My Prison Pen Pal Gal: A True Crime Account By G. Wayne Ashbee
In My Prison Pen Pal Gal, G. Wayne Ashbee shares an account based on a true event of a prisoner on death row and his female pen pal. He provides the background to the story by discussing some famous cases of the phenomenon called “hybristophilia” by psychologists.
G. Wayne Ashbee is a lawyer in Mobile, Alabama who gave up the full-time practice of law to research and write a crime novel. His stories have been published in literary magazines including Halfway Down the Stairs Literary, and genre publications such as Suspense Magazine.
All groups of famous and successful men have female fans who fawn over them, follow their exploits, watch them on TV, and read about them in the print media. Professional athletes, movie stars, politicians, and to a lesser extent doctors, lawyers, and novelists know these women well.
But killers? Do they have their own admirers— “groupies” as they are called?
The motivation for women to pursue men possessing money, fame, or both is obvious. There is no need for a psychological elucidation to explain this self-evident reward, this non-mystery. On the other hand, the phenomenon of a woman who becomes a pen pal, a regular visitor, or a conjugal mate of an imprisoned murderer deserves a great deal of scrutiny. The legal profession knows well this odd fascination, but it has not received much academic study and even less attention from the public.
The psychological textbooks call it “hybristophilia” and there are almost as many theories of its causes as there are women who display the symptoms. Generally, the textbooks pigeonhole these women into the classifications of “active” and “inactive” types.
The active variety female is a willing actor in the crimes of her man. The so-called “Bonnie and Clyde syndrome” is an example, named after the infamous bank-robbing duo of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow who plied their trade during the early 1930s.
A modern variant of this active type would be the example of Caril Ann Fugate who in 1958 went on an escapade of robberies and atrocious killings with her boyfriend Charles Starkweather. She was a fourteen-year-old high school dropout living in Lincoln, Nebraska with her mother and stepfather when Starkweather shot and killed them both, then choked and stabbed to death Fugate’s two-year-old half-sister. Fugate’s role in these three killings has never been clear.
Visitors, friends of Fugate’s mother and stepfather, came to the house in Lincoln for six days after the murders but left when Fugate told them that they were away. The debased pair then fled across the cold prairie of rural Nebraska robbing and killing seven more victims including one man for the sum of four dollars. The spree ended on February 1, 1958, after a high-speed police chase.
Nebraska executed Starkweather for the ten murders and sentenced Fugate to life without parole. However, the Supreme Court later ruled that it was unconstitutional to sentence a juvenile to a mandatory life term of imprisonment. As a result of that holding, Fugate was paroled in 1976, after serving seventeen years.
Opprobrium, however, has a way of dogging some people, and seventeen years after Fugate’s release, Bruce Springsteen made her infamous again, with the 1982 release of his Nebraska album, which included the song of the same title. The lyrics signify Starkweather’s opinion of her claimed innocence:
I saw her standin’ on her front lawn just twirlin’ her baton.
Me and her went for a ride sir and ten innocent people died.
Sheriff when the man pulls that switch sir and snaps my poor neck back,
You make sure my pretty baby is sittin’ right there on my lap.
Fugate denied any guilt and any active participation in the killings. In 1983, she appeared on famous trial lawyer F. Lee Bailey’s TV show Lie Detector and took a polygraph examination during which the examiner questioned her about the killings. Bailey reported that she passed the test by virtue of the polygraph’s finding that she was “not deceptive.” Fugate later held a press conference at which she claimed vindication by the test result. She asserted that her conviction was due to her being a victim of “mass hysteria.”
The popular media has written about other killers, more notorious than Centobie, and their prison loves. One can think of any famous killer, especially serial killers, and most likely, there are many related stories told of the women who fell in love with them while they were incarcerated—or even on death row. These women are of the “inactive” type.
