Kiss of the Scorpion Woman

Portraits: Eddie Seda and Synthia-China Blast.Photo: Christian Witkin

Heriberto “Eddie” Seda waited 35 years to have his first romantic kiss. It happened last spring, when Eddie pressed his mouth through the three-inch-wide space between the prison bars and found fellow Attica inmate Synthia-China Blast, a preop male-to-female transsexual, No. 97A0308.

“It was weird, I thought he was going to eat my lips,” Synthia recalls. “I’d read a lot of books about serial killers, and I didn’t trust him, like he might bite my face off or something.” But instead, Eddie Seda, known as New York’s copycat Zodiac Killer, started shaking. “I felt like I was 11 and having my first kiss with a bowl of Jell-O, because he didn’t know how to kiss for nothing. He was a virgin,” adds Synthia, 29. Then she laughs. “Let’s just say he’s a pro now.”

Seda has been locked up since 1996 for killing three people and trying to kill five others. The only person who has ever visited him in the maximum-security prison is his mother, Gladys; and before his incarceration, he says, “I had no friends. I had nobody.” After seven years behind bars, he was lonely, he says, and couldn’t help but be attracted to Synthia, with her tweezed eyebrows and her handmade dresses. He was so taken with her that he was willing to overlook the fact that she was a former drug dealer and Latin King gang member—the exact type of person he’d wanted to extirpate from his Brooklyn neighborhood.

Since that first illicit kiss, Eddie and Synthia, who was convicted in 1996 for a gangland murder she says she didn’t commit, have been caught up in a twisted soap opera that is still unfolding behind the walls of the protective-custody unit of Attica Correctional Facility. They’ve faced a jumble of obstacles: from their time-consuming lawsuits (Synthia is trying to get the Department of Corrections to pay for a sex-change operation; Eddie wants permission to have overnight trailer visits with his mother) to the contract that Synthia alleges the Latin Kings put on her life, to the curious inmates—including former “king of the club kids” Michael Alig—who seem to thrive on the drama of breaking up prison relationships.

I first came across Synthia and Eddie when I was visiting Michael Alig in Attica last fall. I’d met him about nine months earlier, while working on a magazine piece about Party Monster, the independent film about Alig’s life and 1997 conviction for the manslaughter death of his drug-dealing roommate, Angel Melendez. After I’d finished the story, Michael asked me if I would help him with his autobiography, and I agreed. We were catching up one overcast day when he leaned forward and said, “So, there is this drag queen in my unit who is trying to get a sex change, and she is dating the Zodiac Killer. Oh, my God, he is obsessed with her.” Their story caught my interest, and our conversation about them turned into a series of letters, interviews, and more treks to the ominous building 30 miles outside Buffalo than I ever care to make again.

The Attica visiting room has the feel of a high-school cafeteria, except the lunch monitors carry pepper spray and handcuffs. Vending machines line one wall, Disney characters and ocean murals decorate the others, and couples sit at the numbered square tables, trying to steal kisses or a touch. The prisoners in protective custody must sit in the front row, closest to the officers. When Eddie Seda walks over to my assigned spot, I’m surprised at how handsome he is, with short black hair, innocent-looking eyes, and a shy smile that never leaves his face. He was voted “most fuckable perp” by a group of female journalists who covered his arrest in 1996. Sentenced to life in prison and not eligible for parole until he turns 264, he tells me he’s slowly getting used to the fact that he’s never going to see freedom again. Before he met Synthia, he says, he occupied his prison time by reading the Bible, watching hunting shows on TV, and folding colored paper squares into origami animals. His mother still takes a seven-hour bus ride up from Brooklyn to visit him once a month. She doesn’t know he’s got a “wife” named Synthia.

Eddie works as a porter, which means he may leave his cell from 3 to 8:30 p.m. every day to hand out meal trays and buckets of warm water to the other inmates. In spring 2003, Eddie started to take an interest in the feminine prisoner who had recently been transferred to a cell that was around the corner from 24 Company, the protective-custody unit where he lived. He’d met Synthia in prison once before, but this time she seemed different, friendlier. “I thought she had a good smile and good character,” he says. “So I started to give her extra trays of food and candy from the commissary.”

Family Album: Synthia's and Eddie's official mug shots.Photo: Synthia-China Blast

Synthia thought Eddie was cute. “Finally, I said, ‘Yo, Eddie, why don’t you write to me and tell me what’s on your mind?’ ” A couple of days later, Eddie poured out his heart to her in a “kite,” or letter, saying he thought she was special and wanted to be with her.

