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.
For people who are abused, it makes sense to pursue a relationship with someone who is locked up. “You are safe,” Isenberg says. “You make the decision to visit or take the phone call. It's a very powerful position for a woman who had previously been powerless.” Additionally, women looking to be the center of a man's life were more likely to find that with an inmate. “A man in prison has a lot of time on his hands,” she says. “He's going to be very attentive. Very romantic.” Based on her research, Isenberg concluded the killer groupies weren't crazy; they were fulfilling their psychological needs.
Samantha appears to be the quintessential modern killer groupie — a hybrid of a media-obsessed attention junkie and a vulnerable young woman sincerely attracted to twisted, violent men.
She craves attention from famous killers, from her friends and relatives, from the world. She wants to be our cherry bomb, and in attaching herself to Karr, then landing on The Today Show, she has figured out a way to do that.
But according to her, all that is secondary. “Getting attention is not my intention,” she says. “It's just what comes with what I'm interested in.” She has other psychological needs that are seemingly a product of her upbringing and background.
Samantha was adopted in 1990 by a well-off Jewish couple in San Francisco who had also adopted a boy, Brian, who is older than Samantha. Her parents did not return messages requesting interviews for this story, and her brother, who lives out of state and from whom she is recently estranged, could not be reached.
Samantha describes her father as a well-known and unaffectionate attorney who left her with “daddy issues.” (She's referring to Carl Jung's Electra complex, a psychoanalytic theory proposing that a young girl's early relationship to her father is sexual and formative.) “I think that goes to why in the last three years I've been with men who are 20 to 30 years older than me,” she says.
She describes her mom as a controlling type who hoped to manicure her daughter into a traditional, high-society woman. “Instead, I'm kinda out there,” she says. “Basically, I've failed her completely.”
Her brother used to throw chairs at her, she says, which was only the beginning of his misbehavior. Samantha remembers that when her brother got kicked out of high school and checked into rehab, she felt “virtually invisible.” “I wanted my parents to notice that I was fucking baked as shit or drunk beyond belief at home,” she says. “They just didn't notice.”
Craving familial bonds, at age 17 she went on a hunt for her biological family, and discovered them to be working-class Roman Catholics living in Cincinnati. She arranged a family reunion, and discovered she had two sisters. “It was really trippy going to Cincinnati to see what life would have been like,” she says. When she learned that one of her sisters was dating a white supremacist child molester who had been in prison, and that her biological grandmother was prone to dating men who put her in the hospital, she wondered whether a macabre streak might run in the family.
From a young age, Samantha had always been fascinated with the psychology of sociopaths and killers. That's part of what drove her to make initial contact with Karr, she says.
He had worked briefly at her elementary school, Convent of the Sacred Heart in San Francisco, when she was in fourth grade. She remembers having a crush on him back then. A decade later, after watching him confess to the murder on the news, Samantha — then 16 — was compelled to reconnect.
Their interaction, limited to the phone and Internet, was often pleasant. Karr entertained her with impersonations of South Park characters over the phone, and she listened to his problems with an ex-wife. “We'd joke about so much shit,” she says. “We'd gossip, tease each other, spill our emotional guts. And that just made it so strong.”
But there were also elements of the conversations that were pretty sick. “He loves girls ages four to six,” she says. “He loves how they are just so amazed by everything, and so happy. He wanted small feet … and he'll lick feet. He'll lick their faces and make out with them.”
Samantha found herself uncomfortable listening to Karr obsessing about girls, but at the same time, she was drawn to what she calls his charisma. She wanted to give him everything he wanted, and that's why she agreed to begin recruiting young girls for a sex cult they called “The Immaculates.”
“I sized up girls on the street,” she says. “I would look at their feet, their face, their hair, their size. He's not a fan of black girls, so when I saw one, I'd think, 'She's just not gonna work.' When I look back at all that, it scares me so much. He was grooming me to be a pedophile.”
