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Prisoners of Love

Why do some women fall for and marry killers? For many of these women, the men are an attractive mix of evil and vulnerability.

January 23, 1997|PAMELA WARRICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Oh, what they do for love.

The girlfriend of the "Hillside Strangler" tries to strangle a woman herself to throw police off her sweetheart's trail. Her murder attempt fails and she goes to jail for life.

A promising young lawyer assigned to defend a murder suspect finds her client so appealing, she helps him escape. She is disbarred and goes to prison.

A courtroom artist can't get James Earl Ray out of her mind. Long after Ray's conviction for killing the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., she proposes. He accepts, though reluctantly, and she is branded a racist. She loses her career, her friends and, ultimately, her man.

What is there about a murderer that can make him so irresistible?

What is it about some women that makes them find killers so lovable?

Although there is little formal research on the psychology of prison romance, those who observe the dynamics of such couplings say the relationships aren't as bizarre as they seem.

Long Beach tax consultant Sarah James was just another single mom trying to make ends meet when she fell in love with Jack Kirschke in 1968. "I went to visit him in prison with an outreach group, and I was smitten immediately. It was the most exciting, most passionate and most dangerous relationship I have ever had," James says. They married in 1976.

For James, a gentle churchwoman with two young children, Kirschke was like no other man she had ever met. A former deputy district attorney, he was sentenced to life in prison for the 1967 slayings of his first wife and her lover.

Kirschke's trial was that decade's trial of the century. "I had met Jack briefly when I was doing the books for the Long Beach Yacht Club, where he belonged," James recalls, "so I followed the trial rather closely and felt there might have been some question about his guilt. When we met again in prison, I believed him at once when he told me he didn't do it."

They began a courtship of monitored visits and censored love letters.

"Sarah, Sa-rah, Sa-rah! The very name of my beloved clangs in my poor brain like the clapper of a sonorous bell. . . ," wrote Kirschke early in the relationship.

"He was intense and intellectual and his letters were pure poetry," James says.

The women are social workers, reporters, filmmakers, lawyers, counselors, activists and nurses. They may have been waiting all their lives for "the right man," as journalist Doreen Lioy says she was when she married "Night Stalker" Richard Ramirez in October.

Or they may fall in love unexpectedly--"fatefully," as some say when recalling their early attractions.

According to Sheila Isenberg, who interviewed dozens of women for her 1990 book "Women Who Love Men Who Kill" (Dell), those who fall for men convicted of serious crimes are themselves often surprisingly accomplished.

"They are very likely to be attractive and intelligent, often successful in their profession, and almost always unacquainted with the world of crime and criminals," Isenberg says. "In the eyes of these women, these men are a magnetic mix of evil and vulnerability, extreme danger and reassuring safety."

And for women who have been beaten or crushed emotionally by the previous men in their lives, there is some logic in "connecting yourself to a dangerous man who can't get at you," Isenberg says.

"These women lead a difficult life, never knowing whether or when they will actually be with their men." But that, Isenberg discovered during her two years of research, is a major part of the attraction. "These women, damaged in many ways, have a deep need to love someone with whom they can't enjoy an easy, comfortable relationship."

In retrospect, James says, Kirschke's letters of love were also controlling and demanding. "He'd give me a list at the bottom of each letter with the chores and services he needed me to complete before our next visit. Of course, I always did what he wanted," James says. "I'd do anything, anything to make him happy, [and] to get him out of there so we could live happily ever after."

Thanks largely to his new wife's efforts, Kirschke's life sentence was commuted after 10 years. But the happy ending James expected never came. Instead, she says, "He turned into this tyrannical, coldhearted stranger. . . . And when I stood up to him, he left me for one of my best friends."

Two decades later, James is frightened by what she sees as a dangerous trend of "sweet, good-hearted women" falling for men behind bars. "I want to warn those women what they're in for."

*

While no one keeps statistics on love and marriage behind prison walls, many corrections officials believe such unions are happening with increasing frequency.

Even men convicted of the most gruesome crimes have women waiting outside to love and, where state laws permit, to marry them.

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