Spokane County may have to find a new way to sell two vehicles used by serial murderer Robert Yates.
The county announced last month that it planned to sell the 1988 Chevrolet Sport Van and 1977 Chevrolet Corvette on eBay.
But soon after a legal notice and a story about the sale appeared in The Spokesman-Review, the county was contacted by eBay officials and told that selling the cars on the online auction service likely would violate eBay policy, said Bela Kovacs, director of Spokane County’s purchasing department.
Yates pleaded guilty in 2000 to the murders of 13 women in Spokane. A Pierce County jury convicted Yates of two more murders.
Andy Kahan, a crime victims’ advocate in Houston, said eBay created a policy in recent years to prevent the sale of items used by serial killers.
Kahan said he fought for the new policy because the sale of “murderabilia” – items used by notorious killers – adds to the pain of victims’ families and friends because people profit from their loved ones’ deaths.
“From their perspective, it is one of the most nauseating and disgusting things that happens to them. It’s like being gutted all over again,” Kahan said. “Everyone is profiting at their expense.”
County officials say they’re not trying to profit; they’re trying to recoup money spent on their investigation of Yates and rid the county of cars it no longer needs. The legal notice that ran in The Spokesman-Review last month listed a disclosure at the bottom noting that both cars were owned by Yates.
“… Disposing of the vehicles by sale will allow the County to recover a portion of the significant public funds expended leading to the conviction. Each of the above referenced vehicles likely was the site of one, or possibly more, homicide(s) and other possible crimes,” the ad reads.
Yates had sold both vehicles before his arrest, so the county’s Office of Risk Management purchased them from their new owners to search them for evidence. The Corvette cost $10,500, and the van cost $7,935.
“The intent is to not create any kind of attention that could be interpreted as profiting on the notoriety of the vehicles,” Kovacs said.
The Corvette was an essential piece of the case against Yates. Detectives found a shirt button in the car that belonged to one of Yates’ victims. In the van, investigators found a blood stain that has not been linked to one of Yates’ known victims. The Corvette is being sold without seats or upholstery.
The county is awaiting a written explanation about eBay policy before it makes a final decision about how to sell the cars, Kovacs said. If eBay refuses to let it sell the vehicles on its site, the county likely will sell them in a sealed-bid auction conducted by the county or in an auction run by a private auctioneer. If the sale can proceed on the Internet site, it will be up on the virtual auctioning block from Nov. 30 to Dec. 6.
There is a market for items owned by infamous killers, said Harold Schechter, a professor of American literature and culture at Queens College in New York who has written several books about serial killers. One Web site, www.supernaught.com, on Tuesday was selling a hand-written letter and an envelope signed by Yates for $100 each.
“People are fascinated by monsters. There’s something about being connected to a real-life monster. It’s the flip side of owning a saint’s relic,” Schechter said. “I don’t see it as some kind of symptom that we’re in a sick society, because this stuff has been going on forever.”
Schechter said that in Victorian England, executioners sold pieces of rope that they used to hang criminals.
In the 1950s, a man bought murderer Ed Gein’s car at an auction and took it to fairs, where he charged 25 cents to view it, Schechter said. Ed Gein was the killer obsessed with his mother who inspired the movies “Psycho” and “Texas Chainsaw Massacre.”
“The simplest explanation is that every human being has a dark shadow side to his personality,” Schechter said. “It allows ourselves to experience these forbidden impulses.”
Although there is a demand for serial killer items, Yates’ association with the cars could actually hurt their value.
When Yates’ home was auctioned after the family declared bankruptcy, the home didn’t even get the opening bid of $77,555. The Yates family had bought the home for $122,000 in 1997, according to “Bad Trick,” a book by Spokesman-Review reporters about the Yates killings.
“I don’t think the car’s value is significantly different because of what happened in it,” said Mitch Silver, president of Silver Collector Car Auctions in Spokane. “Maybe it’s $1,000 more or $1,000 less.”
Silver said that if he were holding an auction for one of the cars, he would not allow it to be marketed as Yates’ vehicle.
“I would sell it as a car. I would make an outside mention of Yates,” Silver said. “It’s a fact that surrounds the car. But I think it is improper to suppose that that makes it more valuable.”
Kahan has seen Web sites advertise the sale of just about anything that belonged to serial killers, including their nail clippings and used cigarettes. In response, Kahan has lobbied states to pass laws that prevent people from profiting from items used or created by murderers.
California, Texas, New York and New Jersey now require those selling murder memorabilia to keep only as much as the items would have brought without that association. The rest must be given to the state to benefit crime victims’ families.
Kahan said that Spokane County should only proceed with the sale if victims of Yates’ crimes agree by consensus that the auction is proper. He said officials should not make more than the blue book value of the car and should be careful not to market the car using Yates’ infamy.
Officials from the Sheriff’s Office and the Purchasing and Risk Management departments said they were unsure if the county planned to contact victims’ families before the sale.