Before Samantha could deliver any children to Karr, her adoptive parents sent her to a rehab facility in Montana for 16 months. When she got out and refused to continue the recruitment, Karr threatened her. “If you cost me my little girls, I will hunt you down and kill you,” he wrote. Then came the restraining order, the Today Show appearance, and the SFPD investigation, which has gone nowhere. Police believe Karr, who supposedly underwent gender reassignment surgery and now goes by Alexis Valoran Reich, is in Europe, keeping afloat with funding from supporters.
Samantha has not seen Karr in person since she was in the fourth grade. Sometimes, the people who care about her wonder whether the distant pen pal romance might be healthier than some of Samantha's close encounters.
What's going on with the story?” a groggy voice asks the reporter. Turns out it is Samantha. She's calling from a hospital bed. And she's on morphine.
The night before,she had been hanging around with a group of people partaking in various substances (that she and her friends requested not be revealed). She found herself gravitating toward an attractive guy who — for once — was her age. They went home together, and although the details are hazy, they had rough sex, she remembers. A lot of it. The guy was inexperienced, and his technique was “gruesome, like something you'd see on Animal Planet.”
When it was over, she wasn't angry. She felt bad for the guy. “Poor thing,” she says. “He thought I was enjoying myself.”
The next morning, she says, her genitals were swollen to the size of a grapefruit. She checked into the hospital, and resolved not to have anything to do with men under 40, whom she considers too inexperienced.
Even better than sticking to older men, of course, would be developing relationships with prisoners. “They're locked away,” she says. “You can't be intimate with someone through glass or a phone, so it's a safe relationship.”
Shortly after the trauma, she composed a letter to Charles Manson, who is serving a life sentence at Corcoran State Prison for a series of brutal murders he orchestrated in 1969.
11 September 2010
How are you holding up these days, Charlie? My name is Samantha Spiegel. I have always been extremely fascinated by you and Helter Skelter — incredibly so. In fact, I'm going to be reading [Vincent] Bugliosi's Helter Skelter after my roommate. This always sounds crazy to people, but your ideals, your ideas — everything makes sense. You have lived quite a life and I really do respect that and in a way admire that. I may not have lived as much as you have, but I haven't had it easy always. I completely relate to you and Helter Skelter.
Samantha says she doesn't really believe that Manson's vision of Helter Skelter — an apocalyptic race war started with murder of the wealthy — is all that appealing. But she wanted to lay it on thick to increase her chances of receiving a letter from Manson. So far, none has come.
Expressing her admiration isn't the only way she has tried to compel murderers to write her. She routinely visits web forums like Write-a-Murderer, where she has learned how to find out the location and identification numbers of prisoners she intends to contact, as well as what subjects to bring up and what ones to avoid.
She also took a trip to Union Square, where she purchased a handmade floral stationery set. On its delicate paper, she composed more than a dozen letters to Richard Ramirez, Richard Allen Davis, Charles Manson, and several members of the Manson Family. She finished each off with a spritz of Narciso Rodriguez perfume. “They should have pretty stationery,” she says. “I save it especially for them.”
Samantha took to checking her mailbox promptly at 3 p.m. She knew that eventually the day would come when a famous prisoner would write back, and it didn't take long. On that warm September afternoon, not even a week after she had mailed her initial batch of letters, she reached into the mailbox and retrieved a correspondence from San Quentin inmate Richard Allen Davis.
In 1993, Davis kidnapped Polly Klaas at knifepoint from a slumber party in Petaluma, committed a lewd act on her, and strangled her to death. After he was caught and convicted, Davis stuck his middle finger up at the judge and said that before Klaas died, she told him, “Just don't do me like my daddy.” Klaas' horrified father, who denied the allegation, had to be held back by security. The judge told Davis that his behavior made handing down the death penalty easy.
Samantha says she doesn't condone the murder of children or innocent people. “It's horrific. It's disgusting, really,” she says. “But [the killers are] still human beings, and they still need attention. I like the idea of nurturing a side of them that doesn't get nurtured.”
As it turns out, Davis wants to nurture Samantha in return.
