Sunday, December 9, 2007

European women find love on death row

Romina Deeken is a classic beauty – long and lithe, cascading blond hair, green eyes set in alabaster – not the type of woman who needs to solicit attention from men.

But last year, the 24-year-old German reached out to a convicted killer on Texas' death row.

Her motives were altruistic, she said, not romantic. In time, after more than 50 letters posted back and forth across the Atlantic, Ms. Deeken said, mutual feelings grew.

"I have a connection with him," she explained recently, shaking slightly, tears running down her cheek. "Everyone in life has a vision, has dreams, has fears, is searching for something. He is the person I can talk deeply with about these things."

Ms. Deeken's story is coffee shop talk in this small southeast Texas town, home of the maximum-security Polunsky Unit and death row.

Each month, dozens of travel-weary, love-struck European women arrive in Livingston for visits with condemned inmates, a pair of four-hour chats through Plexiglas. There is no touching.

Exactly why they come depends on who is asked. Experts say many of these women have been scarred by violence or sexual abuse, though the women interviewed for this story all say that's not the case for them. Others say the women are motivated by compassion and a desire to nurture, or an attraction to the baddest of the bad boys.

Their relationships with the inmates typically begin when women join anti-death penalty groups like Amnesty International, or during Internet research. Pen-pal groups such as InterracialFriends.com post free personal ads based on letters and pictures from death row inmates, like this one from Jose Noey Martinez:

"The worst thing in life is loneliness and that's all I've had in my life so I'm hoping by me putting up this ad I can make some great friends out there in the free world. So if you like what you see, please write to me."

In 1995, Mr. Martinez was convicted of stabbing to death a 68-year-old woman and her 4-year-old granddaughter. He sexually assaulted the older woman, defiled the corpse of the child, and reportedly threatened the victims' family as he was led from the courtroom, saying, "It's not over yet."

Many people who live in Livingston say the European visitors are naive. Death penalty opponents counter that even the pathologically violent and vile deserve a dignified life.
Terri Ray, a woman with a quick wit and shoulder-length silver hair, works the desk at The Lake Livingston Inn, which is recommended by an anti-death penalty group in Switzerland. She books about 10 international reservations a month.

"They're so gullible, you just want to shake them and say, 'Are you women that stupid?' " she said, eyes wide behind horn-rimmed glasses. "Those guys over there are running a game. They've got 10 to 20 women at a time they're romancing."

Ms. Ray shares the prevailing opinion in this lakeside town that idealistic amateurs are being played by professional players.

"All those guys put down on their ads: 'I'm looking for a Christian woman for deep spiritual companionship,' " she said. "Please. What they're really looking for is a female who has nothing between her ears and deep pockets."

Ms. Deeken, who works for a media company in Germany, says she knows the deal – some death row inmates manipulate European women for sport, sexual stimulation and money – just like men on the outside.

The death penalty, Ms. Deeken said, is a barbaric punishment in a flawed U.S. justice system.

"Everybody has a right to fair trial, but he never had that," she said, referring to her pen pal.

"The fact that he is black – well, there is a lot of discrimination. I know blacks are treated unfairly."

People change, and there is goodness inside those who have committed evil, she said.

Isolation, day after day

Life on Texas' death row is austere and isolating.

Condemned men spend 23 hours a day in a cell the size of a walk-in closet. Each day, they are allowed one hour alone for recreation, and a shower.

Inmates may own a small radio, but not a television, and there is no Internet access. Men communicate with the outside world by letter. Snack food – including coveted cups of Blue Bell ice cream – may be purchased from the prison commissary.

Often, that's where European women come in.

Marlin Nelson, who's been on death row 19 years, said money motivates many of the inmates.
"I think most of them have more than one woman," he said. "They do it to get whatever they can get, the money. It gets pretty lonely in here, and once you're with someone awhile, it gets boring."

He said the men also frequently persuade women to send semi-nude pictures in the mail. Pornography and au naturel photographs were banned several years ago, but the current rules allow snapshots in bathing suits and revealing underwear. Inmates on death row hang the pictures in their cells and trade them like baseball cards.

Mr. Nelson beat a man with a metal bar and stabbed him to death in 1987. He is married to an English woman who left her husband for Mr. Nelson about six years ago. Like all death row marriages, the ceremony was conducted by proxy.

He said that their relationship isn't physically consummated but that they enjoy "letter sex" and intellectual intimacy.

