A YOUNG WOMAN IN BLACK descends a winding staircase in an Academy of Art dormitory in San Francisco's Pacific Heights. Her dark, wavy hair bounces atop her small frame as she glides out the door and into a warm, mid-September afternoon. She turns to a row of student mailboxes and reaches for the key to her own.
The woman is Samantha Spiegel. She's just 19 years old, and has recently declared fashion design her major. Sure, she's passionate about it — she even studded the leather jacket she is wearing — but lately she has been more consumed by something else. Something dark.
Entangled in a rough transition to adulthood, Samantha has taken to placing herself under the control of manipulative, dangerous men. They are men who have become infamous for their brutality, and for her, that's part of the allure.
She's hoping to receive responses to letters she sent to three men: Charles Manson, the leader of the Manson Family cult who was found guilty of conspiring to murder; Richard Ramirez (the Night Stalker), a serial killer and rapist on death row at San Quentin; and Richard Allen Davis, also on death row for the 1993 kidnapping and murder of 12-year-old Polly Klaas.
There is one notorious pseudo-killer from whom Samantha will almost certainly not have a letter. That would be John Mark Karr, the man who falsely confessed in 2006 to killing 6-year-old beauty pageant darling JonBenét Ramsey a decade earlier. According to Samantha, Karr is her former fiancé.
Their tumultuous two-year relationship ended after he allegedly persuaded her to recruit children for a sex cult, and instead she landed in rehab. Upon her return, Samantha says Karr threatened her life; she filed for a restraining order, and The Today Show brought her on as an ostensible victim, warning others about his manipulative powers. "This is something I would have liked someone to do for me when I was in his grips," she told millions of viewers. It sounded like she had learned her lesson and started anew, sociopath-free. But that isn't the case.
Instead Samantha has stepped it up, contacting convicted murderers to fulfill her needs for attention and high-profile companions. She certainly isn't alone. Every year, hundreds of letters from adoring women, aka killer groupies, slip through prison bars; some even contain marriage proposals.
At the mailbox, she drops to her knees and reaches for a solitary, facedown envelope. She turns it over in her small hand and discovers it has come from San Quentin State Prison.
A week later, the Runaways' "Cherry Bomb" is blaring from within Samantha's dorm room. "Hello, world, I'm your wild girl," she wails, accompanied by the all-female '70s punk band recently portrayed in an eponymous film. "I'm your ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-cherry bomb!"
Also carried away by the song, one of her roommates, Pamela, spins in her desk chair, tossing her head and — by extension — an oversized feather earring. The other roommate, Nastassia, is crouched on the bunk bed in her favorite Pink Floyd T-shirt, doodling bubble letters on a sheet of paper with a green Crayola. The letters spell out "home."
In this dorm room, art is created, nude photographs are snapped, joints are rolled, various other substances are consumed, and occasionally, glitter lamps are worshipped. Also common: group therapy sessions.
Over the music, Samantha starts talking to no one in particular. "When I was having a really rough time recently," she says, "I completely related to these rebellious, out-there people in the Runaways. I couldn't stop watching the videos. I related so much to this song." ("Cherry Bomb" is the mantra of a misunderstood, promiscuous, and unruly teenage girl.)
It's impossible to know which "rough time" she might be referring to, but Pamela and Nastassia have a few guesses. They have learned that their friend attracts nonstop drama, be it with her parents, her brother, or any number of her sociopathic, high-profile men. That's not to say they approve.
The song ends, and Samantha waxes melancholy. "I don't know if I'm over John completely," she says, referring to Karr.
"Personally, I hate him," Pamela says.
"He brainwashed you," Nastassia says.
"He brainwashed me," Samantha agrees. "He got me to the point where I slightly started thinking in the ways of a pedophile." As she continues talking about her slight pedophile phase, Pamela raises her hand, as if waiting her turn to speak in class. When Samantha finally calls on her, Pamela tilts her head and chuckles, having forgotten her point. Then it's back.
"It's affected you, and that's what makes it so terrible. That's what makes me so pissed," she says. "He was just a huge missile that fell on your world. Huge explosions everywhere."
"He tainted you," Nastassia says. "You are not anything like that." What she means is that Samantha wasn't the kind of person who tries to recruit children for sex cults.
Samantha is making an effort to discover what she is like. She has recently gotten a new psychoanalyst, Christina Wendel, to help her understand the roots of her behavior (the previous one apparently told her she was too complicated, and refused to continue therapy).
Wendel says that vulnerable women like Samantha often fall for more aggressive men who they think can protect them. Killer groupies often have violent inclinations themselves, she says, but they don't act on them because it's not accepted by society. "The men represent a part of the women that they can't talk about," Wendel says. "They've all had violent upbringings, and they've all been abused."
In the late '80s, Sheila Isenberg worked the crime beat as a newspaper reporter in New York, where she sometimes encountered women infatuated with violent inmates. When she attempted to research the subject, she found there was almost no information, save the occasional mention of female obsession with outlaws like Jesse James and John Dillinger.
To fill the void, Isenberg interviewed three dozen women and wrote a book, Women Who Love Men Who Kill. Some of the women were nurses, teachers, and Ph.D candidates who worked in prisons; others were journalists, store clerks, and housewives from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds. There were just two things the killer groupies had in common. According to Isenberg, most were Catholic, and they had all suffered abuse in childhood.