While accused serial killer Shawn Grate remains in the Ashland County Jail, a Florida-based seller of “murderabilia” says he has acquired items signed by Grate, including two that appear to have been signed after his arrest and pre-trial detention.
Capt. David Blake, jail administrator for the Ashland County Sheriff’s Office, said he wasn’t sure exactly how Grate would have sent the items out, but he believes they were sent before an Oct. 13 gag order was imposed on Grate to restrict his outside communication.
Grate grew up in Marion County and was arrested Sept. 13, leading to an Ashland County indictment for the murders of two women and kidnapping and rape of another who survived and was able to call 911. Officials have linked Grate to the deaths of three more women, including one in Marion County around 2005.
Court and law enforcement records also showed Grate had a history of abusing girlfriends and ex-girlfriends in Marion, Crawford and Richland counties before most of the murders are said to have occurred.
“Murderabilia,” a term coined by a primary critic that is also used by the website selling the items, includes letters and other effects from people accused or convicted of high-profile murders or multiple murders, particularly serial cases.
A New York Times article on the industry said early examples included a serial killer’s car and the revolver Jack Ruby used to kill Lee Harvey Oswald, and the internet has led to a great increase in the market.
Eric Holler, the administrator of “Serial Killers Ink,” said his business typically doesn’t identify who provided items they sell. His emailed statement indicated two items likely came from a third party that Holler said he assumed sent two sections of a USA Today Network-Ohio article to Grate, who then used the other side to trace his left hand, sign it and make additional writings.
The article — which detailed Grate’s domestic violence history — was printed online Oct. 1, before Ashland County Common Pleas Court Judge Ron Forsthoefel issued a gag order that barred Grate from communicating with the media or general public about the case.
Judge issues gag order in Grate case
The two items that included a hand tracing and a portion of the article on the reverse side were signed by Grate, who added the numeral “5” on one and “For this also will pass” on the other item. The “5” item, originally priced at $50, is listed as “out of stock” and might have been sold, but the second one remains available.
Holler’s website said that “five represents the number of victims so far attributed to Grate” and called the writing on the other hand tracing “an inspirational quote.” It also is priced at $50.
The other two items, listed as available for $35, are described as signed writings of part of a “contemporary Christian song” and an “inspirational quote." It is not clear whether they were made before or after Grate's arrest.
Victims' families could not be reached for comment. When asked how victims might feel about the sale of Grate’s writings online, Holler said, in an email, “I respect victims and victims' families enough to where I don’t shove my items or website down their throats."
“True crime is a very popular and money-making business, be it books, movies, documentaries, collectibles or sensational news stories,” Holler wrote in the email.
He contrasted that approach to a frequent critic, Houston-based victims’ advocate Andy Kahan, who Holler said tries to publicize the market as part of his criticism. Without that, Holler said, the families of the victims wouldn’t know that items connected to their loved ones’ killers were being sold online.
Kahan said Holler’s website is the “most notorious” of around seven such “murderabilia” online vendors. Past media reports show the two have been quoted on their opposing views of the industry throughout the past few years since “Serial Killers Ink” started in 2009.
"This is just the beginning of the merchandising and marketing of Shawn Grate,” said Kahan, who has watched the industry regularly for 15 years.
Elizabeth Well, legal director of the Ohio Crime Victim Justice Center, said since Grate has not been convicted, the families of the victims do not have legal recourse under Ohio's "Son of Sam" statute. Well said the law bars convicted offenders from selling "performances, books, movies or television shows about the offense" as well as their life stories, unless they were already famous and don't discuss the crime in that story.
"It is also questionable as to whether any of the products ... fall under the statute," Well said. Her center has sought action about inmates selling items as a prohibited business without official permission, but Grate is not necessarily receiving compensation for the items he reportedly sent.
Now that a gag order has been issued in the case, Grate is not permitted to write to the public or media about the case, but Jail Administator Blake said he believes the items were mailed before the court order.
Blake said under Ashland County Jail policy, inmate letters can only be monitored and opened if there is a court order or security issue, such as an attempt to contact a victim. After the gag order, Blake said, he would have been made aware if Grate had sent a hand tracing out with a numeral “5.”
Jail staff had identified some correspondence by Grate that they kept from being sent as it would be a possible violation of the gag order, and Blake said they were monitoring whether Grate might be trying to use other inmates to get mail out around the gag order.
In addition to media interview requests sent before the gag order, Blake said Grate had received multiple letters from people writing to introduce themselves who appear to be interested in the case. Grate is allowed to write back, but is barred from directly discussing the case with them.
The gag order also restricts the statements the prosecution and the defense can make to the media about the case, to the extent that they can only repeat statements made on the record in court.
Marion County Sheriff Tim Bailey declined to comment on the items, as Grate might be tried in Marion for what Bailey said was his first murder.
First victim in Grate case still unidentified
Bailey’s deputies and detectives continue to work toward identifying that victim. It’s been almost seven weeks after Bailey first said Grate had confessed to killing a magazine saleswoman around 2005.
The sheriff’s office has received tips that led to some leads, none of which panned out. The woman’s remains were found on March 10, 2007, and the circumstances of her death were unknown until Grate’s reported confession.