One case that comes to mind is that of Richard Ramirez, the so-called Los Angeles “Night Stalker” who was convicted in 1989 of killing fourteen women and assaulting multiple others. After his arrest in 1985, he began receiving hundreds of letters from adoring women some of whom became so infatuated with him that they proposed marriage. One of those devoted fans was a freelance writer and magazine editor named Doreen Lioy.
She said she first saw his picture in 1985 on TV and fell in love “instantly.” She wrote him seventy-five letters before visiting him in prison, which visit confirmed that he was “the man for her,” she said.
Lioy began to visit so regularly that she would sometimes encounter other female devotees of Ramirez who were also seeking visits. But Lioy persisted and in 1988 they became engaged—they married in 1996. Reportedly, she was forty-one years old at the time of the marriage and still a virgin—so she said. No man has come forth to publicly deny that claim. Ramirez said that her virginity attracted him to her. Presumably, Lioy is still an unsullied lily, as California does not allow conjugal visitation.
Ramirez awaits execution. Lioy, nee Mrs. Ramirez believes that Ramirez is innocent of all the murders and has publicly proclaimed that she would kill herself if California kills him. In the meantime, DNA evidence, which was not available twenty-five years ago, has linked Ramirez to the 1985 unsolved murder of Mei Leung, a nine-year-old girl, in San Francisco.
Contrary to the assertions of some psychologists and crime writers, the Ramirez/Lioy romance shows that a woman’s low intelligence is not always a component factor in her attraction for a killer. Doreen Lioy has a Bachelor’s degree in English Literature and reportedly has a tested I.Q. score of 152—high enough to gain her admission into Mensa, the organization of people who rank in the top two percent of I.Q. measurement.
Mario Centobie sat in his cell at Holman Prison in Atmore, Alabama after being convicted of capital murder for the killing of a young policeman in Moody, Alabama. Centobie had waived all appellate rights so that his appointment with death could proceed apace.
His wife divorced him shortly after his first arrest and he had not seen his son (then seven years old) since that time. The loneliness was of course palpable as he knew it would be, given his lifelong struggle with depression. There was no amelioration from this except via the syringe that would pump liquids into his arm taking him away from his misery.
Samuel Johnson quipped, “Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” And so, it was with Centobie who rarely thought about women except for his ex-wife whom he hated vehemently.
The newspapers in Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia covered widely Centobie’s kidnapping and shooting spree. Certainly, the lengthy search for him in these same three states garnered more attention than the ordinary type of killing—the type that unfortunately occurs so often that our eyes glaze over at its mention. Centobie was not run-of-the-mill—he was famous—and hordes of women took notice.
After his arrest and imprisonment, Centobie began to receive letters spontaneously from women who said they “only” wanted to be his pen pal. Some wrote that they knew he was in isolation and because of this, had to be very lonely. One wrote of her own loneliness; she knew what it was like when “the heart ached for the comfort of a caring voice.” She wanted to be that voice for Centobie.
Another wrote that he was “good looking” and had the “soft” eyes of a man who was not the evil killer and escape artist depicted by the news media. This same woman claimed to have “psychic” abilities and that she had focused this energy on him. She could tell by looking at his newspaper photographs that he had been “grievously wronged in the past,” which might account for his criminal behavior.
After his arrest and imprisonment, Centobie began to receive letters spontaneously from women who said they “only” wanted to be his pen pal.
Centobie smiled when he read these letters, but the smile was not that of a man who appreciated a caring stranger’s kindness. Rather, the man was someone who perceived that the lines on the pages were the sad gushings of a fool. These words confirmed to him that women were gullible, dumb and were quite ready and willing to be useful objects at his next misogynistic convenience.
There were female admirers who came to the prison unannounced and asked to visit with him. The guards just laughed and turned them away. Even when women tried to make appointments to visit with Centobie, the warden also denied them. Centobie would have enjoyed the company of adoring females.
This prompted him to write a letter to the judge who presided at his trial, asking that he have the same visitation privileges as the other inmates. The judge inquired about this matter with the prison warden, who informed the judge that the staff routinely opened Centobie’s mail as a security measure.
