Australian author Amanda Howard has been writing to incarcerated serial killers for the last 20 years. A true crime writer, researcher, and novelist, Amanda has an entire room in her home filled with various correspondence from the hundreds of murderers she has communicated with since her early twenties. These include letters, gifts, art, and even a few marriage proposals. At this point in time, Amanda has around 50 of these pen pals.
“During my high school years, a teacher told me to always go to the source,” Amanda told Crimefeed writer Christine Colby. “Later, in University, while studying Criminology, I was reading a textbook that I found to be factually incorrect. I wondered why I was reading something that was so far removed from the real thing, and I decided to heed my teacher’s advice and go to the source. That meant writing to hundreds of serial killers across the globe.”
Her fascination started with a single case, her very own hometown murderer, The Granny Killer. In 1989, Amanda was finishing school in Sydney and was hoping for a career in the arts, as a singer or dancer. The local news began to cover a number of elderly women being murdered nearby in one of the city's wealthiest suburbs, North Sahore. Six women in total would be bludgeoned by the unknown man between 1989 and 1990. Though police created a personality sketch of the killer as a young, transient skateboarder who hated his family, the investigation took a turn that caught Amanda’s attention. The killer was not at all what the police had imagined; It turned out that a local pie-salesman, 57-year-old John Wayne Glover, was the man behind the killing spree. “It just showed how normal these people are, it was quite shocking. I was hooked,” Amanda told news.au.com.
A few years later Amanda would take notice of another local killer, Ivan Milat, whose home Amanda could see when looking out her own window. Known as the backpacker murders, Milat was responsible for the deaths of at least seven young people, mostly travelers. Their bodies were discovered buried in the Belanglo State Forest. Milat is serving several life sentences. “I would have bumped into him at the shopping centre and not even known. When it’s someone local and you can see the cop cars out the front, that creates that link. You go down that rabbit hole.”
The first killer that Amanda wrote to was David Birnie, known as Australia’s “sickest serial killer,” who, with his wife Catherine, committed four sadistic sexual assaults and murders. She continued on to some more familiar American murderers, including Charles Manson and Richard Ramirez, and predictably she received some inappropriate (to say the least) correspondence: “People like Richard Ramirez, he just kept coming at me, with all of this ‘I want to do this to you, I want to do that to you’, and that continued until I changed post office boxes.”
So, how does Amanda get so many of these murderers to respond? She says that isn’t the hard part, as most serial killers possess a clinical degree of self-centeredness. “We live in a world of narcissism;” Amanda told Crimefeed, “everybody really likes talking about themselves. This is even more so the case with serial killers. Asking them questions about their lives and their interests often opens up a dialogue that gives insight into who they are and why they became such heinous criminals. It can be quite surprising what they are able to talk about and discuss. Of course many of them are extremely savvy when it comes to legal proceedings and constitutional law, but they also love to talk about topics such as ancient Egyptian mythology, politics, holiday spots, food, and ongoing criminal cases (besides their own). They like to talk about people in their lives and often reminisce about their time before incarceration.”
Amanda quickly learned that she needed to stay tough. “They all play games,” she told news.au.com, “they all can switch on the charm and switch it back off. You can’t show weakness, otherwise you’re done. It can be really tough. You have to play the game, and sometimes you’re the cat and sometimes you’re the mouse. It depends who the killer is.”
She continued, “They see it as a bit of fun; I see it as just another part of their psychological torture, their attempt to gain control of another human being. There are times that I’ve walked away from it all, there have been details that have made me physically sick, and other times I’ve just shut it all down. This is not a game, this is not something I do lightly. I take my research and my correspondence and interviews seriously. I never forget what they have done, I never forget the lives that they have destroyed. I never forget that they are brutal cold-blooded killers.”
Amanda hopes to take advantage of these inmates’ desire to talk about themselves, not only for her own research, but also for the peace of mind of others. She is hopeful that she can help families of possible victims who have not yet found closure by being a person that these killers feel comfortable speaking with. “I’m getting a little bit more from them than that, some of them slip up sometimes - that might create more charges.”
Sometimes killers send her gifts, including a lock of hair from Bobby Joe Long, who abducted, sexually assaulted, and killed at least 10 women in the Tampa Bay area. Amanda told Crimefeed “…well, that freaked me out. I still have it, but I don’t think I’ve ever actually touched it, it’s just a little … wrong.” Long had fostered something he considered akin to love for Amanda. “Bobby Joe Long’s letters are often between 25 and 30 pages long, and during one of them, back in about 2000 or 2001, he professed his love and wished I would move to Florida and be his wife. When I told him that it was ridiculous and it was not something I would entertain, he then asked would I attend his execution so that he had someone to look at. I found that a little sad.”
Nevertheless, Amanda makes sure to keep her emotions out of it. “I never forget who they are. I never let them get into my head. They are like any other interview subject. It’s about keeping a distance, about being an observer and not a participant, no matter how hard they try. Many of the killers themselves talk about the adulation they get, and some of them actually question the sanity of their so-called groupies. I have never fawned over them, not ever offered them anything beside a question and answer type of scenario. I kept our relationship professional, always about the psychology of the serial killer mind—and the variations that that entails. Of course they will still try, like Bobby Joe Long proposing marriage, but it’s all part of the game for them, and, really, in prison they have little else to occupy their time.”
She has received a number of personal threats, but perhaps the strangest came when she offended serial killer Roy Norris. How? By calling him boring. “When I first began writing to killers, I was corresponding often with Roy Norris, but I found him a little less stimulating than other killers. I felt that all he did was complain about anything and everything, even down to the way I folded my letters. I mentioned this to someone in passing, and a groupie of Norris’s actually told him what I had said. So within a week or so, I received a rather nice copy of a charcoal drawing from Norris. On the back of the artwork was a threatening letter, complaining, once again, and asking why I would write to him and ask him questions if I found him boring. He then went on to threaten me, saying he wish he could meet me in person so he could force an ice pick into my ear—just like he had done to his victims.”
In her 20 years of work, her original feeling has been proven time and time again: serial killers blend in very easily with society: “It’s all part of the game they like to play. People expect serial killers, or any type of violent criminal, to be some sort of drooling madman. We think that we could 'pick them out of a crowd,' but in all honesty they are just like the rest of us. Think about it — would a hitchhiker get into a car with someone who was 'scary'? No. They get into the car with the friend-looking guy, like Ted Bundy, or Fred and Rose West – a 'lovely' middle-aged couple in England who brutally tortured and murdered 20 girls. Serial killers want to appear charming. They want to try and gain your trust, like the spider lures the fly—then they pounce.”
To hear our interview with Amanda, listen to our podcast, Behind True Crime.
Thanks to Christine Colby of Crimefeed for her amazing interview with Amanda Howard.
Visit Amanda’s website and check out her books at amandahoward.com.au.