Women who have killer instincts

A film star ties the knot with a jailed man. The Yorkshire Ripper gets engaged to one of his many pen-pals. Clare Longrigg on what makes some women fall for dangerous convicts
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The Independent Online

Two weeks ago, the French actress Béatrice Dalle walked out of a prison in Brest, a newly married woman. The groom, whose identity and crime have not been disclosed, remained in jail. Dalle, 40, who made her name as the wild, unstable heroine of Betty Blue in 1986, met her new husband while on a charitable mission as a prison visitor in her home town. Dalle has not spoken about her relationship, but her reputation is almost as troubled as some of her screen personae. She was arrested in Miami in 1999 for cocaine possession, and in 1991 for stealing jewellery from a shop in Paris. She was also fined for assaulting a traffic warden in 1998.

News of Dalle's prison marriage came shortly after the story that Pam Mills, 54, has become engaged to serial killer Peter Sutcliffe. Mills, who is divorced and has two grown-up children, has been writing to Sutcliffe for 13 years, and visiting him for nine of those. Recently they have been allowed to sit and hold hands in the visiting room. Sutcliffe, whose wife divorced him 10 years ago, is serving 20 life sentences in Broadmoor, but reportedly talks about living with his bride-to-be when he gets out.

Sutcliffe receives letters from dozens of women and encourages some of them to visit. The savage nature of his attacks on women makes the motivation of these female correspondents mysterious. He was convicted of killing 13 women and attempting to murder seven others after attacking them with hammers, knives and screwdrivers before masturbating over their mutilated bodies. Mills apparently read all about Sutcliffe's crimes, which he has never denied, before she wrote to him. So why would she contact such a man?

Diane Simpson, a handwriting expert from Chester, was brought in on the Yorkshire Ripper investigation to construct a profile from the letters police received after the attacks. After Sutcliffe's arrest, she wrote to him with questions about his behaviour, and has since seen hundreds of letters between him and his female friends.

"The women who write to him do tend to be very lonely," says Simpson. "Many are religious, many believe they can somehow reach this person, and with God's will get him on to the path of righteousness. Each of them believes she has reached him, that she is something special. When he writes, 'Thank you for looking behind the headlines', they believe they've touched his psyche, that maybe he's repented. What is scary is when you hear women say, 'Well, he wouldn't have hurt me.' He would."

Simpson believes Sutcliffe is dangerously manipulative. "One woman, Sandra Lester, really believed that he was the one for her. She thought she could help him. She had had problems of her own, and she felt that it would make sense of her experience. She moved house to be nearer the prison. She genuinely felt that she had a very special relationship with him. She told me she was preparing her 'bottom drawer', doing embroidery, she was there for him. At that time Peter Sutcliffe had a lot of women on the go. He waited till she had moved, then told the authorities he did not want to see her."

Simpson believes that the law should be changed to limit contact between patients in secure mental hospitals and vulnerable people on the outside. "Some of the women had had psychiatric problems; one started injuring herself. If there is a pattern of women who have problems, the hospital has a role: society should protect vulnerable people.

"Sutcliffe's behaviour has been as destructive as it can be. When he writes back to these women, he fits the reply to what he receives, and you can see the entrapment. He likes to bring them to the brink. He can't hit them any more, but he does the nearest thing."

Olive Curry worked in a seaman's mission where Sutcliffe and a friend used to eat in the 1970s, and she is convinced he had an accomplice. After Sutcliffe was convicted, she contacted him to try to discover the other man's identity. Sutcliffe replied saying he couldn't remember the other man, but invited Curry to visit him in prison. Pretending Curry was his aunt, or a friend of his late mother, he also encouraged his female correspondents to contact her. While some of the women implored her to drop her enquiries, others, encouraged by Sutcliffe, confided in Curry and used her as a sounding-board. She is still receiving letters from some of the women she calls Sutcliffe's "crackpot girlfriends".

"Peter Sutcliffe is the biggest liar who ever stood," she says. "He's brilliant at manipulating people. He has the ability to say what people need to hear. Sandra Lester was potty about him - he wrote to me saying he would have married Sandra. She rang me, crying. One girlfriend thought Peter would understand her, she had been in mental hospitals and knew the loneliness. One girl wrote to me, saying, 'Nobody understands him, he was ill when he did those things.'"

There is a consensus that women who contact violent prisoners start out with good intentions. People who write to prisoners on death row in America usually set out to make a humane protest against an iniquitous system, and try not to consider the offence.

