NOW I'M A BELIEBER: Dana Martin (left, in Southern New Mexico Correctional Facility) was the teen idol's biggest fan before becoming the alleged mastermind of a plot to murder and castrate the pop star and two others. Martin allegedly recruited a prison associate, Mark Staake, top right, and his nephew, Tanner Ruane, bottom right, to carry out the hits.

When Bieber performed songs from his 2011 Christmas album, Under the Mistletoe, outside the Today studios, drawing one of the largest crowds in the show's history, Martin longed to partake of what the devotees at Rockefeller Center enjoyed: the freedom to worship at the altar of the Biebs. "Anybody on the streets, all these girls that are his fans, can look at Bieber anytime they want to on their cell phones, they can read anything they want, they can tweet him, they know where he's going to be, they can go see him—just buy tickets and walk in. I can't do that," Martin says.

One day, Martin recalls, he saw Bieber tell a TV host that he rarely received fan mail because his fans only tweet and e-mail him. So Martin started mailing handwritten letters, dozens of them, to Bieber at the Ellen show ("He claims she's a personal friend," Martin explains) and at his label, Island Def Jam. Martin asked for autographed photos, appealing to Bieber's professed Christianity to please respond to him. He realized that whoever opened his letters would see a prison return address and probably trash them. But he was hopeful that Bieber, who cares about his fans, might come through. If he could just have a personal letter, Martin reasoned, then "I'm no longer a nobody. There's a certain validation that somebody like me would get if Justin Bieber was my friend."

Martin kept up his one-way correspondence as Bieber continued his march toward world domination. By the middle of 2012, Martin could hardly turn on the TV without seeing his young idol. Bieber was trying to pivot from teen pop to a more mature dance-pop and R&B. But Martin, increasingly resentful about the lack of response, apparently detected something else changing in his idol.

At 18, Bieber would speed around Los Angeles in a $230,000 white Ferrari 458 Italia. When his manager, Scooter Braun, presented him with a Fisker Karma sports car on TV, he exuded bashful humility. "I'm looking at his manager on Ellen, and he's telling Justin, 'You know how I always say it is important to stay humble,'" Martin says, chafing at his wrist chains as he tries to gesticulate. "And I'm like, 'Really?' He can fool a bunch of 9-year-old girls, but the adult audience that he wants now is not fooled by this."

Martin resented the new, more adult and urban image Bieber cultivated. He cringed at Bieber's awkward Vanilla Ice–like embrace of hip-hop slang: Wassup, man, how you doing? "He's a phony now," he says.

Martin's letters turned angry. He says he wrote DeGeneres in May 2012. "I said, 'I want a reply from him or I'm going to do something nasty to him.'" As evidence he was not to be trifled with, Martin included his rap sheet. Hearing nothing back from DeGeneres or Bieber, he began plotting. "That's when I decided to kidnap and kill him," he says.

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Dana Martin's history of narcissism and vengeance began in his hometown of Barre, Vermont, a picturesque burg deep in the state's granite belt. On October 25, 2000, he lured a teen named DeAndra Florucci to his parents' home. He tied her to his bed with sneaker laces, had sex with her, strangled her with his father's paisley tie, then dumped her nude body into a ravine. Martin confessed to the killing six days later. At his 2001 sentencing, prosecutors said Martin had killed Florucci in a fit of jealousy—for dating a man he was in love with. The man had abandoned Martin at a Lake George, New York, motel room, 120 miles away, the night before the killing. Martin was convicted in June 2001 of first-degree murder. Since receiving his sentence of 35 years to life with no chance of parole, he has been moved among prisons in Vermont, Florida, Minnesota, and New Mexico, often for his own protection.

In spring of 2012, shortly after he was transferred to Las Cruces, Martin met Mark Staake, who was serving four years for stealing a car and for aggravated burglary with a deadly weapon. A slender 41-year-old native of Albuquerque, Staake has a rap sheet littered with convictions—for armed burglary, grand theft auto, drunk driving, and cocaine possession.

Martin showed Staake his Bieber tattoo. Staake tells me he thought it was "a little strange, but I don't judge nobody. He can be gay or whatever—that's his business." As two of a handful of white prisoners amid the gang-ridden prison's largely Hispanic population, Staake and Martin bonded. When a new prisoner enters the cell block, it is standard practice for other prisoners to look through the legal file he arrives with. In Martin's file, Staake found federal convictions for transporting explosives and threatening a federal judge, and he was impressed. Staake knew Martin was in for life but says Martin must have removed his murder case from his file when he showed it to Staake. Martin did, however, claim responsibility for a string of 25 grisly unsolved killings. "From there the guy just started telling me his life story like I was a priest," Staake says. "He laid it all out and he didn't stop. I found it fascinating, as sick as a lot of it was. He's a very interesting dude, highly intelligent, and the stuff that came out of his mouth was like stuff you'd see on TV. I found myself looking forward to meeting up in the yard and hearing more stories." When the two were in the hole at the same time for disciplinary trouble, Staake says, Martin would pass him coded notes through the slots of their adjacent cells. And when they were moved to separate units, Martin wrote him letters through inter-prison mail. One included "a cartoon drawing of a beaver dressed like a rapper with chains and a hat that said JB on it," Staake says. Another note contained "coded language about kidnapping someone for $170,000." (Staake says he told Martin he wouldn't abduct anyone.)

To Martin, the friendship was less the point than getting Staake in his thrall. "I'm a great manipulator because I don't ever forget anything," Martin says. "It's a lifetime of observing people, their facial expressions, their body languages." Martin felt that Staake—who was due to be paroled in the fall—could be persuaded to carry out a hit. He set about convincing Staake that despite being in prison, Martin had access to fine cars, a sprawling mansion, wads of cash, and contacts in a powerful Chinese gang. "I spent a huge amount of time lying to Mark," he says. Staake, and later Ruane, "were pawns in this game, and they didn't really matter to me. I have a history of not having friends."