Pen pals from prison

Lori Culbert
Vancouver Sun

Saturday, September 02, 2006

FREMONT, Calif. - Hundreds of letters are filed in shoeboxes, and tucked away in corners of the small townhouse Thomas Loudamy shares with his fiance, their seven-week-old baby, and his fiance's father.

CREDIT: Stewart Davis, Vancouver Sun

Thomas Loudamy of Freemont Calif, has corresponded with notorious prisoners in U.S. and Canadian prisons, including Willie Pickton. Pickton is awaiting trial in the murders of 26 women, many of them sex trade workers in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.

A flip through the envelopes reveals that the return addresses are all from prisons, and the names are well known to true-crime buffs: Andrea Yates, who drowned her five children in a bathtub; Susan Smith, who pushed her car into a lake with her two children inside; Charles Ng, who murdered and sexually tortured 11 people in California.

In a matter of seconds, Loudamy locates four letters from Canadians who are accused of or convicted of violent killings, including two infamous B.C. men -- Robert (Willie) Pickton and Clifford Olson.

Loudamy, a 27-year-old warehouse worker, estimates he has received thousands of letters written by about 400 American and Canadian inmates since he started his unusual pen pal hobby in 2001.

It all began with an interest in news stories about the wrongfully convicted. That caused him to get involved with a Canadian anti-capital punishment website and he started writing letters to death row inmates.

"I wanted to at least, maybe on a small scale, offer my services as best I could at the time," he said.

After a while, however, he found this depressing because his pen pals were eventually executed. So he branched out to writing to prisoners who are not on death row --and his letters are not necessarily directed now to people who he thinks are wrongfully convicted.

"[I have] sympathy for people that for one reason or another are just lost souls, certainly not for what they did or what they were accused of," said Loudamy.

The young father, who sports several tattoos that he got while working in a tattoo parlour, said he has never been in prison himself.

Loudamy would like to be a journalist, and potentially even write a book about his collection of letters. He says he also wants to pass them along to his infant daughter Grace to educate her about bad people in the world.

Ideally, he hopes an inmate will reveal new evidence in a letter that could help police close the file on an unsolved crime.

"Maybe . . . I could make some kind of a difference, in that a lot of people who have written to me have gone on to describe things that they were not convicted of," he said. "If I played my cards right in my correspondence with them, it would maybe help solve cold cases and things like that, which was a big motivator."

Loudamy said he writes 11 letters a day, six days a week. Some of the letters are replies to inmates, others are to new recipients. They are all done in longhand, because he believes a handwritten letter has a better chance of getting a reply.

When a Sun reporter and photographer visited his home in Fremont, he displayed about 300 envelopes that he said had been penned by an estimated 150 inmates.

But Loudamy claimed to have received thousands of letters in total. The remainder, he said, are in Texas, where he was born and raised, but he left them behind when he and his then-pregnant finance moved to Fremont in late 2005.

Loudamy said he got many of the addresses for the inmates from people he was communicating with in Internet chat rooms, who were intrigued by "notorious cases."

"A lot of them are stay-at-home moms [and] sort of, I guess, armchair sleuths and true crime fans," he said.

However, Loudamy said he has severed ties with the chat rooms because he claimed many of the participants were serial killer groupies.

"I went online one day and realized that what a lot of people were doing was using the addresses to write these people and then get [the inmates] to send, like, toenail clippings, fingernail clippings, samples of hair, that kind of thing. And that's where I had to draw the line," he said.

Loudamy kept writing on his own, and penned his first letter to Pickton in June 2005 because he was shocked by the case and the small amount of public information available about the accused. He got a reply a couple of months later.

He wrote back to Pickton in early February 2006, and got a reply in March.

Loudamy didn't write to Pickton again until early August 2006, and received a reply earlier this week.

"With everyone that I do write to I try to do as much research as possible about their background," he said.

Based on that research, he decides whether to write each inmate as himself or using a pseudonym that might be more appealing to that specific person.

With Pickton, Loudamy became Mya Barnett -- a woman, he said, who has had a troubled life.

The trick appeared to work, as the letters are very open and friendly to Mya.

"That sort of comes across in his letters, because he does sort of talk like we're old friends," Loudamy said.

He said he is always surprised by the amount of correspondence he gets from inmates, but believes he has honed his skills over the years to increase his chances of success.

"I've been doing it long enough to know what will grab their attention, as opposed to all of the other people obviously that have written to [Pickton]," he said.

Not everyone writes back; Canadian killers Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka have remained silent. So have home-making diva Martha Stewart and Survivor winner Richard Hatch, who were both charged with finance-related crimes.

But others, such as Olson, who has written multiple letters to journalists and other citizens over the years, have responded. Loudamy was angered by Olson's note, which purportedly revealed that the serial child killer spends a tremendous amount of time watching TV.

Loudamy said he is particularly intrigued by people who go through the Canadian justice system because he believes publication bans limit information available about the accused and that offenders are given relatively lenient court sentences in this country.

Some of the letters Loudamy has received are "incredibly disturbing," but he says he puts those away and tries not to dwell on them.

He said he has phoned district attorneys twice to inform them that inmates had provided new evidence to him in a letter, but he said those calls were never returned.

He said he once provided a letter from the so-called BTK serial killer, Dennis Rader, to a U.S. television station which used the material but did not interview Loudamy.

This is the first time he has spoken publically about his stockpile of letters.

Loudamy knows people will consider his hobby creepy, and until now has told few relatives or friends beyond his fiance and one of his sisters. Not even his parents know about his pastime.

"I didn't care to share it with anybody just because I don't want to come across at any point like I glorify it," he said.

While some may criticize him for showering attention on those who don't deserve it, Loudamy argues his letters could one day provide evidence for an unsolved crime.

"I realize that victims' families probably wouldn't see me as the best person necessarily for writing to these people," he said. "But if I could bring peace of mind ... to a victim's family ... that would be a goal of mine."

 The Vancouver Sun 2006

The Pickton Letters: His writings offer a glimpse into the thoughts of an accused serial killer



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