The Craigslist Crime Wave

Young dude looking for a good time. We’ll get drinks, go back to my place, and then I’ll kill you!

Everybody in the New York sex trade had heard the stories about Craigslist. Like the one about the two bodybuilder types who liked to set up meetings with masseuses, and then flash fake police badges before robbing the women. Or the john who booked a girl for a “casual encounter” through the Web site: She showed up at his hotel room and went to the bathroom to slip into something more comfortable, whereupon two burly guys burst into the room and took the client’s money, credit cards, and clothes. “One of my girlfriends who works in the industry, she knows him and she had to go pick him up,” says Kristin Davis, who insists this story is no urban legend. “He was stranded in this hotel room, no money, no wallet, no clothes, no nothing.”  Davis has a lot of experience in the sex industry herself—over a decade’s worth.

In the spring of 2008, she made headlines as the “Manhattan Madam” in a charge of a high-end escort service that helped bring down New York governor Eliot Spitzer. But Davis also ran a “body work” service—massages with happy endings—that advertised exclusively in the Erotic Services section of Craigslist. She knew well the changes the site had brought to the business—how it created an electronic version of a 42nd Street back alley, with scams and cheap whores galore. But none of this prepared her for what she found one night in April when she spotted one of her girls surfing the web.

Julissa Brisman

Clicking on a link, Davis navigated to breaking news out of Boston: A masseuse had been shot three times on the 20th floor of a Marriott hotel. There was a blurry security-camera image of the man the press had already dubbed the Craigslist Killer, and below that a picture of the victim, a sultry-looking woman with long light brown hair. It was Julissa Brisman, a sweet, funny, street-smart 26-year-old with pouty lips and a serious Paris Hilton fixation who had recently quit Davis’ employ to go independent. She was one of the Manhattan Madam’s favorite girls.

“I was shocked, devastated, heartbroken, but I wasn’t surprised,” says Davis. “I told her to be careful. Craigslist is full of creeps.”

It was a simple idea that changed everything: a no-frills hippie flea market updated for the Internet age, a place to go to buy a toaster, rent an apartment, or score some meth and hook up with random strangers for the afternoon. It helped to nearly destroy the newspaper industry in America, and it transformed the sex trade. It began 14 years ago when painfully shy über-nerd Craig Newmark started an e-mail list publicizing tech-themed events and job opportunities in San Francisco. Soon Craigslist was everywhere, a self-governing global community of online buyers and sellers, a for-profit business that operated more like a public service. Today Craigslist is an indispensable resource for tens of millions of people worldwide: With 40 million posts a month and sites in 570 cities and 50 countries, it is one of the icons of Web 2.0, as recognizable a brand as Facebook or Google. Yet it only employs 30 people, and the whole operation is run out of a ramshackle Victorian house in the Sunset District of San Francisco.

One of the new media’s signature success stories, Craigslist symbolizes the possibilities of the brave new online world we’re still in the process of figuring out. “The Internet reminds us that people are basically trustworthy,” Newmark has said. But there’s a lot of wiggle room in that “basically.” Like all online community experiments over the past 20 years—from MySpace to Second Life—the site has a utopian side that leaves it open to any creep with a dark fantasy life. What’s terrifying about the Craigslist Killer is what he represents: how the Internet can make crime push-button easy, and unlock psychosis as easily as libido.

Which is why the brutal murder of Julissa Brisman capped a perfect storm of negative publicity for the embattled Web site. Bad enough that the killer used the Erotic Services section to lure Brisman to the crime scene, but this wasn’t his first time. Four days earlier he allegedly tied up and robbed another masseuse he’d contacted through Craigslist, Trisha Leffler. And two days after the Brisman slaying, he allegedly struck again, this time in Warwick, Rhode Island, holding at gunpoint a stripper who advertised lap dances on Craigslist. The assailant fled only after the stripper’s husband burst into the hotel room.

Police arrested Phillip Markoff (left). Cameras at a Boston Marriott caught footage (right) of Julissa Brisman’s alleged killer.