The warden said that he was “disturbed” at the content of many of the women’s letters, who wrote, “I would do anything to help you get out of there.” As a warden, he said, “I’ve got a responsibility to protect the citizens of this county. If that means he doesn’t get any female visitors, then so be it.”
In a private conservation, the warden told the judge the salacious things the women wrote in their letters—things they would do to Centobie once they got him in a room alone. It was no wonder that Centobie wanted to hear their voices, but unlike the mythical Ulysses bound to his ship’s mast, Centobie would never hear the songs of his Sirens.
The warden said that he was “disturbed” at the content of many of the women’s letters, who wrote, “I would do anything to help you get out of there.”
The judge denied Centobie’s request, and the guards continued to open and read the women’s letters. Some of the guards said they wished their wives or girlfriends had as much imagination as Centobie’s pen pals.
Of all the women who wrote letters and tried to have them delivered to Centobie, only one knew the magic words to break through to his indifferent heart and lift his spirits.
The most likely explanation for Centobie’s singular response to her was that as the execution date approached and in solitary confinement, Centobie could finally appreciate life’s precious moments—those moments of simple joy that had escaped him because, like all of us, he had taken them for granted. Her letter happened to arrive at just the propitious time.
We do not know what she looked like even though she sent him photographs; these were destroyed after his death. Many, if not most times when a woman sends a portrait photograph to a prison inmate, it is not of herself but rather, a picture of a girlfriend—a woman who is more attractive and alluring.
This woman, this “penal pen pal,” is nearly always dowdy or overweight, or both; and she knows this about herself. She has been reminded of her frumpishness since she was a child, especially then. Now, all she needs to do is sneak a glance in the mirror and there is a middle-aged frump staring insensitively back at her.
Yet, at the same time she emotionally perceives herself as a young girl surrounded by a pod of hateful Rhoda Penmarks in the schoolyard taunting her, yelling, “fatty, fatty, two by four, can’t get in the kitchen door,” as tears well in her eyes.
This woman is married, has two children, and works outside the home. We know from the research that she is probably a bank teller or an assistant manager at a fast food restaurant. Her husband and children are verbally abusive to her. Sometimes her husband slaps her on the head—she believes that she probably deserves it. She is of average intelligence or above, always smarter than her husband though she would deny that.
She is an avid reader, this pen pal, and incorporates in her letters to her prison man the romance genre lexicon from the novels of Johanna Lindsey, Danielle Steele, Nora Roberts, and Judith McNaught. She ingurgitates their fantasies nightly after cleaning the kitchen and preparing the children for bed while her snoozing husband dangles an empty beer can by a finger stuck in the opening at the side of his recliner in front of a TV that chatters to no one.
Jennifer O’Kelly lied to Centobie. She sent pictures of a girlfriend taken while at the beach, and a group picture at a party in a friend’s living room. “That’s me with the blond hair on the far left,” she falsely wrote. “And that’s my good friend, Jackie, standing next to me.” Of course, “Jackie” was the real Jennifer standing next to the false Jennifer.
The women, these prison pen-pals, invariably used this oblique way to identify themselves to the inmate as if hoping he might write back and say, “Hey, your friend is really cute, and more my type; can you get her to write me?”
Jennifer O’Kelly lied to Centobie. She sent pictures of a girlfriend taken while at the beach, and a group picture at a party in a friend’s living room.
The inmates never wrote back with that request.
Jennifer’s words, however, did make Centobie not think so much about his ex-wife. He appreciated this gift to him and he, in time, was desirous in some way of showing his appreciation. But how? His options were extremely limited. Jennifer had deposited money into his prison inmate account.
The inmates used these accounts to buy toiletries and snacks; about all that was available to them. Centobie wanted to use his account to send her flowers, but to do this he needed the help of someone on the outside, or in the jargon of prison inmates, someone “in the real world.”
