A handful of grisly murders in at least two states have been found to have one striking fact in common: the victims, all young women, have posted on the website Backpage.com, a classified service which accepts ads for escort services.
In January last year, a young mother and her 3-year-old daughter were found dead in their apartment in Columbia, South Carolina, in what a coroner described as one of the most horrific murder cases involving a child he had ever seen.
As police released new details they hoped might help to find the killer of Candra Alston, 25, and her little girl Malaysia Boykin this week, they confirmed for the first time that they were exploring the possibility of a link to Backpage.com.
Detectives in Columbia, who said this week that a computer and other items were missing from Alston’s apartment, have never revealed how she or her daughter were killed.
However, the fact that Alston had posted to Backpage.com brought to mind four more recent killings, several states away.
A month ago, thousands of miles north in Detroit, Michigan, the bodies of four young women were found in pairs in the trunk of burnt out cars, a week apart. Three of them, police said, had placed online ads dealing with “prearranged adult dating services” on Backpage.com.
They have not said which three had dealt with the website, and relatives of Landers and Hunt, who described them as “good girls”, have said neither were escorts.
Police have issued warnings to women in the area against setting up meetings with strangers online. No suspects have yet been identified in any of the cases, a police spokewoman said, and there is no suggestion that the killings in South Carolina and Michigan are in any way connected.
“We have not made a direct link at this time but we are considering any and all possibilities” said a spokeswoman for police investigating Alston and her daughter’s killing in Columbia.
However, news that Alston had placed an ad on Backpage.com, managed by Phoenix-based publisher Village Voice Media, has reignited calls for it to shut down its adult online listing.
Critics say the site makes it easier for violent individuals to target women who work in the sex industry. Previous protests against the listings include a letter by 51 attorney generals, a full page ad in the New York Times and the recent picketing of the Village Voice offices in New York by a coalition of women’s rights, anti-trafficking groups and prominent campaigners including Gloria Steinem. Campaigners, who have so far concentrated their efforts against the site on the impact it has on children, say it also gives a platform for traffickers to offer underage children for sex.
Ken Franzblau, a consultant on anti-trafficking at the woman’s rights group Equality Now said the website makes it easier for violent criminals to target sex workers. “Prostitution is a dangerous activity to begin with, but with this site there is no face to face interaction until a guy shows up at a motel door,” he said. “Whatever survival mechanism women have on the street – getting a bad vibe from someone or whatever it is – is diminished.”
Craigslist was formerly one of the most active online sites for adult service ads, but dropped such ads from its site after pressure from Congress and attorney generals after it, too, was linked to a series of murders.
Norma Ramos, of Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, said that Backpage.com stepped into the market for sex ads that Craigslist left behind. CATW accuses Backpage of “mainstreaming online pimping” by providing a vehicle for sex traffickers to reach those who will buy and sell women and children for sex.
“Backpage.com is an example of corporate irresponsibility that is risen to the level of facilitating criminal conduct,” Ramos said. “Are they going to continue putting profits over public safety? I’d like to ask the COE how many more people have to die before they put public safety over profit.”
No one at Backpage.com could be contacted for comment.
In December, following news about the three women found murdered in Detroit linked to the website, a lawyer for Backpage.com said it was not clear that his company’s website was involved.
“Law enforcement authorities now have evidence that the investigation appears to connect to at least 30 different ads or other postings on at least 15 different websites, separate and distinct from ours,” lawyer Steve Suskin said in a statement. “We are not aware of the existence of any evidence that would indicate which of these many sites were used by the suspect to establish contact with his victims.”
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