Boston cops quickly arrested Philip Markoff, a tall, blond, and outwardly respectable 23-year-old med student at Boston University who fit nobody’s profile of a serial sicko (see below). He was charged with Brisman’s murder in addition to the assaults on the two other women. Investigators searching Markoff’s apartment found a gun hidden in a hollowed-out book, a stash of hand restraints, as well as 16 pairs of women’s panties under the bed. (It’s not yet known how many times Markoff may have struck, but as Kristin Davis points out, many Craigslist sex-related crimes are never reported out of fear and embarrassment.)

The Craigslist Killer fits a disturbing pattern: The month before, New York radio reporter George Weber was stabbed 50 times, allegedly by a troubled teenager he met through a Craigslist posting offering $60 for rough sex. In April chubby-faced teenage misfit Michael Anderson was sentenced to life in prison for the shooting death of 24-year-old Katherine Olson, a Minnesota preacher’s daughter who had innocently replied to a fake ad Anderson placed on the site looking for a baby-sitter.

The bad news for Craigslist mounted. Also in April authorities arrested 24-year-old Shawn Skelton in Kent, Washington after he allegedly posted a Craigslist ad titled “A strange desire,” looking for a woman to have sex with and then kill. And in early May convicted sex offender John Steven Burgess pleaded guilty in Los Angeles to involuntary manslaughter in the death of 19-year-old Donna Jou. Burgess said he plied Jou with alcohol, cocaine, and heroin after meeting her on Craigslist, then dumped her body in the ocean when she overdosed.

Adding to the pressure on the company, in early May South Carolina attorney general Henry McMaster threatened the prosecution of Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster for facilitating prostitution. This was the first time a law enforcement official had tried to hold Buckmaster personally responsible for the criminal activity associated with the Web site. Craigslist was being attacked from every direction.

There have always been criminals willing to exploit the latest advances in technology, but the crimes linked to Craigslist of late have become increasingly frequent and bizarre. From murderers, rapists, and child molesters to flimflam men and blackmailing femme fatales, the site stars a cast of characters straight out of a James Ellroy novel.

Trusting strangers is the basis of Craigslist. It’s one big communitarian experiment, all very admirable, except for one thing: The ability to connect vast numbers of strangers to one another is only a good idea if the people being connected are decent human beings.

“It’s the anonymity that attracts criminals to Craigslist,” says Trench Reynolds, who runs a blog called CraigsCrimeList. He has counted at least eight killings connected to the site. “When people ask me about the Craigslist Killer, I always say, ‘Which one?’¿”

The prostitution associated with Erotic Services has drawn most of the attention lately, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg. In the past two years the rest of the site has become a virtual playground for fences, petty thieves, con men, and even the occasional bank robber. Last autumn in Monroe, Washington, someone placed an ad for a dozen laborers to dig roads. The men turned up for work dressed, as the ad had instructed, in identical outfits: blue work shirts, yellow vests, respirator masks. Meanwhile, just across the street, another man dressed the same and carrying a pump sprayer walked toward an armored car outside of a Bank of America, sprayed the armed guard in the face with a chemical, then grabbed a bag of money, ran down the street past the startled laborers, and jumped into the nearby Skykomish River. Police say the man who posted the ad was using the laborers as decoys in case he was chased. Eventually, 28-year-old Anthony Curcio was arrested for the robbery.