We do know that Centobie did his utmost to arrange approval for her to visit him. During December, he was, like all inmates, beginning to anticipate the memories of past Christmases, which, of course, brought about the pangs of loss. That many people experience an emotional letdown after the hoopla and joy of the holiday season, is a well-known curiosity, which is sometimes called the “post-Christmas blahs.”
We do know that Centobie did his utmost to arrange approval for her to visit him. During December, he was, like all inmates, beginning to anticipate the memories of past Christmases, which, of course, brought about the pangs of loss.
It is the favorite time of the year for clinical psychologists whose offices are packed with neurotic patients seeking understanding and relief for their situational depression.
In prison, however, the inmates suffer the “blahs” before Thanksgiving and Christmas and are glad to wake up on the morning of December 26, with the renewed uplifting feeling of vanquished memories of bickering family and intrusive friends. The inmates are happy that the holidays are over.
On December 9, Centobie completed a prison form N176 titled an “Inmate Request Slip” and checked the box to show that he had a “Personal Problem.” The form’s instructions asked that the inmate “Briefly Outline Your Request” then drop it in the prison mailbox. Centobie, not so briefly poured his all into the effort, using the allotted space on the front of the form, and then filling up the blank space on the back. Here are Centobie’s woeful and sometimes grousing words exactly as written:
I wish to add a friend to my visiting list because I need a visit in order to communicate things to her that I have failed to successfully express through our letters, and a phone call would not allow sufficient understanding. There are messages and meanings understood from body language and facial expression that are hard to put into words.
I am told that the ADOC (author’s note- Alabama Department of Corrections) has policies in this matter. I am not a State of AL. prisoner, yet I am forced to follow many of the rules as if I were a prisoner of this state, yet I do not enjoy many of the privileges of other State prisoners in solitary (segregation).
My point is it shouldn’t be to much to ask to be allowed this visitor to be added to my list. I find it rediculous that the ADOC allows the DA of any county to dictate policy to them, and I’m sure I am not alone in that opinion. It’s an embarrassment to the integrity of the ADOC and its employees. I was not told I couldn’t add visitors.
The conspiracy seems to be whatever is bad for this defendant is to be “the policy,” regardless of who calls the shots. I don’t believe this is fair and it is definitely frustrating. I haven’t caused ADOC any problems, why not allow this visitor?
SHE IS: Jennifer O’Kelly, DOB 12-14-61, 2340 Wildwood Ave., Gadsden, AL. 35904”
When Centobie received no reply, six days later he filed another form N176 directed to Captain Vacaro.
This is to request the status of my request for a visitor, one:
2340 Wildwood Avenue
Gadsden, Alabama 35904
Captain Vacaro replied by writing on the same form, “Denied—Only members of your immediate family. You can appeal to Warden Jones.” The captain circled the printed word “Denied.”
Letters to and from an inmate’s lawyer were confidential, and if they had the phrase “Legal Mail Only” inscribed on the envelope, were off limits to the prison guards. If Centobie could convince one of his lawyers to assist with this secretive, amorous expression, it had a better chance of success.
It would be complicated, and he had to think through the process. Centobie thought that one of his two lawyers, Stan Brown, being a man, would be more understanding of his predicament.
Letters to and from an inmate’s lawyer were confidential, and if they had the phrase “Legal Mail Only” inscribed on the envelope, were off limits to the prison guards.
He composed the letter and legibly printed every word so that Stan could not mistake any part of his desire. He had to make Stan grasp the significance of this task that Centobie was asking of him.
It’s about Jennifer. She’s a really nice person, a good person and I love her too. She is very good for me. I was at the Federal Prison and I prayed [and fasted to show my earnestness] for God to grant me a quick merciful death; painless and to stop the Torment. I got a letter from Jennifer and then I was transferred here to ADOC-State Prison. I wrote her back.
Since then Jennifer has written almost every day; sometimes twice a day, we’ve spoken by phone twice. She sends photos and cards. She loves me—a lot. She has sent me stamps and money to purchase writing supplies, even though I’ve told her I ain’t comfortable about accepting such from her. I ain’t the kind of prisoner who’s a “take-advantage con”. It is good for me to feel I make her happy and obviously she’d make any man happy.
