By Brian Prowse-Gany and Joyzel Acevedo
Stepping into William Harder’s California home feels like you’ve entered a museum.
“This drawing up here is by Charles Manson. It’s of the sun.” To the right, there’s an oil painting of the seven dwarfs from Disney’s “Snow White.” “John Wayne Gacy, ‘Hi-Ho in the Winter.’”
Wondering how others might describe him and his macabre collection, he says, “Some people watching this must be thinking, ‘Man, you’re a piece of s***.’”
But Harder says those types of reactions only serve to highlight the hypocrisy of society’s relationship with violence. “You have documentaries on serial murderers, prisons, then the television shows like ‘Mindhunter.’ You have fictitious characters based on real-life serial murderers that did real-life, serious killings. But that’s all OK.”
It’s no secret America has a true-crime obsession. The genre has dominated pop culture with TV shows such as HBO’s “The Jinx,” Netflix’s “Making a Murderer,” as well as “Mindhunter” and the podcast phenomenon “Serial.” There’s even Investigation Discovery, an entire television channel broadcasting true-crime content 24/7.
“It’s a complete double standard. People have always wanted to collect this stuff. I didn’t start this, this isn’t some new phenomenon,” Harder says.
In this second episode of Unfiltered, a new weekly Yahoo News interview series documenting the real, unflinching and unapologetic voices of America on topics ranging from the judicial system to gun control to the sex industry, we explore society’s morbid curiosity with true crime and take a look at a man whose own interest borders on obsession.
“Me,” says Harder, “I’m a murder junkie.”
Harder’s preoccupation with death started long before he understood the concept. “When I was little, I thought about people stabbing each other. And as a 6-, 7-year-old … when you’re that small, it just seems so foreign how somebody could do that to another person. It was just alien, it didn’t make sense to me.”
One day, Harder did an online search for Richard Ramirez, one of America’s most infamous serial killers, known as the “Night Stalker.” Ramirez was a rapist and serial killer who murdered at least 14 and tortured dozens more before his capture in 1985.
Harder discovered a website displaying pictures of Ramirez’s artwork. “Seeing that kind of sparked a little bit of excitement in me. … I was like, ‘Man, where do you get that? I want one of those Richard Ramirez drawings.’”
Harder decided to write a letter to Ramirez, then on California’s death row, and to Harder’s surprise, Ramirez wrote back.
“One day, it just hit me that I could do this with other people,” Harder says of his revelation. “Seventeen years later, I have 16,000 letters. I’ve purchased over 10,000 individual letters, and I turn around and sell those for profit.”
“Before I know it, I was getting inundated with collectors begging me to give them my stuff.”
In 2009, he became the sole owner of the website MurderAuction.com, the largest online auction house that specializes in the sale of true-crime memorabilia. “Charles Manson string arts are really popular. People always seem to want those. Charles Manson craft items will sell for thousands. John Wayne Gacy paintings, particularly his skull clowns and Pogos — I’ve seen Gacy paintings sell for $3,000. Ed Gein stuff can sell for several thousand. Albert Fish would be kind of like a holy-grail-type thing.”
Even Harder, however, has his limits. “I try to be as sensitive as I can within reason, like I don’t let people sell grave dirt from victims. I don’t let people sell pictures of offender’s or victim’s children.”
And when it comes to the accusation that inmates profit from their belongings sold on MurderAuction.com, Harder has three words: “It’s pure bulls***.”
“It’s just not true,” he says. “Inmates are not in on this, and anybody who says that is lying.”
Many families of the serial killers’ victims are critical of Harder, but he dismisses them as “professional victims.”
“All they see is, ‘My loved one was killed and I’m going to be angry now and try to project my misery on everybody around me,’” he explains.
It’s the double standard that bothers him the most. “They’re so hypocritical. They get paid to go do books, and they make money. They don’t donate the money to anybody else involved in the case. Because there are victims who don’t want to be put in the press and want to be left alone, but other victims want to talk about it. So I think it’s extremely hypocritical for people to tell me that, Oh, what I’m doing is so awful, but then they do it themselves and it’s somehow OK.”
Ultimately, Harder believes no one should pass judgment: “I’m really not sorry that you don’t like it.”