While some of the cons and capers on Craigslist possess a comic ¿aspect, it’s not so funny when you’re one of the victims. Susan (not her real name) is one of those down-on-their-luck pretty young things in recession-hit Miami Beach who scours Craigslist every day looking for freelance gigs: spokesmodel, events coordinator, restaurant hostess, anything that pays more than $10 an hour. So she was more than excited to get a job advertised on Craigslist as a $1,200-a-week personal assistant to a man who claimed to work as a producer for Pharrell and Lil Wayne. He called himself Lorenzo and said he had a side business—a pizza chain that had gone belly up. He needed Susan to help him sell the restaurant equipment on eBay and Craigslist, and got her to open up a Pay-Pal account in her name. She received tens of thousands of dollars in offers for the various ovens, prep tables, and refrigerators. Then she got a call from somebody who knew Lorenzo saying there was no restaurant equipment. “Thank God PayPal flagged it, because none of the money went into my bank account or I would be behind bars right now,” says Susan. Only after Lorenzo was arrested did she discover that she wasn’t the only victim. “He was scamming tons of people on Craigslist, selling everything from puppies to Ping-Pong tables to car parts to sexual favors. I feel like such a fool. My life is a mess because of this guy.”

In response to the media storm engulfing Craigslist, CEO Buckmaster defended his company, claiming the percentage of criminals who operated on his Web site was tiny compared to the overwhelming majority of trustworthy users. And that’s true as far as it goes. What Craigslist ignores is the outsize impact of even a small number of criminals: One con man posting on Craigslist can scam scores of people with a single ad.

Craigslist founder Craig Newmark (left) and CEO Jim Buckmaster.

Take Sean Church, international drifter, one-time DEA informant, former jailbird, consummate con man. Last summer Church was sitting at an outdoor café in Budapest, Hungary, low on funds, when he hit upon the idea of concocting a Parisian bed-and-breakfast scam on Craigslist to fleece unsuspecting tourists. He’d seen similar cons on the site before and figured there was little chance he’d get caught.

“That’s what makes Craigslist so great,” says Church. “There’s no policing. It’s like the Wild West.”

Church (not his real name) went back to his apartment and wrote a carefully worded posting: “Amazing bed and breakfast in the heart of Paris. Just three rooms with unique architectural details like a natural stone wall and a quaint Romeo and Juliet balcony that overlooks the lush courtyard. The price is 50 Euro per night (one person) or 60 Euro per night (two persons).” The address he gave was a nondescript apartment building where he’d once stayed. Then he downloaded a picture of a cozy-looking interior from a magazine, clicked on a button, and, presto: Within minutes the ad was up and running.

Immediately Church was inundated with queries. People wanting to book a room were instructed to send a 50-Euro nonrefundable deposit to Church’s PayPal account. On receipt of the money, Church e-mailed a fake invoice. More than 300 people fell for the scam, and when they couldn’t find the B&B at the address and e-mailed Church, “What happened?” he had every excuse in the book ready: “Maybe you pressed the wrong buzzer” or “Maybe you went to the wrong floor.”

“Most people just write it off,” says Church. “I wasn’t taking big amounts of money. A lot of times it’s only 50 Euros, but if you do that with 300 people, that’s serious money.”

The scam was so lucrative that Church repeated it with phony apartments in Madrid, London, and Washington, D.C. In all, he estimates he made $33,000 without ever leaving Budapest.

By the end of the summer, Craigslist users had caught on. In late August one wrote in the discussion forum on the Web site, “I just got back from Paris, where I had rented a room in a bed and breakfast through Craigslist. When I got to the address, the place was actually owned by a French couple.” Other victims soon responded in kind.

Church was feeling the heat. It was time to skip town, so he booked a flight to Toronto. But he needed a place to bunk once he arrived in Canada, so he went—where else?—on Craigslist to find an apartment. He spotted what looked like a good deal: a one-bedroom with a big den in a nice part of town for $766 a month. Church e-mailed the owner and received a reply from someone claiming to be an African minister who needed to rent out his apartment because he had urgent missionary work to attend to in West Africa. Church let out a laugh. It was the old African-missionary-apartment swindle, one of the most popular cons on the site. Someone was trying to scam the scammer.

Only on Craigslist.

Last year the Cook County Sheriff’s Department in Chicago launched a sting operation to test Craigslist’s much vaunted automated self-policing system. Much vaunted, that is, by Buckmaster. “Community moderation as exemplified by our flagging system is arguably the most successful system ever conceived for eliminating inappropriate activity from a massive Internet community,” he wrote this past May on his blog. The Chicago investigators posted two ads. One read “14 year old looking for sex”; the other was “15 year old looking for male companionship.” Neither of the ads was flagged.

