true crime

'Ivan Milat has been writing to me for 20 years. He says he's innocent.'

For the past 20 years, backpacker killer Ivan Milat has been sending Amanda Howard letters from prison. Handwritten letters, up to 40 pages long. Sometimes he’s written about things like roadwork and gardens. But mostly he’s been trying to prove his innocence.

“It was a lot about ‘this evidence’, ‘that evidence’, ‘they said this in court’ and ‘they said that in court’, and he would put up his own legal fight against those points,” the true crime writer and novelist tells Mamamia.

So what’s Milat like? Howard, who’s co-writing a book with him, sighs.

“Ivan Milat is so dumb. His correspondence is very disjointed and often alludes to things. It takes you a while to understand what he’s saying. I’ve had a lot of people read some of the stuff I have from him and they all go, ‘I don’t know how you can read this. It’s really, really hard.’”

Once Milat wrote to her in “very poor” French.

“I think he hoped that maybe he could send out things that the prison couldn’t read. I said to him, ‘Yeah, not French.’ It wasn’t good.”

Milat, who has been convicted of seven murders, has terminal cancer. But he’s still claiming to Howard that he’s innocent.

“He will die with his last breath saying he didn’t do this,” she believes. “It’s going to be interesting if he does do an about-face, but I highly doubt it.”

Speaking of serial killers… Author Andrew Byrne takes us through the case of Christopher Wilder – the Australian serial killer responsible for the biggest man hunt in American history.

Howard’s post office box is full of letters from serial killers. She’s known as the Serial Killer Whisperer, but she’s not their friend, and she’s definitely not a serial killer groupie, although there are plenty of those. She’s been writing to serial killers, asking them questions, looking for information and insights, ever since she was a criminology student at university.

“Hadden Clark – he’s a US killer – I asked him, ‘Do you believe that there are innocent people in jail?’ and he said, ‘I’m not sure if there’s innocent people in jail, but I know that there are four people in jail for crimes I’ve done.’ So that goes straight to the police.”

The first serial killer who ever replied to Howard’s letters was Arthur Shawcross, known for being a cannibal.

“He used to find it funny to send things like a recipe where I was one of the ingredients: a spicy jambalaya, with a couple of pounds from my behind,” she remembers. “I had to keep reminding him that it was an interview situation.”

Many of them have tried to charm her, including Milat.

“Ivan Milat actually referenced in one of his most recent letters that he could smell my perfume on the letter – which is quite strange, because I don’t wear any, because I’m highly allergic to it.

“Bobby Joe Long proposed to me many, many years ago, and then when I said no, he offered for me to go to his execution. But I didn’t.

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“Edward Spreitzer, who’s one of the Chicago Rippers, he’s constantly trying to have me become his girlfriend. My husband died two years ago and I actually mentioned that I was going through a tough time. His response – no sympathy – was, ‘Well, now that you’re single, you can date me.’ Really?”

Sometimes, spending time inside the head of serial killers gets too dark for Howard. But she has an escape.

“I make sure that I watch a lot of reality TV, which is very mindless and lets me close off… though a lot of them are more psychopathic than some of the killers I know. Real Housewives!”

Howard has had “quite a few” threats from killers. But, as most of them are in prison for the rest of their lives, she’s not too scared of them. The people who scare her more are the serial killer groupies.

“I get a lot of hate from the groupies. These people are out there and often do turn up at events and make threats and things like that because they feel like they have an ownership to a lot of these killers. I recently had to cancel one [literary event] because of threats made by one of these groupies.”

So out of all the convicted killers Howard has corresponded with, are there any she believes might actually possibly be innocent? She names Kathleen Folbigg, convicted over the deaths of her four babies, who recently had her convictions reviewed.

“I’ve been talking to Kathleen Folbigg for a couple of years now and I really thought that her case was going to get to go to trial. I read the records of the children’s deaths and saw the expert reports on it and there is a lot of reasonable doubt in that case. I really thought that that was going to get up, but it’s just been quashed.”

And what about Milat, who’s been protesting his innocence to her for two decades?

“There are a lot of questions about the case, especially the theory of the second killer,” she says. “I’ve interviewed and researched thousands of killers over the years, and to have one killer both stab and shoot is very, very rare.”

Howard says she was recently contacted by a police officer who worked on the Milat case who has a suspicion about who a second killer might be.

“He said, ‘I don’t understand why they never looked at this guy,’ and he gave me a lot of information to go and follow up and chase up. We might even link in a few of the other victims.”

For Howard, it’s “quite strange” to think Milat will soon disappear off the face of the earth and she’ll no longer be able to ask him anything. But she doesn’t feel sorry when any of the serial killers she’s corresponded with die, whether it’s through execution or natural causes.

“I mean, they’ve done horrible things and they usually get to die a lot more peacefully than their victims. So it’s kind of just desserts. But at the same time, it’s still a death.”

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