was a swathe of cursive reading "Bundy."
"Oh, yeah," she muttered, waving me off. "Just get 'em out of here."
Ted Bundy was a good-looking, intelligent, charismatic, onetime suicide-hot-line counselor, author of an antirape manual, ex-law student. Also a convicted killer of 20 young women, and a suspected killer of up to 50. He was arrested in Utah in 1975 for raping, bludgeoning and choking numerous victims, then escaped to Florida, where he brutally murdered two sorority sisters at Florida State University at Tallahassee in 1978. Captured again, he spent the next 11 years on death row before a final sit-down in a Floridian electric chair in 1989.
It's no secret that inmates paint. The "art" of the late John Wayne Gacy--images of clowns, Bambi and the Seven Dwarfs were recurring themes--has been in demand among collectors of death-row compositions for years. I knew a guy back in Virginia who had a Gacy in his living room, but I'd never heard of any Bundys hitting the market.
Which really doesn't mean too much; I've never had any raging desire to hang the work of murderers on my walls and, consequently, never delved into that particular field of Americana.
Even at 80 percent off.
But now I owned these things, and while it seemed insanely far-fetched that a couple 30-inch by 22-inch portraits of cheesy American icons could make it from Ted Bundy's death cell to a Phoenix print shop going out of business, well, stranger things have happened.
When I carried them into the house, the cats didn't arch their backs and hiss; I leaned the portraits against a bookshelf and forgot about them for a few days. Then one night I couldn't sleep. Got up, left the lights out, and went in to read the paintings for bad juju. Stood before the grinning pair bathed in the dim glow from a streetlight.
Nothing. Just for safekeeping, I turned Jackson over to cover Welch and went back to bed.
A man needs proof before he turns a Raquel and a Michael of this ilk over to Sotheby's for the inevitable international bidding wars, so I started as close to an official source as I could: Florida State Prison at Starke, Bundy's last residence.
"At one point, Ted Bundy did do some sketches, that's about all we know at this point," said Debbie Buchanan, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Corrections. "They were disposed of prior to his being executed; prisoners were allowed to send things out. But we do not know how he disposed of them, or if he did any painting."
Armed with that cryptic tidbit, let us now dive into the murky world of murderabilia. We are going to hear from a few people who collect, display, trade and grade the work of those who do bad things. And I don't mean just works of art.
My man Dom Salemi edits a nationally distributed, inspired little 'zine devoted to rock, film and B-grade pop culture called Brutarian. He's the guy from Virginia with the Gacy, but I soon learned it had left his possession as part of relationship-breakup settlement. He was not sorry to see it go.
"It bugged me, it really did," said Salemi. "I just thought, the guy's a slob, and I don't want anything by a slob in my house.
"I had a friend who wrote for Brutarian, and he became a good phone pal with Gacy. . . . Gacy started sending him [paintings] without asking for payment, and my friend said to me, 'Here--you want one?' I said, 'Wellll . . . ,' but he was a close friend at the time and I didn't want to offend him."
Salemi's Gacy portrait of "a lopsided, sad-eyed clown" in his living room affected his visitors, you bet.
"When my artist friends came over, they'd say, 'Gacy? No! The only thing about this painting is it really sucks. What's it doing up on your wall?' They didn't care that it was John Gacy, they just thought it was a shitty piece of art, and why would I want to hang it anywhere near anything they had labored on for me?"
As to my Bundy verifications, he knew nothing. But he gave me a phone number, that of one Michael Oberman, entertainment-industry consultant, lecturer, collector of pop-culture ephemera, and, yes, owner of many Gacy originals. Oberman purchased 22 paintings a few years ago and has since sold nearly all of them for $500 a pop.
"I don't collect [serial-killer art]; Gacy is the only killer in my collection," clarified Oberman, "but I've spoken to enough people who are serious collectors. They're into people like Ottis Toole and Henry Lee Lucas [the duo has 11 confirmed kills with 300-plus unconfirmed], and Son of Sam [six confirmed]."
As to the alleged Bundys, Oberman was skeptical.
"After all the hoopla on the Gacy paintings, lots of stuff started cropping up by serial killers, and people were trying to cash in real fast," he said.
Now, I've seen Gacys, and they're nothing to write home about. Michael and Raquel were clearly done by a more accomplished draftsman, yet--surprise!--it's kills over quality when it comes to assessing a painting's worth.
"There is some thought to the quality of it; there are people that don't want to have a painting of body parts by a serial killer. Gacy's paintings were very benign: clowns, birds, flowers. But the whole craze is really driven by someone wanting to say, 'I have something by [a serial killer].' It's shock value."
To step for a second beyond shock value, Bundy or not, I trundled my paintings over to Arizona State University art professor Albert Stewart for his professional opinion on their merits. (Ironically, Stewart began a job as director of the Museum of Fine Arts at Florida State in Tallahassee just months after Bundy had murdered there.)
"As far as composition, aesthetics, how this is appropriated, line, color, shape and texture, they're very illustrative, and illustration is a way of meeting expectations about life. Art about something, but not life," he told me.
"They're competent illustrations, very student-competent. Very commercial, and from that perspective, they're kind of mediocre. But the fact that he [allegedly] did these says that there's some preoccupation with expectations outside of himself, a kind of struggle. He's giving in to the archetypal identification with the color blue being melancholy, orange anger . . . ; there's a sort of hiding of some kind of anger. Or the pink as innocence against the blue and the red. The roller skates are about something moving, something changing, but not actually changing because these are very static."
I stood there, static as well, and the professor continued.
