Killer Pen Pals
Getting close to a murderer can have unforeseen consequences.
Posted July 9, 2018
Whenever I give talks about my work, people sometimes ask how they can be pen pals with a serial killer. They’ve gotten hooked on true crime shows and they have the idea that because offenders are behind bars, they’re no longer dangerous. This would give the would-be correspondent a “safe” form of titillation and something cool to tell friends.
Sometimes, people just want to ease someone's (or their own) loneliness. So, they look for an inmate who seeks connection.
I’m not talking about criminologists and journalists who correspond with killers to acquire information to improve our comprehension. I’m talking about people – especially kids – who think it would be fun to write to a killer. Often, they don’t grasp the potential consequences of having an offender focused on them. Not only do inmates know people on the outside whom they might persuade to be their proxy, but some of them eventually get out, too.
There are plenty of stories about pen pals becoming so enamored that they turn into prison groupies. In fact, in British news this week, a young pen pal from Poland supposedly became engaged to the ailing Yorkshire Ripper Peter Sutcliffe. He’s 72. She’s 17. This kind of bond can make a person more vulnerable to manipulation.
It doesn’t take much searching to find examples where such relationships have ended in murder. Phillip Carl Jablonski murdered his wife in 1978. He was serving a sentence for it when he placed an ad for a pen pal. Carol Spadoni answered it. In 1982, they got married while he was still in prison. He got out in 1990. A year later, he sexually assaulted and shot Carol’s mother and suffocated Carol with duct tape before stabbing her to death. (That same month, he also murdered two other women.)
These potentially violent inmates can hook people by talking about how lonely they are and how they’re looking for love. They promise that they’ve reformed, they’re “spiritual” now, and they just need a friend. Some pen pals want to give them a second chance. Laura Jean Torres offered a helping hand to violent ex-con Robert Hernandez, who'd served time for aggravated battery. Torres ended up fatally stabbed.
David Goodell, 33, murdered pen pal Viviana Tulli, 22. They’d met when she was 16 and began a relationship through correspondence when he went to prison for assault. Once Doodell was out on parole, they reunited. Their mutual affection was short-lived as he soon strangled her to death. Hoping to avoid prison, he decided to fake a fatal car crash. Putting sunglasses and a hat on Tulli’s corpse, he placed it in the front seat of her car. His staging failed and he was arrested. In 2013, he pleaded guilty.
Darren Pilkington, convicted of manslaughter at 18, had a reputation for being a troubled kid. From prison, he put out word that he wanted a pen pal, which got the attention of 15-year-old Carly Fairhurst, five years younger than him. When she was 16, she visited him in prison, and after he was freed, he moved in with her. He soon began to abuse her. In 2006, after they came home from a pub, they argued. Pilkington hit Carly and she fell down the stairs. He covered her, waiting until morning to call for help. She died a week later from her injuries.
And it’s not just females who are vulnerable.
In 2014, Scott Kratlian fatally strangled 82-year-old Harry Major, a former high school teacher. The men had become pen pals while Kratlian was serving a sentence for manslaughter. Upon his release, Major invited Kratlian to move in. That was a fatal mistake.
Then there was Thomas Knuff, on parole in Ohio after serving 15 years for armed robbery and home invasion. He’d become acquainted with John Mann, 65, and his girlfriend Regina Capobianco, 50, through a prison pen pal program. He’d asked them to pick him up. Since he had nowhere to go, they brought him to their home, where he tied them up and stabbed them, killing both. He then lived in their home, with the bodies, for a week.
Edward Andrews started a correspondence with Thomas Jeffrey Brooks, nearly forty years younger than him. Upon Brooks’ release in 2007, he moved into Andrews’ mobile home. They became lovers, or so Andrews believed. Brooks had other ideas. With an accomplice, he killed Andrews, wrapped his body in duct tape, entombed it in a cement egg in a former employer’s rock garden and drained Andrews' bank accounts.
“It’s not shocking when inmates behave like criminals,” says former U. S. Probation Officer Sally Keglovits. “It’s what most people expect. Manipulation comes with the territory and it's not difficult for them to project a sympathetic image while in prison. What is somewhat shocking is the number of people who invite and encourage manipulation. They fall in love with an image that an inmate created. Reality can slap them in the face, often literally, upon the inmate's release.”
Although many offenders do benefit from a kind word and a helping hand, those people who wish to assist (or acquire a more serious friend) should learn the behavioral red flags. Past violence is among the best indicators of future violence. So is a lack of remorse for harming others, a history of deception, a lack of respect for others, and a tendency to blame others for one’s own behavioral issues. Convictions for murder, sexual or physical assault, home invasion and crimes involving deadly weapons all foreshadow a dim future with such offenders. Often, they have poor skills for inhibiting impulses and for negotiating in relationships.
More to the point, what they’re like behind bars is no indication of what they might be like once free. Those who seek to become an inmate’s pen pal need to educate themselves about risk factors.