"Many people who visit prisoners believe they are there because life has not been kind to them, that it might not be entirely their fault," says Dr Joan Harvey, a psychologist at Newcastle University. "They may be the do-gooder type, touched by the image of the lonely victim in his prison cell. But if they really wanted to help, they might do well to pick someone who could turn themselves around with a bit of support and self-esteem. With a serial killer, you aren't going to do any good. Some of the people who write to, or get engaged to, Peter Sutcliffe are themselves extremely needy and unbalanced."

Women who get emotionally involved with prisoners almost always end up rejecting the idea that this man could have committed the crimes for which he was convicted. Mills has apparently redrawn her own version of Sutcliffe: according to the News of the World, she has told her two children that he is a "gentle man with a heart of gold".

Dr Harvey agrees that the women go into denial: "Psychologists talk about tolerance of ambiguity: most of us are flexible, we are able to handle good and bad in the same person. If you can't handle that, you disengage from the bit that's less palatable. These women are not prepared to face part of Sutcliffe's personality. They think they know who he is, but they don't ask about his crimes. Psychopaths can present very normally. They build up a picture of a normal human being. They want to engage the pathetic creature in a jail cell. They are not engaging the monster."

For Sheila Isenberg, author of Women Who Love Men Who Kill, most women in a relationship with a convicted murderer convince themselves that he is not responsible for his crimes, blaming them on any number of external factors. "A woman is living out this passionate, fantastic existence that has no basis in reality," Isenberg says, "because if the man were not in prison they would have no relationship."

Dr Katherine Ramsland, who teaches forensic psychology at DeSales University in Pennsylvania, has profiled what she calls the Serial Killer Groupie. She describes the women who correspond with murderers as having rescue fantasies. "She wants to believe that she has the ability to change someone as cruel and powerful as a serial killer. Many women have said that they see the little boy in these killers and feel an overwhelming desire to nurture and protect that part of him."

Getting involved with a convicted killer fulfils a need for drama; whenever he is in the news, she is at the centre of attention. Some women relish the feeling of being aligned with an outcast: it's the two of them against the world. Some, according to Dr Ramsland, even find violence sexually arousing; they may like the idea of getting close to danger when there is little chance that they will get hurt.

"Some who have been abused, neglected or have no father figure, look to the killer to fill that need," she says. "There may be an issue with low self-esteem; some women believe they will not find a man, and since men in prison are desperately lonely, it's an easy way to get involved."

Part of the fantasy of an attachment to a prisoner is that the woman on the outside holds the balance of power. Dr Ramsland says: "She knows where he is at all times, and while she can claim that someone loves her, she does not have to endure the day-to-day issues of most relationships."

The story of American lawyer Dorothy Suffel illustrates how self-destructive the impulse to "rescue" a man in prison can be. In 1995, Suffel, a tall, slim 28-year-old New Yorker, was having an affair with a New York Mafia boss 30 years her senior. She adored him, even left her husband for him, but she could not persuade him to abandon his wife, or his other girlfriends. She said, "He told me, 'I have other commitments.'"

The man's son was in jail awaiting a retrial, and Suffel began visiting him once a week to help with legal work. During one of these meetings, she met Larry "Tattoos" Fiorenza, a Mafia associate who was serving a sentence for armed robbery and attempted murder. He was a good-looking man, bulked up on steroids, but he was also a hit man, a long-time drug user, had been diagnosed with HIV, hepatitis and cirrhosis of the liver. Not, on the face of it, an appealing proposition. But Suffel fell in love with him.

"I felt sorry for him, I thought I could help him," she said. The Mob boss wouldn't give up his other women, but Fiorenza wasn't going anywhere, he had no one but her to take care of him. She would meet him in the booths designed for lawyer-client meetings, her briefcase full of sandwiches, vitamins and condoms, and they would have sex in the visitors' room. Suffel was filled with the zeal of saving Fiorenza, but they were also united against her ex-lover, who threatened revenge against them both.

In defiance of his associates and her family, Dorothy and Larry married in prison. To shield them from reprisals and hasten his release, they became state witnesses. On the stand, Suffel defended her husband against a dozen accusations of attempted murder and armed robbery, citing his drug dependency, saying he was entrapped, acting under duress. She even said he went along on murder missions to try to prevent the crime. "Larry did not want to kill anybody," she kept saying. "That wasn't the whole story."

It was a tale of redemption with an unhappy ending. Mr and Mrs Fiorenza went into the witness-protection programme and were relocated far from New York. Once he was out of jail, their union lasted only a matter of months. By that time, Suffel had changed her name, was disgraced and disbarred, and could never go home.