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Nelson Mandela: A life in pictures
Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie in this undated file picture.
Serial killers often have groupies — usually women who write them mash notes and faithfully attend their trials, like the bevy that followed the “Night Stalker,” Richard Ramirez. Few serial killer buffs, though, have been quite as successful as Jason Moss. At the age of 18 and while living with his parents in Las Vegas, Moss struck up correspondences with Jeffrey Dahmer, Charles Manson and, most extensively, John Wayne Gacy. Ostensibly, Moss was working on a college assignment, but he was also acting on a lifelong fascination with gruesome murders and the people who commit them. In his new book, “The Last Victim: A True-Life Journey Into the Mind of the Serial Killer,” Moss reviews his successes and explains his technique: suss out the particular leanings of the psycho in question (Gacy played controlling mind games, Dahmer “just didn’t want to be alone,” Manson distrusts anything that smacks of elitism) and craft a letter that seems to be written by the killer’s “perfect victim.” He interviewed a gay hustler so that he could pretend to Gacy that he’d been one, and he boned up on Satanism in order to bond with Ramirez.
“Even as these predators disgusted me, I found myself admiring the artful way many of them stalked their prey and eluded detection,” Moss writes. “Eventually, as a kind of self-dare — one intended to relieve teenage tedium more than anything — I began pretending to be the person I was reading about. I know that sounds weird, but I really wanted to figure out why and how these people could do what they do.”
Moss’ experiment soon got out of hand. He went to visit Gacy, who was on death row at the Menard Correctional Center in Chester, Ill., and the killer suddenly turned vicious and threatened to rape him. He also visited Gacy’s pen pal,
Andrew “Koko” Kokoralies, who’d murdered eight women, and who talked
wistfully of how he would like to meet Moss’ family. Salon Books recently spoke with Moss about the trajectory of his strange obsession.
In one memory you describe from your childhood, you’re 13 years old, and you and your mother take a trip to the library. She proceeds to show you a book that describes a man who made a belt of human nipples. You ask, “Why can’t my mother read cookbooks or something?” To what extent did her fascination influence you?
It’s ironic — she’s such a good mother, and she’s so protective, and because I was so protected, it’s what made my fascination grow so much. She’d give me those tidbits and that would be it.
The book quotes the actual letters that you wrote to the serial killers. What made you think then that you had to keep copies of those letters?
Like with Gacy, I had to remember the stories I told him. You know, I told him that I prostituted myself on Las Vegas Boulevard, but after a while, when it soon led to phone calls, he’d be like, “Tell me what happened that night again, when you mowed that guy, what shirt were you wearing? Did he hit you on the head?” or “Where did you say he hit you again?” He wanted to hear the fantasy so that he could masturbate to it, but in a way he was also testing me. He kept a huge logbook — which I saw when I met him — of details of everything that went on.
What steps could you take to distance yourself from Gacy and the others? It seemed as though you were so enveloped in it that you couldn’t get out.
Looking back now I can see the mess I created for myself. At the time, I was like, “I got a letter from Ramirez!” I’m just sitting there thinking I’ve got to finish this book on Satanism. And I gotta finish this book on the occult. I’m straight, but I had to present myself as bi. So I had to finish this novel I was reading about two gay men having sex so that I could change the story around and include me getting beat up by some guys or something. I got so engulfed in it. But you got to think about it. Every letter I got I felt that I was one step closer to [Jeffrey] Dahmer. Yes. One step closer to Manson. Yes. That only incited me to read more about them.
You mention in your book the confusing feelings that Gacy’s letters evoked. What was the conflict?
It made me sick to my stomach to read about what he did to those kids — how he tortured them, and strangled them, and raped them for hours and sometimes days. It just makes you sick. But how long does the anger you feel from a movie or a book that you read last? And then you talk to him. It’s always hard to remember the hate. I’m not ever saying that I thought he was a great guy. It’s hard to keep in perspective who he is when you speak to him every single day. Gacy was part of my life. That can’t change.
You seem like a very strong man physically, but when you and Gacy were actually alone in the prison, you seemed to feel as though your life was in danger. What made you feel so weak?
I used to kick-box and work out and stuff like that. You’re asking yourself, “How can Jason feel threatened?” First of all, step into any prison in this country and you will turn a lighter shade of pale. Secondly, the guards treated me like garbage. I’m not the good one. I’m the groupie that’s going to visit a serial killer. The second I walk in, I’m already scared that I’m in a prison, all alone. No one knows I’m in here. My family doesn’t support what I’m doing … I’m standing in front of Gacy, the doors are locked behind me.
And he was nude. Didn’t he pull down his pants?
Not initially. But we were alone. The cameras face away. I’m in his world now. I’m in his control, and it’s a big thing with sociopaths — control. The guards are taken care of, so to speak.
At one point on the second day, he’s ready to rape you, you’re terrified. He admits to murdering those people, which he had always denied before, publicly and privately. At that point did you think that you had been successful?