"Writing is real personal," he said. "You tell each other things you'd never tell God if he asked you."

Relationships that are both close and distant, Mr. Nelson said, are what many women need. There is intensity in a life-and-death romance, and passion and poetry – but little risk.

"You can have a boyfriend out there, so if you want sex, you can go have sex," he said. "But if you want a relationship where you can tell anybody anything, this is it."

In that way, he said, it's difficult to tell the players from the played. Both sides get what they need.

An endless flow

Christa Haber met her husband, Troy Kunkle, while he was on death row. He was executed in 1995.

Now she makes about $1,100 a month running a guest house near death row that caters to European visitors. The Blue Shelter is booked solid the last two weeks of most months.

One wall in the neat and modest home is decorated with nine pencil portraits of men on death row drawn by an inmate in Florida. Four of them have red letters in the corner, "EX" for executed.

Ms. Haber, a German who has lived in the U.S. since 1993, said many of her guests romanticize the men on death row.

"I think violence is very interesting," she said. "Most normal men are boring, but if you are in a relationship with a violent man, you have something to tell others and ... you are interesting, too."

Ms. Haber said her guests often mortgage their lives to travel thousands of miles to Livingston. Then they spend all day at the prison visiting their pen pals, and all night at her kitchen table writing letters to their convicts.

Once women driven initially by a philosophical opposition to the death penalty meet the condemned men, she said, nurturing instincts often take over.

They say things like, "This man has never known what love means. His parents did not love him and the teacher in the school did not love him," Ms. Haber said. "Nobody loved him his entire life, but I do, and I will show him what love is."

Even though some people see inmate relationships as an oddity, Lene Gabrielsen, a mother of three and a nursing student from Norway, says she knows many stories of long-standing love.

"There are a lot of women out there who start out as pen pals and get married and stay married for years and years and years," said Ms. Gabrielsen, who corresponds with two condemned inmates. "I think that's great. If they're happy, why not, because there's so much hate in the world."

There is no way to track the number of Texas death row inmates who marry each year, or how many wed Europeans, but death penalty opponents estimate the former figure at between 10 and 20.

Hybristophilia is the clinical term for women who are attracted to notorious criminals.
A mother and daughter married two of the infamous Texas Seven, who broke out of a South Texas maximum-security prison in 2000.

Two women called San Quentin in California the day Scott Peterson arrived in 1995. They told the staff they intended to marry the man convicted of killing his wife and unborn child.

Doreen Lioy, a freelance writer, married Richard Ramirez, the serial killer who raped and mutilated his way across California in the mid-1980s. In a television documentary, the college-educated woman described the man known as the Night Stalker as "sweet and funny."
Troubled pasts

Sheila Isenberg interviewed three dozen women in relationships with murderers for her 1991 book Women Who Love Men Who Kill. She is working on a sequel that will focus on the allure for European women and Internet-inspired pen pals.

While not scientific, her research suggests the women have common experiences.

"I found they all had been damaged in their earlier lives or in their earlier relationships," she said from her home in upstate New York. "Many of them had abusive parents, generally fathers, who beat the crap out of them or sexually abused them."

Lon Glenn, a warden for the last 10 of his 30 years working for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, said women of all nationalities, including guards and other prison staff, often fall for inmates.

"I've seen a thirty-something married registered nurse with two kids leave her husband and kids for a three-time-loser convict doing a life sentence," he said in an e-mail. "I've seen a prison school teacher, caught having sex on her desk with a convict, request to be placed on his visiting list as she's being fired. I've lost count of the number of female 'officers' caught in romantic encounters with convicts, some veterans of many years."

Rick Halperin, a board member of Amnesty International USA, offered no excuses for state employees who have affairs with inmates. But he said it's important to remember that most European women initially are motivated by compassion, not lust.

"I do not believe the majority of these women are thrill-seekers who are hoping to marry death row inmates," said the Southern Methodist University history professor. "I think they write as a way to try to reaffirm the basic humanity of these condemned prisoners."

Europeans, he said, are steeped and educated in human rights.

"It's easy to scoff at these women when you live in this country," he said. "But this is a real difficult thing they're doing, and it's very human." Marlin Nelson, who's been on death row 19 years, said money motivates many to have relationships with women outside. Lene Gabrielsen visits death row inmate Bobby Lee Hines at the Polunsky Unit. The woman is a mother of three and a nursing student from Norway.

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