I told her my situation, but she don’t care and don’t want me to talk about dying to her, so I’ve stopped that and accepting her love and friendship as God’s mercy. Since Jennifer and I been writing my Torment about my ex-wife Portia isn’t as much often. Except on holidays and weekends when I don’t hear from Jennifer. So God sent her, I figure.
Well, Jennifer, send a lot of money to make me happy. So for my Birthday she sent $100.00 (!), nobody, not even my ex, ever gave me so much money at once, always I worked for what I got paid. Jennifer won’t let me give it back so she said it’s to show she cares and it’s all for me ‘cause nobody knows what my situations like.
[Total she’s given me $160.00 ($20 then $40 for Christmas and $100] Jennifer says the money’s to make me happy so it would make me very happy to spend it making her happy.
Here’s what I done so far and what I want to do: I want to surprise her, but I need your help. I want to have flowers sent to her [a dozen roses is (?) $50.00 by delivery. Jennifer lives in Gadsden, but I’ve been unable to find a FTD florist in Gadsden. I did find one at Batson Florist, 115 West Grand, Rainbow City, AL 35906. I believe they’ll deliver to Jennifer for an extra fee
ADOC don’t know that I’ve even thought about this. I’ve kept it extremely “hush-hush” & NOBODY knows I am asking about your help-except your secretary if she reads this anyway. So my problem is ADOC has policies about “prisoners” withdrawing money.
I had thought I might find some other person to help, if I could even withdraw my money. So first I made (discrete) casual inquiries about doing a withdraw (claimed I was interested in buying a dictionary & thesaurus from a publisher, I’d send the money to). But ADOC clings to money like a terrier dog, even money only on deposit with them.
I was told I have to tell in writing why I want money withdrawn and to who plus ADOC says money can only be withdrawn and returned to the person who sent it.
So this is what I did: I turned in a request to withdraw $130.00 [and I encluded a stamped envelope with your name & address] to have the $ sent to my atty. ADOC sent back my request wanting to know “why”. I told ‘em it’s none of their business what I discuss with my attorney. It’s my money and I’m no child and I’m not doing anything illegal. So! I need your help. Because it wouldn’t be any good to send it to Jennifer.
I tried to get her to let me send her $50 for Christmas and told her to go to “Victoria’s Secret” store and pick out something sexy for herself as my gift to her but she threatened to return the money if I tried and said she do it anyway. It ain’t the same thought. So I need for you to receive this money and order/purchase the flowers for me (for her to her).
Stan, on the card-thing that goes with the flowers tell ‘em to put the following message “Just Because” and instead of a name write “Antiques & Copper” and send to Jennifer O’Kelly, 2340 Wildwood Ave. , Gadsden, AL 35904. If they don’t got no roses order her some pretty white flowers, okay?
This is a gentleman’s agreement between you and me. I realize the position you in. Some borderline ethics, perhaps, but I doubt, and you got a lady who might “frown” if she found out you’d been secretive about buying another beautiful lady flowers (you can share this letter with her if you wish-my thanks with it, for not being upset when I phoned your home that morning.
Thanks again.); and I know some “cons” might later claim you took the money in some way; but I ain’t like that. I give you “my word” on this. I’ll never say shit about it and I accept your word to do this for me in the hush-hush way. I’m even encluding a permission, disclaimer, or whatever it’s called.
I realize I’m just giving you the money by saying that—but like I write here it’s a gentleman’s agreement my word is good and I trust your word, too.
Also, enclosed is a letter for Jennifer & I addressed stamped envelope. I believe things in it you need to know. Read it and mail it for me. If you don’t use a Pell City Post Office, she’ll have no clue who I sent it through, so she can’t accidentally say by mistake.
No need to respond to me in writing. If it gets done I’ll know it, if it don’t I’ll figure you were unable to do it and I’ll write again. I ask this favor of you, respectfully. Thanks!