As a trillion thoughts ran through my mind, I was telling myself that I couldn’t believe that he was admitting this stuff to me. I knew — and I was hoping to get out of this alive — that what I had witnessed was historic. I saw the point of transaction with a serial killer. What they do, how they act, before they kill someone. The rage, the anger, the facial expressions. I think Gacy thought he was at home. That he wasn’t in jail any longer. I had flashbacks of every single victim and what they went through.
How could he have raped you in those circumstances?
He was ready. He thought I would do everything he said. He thought that he controlled me. He had his pen — and he threatened to stab me in the neck if he had to. Again, he thought that he was at home, that he had me in cuffs and could control me. He grabbed me and tried to throw me over this chair with a pen in my neck. You got to put all these things together. You are alone with this guy who has done it before and he wants it now.
After this book comes out, a lot of people will be utterly fascinated and try to emulate what you did. How will you respond to it?
I’ve been getting up to 20 e-mails a day from people all over the country. I thought that when my book came out, people would read it because they wanted to learn about serial killers. These messages are saying, “Wow, you are just like me. I’ve always wanted to get closer to the dark side. I’ve always thought the same things that you’ve thought. I was always alone and isolated from my family growing up.” It’s shocking to me.
So when you date nowadays, do you tell women about your past?
What do you tell them? “What do you do?” “Well, I talk to serial killers. I see if I can get information from them.” Maybe if I spend two hours explaining things, they’ll really understand what I do. But guess what happens. They’ll tell a friend. As soon as it goes second-hand, they say, “Don’t talk to him, he’s a freak. He talks to serial killers.” I’ve learned the hard way.
At the beginning of the book, you explain that clowns really terrify you, and John Wayne Gacy was known as the Clown Killer. How do you feel when you see clowns now?
I’ve always been scared of clowns, because it’s something about that painted-on face that makes you say, “Who’s behind that? Are they really happy?” The theme of my life has been “what makes people do what they do?”
So you’re still fearful of clowns?
I wouldn’t go to the circus and run. But I wouldn’t say I would hang out with one. You don’t know who you’re talking to.
One of the really surprising photos in the book, alongside the photos of you with Gacy and Koko, is one with you and George and Barbara Bush. What was going through your mind when you were photographed with the Bushes?
With George and Barbara? It was awesome. I was just really excited to meet them. It was just Secret Service allowed in there at the time, and I got to meet them. He made a comment to me, like, “Hey, it looks like you work out,” and Barbara was like, “It’s good to meet you.” I did think, “If they only knew who else I was pictured with.”
Craig Offman is the New York correspondent for Salon Books. More Craig Offman.
Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie in this undated file picture.
Mandela is accompanied by his former wife Winnie, moments after his release from prison February 11, 1990 after serving 27 years in jail. (Reuters)
In this February, 1990 photo, shortly after his release from 27 years in prison, Nelson Mandela, gives the black power salute to the 120,000 supporters packing Soccer City stadium in Soweto, near Johannesburg. (AP Photo)
Nelson Mandela showed his passport in February 19, 1990, shortly after his release from prison. The South African government authorized an application for himself and his wife Winnie - (Juda Ngwenya / Reuters)
In this July 27, 1991 photo, Cuban President Fidel Castro, and Nelson Mandela gesture during the celebration of the "Day of the Revolution" in Matanzas, Cuba. (AP Photo)
In this July 4, 1993 photo, President Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandela listen during Fourth of July ceremonies in Philadelphia during which Clinton presented the Philadelphia Liberty Medal to the African National Congress president and South African President F.W. de Klerk. (AP Photo/Greg Gibson)
President of the African National Congress Nelson Mandela acknowledges cheers from the crowd as he prepares to unveil the ANC's official election platform in 1994. (AP Photo/David Brauchli)
African National Congress (ANC) leader Nelson Mandela greeted residents of Mmabatho in March 1994, during a visit after the nominal homeland came under South African control following the ousting of the former President Lucas Mangope. (Reuters/Howard Burditt)
South African President Nelson Mandela smiles with actor Sidney Poitier at a press conference in Cape Town in 1996. Poitier played Mandela in the film "One Man, One Vote" (AP Photo / Sasa Kralj)
South African President Nelson Mandela waves to crowds as he sits next to Queen Elizabeth II in a an open carriage on the way to Buckingham Palace.(AP/Louisa Buller)
Chairman of the Constitutional Assembly Cyril Ramaphosa, left, holds up a copy of the country's constitution which was signed by President Nelson Mandela, in December 1996. (AP Photo / Adil Bradlow / POOL)
Nelson Mandela at a news conference in Johannesburg in February 2000. (AP Photo / Denis Farrell)
South African rugby captain Francois Pienaar, right, received the Rugby World Cup trophy from President Nelson Mandela also wearing a South African rugby shirt, after South Africa defeated New Zealand in the Rugby World Cup , in 1995. (AP Photo / Ross Setford)