OTTAWA – The prison artwork of a notorious Canadian killer is being offered for sale on an American website that promotes criminals as celebrities.
More than half a dozen items produced by cult killer Roch Theriault at the Dorchester Penitentiary in New Brunswick are up for auction on MurderAuction.com, which specializes in so-called ‘murderabilia’.
Collectors can bid for oil paintings, pastels, signed handprints and even short poems written out and coloured by Theriault, who’s serving a life sentence after being convicted of a brutal murder in 1993.
The charismatic leader of a tiny religious group near Burnt River, Ont., between 1977 and 1989, Theriault chopped off the hand of one of his concubines and killed his wife by disembowelling her.
A television movie about his bizarre cult, which was modelled on Old Testament themes and attracted up to a dozen adult followers, was titled “Savage Messiah“. It was broadcast in 2002, the same year the National Parole Board turned down his first bid for day parole.
“Cult leader Roch Theriault is one of the craziest and sickest criminal(s) in Canadian history,” the anonymous Canadian-based seller of the artwork – identified only as Redrum’s Autographs – declares on the website.
“Theriault’s artwork is extremely rare as he doesn’t write to anyone but family.”
The art being auctioned is abstract or contains inoffensive images such as flowers, and dates from October and November 2007. Minimum bids range from US$20 to US$500.
The three-year-old website is one of the earliest to create a specialized marketplace for crime memorabilia, which has generally been banned from mainstream sites such as EBay.
MurderAuction.com founder Tod Bohannon makes no apologies, saying it’s merely a branch of the well-established hobby of collecting celebrity autographs.
Bohannon, 30, began collecting criminals’ signatures at age 13, when he first wrote to notorious prisoners. His large collection now includes a few choice Theriault pieces, as well as some prison memorabilia from Canadian child-murderer Clifford Olsen.
“More than anything, it’s about getting to know someone who’s looking for a friend,” Bohannon said in an interview from his home in Cornelia, Ga., where he teaches kindergarten by day.
His advice for crime victims who might object to the website? “If my site’s hurting you, just don’t go to it.”
So-called ‘Son of Sam’ laws in the United States, designed to prevent criminals from profiting from their notoriety through big film and book deals, have been challenged on constitutional grounds and in any case do not target crime memorabilia.
A bill was introduced in the U.S. Congress last fall to try to curtail the trade in crime memorabilia, although observers say it’s unlikely to have much impact even if it’s passed.
A spokesman for Corrections Canada said there appear to be no similar laws in this country preventing the trade in “murderabilia”.
“I don’t believe there’s any legislation in Canada that goes to that effect,” Guy Campeau said in an interview.
Corrections Canada does have the legal authority to forbid a prisoner from producing works that are obscene or offensive, constitute hate literature, or pose a risk to safety or security.
“We’re aware of the website, but it’s not within our mandate or jurisdiction to deal with these issues,” Campeau said. “After it’s out in the public, well obviously the Correctional Service doesn’t have any mandate or jurisdiction to intervene on this.”
Campeau added that the department is nevertheless reviewing the case.
Theriault is still visited regularly by some of his former cult “wives,” who have moved to New Brunswick to be close to him and have borne him more children following conjugal visits.
One of Theriault’s best-known victims, Gabrielle Lavallee, was not immediately available for comment. Lavallee, who had her hand chopped off by a meat cleaver, wrote a best-selling French-language account of her time with Theriault, “L’alliance de la brebis,” or “The Alliance of Sheep,” in which she denounces him as an incurable, sadistic psychopath.
Theriault’s poems for sale are brief and in French, such as “Le regret, c’est de ne plus jamais recommence” (“Regret is to never be able to do it again”), dated last October.
Bohannon’s website says Theriault, who believed himself to be a reincarnation of Moses, was in a coma for a month last fall. Campeau said he is restricted by law from providing any personal information on individual inmates.
MurderAuction.com also offers a signed prison letter from Clifford Olsen. Bohannon said his personal collection includes some awards Olsen received in prison for winning 100-metre and 500-metre races.