Well, good day and I do hope you are feeling better physically. No more signs of your past nightly outings of sexual delight. So you know, I've been getting your writings and you are very much in my thoughts. I have to say that reading about that one certain person [a reference to Karr] who still inflicts himself in your life J I thought about how much you needed someone willing to wear a ski mask and take a baseball bat to the legs. Seriously, just someone smacking the back and front thigh muscles a few good hard times LOL! Though they won't walk for about a week, slowly getting back on the feet changes the person's attitude much for the better…
Reading this letter aloud to her roommates and the reporter outside the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf in Pacific Heights, Samantha is basking in the attention. Her flowered notebook is sprawled on her lap, displaying about a dozen letters with San Quentin return addresses. Not all are from Davis, it turns out. Samantha has also hooked the Night Stalker, Richard Ramirez: a burglar, rapist, and serial killer who murdered more than two dozen men and women across California.
She likes corresponding with Ramirez; he even sent her a picture of himself and a drawing of two dinosaurs fighting. But she finds him to be a bit of an awkward writer. He asks a lot of mundane questions about her family and what she likes to do. But sometimes he cracks her up. “If you had won the lottery, what would you do with the winnings?” she reads aloud. “I'd buy an island and fill it with girls in bikinis.”
Davis, on the other hand, is somebody she believes she could actually fall for. “He writes me like ten-page letters,” she says. “And he does all these faces. Like this.” She points out an emoticon with a slanted smirk. “What would you call that?” she asks her roommates, who seem a little zoned-out.
“Sideways face?” Nastassia offers.
Here's the thing about Davis, Samantha says. Although he goes on rants about crappy prison kitchenware and his back problems, he also makes a point of responding. He tells funny stories and uses Lone Ranger stamps, and gives her compliments.
She picks up another letter and starts reading. “I want you to know you have a soft, sensual voice. Wink. You match your voice very well. Nice looking and sounding. It's not often I can talk to someone. Especially a woman and there's nothing of an awkward silent moment while we talk.”
It's true, she says, glowing. “Me and Richard Allen Davis never have an awkward moment.”
When it registers with Pamela that this all means Samantha has actually spoken with him on the phone, she freaks. “What the fuck?” she says. “What are you doing?”
“But he's so funny,” Samantha offers, cowering a little.
“I swear to God …” Pamela starts.
“He sent me a visitation form,” Samantha says.
“It's my rescue complex,” she says, referring to her desire to comfort the afflicted killers.
“You are not that person,” Pamela says. “You aren't supposed to do that for them. No one has to. Who cares about those stupid people?”
“I feel balance when I write to them. Like I have a purpose,” Samantha says. Sure, she knows Davis and Ramirez are sociopaths. She knows that. But there's just something she can relate to.
Pamela shakes her head.
A few days later, there's a status change on Samantha's Facebook account: “Samantha Spiegel is in a relationship.”
Samantha had been carrying Davis' letters around with her, reading them multiple times. He said he was doing the same with hers. Then, in late September, a letter arrived that made his intentions clear. He wanted to be more than friends.
Although he had received letters from many, many women, “no other women except for you is in the cell with me,” he wrote.
Samantha told Davis that she was also hoping to take things to the next level, and says they entered into a relationship she considers monogamous. Lately, they've been discussing ways to get her into the jail for a visit. Since she is not a spouse, the visit would not be considered conjugal. But she is hoping they can arrange to meet face to face. She's already thinking about the possibility of having Davis' child, if he wants one.
Samantha says her parents don't approve, but they've gotten accustomed to the way she operates and haven't tried to intervene. Several Facebook friends posted comments on the relationship announcement expressing various levels of disapproval, but she is moving ahead. She's planning to continue corresponding with Ramirez, and hopes Manson will contact her soon. When she's asked whether having several killer pen pals might be interpreted as cheating, she laughs.
Her roommates are less amused by the idea that she may become the mistress of multiple murderers. It's clear that they're both perplexed by and concerned about her. When asked what it's like to live with Samantha, they look at each other with raised eyebrows.
“It's interesting,” Nastassia says.
“Yeah, interesting,” Pamela says. “But sometimes I just want to strangle the shit out of her.” She pauses, and then quickly adds, “I'm just kidding. It's not that bad. But sometimes I'm just like, 'Fuck!' and that's all I can say.”