"I would say if Ted Bundy had made another choice, he could have been an illustrator. But you think of Bundy, well, Dahmer was an artist, Hitler was an artist; you begin to see that a lot of art is about the appropriation of a psychological nightmare. I think great art--look at Van Gogh--shifts and goes into another space where the sublime occurs. You don't get a sense of the sublime in these. What you get is very hard, rigid, structured. He put himself in some really hard places, intellectually, philosophically, emotionally. . . . He's not moved by any kind of human emotion here--this is architecture. He's detached from his feelings. If he wasn't, he couldn't have killed all of those people."
Mention the name Debbie Huber to 20 or 25 of our most notorious death-row dwellers, and you could begin networking. Huber is 30, lives in New Orleans, and for a period of five years or so corresponded with these men. It began with Richard "The Night Stalker" Ramirez (13 kills confirmed, 16-plus unconfirmed), after years of nightmares, in an effort to "humanize" him in her psyche.
When I suggested that most folks might not promote such a relationship as a means to quell their fears, she said, "Most wouldn't, but most aren't me." Very good. "I wrote Richard a letter and he wrote back and he said, 'Next time include your phone number.' He called me up and I thought that he was going to try and scare me, but he didn't. He said he was real sorry for scaring me, and that I should have written to him earlier. I haven't had a nightmare since."
For the record, she no longer communicates with any convicts--"It got boring."
Once again, I struck out with hard-core Bundy information, but jocular, friendly Huber dropped names and told me things that I know you want to hear.
Ramirez: "I have about five or ten drawings from him. They [collectors] say he's really good, but he's awful. He did, oh, beheadings and, umm, beheadings. Yeah, a couple of beheadings. Yeah, I think that's all he really drew about was beheadings."
Ramon Salcido: "He used to send me some really cute things. He went on a shooting rampage; he killed his wife, his daughters, his sister-in-law and two of her kids. I think he tried to kill his mother-in-law and his other little girl, but they didn't die."
Charles Ng (25 kills involving snuff films, and ritual torture, ex-Marine): "He used to send me the most unbelievable origami, he was a really talented guy."
Herbert Mullin (13 kills, voted Most Likely to Succeed in high school): "I have some really groovy art from him; it's all kind of weird, Indian-sun-god-worshiping things."
Her favorite artist/killer?
The late Danny Rolling, snuffed in prison: "He wasn't a serial killer, he was a mass murderer. He was talented, really talented, and he was a really good songwriter, too. He could have been a lot more, but I guess when you're crazy . . ."
I asked her again about collecting Bundy. Said Debbie:
"Hey, have you heard about the mortician down here? This cat has everybody you can think of. If there is Ted Bundy art, he could tell you."
Meet Rick Staton. Until he quit dealing on a grand scale last year--"It became more work than it was fun, and I'm rearing a child. I didn't have time for it"--the Baton Rouge mortician was one of the world's leading purveyors of death-row art.
Staton says he had a mailing list of more than 200 names, including professionals, Hollywood glitterati, even journalists. He and a colleague have mounted three "phenomenally successful" shows of the stuff in Seattle, San Diego and New Orleans. It all began when he maneuvered his B-movie poster mail-order business onto the "ground floor" of row art collecting some six years ago. It all began, as you might guess, with Gacy.
"At first it was kind of cool and scary and fun and all that," admits Staton, "and after a while, it got to the point where he was calling my house every day, and he was one of the most obnoxious liars I've ever met. I'm just not into that sort of thing."
Well, nobody likes liars.
"I just like creepy, weird things, I guess. I wouldn't step on an insect or harm an animal, but I'm totally fascinated with the sickest of all creatures, that being child killers," he says. But he doesn't draw the line there when it comes to collecting.
"I guess my favorite is a painting on stretch canvas by Richard Speck. That was one of the things I tried for the longest time to acquire. I've got loads of Gacy stuff; he even did paintings of my son. I've got paintings and sketches by Henry Lee Lucas and his homo-cannibal-sidekick weirdo Ottis Toole. I've got some Manson sketches and some acrylic art that he's done. Most of what I've got by Manson is in the form of letters and locks of hair and Polaroids and business cards. I have a pretty crude--in fact, it's kinda funny, it's so bad--painting by James Earl Ray.
"Probably the best stuff I've got is by Elmer Wayne Henley [currently serving 594 years]. He'd been the henchman for this unbelievably sadistic child-killer named Dean Corll [27 kills, ultimately murdered by Henley] in Houston. I've got one Henley did of a forest fire, which may not sound very interesting, but it's one of the coolest watercolors I've ever seen in my life.
"Obviously, a lot of these guys don't really have any talent. Guys like Henley don't make the headlines and yet their work is so incredibly intricate and detailed, and they don't do gory or morbid themes. They do what most people would consider to be mundane subject matter, but at the same time very beautiful."
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Yes, the catalogue goes on and on.
But we must get back to Michael and Raquel and whomever committed them to canvas.
"I'd love to see some of these paintings," gushes Staton. He asks for faxes of them, wants to A/B the Bundy signature with a known authentic one, begins dreaming up possible trades we might make--a Manson Polaroid and two Ramirez beheadings for one Bundy Raquel--who knows? "I personally don't know of any art that Bundy did, but I never corresponded with Bundy or too many people that did, so I really wouldn't know if he did or did not do any painting. Is it far-fetched? No, not at all."
So that's it.
Is some student-competent artist out there with the last name Bundy getting a big laugh out of this column, or are those two things leaning against a shelf of old National Geographics in my back room the handiwork of Burlington, Vermont's very own serial killer, Theodore Robert Bundy?
"If they're real, then that was the best 12 dollars you ever spent."