Danielle Reynolds, Correspondent
For those searching for employment, housing, friendship or products and services, the Craigslist community can be extremely useful. Millions of visitors view billions of ads each month, with the majority of users having pure intentions. During the summer of 2011 I attempted to use New York City Craigslist to find a long-term sublet apartment and to my surprise found many interesting, yet unsuitable ads under the category “Rooms & Shares.” Some ads promised negotiated or complimentary rent for “favors,” while others outright asked for a live-in “naked girlfriend.” After reading many questionable and unreliable ads, I decided to delve further into the Craigslist world to uncover if Craigslist was indeed a hub for dubious activities.
Unfortunately Craigslist is vulnerable to abuse by a minority of its users, manipulating the site as a fast and free network to others whom they plan to physically and/or financially exploit. Often the perpetrators construct false identities to initiate crime, by developing a sense of trust among Craigslist contacts prior to committing the criminal act. Various criminal acts, such as murder, prostitution, drug and weapon sales and rape, among various other scams, have been initiated or conducted via Craigslist.
Miranda Barbour and husband Elytte Barbour were accused of using a Craigslist ad for “companionship” to lure Troy LaFerrara and stabbing him 20 times, then strangling and killing him, discarding the body approximately 100 miles northwest of Philadelphia. Miranda claimed that she used Craigslist to meet “unhappy men” and charge as much as $850 for a “delightful conversation.” During an interview with CNN reporter Francis Scarcella, Barbour admitted to almost 100 killings over a 6 year period, occurring in Alaska, Texas, North Carolina and California. In Ohio, Richard Beasley was convicted for killing 3 men who responded to a Craigslist ad for work on a cattle farm.
The most notorious Craigslist murder, however, refers to Philip Markoff, known as the “Craigslist Killer,” which inspired the 2011 Lifetime movie. The movie, based on true events, tells of a pre-med student who found his victims through Craigslist ads for erotic services, then attacking and/or murdering them upon meeting with them in a motel room. Markoff was arraigned on murder charges related to the death of Julissa Brisman (2009) and was charged with two armed assaults of Trisha Leffler and Corinne Stout.
In 2011, Californian Michael Delgado was arrested for raping a woman who he had hired from Craigslist to clean his apartment. Once within the home, Delgado sexually assaulted and raped the woman for over an hour. He was charged with false imprisonment, assault and rape with a foreign object.
In 2009, Michael John Anderson was convicted of killing Katherine Ann Olson, a nanny who replied to a Craigslist ad for a babysitter. Upon arriving to the Anderson’s home to inquire about an employment opportunity, she disappeared.
Prostitution has made good use of cyberspace, including sites such as Craigslist. Traffic to all Craigslist personal sites, including a section for romance or “missed connections,” is higher than for any online personals sites including Match.com, eHarmony, among others. “Casual Encounters” section of Craigslist has become a major hub, amassing listings with offerings for casual sex, perhaps catering to the erotic underbelly of society where courtship gives way to expediency and anonymity. Created in 2000, ads posted in this section range from prim to vulgar and often providing photographs with precisely what individuals have to offer. Founder of “Casual Encounters,” Craig Newmark, stated that the section was created in response to a demand for a division that allowed for a wide range of personal meetings and relationship options.
On September 8, 2006, “Casual Encounters” forums had been compromised in several cities by individuals posting fraudulent ads in order to obtain personal information from its users, such as email addresses, phone numbers, home addresses, photos, etc. This was the first time the section had been threatened by various prostitutes and spammers to seize and control the community. Then in 2007 a Minneapolis woman pleaded guilty in federal court for running an underage prostitution ring through Craigslist. Craigslist has become a favorite for prostitutes as it is relaxed, allows people to be more candid and anonymous, and has a lack of oversight. Although Craigslist policy prohibits pornographic photos, it is not vigorously enforced. “Casual Encounters” accounts for approximately 2% of all Craigslist postings, and since its creation it has quickly evolved to fulfill a variety of suggestive quests as it delivers erotic thrills for minimal effort.
Craigslist, although a hub for illegal activity, has also been used to combat that activity as law enforcement targets criminal users in sting operations, catching prostitutes using the site to sell their services. In Long Island, eight women were arrested on prostitution charges in a sting operation by the Nassau County Police Department who have used Craigslist to make over 70 arrests in 2013. As technology expands, the traditional sense of looking for street walkers, brothels and massage parlors has transitioned to scouring Craigslist ads and various pages on cyberspace. In July 2013 Nassau County Police Department arrested 43 women for walking the streets soliciting prostitution and 60 on Craigslist pages soliciting online.
Danielle Reynolds, Crimcast contributor, teaches Criminal Justice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Danielle earned her Master’s degree in Criminal Justice in 2011 from John Jay College where she was awarded the Claude Hawley Medal and Graduate Scholarship. She currently lives in New York City.