In April 2003, Alig, who is serving a ten-to-twenty-year sentence, was transferred into Attica’s protective-custody section. When he arrived, he says, the other prisoners quickly told him about Eddie’s past. “Everybody said he was the copycat Zodiac Killer, so I had this preconceived notion of what he would be like. He had this blank stare, which was kind of frightening. But then I got to know him, and he’s just like any other serial killer,” Alig says with a laugh. “Salt of the earth. He’s sensitive, emotional.”

Synthia had also heard through the grapevine that this introverted, smiling porter had gone on a killing spree through New York, and she was intrigued. Bad boys turned on Synthia, who was known as a “biker bitch” with countless tattoos, including a scorpion covering the right side of her face. “When Eddie gave me the kite, I threw out some Zodiac jokes,” she recalls. “I said, ‘Are you going to kill me? Are you going to ask for my birth sign?’ Eddie answered, ‘No, I would never hurt you.’ ”

“I don’t actually know anything about astrology,” admits Eddie, who included the star signs of his victims, along with the San Francisco Zodiac Killer’s trademark symbol of a circle over a cross, on his untraceable letters to the New York Post in the early nineties. At that time, Eddie had wanted them to think that the original Zodiac Killer had returned to continue the slaughter. Now, Synthia warns, he gets mad if you call him a copycat.

Eddie grew up in East New York, Brooklyn, in an apartment building he says was frequented by drug dealers, gangbangers, and prostitutes. He was a loner, raised by his single mother, and to this day he swears he has never touched cigarettes, alcohol, or drugs. As a teenager, he dreamed of joining the Green Berets. He read book after book about weapons, ammunition, and military maneuvers like how to evade capture. He thought he was ready for the Special Forces. But when it came time to take the entrance exam, he failed.

One summer evening last year, Eddie says, Synthia proposed. “I didn’t know what she was talking about, but I said yes,” he recalls. “She told me it means that you stay together like a team. I liked that.”

“That pissed me off,” he says. “I thought, ‘What am I going to do with all this information I have?’ ” Then, one day, he saw a PBS special about the original Zodiac Killer, who claimed to have killed about 37 people in the Bay Area in the sixties and the seventies. Eddie says he watched it and thought, “Holy smokes! This guy terrorized a whole city and never got caught. I got nothing to live for. I don’t got no job. I already got those skills. I could be famous. I could do that.”

From 1990 to 1996, Eddie shot at least eight victims at random. But since his homemade guns were inaccurate and held only one bullet at a time, only three of the people were killed. “Lucky for them, it wasn’t a real gun. I would have shot them twenty times if I’d had an automatic,” he says. One of the unlucky few was a woman to whom he offered a cigarette in Brooklyn’s Highland Park. When the bullet didn’t finish her off, Eddie stabbed her more than 100 times.

“I don’t think girls liked him on the streets,” Synthia says now. “I don’t know why.” After six years of evading police and obsessively reading the Bible, he gave himself away in June 1996 when he shot his half sister for inviting a man into their apartment. A three-hour shoot-out ensued, involving the NYPD and a swat team, before he finally surrendered. “I like the movie Black Hawk Down,” he says. “It reminds me of my own gun battle.”

One summer evening last year, Eddie says, Synthia proposed. “I didn’t know what she was talking about, but I said yes,” Eddie recalls. “She told me it means that you stay together like a team and look out for each other. I liked that.”

Synthia got a special tattoo on her ring finger with Eddie’s initials and a tiny zodiac symbol, which she shows me during one of our meetings. And the day after she got that one, she says, she went for a large tattoo on her back. It depicts her and Eddie’s intertwined astrological signs; she’s a Virgo and he’s a Leo. Synthia also started to decorate her cell: “I have zodiac symbols on my TV and all over my walls. It’s so romantic.”

She claims that before she met Eddie, she’d had sex with some of the most notorious rapists and killers in the New York prison system. “It seems that my only attractions are to society’s sickest and most twisted lowlifes,” she wrote in a letter to me. “I’m actually hoping to be incarcerated with the Son of Sam so I can sleep with him while awaiting my sex-change outcome in the courts.” And that fetish suits Eddie just fine: “I liked that she was excited by my murders. It was a little plus for us. She used to put the zodiac sign all over her cell as a tribute to me. I’d see one and say, ‘Is that a new one?’ And she’d say yes. It flattered me.”

