NEW YORK — Recently, I wrote about Megan Schmidt, a 23-year-old Iowa woman who allegedly used Craigslist to solicit a hitman to murder her father. Schmidt’s reported actions were rather inept, and a little bit backwards — you should never use Craigslist to hire someone else to commit a violent crime on your behalf. But for those who want to commit violent crime themselves, Craigslist is a depressingly common place to hunt for victims.
To wit: Last month, a New Jersey man named Daniel Cook Jr. was shot and killed after he was tricked into meeting up with a man who had placed a Craigslist ad for an ATV. Last year, a Minnesota man named Aung Thu Bo was shot and killed when he answered an ad from a man who was ostensibly trying to sell an iPhone. In 2007, another Minnesotan, 24-year-old Katherine Olson, was killed after responding to an ad looking to hire a babysitter.
Many of the Craigslist-related murders seem to be robberies gone wrong. But not always. The most famous Craigslist killing, perhaps, involves Richard Beasley, an Ohio man who was sentenced to death earlier this year after being convicted of murdering three men on his farm. Beasley and an accomplice, Brogan Rafferty, lured their victims to the farm via Craigslist ads promising work; When the hopeful job applicants arrived, Beasley and Rafferty shot them and buried their bodies in the woods. There was no apparent robbery motive; Beasley and Rafferty seem to have just wanted a bunch of easy victims.
What makes Craigslist so popular with aspiring murderers? It’s mostly free to use, and it’s mostly anonymous — in many sections of the site, the person placing the ad doesn’t have to give a name or other identifying details. The Craigslist email anonymizer hides your email address. If you place your ad from a public computer, and maybe wear a wig and fake beard while doing so, the police will have trouble tracking you down after you’ve dispatched your victim.
Craigslist itself certainly isn’t going to come and find you. The website does very little vetting of its advertisers — the office staff isn’t scouring every single listing just in case a psychopath is behind that attractive offer of “CHEAP C0NCERT T1CKETS!!!” And the site is patronized by gullible people who are ready and willing to believe they’re getting a great deal.
Also, and perhaps most importantly, Craigslist features a lot of meet-me-for-sex ads. One could reasonably argue that the main reason the site exists is so people can troll for sex. A lot of the people who patronize the Craigslist personals want to maintain their anonymity. This is catnip for the aspiring psychopath — and it can spell trouble for the aspiring libertine.
New York City radio reporter George Weber was found dead in his apartment in 2009 after placing a Craigslist ad soliciting “violent sex.” (The killer was a 16-year-old “knife fetishist” from Queens.) In 2009, a Boston medical student named Philip Markoff used Craigslist to solicit several women for sexual encounters. When the women arrived in the hotel rooms Markoff specified, he attempted to rob them; when one robbery got out of hand, Markoff allegedly shot the woman and fled. Markoff was identified via hotel surveillance cameras and emails, and was apprehended while driving to Foxwoods Casino with his fiancée, also a medical student. He killed himself in his cell in 2010, writing his fiancée’s pet name on the wall, in blood, before he died.
What does Craigslist itself think of all this? In a 2009 City Pages story about Katherine Olson’s death, CEO Jim Buckmaster noted that homicides involving Craigslist are still extremely rare, which is true. “There are evil people out there,” Olson’s mother said in the story. “And unfortunately, Craigslist is built for everyday people. And so someone that has ill will, someone psychotic … they are going to take it for what it is worth. It’s a free tool and they will take advantage of it. And evil people will take advantage of whatever they can.”
That might sound like a copout, but I tend to agree. Requiring Craigslist to vet every user would ruin the site. The same things that make Craigslist potentially dangerous — the fact that you can post an ad in a minute without having to pay a fee or give your real name — are what make it so effective if you want to sell an old toaster. On the left-hand sidebar of its homepage, Craigslist does feature a link to some “personal safety tips.” That link offers some common-sense advice like “Insist on a public meeting place like a cafe,” “Do not meet in a secluded place, or invite strangers into your home” and “Trust your instincts.” That last tip is the most important one: If your “casual encounters” hookup suggests that you meet him at a farm in the middle of nowhere, you should probably look for another ad.
Peters writes Slate’s crime blog. @slatecrime.
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