CHERRYFIELD, Maine — Bill Torrey has had a few pen pals, that hobby of corresponding with people you’ve never met. His pen pals probably are different from the ones you might select, though. Torrey specializes in writing to infamous killers.
The pen pals of Torrey, 67, a member of the Cherryfield School Board, include such notorious convicted killers as Charles Manson and Richard Ramirez, who died in prison earlier this year.
Manson, now in his late 70s, was denied parole in 2012 for the 12th time. He is serving a life sentence as the mastermind of seven murders carried out by Manson followers in Los Angeles in 1969. The victims included actress Sharon Tate.
Ramirez, who died from complications of cancer in June at age 53, was on California’s death row for his conviction of 13 murders he committed during the 1980s in the Los Angeles area. His murders earned him the nickname “Night Stalker.”
Torrey grew up in Cherryfield but lived in California for a while so he was familiar with the men and their crimes. In fact, Ramirez was carrying out his series of killings while Torrey lived there.
Torrey attended branches of the University of Maine in the 1970s, married, and suffered through some admitted “hard times” brought on by alcohol although he stopped drinking in 1979. A friend in California mailed him a plane ticket for the West Coast, and Torrey, separated from his wife, flew out.
Torrey started a new life in Santa Barbara. He and his wife eventually divorced, and he married a second time; he and his second wife, Karen Smith, remain married. He lived in California until they returned to Maine and purchased an old home near the Narraguagus River in Cherryfield in 1987, where they have lived since. Torrey has six children by his wives, and several are in college.
Torrey, who eventually earned a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Maine-Machias in 1991, has been retired for a few years. He operates an online store — dubbed “ The Professor’s Attic” — via etsy.com that sells collectibles. He also operates a yard sale occasionally in Columbia. The collectibles that he purchases and resells range from old license plates to vintage comic books, china, autographs and memorabilia.
He recently acquired an autograph of Janis Joplin, an iconic singer of the 1960s who died of a drug overdose at age 27 in 1970, a pair of tickets to a 1969 Joplin concert, and leather vest and belt the singer wore; Torrey is in the process of trying to verify the authenticity of the vest and belt, two items that could be worth tens of thousands of dollars, he estimated.
Torrey, who has been on the town’s School Board for seven years, has long blond hair — it goes halfway down his back — that is just beginning to gray and baby blue eyes. He sat in his kitchen, wearing dungarees, a Harley-Davidson T-shirt (he has a motorcycle) and a hooded sweatshirt, talking about his unusual hobby recently.
“I was sitting here one day … I was thinking about things,” said Torrey, who has a penchant for “misfits” and outcasts. “These guys might appreciate having someone write to them.”
When he began writing to Manson and Ramirez in 2012, “What I told them was … we might learn something from each other.”
His wife wasn’t fond of the idea. “She was scared to death of Charles Manson,” said Torrey. “To this day he has a lot of power.”
In his first handwritten, two-page letter to Manson, Torrey described living in Cherryfield, his wife and children, and a little about his experience living in California.
“I thought I would write because we all need as many friends as we can get,” wrote Torrey. “I would like you to write back and forth and maybe share something about life in general. … Please know that I care about your life and wish you well. We might just learn something from each other.”
He heard back from the inmates in about two weeks, recalled Torrey. He went to his mailbox one day and retrieved his mail. “My God — there was a letter from Richard Ramirez.”
“I almost totally collapsed,” added Torrey
He has received autographs and postcards and photographs — some autographed — from Manson, who called him “Wild Bill Torrey.”
Manson was sentenced to life in prison “but didn’t kill anyone,” noted Torrey. The convicted killer is interested in recycling and environmental causes, according to Torrey.
He described Ramirez as “an incredibly kind, caring, interesting person.” He compared their friendship to that of two teenage boys, swapping stories about women, music and cars.
Ramirez was “deeply interested” in Torrey’s life, he said, and corresponded weekly. “His letters were questions, questions, questions.” The inmate sent Torrey some school supplies for his daughter and also mailed him some drawings.
Torrey was overcome with emotion when he learned of the death of Ramirez. “I just cried and cried and cried. I couldn’t believe it.” He probably became “too attached” to Ramirez.
Torrey also has written to other convicted killers, including Dennis Dechaine, housed at the Maine State Prison in Warren, although the inmate has not written back. Dechaine has been serving a life sentence for the murder of 12-year-old Sarah Cherry of Bowdoin in 1988.
He corresponds with Jodi Arias, who was convicted of first-degree murder earlier this year in the stabbing and shooting death of boyfriend Travis Alexander in Phoenix, Ariz. in 2008; she has not been sentenced yet.
He also has attempted correspondences with two other notorious serial killers, Douglas Clark, known as the “Hollywood Slasher” and by other nicknames, and Keith Jesperson, who was dubbed the “Happy Face Killer.”
Although Torrey does not tell everyone about his unusual hobby, of the people he has shared it with, no one has criticized him, he said.
“I’ll have to sic Charlie on them,” he joked, if they did.