Soon after they got “married,” Synthia told him, “Go take a shower and come back here.” Eddie did as instructed. Then she says she gave him oral sex through the cell bars. It was Eddie’s first time. “He was white as a ghost,” Synthia says. “He was so scared. He did not want to get busted by the officers. It was like he was stealing candy from a store or something.” After that, they repeated this scenario about twice a week—always with Eddie receiving and Synthia giving. That was how they both wanted it.

“I’m not gay,” Eddie points out. “I focus on her feminine exterior. I’m not interested in what’s down there, not until after the operation. I think of her as a woman.”

Love Letter: One of Eddie's "kites" to Synthia. The cross with a circle was the trademark sign of the San Francisco Zodiac Killer Eddie copied. He signs off with a lock of his and Synthia's hair.Photo: Synthia-China Blast

For those unfamiliar with the inside of a prison, it can be difficult to imagine what life is like behind bars, or how a romance could take shape. The public-information officer at the Department of Corrections in Albany refused to comment on anything that the three inmates had told me about their living conditions in Attica. But Craig Haney, a prison expert and professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, says that maximum-security prisons are both more restricted and more lenient than one might expect. He points out that it’s common for inmates to be allowed to purchase certain items—including TVs, candy, baked beans, bathing products, and art supplies—from the commissary or approved mail-order catalogues for their own use or for gifts. And many prisons, Haney adds, also allow inmates to boil their own water for coffee. “It’s hard to deprive people of everything,” he says. “The prison administration recognizes that there are certain things that are relatively trivial, and if you allow prisoners to have a little bit, it makes the facility a little easier to run.”

The idea of armed guards patrolling each cell 24 hours a day is unrealistic, Haney says: “In most places, it’s very difficult for people to be under around-the-clock surveillance. The manpower alone needed to do that would be prohibitive. And just because the inmates are under restriction doesn’t mean that their humanity, and all that that entails, leaves them. They’re looking for ways to communicate, and they’re looking for ways to touch each other, just as people would do in any other setting.”

For the past five years, Synthia has been taking low doses of female hormones prescribed by a prison doctor for her diagnosed “gender dysphoria.” The dosage is enough to make her breasts grow a bit, but not enough to fit her out with the curves that she’d like. The Department of Corrections, however, has refused to increase the dosage to the much higher levels that some other prisoners are receiving, because she didn’t have an official prescription before she was incarcerated. That’s why she’s suing for medical treatment up to and including a sex-change operation.

Synthia now awaits the day when she can somehow get the full surgery: “The DOC needs to finish what it started. I’m not a guinea pig that you can run scientific experiments on. Pump somebody with hormones for five years and then you deny me a sex change? If that’s not ‘cruel and unusual punishment,’ then I don’t know what is.”

On March 11, 2003, before Synthia married Eddie, she tried to castrate herself. Synthia says she tied a rubber band around her penis and testicles, set a bucket on the floor between her legs “to catch the blood,” and, one by one, popped the stockpile of painkillers she’d bought from other prisoners. Then, she says, she picked up the jagged metal lid from a can of beans she’d hidden and waited for the medicine to start working. “When I was zoomed out and couldn’t feel my body, I lay down for one second and woke up in the hospital,” she recalls. “I put my hand down there, and I was disappointed. I said, ‘It’s still there?’ Someone said to me, ‘What’s still there?’ ”

“Eddie paints her these really weird paint-by-number sets,” says Michael Alig. “I don’t think Synthia appreciates the fabulosity of it.”

She was written up for the incident—the report mentions that Synthia said she’d planned to castrate herself and that the officers had found the lid. As punishment, she says, she was “keep-locked,” which meant she couldn’t go out to the yard, make phone calls, or buy things from the commissary for 30 days.

Still, Synthia continued to take her role as wife very seriously. Every day, she cooked for Eddie using a hot pot he’d given her. And as the husband, Eddie bought her prison-approved supplies with the savings from his $21-a-month porter job. After passing out the meal trays and taking her home cooking back to his cell to eat, Eddie says, he would be let out again to collect the trays. Eddie always completed this task quickly, and then he’d pull up a chair in front of Synthia’s bars. “We’d watch our favorite show, WWE Smackdown, unconditionally every Thursday at 8,” Synthia recalls. “He loves Brock Lesnar, and I love Kurt Angle. We’d argue about the game. We liked to watch 24, CSI, and The Simpsons, too.”