Sheriff Tom Dart

“We pulled the ads down after we started getting hits from sex offenders,” says Sheriff Tom Dart, who has spent two years pleading with Buckmaster to do something about the site.

Buckmaster insisted that the company works hand in glove with law enforcement to track down criminals misusing the site and that the Erotic Services section mainly consisted of postings for legal mas-seuses, lap dancers, and escorts. (After agreeing to be interviewed by Maxim, Buckmaster pulled out, claiming he didn’t have time.)

“Jim Buckmaster is out of his mind,” said Sheriff Dart in early May. “Of all the operations we have ever conducted, never once did we get ‘I’m a professional masseuse.’ Not once.”

Dart, a former Deadhead, is not some right-wing law-and-order type looking to whip up a moral ¿panic. In fact, Time magazine awarded Sheriff Dart a spot in its “One Hundred Most Influential People” issue. So Dart deserves to be taken seriously when he says Craigslist has become America’s biggest source of prostitution.

“Prostitution is a dangerous field,” he continues. “Women have been beaten up, assaulted, murdered for years. But if you’re looking to harm a woman, what better way than Craigslist?”

The cyber-libertarians at the Electronic Freedom Foundation sprang to Craigslist’s defense: “No one ever suggests that Henry Ford or Alexander Graham Bell is morally culpable for developing technologies that could so clearly aid criminals,” says EFF senior staff attorney Matt Zimmerman. “Cars and phones aren’t illegal, even though people obviously ¿use them to facilitate crimes, so why should new digital communications technologies be criminalized?”

Kristin Davis, for one,  was well aware of the risks of advertising on Craigslist. Before she was busted last year on charges of money laundering and promoting prostitution, Davis made tons of money using the site: All the traffic kept three locations with 12 girls busy 18 hours a day. Davis set up an overseas call center to handle the volume of replies she received. You’re not supposed to be able to spam on Craigslist, but Davis paid a programmer $10,000 to design software that could bypass the company’s spam filters and post up to 600 ads a day.Still, Davis worried constantly about the safety of her girls. That’s why she warned Brisman that you could never tell who was really on the other end of the phone.

This past November Craigslist entered into an agreement with more than 40 state attorneys general along with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to instigate new measures that would help stamp out any illegal activity on the site. Jim Buckmaster claimed that the new measures led to an immediate 80 percent reduction in postings in the Erotic Services section. But according to some, prostitution on the site soon rebounded to become as rife as ever.

“Buckmaster makes it sound like they should be given some sort of badge because they’re so helpful to law enforcement,” says Dart. “They do the minimum required by law.”

Frustrated with his lack of progress, this March Dart filed a federal lawsuit against the company, claiming it knowingly facilitates prostitution. Buckmaster claimed to be mystified. Newmark insisted the Erotic Services section would remain open for business.

In the end Craigslist caved. On May 13, Illinois attorney general Lisa Madigan announced that Craigslist had agreed to shut down Erotic Services and replace it with a new Adult Services section monitored by the Craigslist staff. Only those offering legal services—lap dances and the like—would be allowed to post.

Would Craigslist’s new safety measures have prevented Julissa Brisman’s murder? Maybe. But the Web site still doesn’t require people who reply to posts to register. So if Brisman had managed to evade the monitors with a deceptively worded post, Philip Markoff would have still been able to commit the crime. In fact, in June—just weeks after Craigslist closed Erotic Services—a 25-year-old from North Carolina allegedly used the site to enlist a man to rape his own wife. According to authorities, the husband was in the room during the rape, and the couple’s two children were asleep in the house.

So the question remains: Will Adult Services be Erotic Services redux, nothing more than a name change?  “We’re going to keep a very close eye on them to find out,” says Sheriff Dart.