Along with the letter to Brown was the “permission” note Centobie had written. Centobie wrote it on a separate sheet of paper intending its use by Brown to convince the ADOC to release the money to Brown. Centobie wrote in the best legal jargon that he could devise. He signed it three times in a serious but inadvertently humorous attempt to “notarize” his own signature.
I, Mario Giovanni Centobie, by my signature below, acknowledge and certify that I have this day instructed the ALABAMA DEPT. OF CORR. – St. Clair Cnty. Facility to withdraw from my funds account the sum of One Hundred-thirty and 00/dollars ($130. 00) to be sent to Stansel Brown III use and/or disburse of the above referenced ($130. 00) One Hundred and Thirty and 00/dollars as he sees fit.
No witnesses available
But that’s me
Mario G. Centobie
Mario G. Centobie
Mario G. Centobie
This lengthy and “respectfully” worded request could have been all for naught. Brown shared it with his co-counsel, Tommie Wilson. They discussed whether it was a violation of the ADOC’s rules for Brown to do as Centobie requested. If so, at a minimum, Brown would lose his visitation privileges to the prison system, and the ADOC might notify the State Bar Association. There could be sanctions imposed against him though he probably would not have his law license suspended.
In the end, Brown concluded that it was the least he could do for a man who the state was going to put to death. Additionally, his research satisfied him that he was not in violation of any of the rules of the ADOC.
He decided to assuage the longing of Centobie to show an act of kindness for his “beautiful lady.” Centobie was right in his judgment. Brown was a man who knew the heart’s experience of loss, and the longing for that which his mind told him would never be obtained.
In the end, Brown concluded that it was the least he could do for a man who the state was going to put to death. Additionally, his research satisfied him that he was not in violation of any of the rules of the ADOC.
In law school, Brown had read court cases about the imposition of “cruel and unusual” punishments on someone convicted of a crime. He would not himself participate in a torture that he believed might be the cruelest cut of all—to deny Centobie’s plaintive call to someone on the outside—the voice that cried out “I love you.”
Brown fulfilled Centobie’s ardent request.
Centobie was overjoyed when he received a letter from Jennifer effusively thanking him for the beautiful white roses. For a moment, as he read her words over and over, he forgot about his tormented past—and his certain future.
Centobie carefully folded the letter and placed it in his shirt pocket, next to his heart he fancied, and felt the tide of yearning wash over him as he closed his eyes and let his thoughts of her go wherever they desired.
He lay down on his cell bunk and covered his head with the coarse wool blanket, and imagined that they both, the blanket and her love, would cover and protect him against the cold wind that was approaching, a wind that would clear the air of the suffocating cloud of depression. Centobie felt . . . did he dare to ascribe a word to this? Yes—it was joy.
Centobie closed his eyes, he slept, never suspecting that Jennifer shared another trait with her sister hybristophiliacs, one that psychologists know is common among female prison pen pals—she was married.
Ten years after Centobie’s appointment with death, Jennifer is still married, to the same man, living in the same clapboard sided house in Decatur, Alabama. Her children have grown up and moved away. Jennifer’s husband never found out about his wife’s intimate literary relationship with Mario Centobie.
Although, there was that one anxious moment, when she received flowers, delivered back in 1999, or was it 2000? She wasn’t quite certain; time was slipping away from her so quickly. She told her husband that it must be a prank. It helped her defense that her husband would never have believed that any man would express affection for his wife; certainly, he had never given her flowers.
Her husband mentioned to her one time that he had seen the TV news about Centobie’s execution. He then made a scurrilous remark (so she thought) about Centobie as a “bastard who deserved to die” if anyone did. Jennifer fought the urge to challenge his assertion, but simply acknowledged it with “uh-huh” and then went on about her business.
Some nights, after dinner, her husband would leave the house to visit his brother or go to his bowling league. Jennifer enjoyed this time away from him.
It gave her time to relax as she composed her next letter—to Bill—her newest death row pen pal.
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