Eddie says he would also make special pieces of art just for her. “Eddie paints her these really weird paint-by-number sets, like a soaring eagle or a horse,” says Michael Alig. “I don’t think Synthia appreciates the fabulosity of it. Other than the fact that he’s this crazy psychopath, it’s kind of cute.” Still, he remains skeptical of Eddie’s infatuation with Synthia. “He talks about her like she’s all soft and feminine, but she’s not soft and feminine,” he says. “She’s hard.”

Synthia was born Luis Alberto Morales on September 11, 1974. “I have always been a girl,” says Synthia, who legally changed her name when she got to Attica. “I was always trying on makeup, and my sister would sneak me cotton panties.”

At the age of 13, Synthia says, she sold crack in her South Bronx neighborhood, and at 16 she was accused of starting a squatter-house fire that killed six people. While awaiting trial, she was sent to Riker’s Island. She had developed slowly, both physically and mentally—one news report about the arson charges described the teenager as having “slight mental retardation,” although during our conversations she struck me as bright if uneducated. She says her small size—she’s five feet five inches tall—left her vulnerable at Riker’s: “I was raped by two other prisoners.” That was also when, according to Synthia, she was introduced to the Almighty Latin King and Queen Nation gang. She says that one of its members offered to protect her and then secretly started having sex with her.

Two years after Synthia’s arrest for arson, she was acquitted of all the charges when a witness recanted. Before she was released, however, she says, the Latin Kings instructed her to report to a certain gang member in the Bronx. “He knew I was a gender bender, and he was putting me through it. Then he forced me to be involved with him sexually,” Synthia claims. “Nobody knew. But anytime he wanted me to do something, I’d have to do it. I hated him.”

Art Therapy: A painting-by-numbers Eddie signed for SynthiaPhoto: Synthia-China Blast

Synthia says she started to dress in “drags” on the sly and spent her time at Escuelita, a Manhattan gay club she’d discovered. Then, in August 1993, she says someone from the gang paged her and told her to report immediately: “I had to take off my makeup, pick up my van, and go clean up an apartment in the Bronx.” In her haste, she left her skirt on.

“When I got there, there was blood all over the floor. I don’t know if I was just stupid or I’d seen a lot of The A-Team, but I just started cutting off the bloody carpet and put it in plastic bags. The body was already in a box,” Synthia says. She claims that she and a few other jittery gang members then dropped the box off in a Bronx underpass and later set it on fire. The victim turned out to be a 13-year-old runaway named Ebony Nicole Williams.

Synthia says she slipped away to the trannie-friendly Skyway Motel in Jersey City for about five days. “I was hiding out in drags in a diner, like in the movies,” she remembers. “Lionel Richie’s ‘Stuck on You’ was on the jukebox. I would listen, and it would just erase everything from my mind.” But when her mother heard that the police were looking for her, she persuaded Synthia to turn herself in.

During the trial, witnesses testified that Synthia and Carlos Franco, another Latin King member, committed the murder. They also claimed that Synthia had raped the girl, until one person let it slip that she had been wearing a skirt that night. “They had to switch their story in the trial because how do you tell the jury that he had on a dress and then he was raping a girl?” Synthia says. “I’ve never had sex with a female in my life.”

On October 16, 1996, 22-year-old Luis Morales—Synthia—was convicted of murder and manslaughter. She was sentenced to 25 years to life. The Daily News reported she was wearing the signature yellow-and-black Latin King beads around her neck.

Although it’s virtually impossible to verify, Synthia claims that by the time she’d arrived back at Riker’s, the Latin Kings had ordered a “TOS” on her for not quietly taking the rap. That’s gang-speak for “terminate on sight.”

Eddie eventually saw the rougher side of his wife. “She has the type of character where she always wants to fight other people’s battles. She was doing tough gangster shit,” Eddie says. He explains that after Synthia was transferred into 24 Company, she was frequently up at the “gate,” or the bars that make up the front of her cell, getting into everyone else’s business. “When other people would argue, she would say, ‘I’m going to kick your ass.’ That could get her transferred to a different company. That got me stressed out.” Eddie thinks of himself as more of a peace-loving kind of guy. So, last October, he sent Synthia a kite saying he wanted to break up. “I said, ‘Why do you act like this if you want to be with me? Don’t jeopardize this situation. I’m taking care of you.’ ”

Synthia felt betrayed. “I’m always hollering,” she admits. “The only way you can violate another individual is to tell him to go ‘eat this’ or ‘suck that’ … But regardless of how I’m expressing myself, Eddie should not question me. He should support me 100 percent.”

