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Real Life

Murder she wrote: I write letters to killers, including the late Ivan Milat

Dark and dangerous men wanted to share their sinister secrets with me.

By Courtney GReatrex

Amanda Howard, 45, Sydney, NSW tells all about her murderous pen mates:

As I tore through my textbook about Australian serial killers, I frowned as I noticed a mistake.
That's weird, I thought, re-reading the sentence.
The author claimed that the infamous 'Backpacker Murderer' Ivan Milat had picked up his victims from a certain location, when I knew from growing up in the area, it was actually somewhere else.
Plus, I was midway through my uni degree in criminology, and had been learning about the world's sickest killers.
It was concerning that my textbook might contain a factual error.
I need to fix this, I thought, going in search of my lecturer.
"Why don't you go straight to the source?" he said when I told him.
I knew he probably meant the author, but I had a better idea.
"I'm going to Milat directly," I told my boyfriend, Steve, later that day.
I was sick of getting second- or third-hand information. I wanted it straight from the horse's mouth.
I was a pen pal to dark and dangerous people. (Getty)
At first, Steve laughed.
"I'm not sure that's a great idea," he said, worried about me contacting a serial killer.
But I was determined.
Milat was in a maximum security prison for life, so there was no harm in trying.
Ever since I was a kid, I'd been intrigued by crime.
If a gory horror movie came on the telly, I'd kneel in front of it, fascinated.
At four years old, I was at a party with my parents and overheard them whispering to friends about another guest who'd been accused of murdering his wife.
I looked the man up and down, unable to believe he might've killed someone.
He was never found guilty, but it was something I often thought about as I grew up.
How could someone who looked so normal do something so horrendous?
I was always interested in true crime. (Getty)
When I was 16, John Wayne Glover, the 'Granny Killer' was arrested in Sydney's North Shore.
His face was splashed over the news and with his silver hair and pot belly, I couldn't believe he was capable of killing someone.
Why would he do that? It wasn't just the crimes that fascinated me, but the reason why they were committed in the first place.
At school, I always had my head buried in a murder mystery book.
One day, a year later, I was reading my favourite Stephen King novel, Skeleton Crew, in the playground when Steve, a classmate, came up to me.
"Whatchya reading?" he asked.
"A horror book, you might not like it," I replied.
"I'm more of a fantasy guy," he shrugged, but we got chatting anyway.
John Wayne Glover. (Image: News.com.au)
Over time, we developed a special bond and Steve eventually became my boyfriend.
My interest in true crime never waned as I got older. How these killers blended in and got away with their horrendous actions for as long as some did was fascinating.
It propelled me into studying criminology full-time at university.
When I spotted that textbook error, I knew I had enough information and knowledge to confidently contact the killers directly.
They weren't caged animals – they were people who had the ability to communicate if they chose to.
So, I started by sending a letter to Ivan Milat.
My name's Amanda. I'm a criminology student and I have a few questions… I wrote.
I addressed another one to Arthur Shawcross, a sick killer who claimed the lives of 14 people in Rochester, New York.
The depraved murderer even ate some of his victims' body parts.
Most people would think these vile crims weren't worth the time of day, but I couldn't ignore their fascinating tales. I desperately wanted to understand what made them tick.
When I posted the letters, I felt a rush of exhilaration and relentlessly checked my PO box after that.
A few weeks later, I received an envelope with Sullivan State Detention Centre stamped on it. It was from Shawcross.
Dear Amanda, it's a pleasure to make your acquaintance, he wrote. I had no idea a cannibal could be so polite.
How does it feel to be called a serial killer? I'd asked him.
Richard Ramirez. (Image: Supplied)
I eat Wheaties every day so I am definitely a 'cereal killer' he replied, as if my question was a joke.
He came across as a befuddled old man who wanted to be my grandfather.
One day, I received another letter from him which included a recipe for spicy jambalaya. When I read the third ingredient, I nearly threw up.
A couple of pounds of your behind, he'd listed.
It was creepy, but I knew he was a joker.
He wouldn't actually, I assured myself. Even if he would, he couldn't get to me.
Soon after, Ivan Milat replied, too.
In my initial letter, I'd told him that I lived near his hometown, so he asked me about changes in the area. I filled him in.
I started writing to various killers around the world. (Image: Supplied)
I wrote to more killers over the years, casting the net far and wide. Before long, I was receiving more than 30 letters a week.
"Who is it today?" Steve asked when I lugged in piles of envelopes.
Over time, I dived deep into getting to know these murderers.
Sometimes I wrote to Milat about the roadworks at the end of my street, since he used to be a road worker.
Other times, I'd tell him about the jasmine plant at the back of my garden.
Do you know why it isn't flowering this year? I'd write, as if I was asking a dear old uncle with a green thumb.
He'd reply with gardening tips, but other times, his words were creepy.
The fragrance of your perfume still lingers upon your letter, a most delicious distraction in the bareness of this antiseptic cement and iron dungeon, Milat wrote, sending a shiver up my spine.
Ivan Milat's letter gave me the chills. (Image: Supplied)
