Who knew — or cared — that Johnson County’s most infamous serial killer once wore a pinkie ring, sketched cartoons and dressed like Santa Claus for the Christmas holidays?
A disturbing auction site online is spreading the word to a subculture of “murderabilia” buffs everywhere: The Santa suit could be yours for $750.
And the seller will throw in snapshots of John E. Robinson Sr. putting on the outfit. The camera catches Robinson masquerading as just another family man — before he was convicted in the slayings of at least seven women and a disabled teenage girl.
From weathered passports to a pocket watch, a Stetson hat and “Hand Drawing of Panda Character,” more than 30 items were posted last month for sale on an auction website.
On yet another site, newly posted collectibles include a long-expired Kansas driver’s license with a $1,500 price tag.
The objects were purportedly plucked by a stranger from boxes of Robinson’s personal junk.
“For me this is a nasty thing,” said Danuta Marona-Lewicka, mother of an aspiring artist, Izabela Lewicka, whose body was found in a barrel on rural property owned by Robinson in 2000.
“Auctions?” she exclaimed. “This hurts people. Someone is taking advantage of terrible feelings.”
Today Robinson, 68, sits in a cell at El Dorado Correctional Facility, serving two death sentences. He had no hand in the online auctions, nor will he collect any money from them, an organizer said.
The organizer, however, stands to benefit.
“I will go so far as to say that there will not be another chance to grab gems like these,” trumpets the Facebook page of Serial Killers Ink, the handiwork of a Jacksonville, Fla., man using the pseudonym Eric Gein. “Now’s your chance to own items from one of the USA’s most brutal killers ever! John E. Robinson — The Slavemaster.”
Now you remember.
Robinson’s arrest 12 years ago this week lifted the veil on a horrific history of forgery, theft and sexual sadomasochism. The bodies of five of his victims were discovered in steel barrels on both sides of the Missouri-Kansas line.
A onetime Scoutmaster with a penchant for scamming, Robinson, of Olathe, eventually acknowledged responsibility in the deaths of three other women whose bodies never turned up. They included the young mother of an infant girl adopted, through a scheme arranged by Robinson, by his unsuspecting relatives in Illinois.
Prosecutors cited a profit motive behind most of his crimes, which in some cases involved his using the Internet handle “slavemaster” to lure women into a shadowy world of sexual bondage.
But there will be no payday for Robinson from the online auctions, stressed Gein of Serial Killers Ink, who declined to identify the source of the items.
Robinson’s family suspects the belongings were carried away by a salvage hunter at a neighborhood garage sale near the home of Robinson’s ex-wife, Nancy. Never implicated in his crimes, she filed for divorce in 2005 after 41 years of marriage.
“A man came to the fence and asked if she had any of (Robinson’s) stuff,” wrote son John Jr. in an e-mail to The Kansas City Star. “She told him that if he would haul it away, he could have all of it.
“He offered her some money, but all she wanted was the stuff gone. She had no idea that anyone would want any of his things or she would have burned them.”
Credit the World Wide Web for propelling a creepy cottage industry that markets true-crime memorabilia.
Despite legislative efforts to starve the practice of its macabre merchandise, vendors openly trade with little apparent regard for the families of murder victims who stumble upon the online marketplaces.
“A small number of people idolize killers like others idolize athletes or rock stars,” said Andy Kahan, a crime victims advocate for the city of Houston. “Nobody cares about Joe the burglar’s stuff. … But these people will collect anything that can be linked to some of the heinous and most despicable acts of crime known to man.
Kahan added that “eBay used to be a main conduit, but we had a 2-year battle with eBay, and they backed off. It’s like exterminating cockroaches. You can try chasing them out of one room, but they’ll just scurry to the next.”
Kahan, who coined the term “murderabilia,” has been fighting the industry since 1999. In some instances, high-profile inmates have provided the goods from their prison cells — for a price or, more commonly, as a free service that further puffs up their inflated egos.
In 2010 a bill introduced by Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., proposed eradicating the trade’s supply chain. The bill sought to outlaw the interstate mailing of objects from prisoners and third parties with the intent of profit.
Critics charged that the bill, which has languished, would encourage the unconstitutional infringement of criminals’ rights to express themselves and to use the mail without letters being confiscated.
Eight states have passed their own laws against profiting from criminal notoriety (Kansas and Missouri not being among them).
“If we can nip the supply of items coming out of prisons, we’ll go a long way to eliminating the source,” Kahan said. “As a country, we owe it to victims’ families to draw the line between the free flow of commerce and common decency.”
In the matter of Robinson’s personal effects, however, the supply came from a salvage peddler known only to vendor Gein.
“I am not in the practice of releasing customer or seller personal information,” Gein said in an e-mail. “However, in order to squash rumors or assumptions — the seller is not a member of the Robinson family and … John E. Robinson himself (is) not profiting from the items.”
The supplier, who uses the online handle “samseller,” contacted Serial Killers Ink uncertain that the items had any real value, Gein said. Gein bought a few of the pieces, including the Santa suit now advertised on the website’s store.
Other Robinson items are posted as “classifieds,” from which proceeds go directly to member sellers.
A separate website, murderauction.com, recently posted several more Robinson items — handwritten letters and greeting cards, personal photographs, a Christmas stocking and a driver’s license — courtesy of a seller dubbed “coldethyl.”
Marona-Lewicka, who still grieves in Indiana, said she would not call up the sites.
“I don’t want to touch it,” she said. “I like to remember everything that was best about my daughter.
“People who (are fascinated by) about criminal action to the point they’re buying these things, I could see them going down the same road,” she said. “I think governments should look at this and try to stop it. I don’t know if there’s any possibility for me to stop it.”
But Gein noted that even the federal government tapped into the consumer demand in 2011 when U.S. marshals auctioned off the personal belongings of the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski. Proceeds went to his victims.
“The general public is what has made my website and others like it success stories,” Gein said. “I can say, without a doubt, this industry will never be shut down. There are too many civil liberties at issue.”
Gein’s auctions began drawing media attention in 2009, after he offered items provided by Tennessee death-row inmate Christa Pike. She mailed him panties and signed her name to an image of bloody handprints.
The following year, in an interview with the Florida publication Folio Weekly, Gein denied paying inmates for their possessions or for the posted Q&A articles with killers on his website.
He also relayed a story of how he wrote to inmate Dennis Rader, Wichita’s BTK killer, in an effort to win the serial murderer’s favor. Rader sicced the FBI on him, Gein said.
When Rader was first incarcerated in 2005, many collectors of crime memorabilia wrote him in hopes of nabbing his signature on a return letter. In some cases Radar naively wrote back.
“He was unaware that these people were out there whose sole intent is to sell what they get,” said Capt. Dale Call, public information officer at the El Dorado prison.
If sold at their asking bids, the Robinson items would fetch about $5,000.
“This is nowhere near a multimillion-dollar business,” Gein once told the Texas Tribune.
Probably true, said industry opponent Kahan, although “the bottom line is, it’s all blood money, pure and simple.”