The design for one of Synthia's tattoos, which entwines her birth sign, Virgo, with Eddie's, Leo.Photo: Synthia-China Blast

“At first, she was distraught,” says Eddie. Distraught and isolated are words he uses a lot. “She took all the pictures of me and cut off the things I had written to her around the edges. She was on a rampage, tearing everything up like she was on a wild mission.”

The next day, Eddie apologized. “We got back together, but it just wasn’t the same. I treated her like a queen. I even gave her a chain with a cross with a little rose on it for her birthday. But I could never figure out what was bothering her.” At the end of December, Synthia sent him a kite saying it was over.

Eddie cried. “Those first weeks, I would stay up all night thinking about her—’What did I do?’ I couldn’t eat, and I didn’t read the Bible for two weeks. I was distraught.”

Meanwhile, a rumor flew through the company at the end of December that Synthia was involved with a new inmate. Prisoners aren’t allowed to talk about other prisoners to the press without permission, so I’ll call him Ricky. “He is totally mangina-whipped,” says Michael Alig. “He has to ask Synthia’s permission to even go out in the yard every day, and she’ll say yes or no depending on her mood.”

Even though Synthia insists that she and Ricky are old friends from the neighborhood and have never had sex, Eddie was crazed with jealousy. One day, he noticed that Ricky had signed up to go out to the yard, so he did, too. That’s when Eddie says he “confronted” him, but he doesn’t offer many details except to say that nobody was hurt. Synthia explains, “Eddie did some old Jet Li move. He wanted to be Chinese for a minute there. I was like, ‘Yo, what’s going on?’ It was extremely funny … I just enjoyed the whole thing. You’re in jail, you got a lot of time, and a guy is fighting over you. I thought it was cute.”

Eddie says only, “If we had been out on the streets, I probably would have killed them both.”

Michael Alig, who was transferred from Attica to Elmira prison upstate last month, says he tries to avoid relationships now—partially because he suffers increasing numbness in his penis from a spinal-column condition that he claims went undiagnosed for three years. And also, he says, because the other prisoners are quick to sabotage. “When you’re in a relationship, everyone is always trying to break you up. It’s just a game, entertainment. There’s a saying, ‘Don’t let them put a battery in your back.’ That’s when they try to stir you up, saying things like, ‘I saw your husband in the shower with So-and-so.’ These people have really sensitive egos. If someone says something, they don’t think, they just go ballistic. That’s why it’s a battery in your back, because they just go crazy.”

In early March, Synthia secretly took Eddie back, and they are now trying to mend their relationship. Synthia admits that Eddie still gives her the creeps now and then. “He’ll come to my cell and look at me like a cannibal or something. I say, ‘Yo, what are you looking at?’ ” But these days, Synthia says she faithfully cooks for him again, and Eddie hurries through his work to spend time with her: “He tells me every day he loves me and ‘have a good night.’ I say, ‘I love you, too.’ ” I sympathize with their desire to create a romance out of hopeless circumstances, but I have to remind myself of the violent crimes that led them here in the first place.

On our last day in the visiting room, Synthia proudly displays her new tattoo of a woman with enormous breasts and flowing hair, the same image she wants to have one day. She says Eddie helped pick it out. While she waits for her lawsuit to progress, Synthia adds, she’s helping him with his: “I’m not only his wife but Eddie’s private Legal Aid. I’m trying to get him the trailer visits with his mom.” In order for Eddie to be able to get those overnight visits, he has to complete an anti-violence program. The problem is, Attica doesn’t offer educational programs to its protective-custody prisoners, so to access them he’d have to be switched to Clinton Correctional Facility, in Dannemora.

Even if one of them is moved to a different facility, Synthia says, their relationship will endure. “As long as Eddie’s in the Department of Corrections, I will always find a way to write to him and he will find a way to write to me,” she says, almost defiantly. “I could break up with him a million times, but I’m never going to leave him.”

Kiss of the Scorpion Woman