Shortly after being arrested for the murder of Stephany Flores in Lima last month, Joran van der Sloot told reporters that he was being deluged with love letters and even offers to birth his children. This both was and wasn't a startling revelation from a confessed killer who is also the lead suspect in the 2005 disappearance of American teen Natalee Holloway.
I wrote an article about the curious attraction that confessed killers hold for many women -- strangers outside the prison walls, who of their own volition make contact with these men and initiate passionate relationships with them, even if only through letters and phone calls.
I pondered intriguing websites such as PrisonPenPals.com, WriteaPrisoner.com, ConvictMailbag.com, and Meet-an-Inmate.com, where prisoners - granted, not all are killers - post pictures and pleas for female pen pals.
"Hello beautiful, thank you for taking time out of your life to bless me with your presence," writes terrifying-looking Anthony in Texas, his entire neck tattooed with a flaming "A." Peering into his half-shut eyes, you wonder what they've seen. Six-foot, 220-pound Anthony wants to "make you smile. ... At this point, there's only three actions left for you, to take down my information, create your own biography ... then mail it along with a picture of yourself. There's no need to search any further, I honestly believe we've both found what we've been looking for. I'll be waiting."
"Send a picture of yourself so I may be able to see the beautiful rose in your friendship garden," pleads Kyon in New York.
"I have a very good sense of humor," proclaims Oregon lifer Eugene.
Part of this is about power. We're all attracted to those who excel. Being turned on by someone because he or she was a Fulbright scholar or won the rodeo is not so different from desiring someone who killed not a victim but fifteen, not accidentally but on purpose, not from far away with a too-easy shotgun but up close by beating, stabbing, strangulation: something that requires muscles, something buff. It's not really so different - if you have a bad-boy jones.
"Being associated with someone bad gives you a chance to consider yourself a rebel," recently retired Radford University forensic psychologist Michael Aamodt told me in an interview. Aamodt has researched this fetish. "You see it in junior high and high school," where thugs are chick magnets. "When you're talking about killers, that ups the bad-boy ante."
Bad boys make life less boring.
"If you have a dull life, this gives you a purpose. At parties, people ask who you're dating. If instead of saying that you're dating an accountant you can say you're dating a serial killer, doesn't that make you sound a lot more exciting?"
In a celebrity-driven culture, newsmaking murderers get the most mail.
Diane Fanning isn't surprised. This prolific true-crime author has seen love letters flooding the inboxes of serial killers about whom she's written books.
"A lot of women know that they'll never get a one-on-one communication with a movie star or a sports star. But contact a killer and hey, he might write back."
For some women, it's a self-esteem issue: "They believe that they don't deserve anything better than a social reject. They look at someone who is hated by the world, and they can relate."
Some women are taken completely by surprise by their fondness for men who happen to be killers. Publishers Weekly editor Bridget Kinsella fell in love with an inmate at California's high-security Pelican Bay prison after reading his unpublished memoir. Her memoir is the poignant Visiting Life (Harmony, 2007).
Yet others aim to change and save the killers they embrace -- but trying to be a rescuing angel in such cases is nearly always a fruitless mission, Aamodt warns.
What he found most interesting in his research was the fact that victims of domestic abuse are among the most passionate pen pals of incarcerated killers.
Abused women, Aamodt told me, "get a chance to control a relationship, maybe for the first time ever," Aamodt explains. "When you're dating an inmate, he needs you more than you need him. You can leverage power over him by threatening not to visit or write. This is interesting because it reflects mixed motives: the desire to nurture, but also to control. And if he's on death row, it's forever."
In some ways, these relationships are deeper than those on the outside.
"Since you're not going to see the person very often and only for short visits that aren't private, sex is pretty much out of the equation," Aamodt says. "So the whole relationship is based on conversations and feelings." If the inmate is a lying psychopath, those conversations are riddled with lies, but the woman doesn't know that -- or doesn't want to believe it.