I asked him more about his case, too, careful questions on why he murdered those people, but he always maintained his innocence.
It was frustrating when he ignored some of my queries.
I appreciate your time that you give me. Regards, Ivan M.
Once, an overzealous prison mate overheard one of my criminal correspondents talking about me and sent me a menacing letter.
Roy Norris, one of the 'Toolbox Killers' who'd raped and murdered five teenage girls in California in the 1970s, threatened to put an ice pick into my ear.
Steve could see I was shaken up by this.
"Why don't you take some time away from all this?" he suggested.
Together, we visited gardens, museums and art galleries, and I was reminded there was still beauty in the world amongst the darkness.
Ray Norris. (Image: ABC)
But I couldn't let go of the relationships I'd built with the criminals.
I set up a separate phone line which couldn't be linked to my address and gave them that number so we could talk.
I'd always answer to the automated message telling me it was an inmate calling.
Your conversation will be recorded and may be monitored. If you do not wish to receive this call, please hang up now.
But I always opted to be connected.
I shared conversations with Kathleen Folbigg, known as Australia's most hated woman.
She was jailed for killing her four children. She maintained her innocence.
We'd been speaking often for a few years, but we only got six minutes per call.
"How's the appeal going?" I'd ask her.
There was no time for pleasantries in these calls; we needed to get down to business, which was obtaining details so I could find out what made these monsters tick.
I always accept calls from prison. (Getty)
I decided to write books about what I'd learned. Often, I'd have to water down details to make them more accessible to the public.
It was fascinating, but I felt bogged down by the factual structure.
So, I turned my hand to fiction writing, too, taking what I couldn't write in my biographies, and getting creative.
"I can't believe you came up with that," my friends said, concerned how easily I slipped into the mind of a serial killer.
"Don't worry, I didn't make it up," I reassured them. "This actually happened."
I even started giving talks in the news, on TV documentaries and on podcasts about my books.
After one, an audience member came up to me. "You're like a serial killer whisperer," she said.
I'd never thought of it that way, but I guess it was true. Dark and dangerous men shared their secrets with me.
Eventually, Steve and I tied the knot and we had two beautiful children.
I tried to keep a balance between family life and the darkness of my work.
At Christmas, I'd force myself to take a month off.
It was our special time of the year when I was fully present for those around me.
Steve and me with our family on our wedding day. (Image: Supplied)
By January, I'd be swamped with letters from prisoners I'd contacted. It didn't bother me. This was my work.
I'd get a huge buzz when I contributed to helping families find justice and solving crimes.
When I was speaking to US killer Hadden Clark, he confessed to four extra murders. I reported it to police, and it helped the families of those victims get closure.
I also wrote to serial killer Richard Ramirez.
On my way home one evening, I phoned Steve to ask what he'd like for dinner, but there was no answer.
So I rang the school where he worked as a sales executive.
"He went out at lunch and said he wasn't coming back," the receptionist said.
That's weird, I thought.
As I arrived home, I opened the garage and found Steve's motionless body. He'd taken his own life.
My entire existence came to a halt as I realised life had changed forever.
I knew Steve had suffered through a difficult childhood, but I had no idea of the demons eating him up inside.
His death took a huge toll on me and the kids as we worked to put the pieces back together.
For a long time, I questioned myself. Steve had no history of mental illness that I knew of, but how had I not noticed that he was suffering?
I'd spent so long picking the brains of serial killers, I'd forgotten to delve into the mind of the person closest to me.
Talking about my grief with others and raising awareness of male suicide helped me.
A couple of my prisoner contacts even sent me sympathy cards once I told them, which felt surreal.
I've received many cards from inmates. (Image: Supplied)
I'm so sorry for your loss, Kath Folbigg wrote.
How can a murderer show how much they care for me, and destroy life so easily in another context?
But Steve's death threw my work into question.
Should I really be doing this? I wondered.
It felt wrong to be dealing with people who so easily took others' lives, but I also felt like I could empathise with victims' families more than ever.
Like them, I never got to say goodbye to my loved one, and my mind was constantly churning with 'what if' scenarios.
What if I'd told him to stay home from work that day? What if I'd asked him how he was just one more time?
I know I'm not alone. I'm constantly speaking with people who want just five more minutes with their deceased relative.
Knowing that I can help give these people closure keeps me going.
I'm still in regular contact with murderers, learning everything I can about how they tick.
When I heard that Ivan Milat had died from terminal oesophageal cancer, it was the end of that chapter.
Sadly, he never admitted to the crimes he committed, and the families affected will never get the proper closure they deserve.
Now, I'm writing a book about my correspondence with Milat and what I've learned.
If my work can help save one family going through horrific trauma, it will be worthwhile.
If you or someone you know is struggling to cope, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or visit www.lifeline.org.au

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