Diane Dimond: Lee Boyd Malvo: An enterprise from behind bars
By Diane Dimond
Lee Boyd Malvo, inmate No. 330873, incarcerated at the super-maximum Red Onion State Prison in Virginia ,has a business plan to make himself some money. He either doesn’t know it is against the law or he doesn’t care.
You won’t learn about this story anywhere else. I was only able to piece it together after speaking to sources, correction officials in Virginia, exchanging emails with a woman in a foreign country and putting two and two together.
You may remember Malvo was half of a two-man killing squad that terrorized, robbed and killed people in about a dozen states back in 2002. When the pair was at the peak of their killing spree, the media incorrectly dubbed the then 17-year old Malvo and his 41-year-old accomplice, John Muhammad, “The Beltway Snipers,” and the “D.C. Snipers.”
The pair didn’t only go after targets in and around the nation’s capital. They began their murderous binge in Washington state in February 2002. Traveling through nearly a dozen states, their total victim count was 10 injured and 17 dead. They didn’t attract national attention until their random sniper attacks erupted close to the seat of power, in and around Washington, D.C., in October 2002.
After their capture, Muhammad was convicted in 2003 and executed in 2009. Young Malvo was sentenced to six consecutive life sentences with no possible parole. Malvo maintains that after surviving a hellish childhood, he latched on to the much older and controlling Muhammad for stability. Malvo says he was repeatedly sexually abused by Muhammad and was brainwashed into participating in the crime spree.
Malvo’s lawyers are appealing his sentence, citing the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2012 finding that mandatory life sentences for juveniles are unconstitutional. So far, they have been unsuccessful.
Today, the now 29-year-old Malvo awaits his fate, and I have learned he frequently puts pen to paper and draws: The Christ child with an angel hovering above, an impressive rendition of a young Muhammad Ali and the rapper Drake. Malvo often draws himself alone in his cell, his face usually only partially revealed. The drawings have titles such as, “The Prison Well Made By My Mind” and “Forgive Yourself.”
Malvo’s drawings portraying guns and violence are the most chilling. One piece titled, “In Brainwashing” shows two men lying on their stomachs as if scoping out a faraway target. One is aiming an automatic weapon. Off to the right sits a young crossed-legged African-American man (who looks like Malvo) passively watching the scene.
Other drawings are more action packed. “Syria in Turmoil” portrays a desperate-looking man in a ball cap holding an automatic weapon in his right hand as he uses his left arm to catapult between two cars. Another in this series shows two men with guns outstretched, each moving toward the corner of a brick building from different directions. It’s clear that in an instant one of them will be dead. In a work Malvo calls “Slavery,” guns are replaced by a whip, and chained men are beaten by a jailer with a machete in his belt.
This art is Malvo’s product. His business plan apparently came together after a German woman named Kira Prange began writing him in January.
“I wanted to learn how we accept people without judging them or their past,” Prange wrote me in a series of emails we exchanged. The 24-year-old student from Bremen, Germany, told me she is studying to be a social worker and she chose to write Malvo because as a 12-year-old girl she remembered news reports about the manhunt. Prange told me she and Malvo write between one and three letters to each other every week.
“We quickly became good friends, and he asked me if I might help him with his art sale since he had to stop about a year ago,” Prange wrote.
A few weeks ago, Prange created an Internet site for Malvo where she posted 20 of his tablet-sized drawings. Each drawing is offered for $2,000, save for “Brainwashing,” which has a slight notch out of one side and is priced at $1,800. Prange confided to me that she has, “About 50 more drawings” from Malvo that she plans to post after her exams are over.
“The main reason for the art sale is Mr. Malvo’s intention to help a close friend financial,” Prange wrote, struggling with English a bit. She did not reveal precise details of their business arrangement, but she made it clear Malvo plans to profit.
“He does receive some of the money,” she wrote.
Interesting, since profiting from the notoriety of a crime is against Virginia law — Code Section 19.2-368.20, to be exact.
It states that any profits received by an inmate as a result of his notoriety, “shall require that the defendant and the person with whom the defendant contracts pay (the court, the proceeds to) … be placed in a special escrow account for the victims of the defendant’s crime.”
Is this the law that shut down Malvo’s last attempt to sell his drawings? Did he believe by selling through a foreign intermediary his enterprise might survive under the radar?
On Capitol Hill, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas is currently stalled on his third attempt to get legislation passed that would prohibit any federal or state inmate convicted of a violent crime from profiting from the sale of any of their memorabilia. Cornyn’s “Stop the Sale of Murderabilia Act” is stuck in the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Since his conviction, Lee Boyd Malvo has reportedly apologized to one survivor of his shooting spree and to the daughter of one of the dead. He petitioned the court to change his name on the basis that he would be safer if other inmates did not know his identity. In a long tape-recorded interview with the Washington Post in 2012, he lamented his tormented childhood and clearly wishes he had not fallen under Muhammad’s “Master Puppeteer” spell.
In a prison like Red Onion, where most of the population is segregated in individual cells 23 hours a day, Malvo’s artwork is surely one of his few satisfying outlets. But, somehow it has escaped him that it is only of value to a few collectors because he is notorious for committing heinous, bloody crimes.
Something tells me after this news of Malvo’s latest business endeavor hits the headlines, monitors at Red Onion State Prison will be looking more closely at both his incoming and outgoing mail. And they should.