ELKO — Victim advocates are opposed to an online industry that’s “glorifying crime,” selling items such as artwork by a convicted West Wendover murderer.
Kody Cree Patten, who received a life sentence for the 2011 killing of a 16-year-old girl, has two drawings available for $50 each at a website called “DeathMerchant.net.” His handmade greeting cards are advertised on a Tumblr account known as “True Crime Hot House.”
He’s not the only high-profile inmate whose stuff is out there — and it appears he’s within his rights.
Andy Kahan, a victim advocate for the City of Houston, has discovered seven sites nationally that sell items that have been personally produced by high-profile killers. He’s coined the term “murderabilia” to describe this particular subset of Internet sales.
“This is the strangest project I’ve ever been involved with in 30 years in the justice system,” Kahan said.
Murderabilia can range from personalized letters from inmates to fingernail clippings, T-shirts or autopsy reports. The opening bid for a Charles Manson-signed money order is $400. Artwork can go for up to several thousand dollars, while clothing can go for hundreds, Kahan said.
But to local victim advocates and the family of Micaela “Mickey” Costanzo, the selling of these items to promote one’s notoriety is sickening.
“It’s a shame that people are purchasing things from people that have committed crimes like this,” said Costanzo’s sister, Kristina Lininger, on behalf of the family.
A first for Elko County
In May 2012, Patten pleaded guilty to first-degree murder with use of a deadly weapon, according to Free Press archives. He is serving a life sentence without parole at the Ely State Prison.
Patten and his then-girlfriend Toni Collette Fratto were 18 years old when they killed Costanzo in the desert a few miles west of West Wendover. Fratto said she struck the victim with a shovel and restrained her while Patten cut her throat. Costanzo’s body was discovered three days later in a shallow grave.
Fratto was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole after 18 years, after pleading guilty to second-degree murder.
No items from Fratto have been discovered for sale online, and it appears that Patten is the first high-profile murderer from Elko County to tap into the murderabilia industry. Yvette Waters, executive director for the Committee Against Domestic Violence, said this is the first she’s come across.
“That’s not OK that those families are being put through this kind of pain all over again,” she said. “… It’s one more piece of victimizing them.”
Waters’ organization aims to ensure that the victims of crimes are not forgotten. All too often, she said, it’s the criminals’ names that are remembered.
“I see it as a society that’s making heroes out of someone who’s a murderer,” she said. “… Our community needs to think about our victims.”
Dallas Smales, victim advocate with the Intertribal Council of Nevada’s Family Violence Prevention Project, told the Free Press she’d never heard of murderabilia, but she had only one word to describe it.
“It’s sickening,” she said. “To me it’s an insult to victims and their families. I don’t understand why people do things like that.”
Officials from DeathMerchant.net did not respond to a request for comment. According to Patten’s biography on the website, “Patten maintains his innocence, and it’s difficult to see what his motive to take the life of one of his closest friends would be. He is trying to fight the charges against him and is an extremely positive person.”
Notoriety for profit
In 1991, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down what were known as “Son of Sam” laws, declaring they were unconstitutional. These laws were written to stop inmates from profiting from publicity of their crimes by selling books to publishers. The Supreme Court ruled the laws broke First Amendment rights.
Kahan discovered the industry in 1999, when the primary site for buying and selling those products was eBay. The company later revised its policy, and other sites began popping up. Since then, he’s made it his personal mission to stop the industry. Kahan speaks to various groups to display murderabilia he’s purchased for educational purposes.
The National Organization of Parents of Murdered Children, of which Kahan is a member, is working to get federal legislation put into place. The group’s strategy is to create “notoriety for profit” laws that do not conflict with constitutional rights.
“We started zeroing in on the profit — not the free speech,” Kahan said.
Already, eight states have passed these laws, he said. But the state level isn’t enough to criminalize the murderabilia trade.
“Federal legislation is the only way you’re gonna be able to get rid of this despicable industry,” Kahan said.
He explained that’s because restricting interstate commerce is difficult when state laws differ.
While Kahan’s group has gotten a bill filed several times, he believes this next attempt will withstand criticism.
When items are listed for sale, Kahan stated that some inmates get a cut of the profit while others are clueless. Usually with artwork, he said, there’s some sort of cut.
“I would be surprised of Patten wasn’t aware his stuff was being sold and didn’t get a cut from some of the proceeds,” Kahan said.
Kahan said there are currently items for sale from one other Nevada inmate, Jeremy Strohmeyer. The man raped and murdered a 7-year-old-girl in a Primm casino bathroom, according to the Las Vegas Sun.
“Most prisons essentially restrict inmates from operating a business unless they have their permission,” Kahan said.
Associate warden Harold Byrne of the Ely State Prison told the Free Press that Patten has no access to the Internet. He found it likely someone outside was helping him sell his artwork, and said he would look into it.
“He can’t sell from within the prison,” Byrne said.
He added that “hobby craft” such as artwork is not restricted.
Patten’s bio also states, “he is incarcerated in Nevada where he tries to remain positive and focuses on creating art.”
Waters said she would like to see more done so it isn’t within inmates’ rights to sell items to “glamorize” murder.
“What message really is there in that art?” she said.
Waters compares selling murderabilia to the Wednesday killing of two journalists, where shooter Bryce Williams posted video footage of the events to social media pages.
“That’s part of what desensitizes our society to these crimes,” she said.
CADV works to assist victims and the families of victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking. Waters discourages anyone from purchasing murderabilia and asks people to consider the families of the victims.
“Everything kind of went out of the headlines, but the family’s still dealing with it,” she said.