Michigan (Zlati Meyer, Tresa Baldas and David Jesse-The Detroit Free Press) – One week. Two car trunks. Four women dead.
Detroit police may be on the hunt for a killer who might be targeting escorts after it was discovered that three of the four women found dead this month are linked to sex-related advertisements on Backpage.com, police said Monday.
The website includes dozens of come-hithers from metro Detroit escorts offering exotic fantasies and erotic playtime.
“This tie for us is disconcerting,” Detroit Police Chief Ralph Godbee Jr. said Monday. “We’re stopping short of calling it a serial pattern.”
The women were found dead in pairs: Demesha Hunt, 24, and Renisha Landers, 23, both of Detroit, were discovered about 3 p.m. Dec. 19 in the trunk of a 2009 Chrysler 300C on the 14900 block of Promenade.
Two more women, their names not yet released by police, were found burned beyond recognition about 1 a.m. Sunday in the trunk of a 1997 Buick LeSabre parked in a garage on the 14900 block of Lannette, according to Godbee. They were 28 and 29.
Detroit police spokeswoman Sgt. Eren Stephens declined Monday to say how police figured out the escort connection or who owned the cars the bodies were discovered in.
The cause of death has not yet been determined, police said, but they are treating the incidents as suspicious deaths and have homicide investigators working the cases.
Godbee said during a news conference Monday that police had a “moral obligation” to share the information about the deaths with the public. “With the vast increase in the utilization of social media and the Internet, we must continue to be vigilant in identifying any website which may potentially pose a threat to individuals,” he said.
Backpage.com is like Craigslist, offering ads ranging from pets for sale and computer services to real estate and body rubs. The Detroit Police Department had not made contact with the website’s administration, Godbee said Monday.
Chicago attorney Samuel Fifer, a lawyer for Backpage.com, declined to comment Monday night. The website is owned by Phoenix-based Village Voice Media.
Efforts to reach relatives of Hunt and Landers by phone or via Twitter were unsuccessful.
“They’re devastated,” Godbee said, describing the reaction of the victims’ families.
At the Wayne County Medical Examiner’s Office, an unidentified employee declined to comment on any details surrounding the four deaths.
This is not the first time Backpage.com has turned up in a criminal matter.
Earlier this month, a woman was indicted in federal court in Detroit after police said she sent a 16-year-old girl on hundreds of sex dates and pocketed 40% of her earnings.
The FBI learned about the woman, Satoria Youngblood, after responding to an ad on Backpage.com that read: “New To Your Town — Hot! Sexy! & The Best Around.”
Turned out, the escort was a minor, who was caught in an undercover operation Nov. 4 at the Extended Stay Hotel in Southfield, records show.
Her arrest triggered child pornography charges against Youngblood, who remains incarcerated pending trial.
Backpage.com was not charged in the incident.
A similar tale recently unfolded in Missouri. However, in that case, a minor sued Backpage.com, saying the website aided in child prostitution by allowing her pimp to post nude photos of her in ads, records show. And this girl’s parents were where?
In August, a federal judge dismissed the lawsuit, holding that while the minor endured “horrific victimization” at the hands of her pimp, Backpage.com was protected by the Communications Decency Act, which shields online companies from liability for what others post online.
Meanwhile, the pimp in the Missouri case was sentenced last December to five years in federal prison after pleading guilty to prostitution charges.
Tampa attorney Paul DeCailly, who represents escort services in a variety of litigation, said he strongly doubts that Backpage.com will face any liability in the Detroit deaths, should it turn out the women were targeted because they were escorts.
“The ads are what bring two people together,” he said. “To start holding everyone liable for what happens in response to that ad would be quite an extension of liability.”
Last September, Craigslist yanked its ad section for sex-related services after years of pressure, including a letter from 17 state attorneys general who argued the site was rampant with prostitution ads.
With Craigslist out of the picture, Backpage.com became the new leader in adult services ads, making $24.3 million in the last 12 months in revenues from those ads, according to research from the Advanced Interactive Media Group in Altamonte Springs, Fla.
In October, 36 clergy ran a full-page ad in the New York Times, demanding Village Voice Media remove the adult ads from Backpage.com. A coalition of 21 attorneys general, including Michigan’s, made a similar request in a 2010 letter.
Backpage.com refused and contended on its website: “Backpage.com is committed to preventing those who are intent on misusing the site for illegal purposes.”
On Monday, Godbee advised that if you are thinking about meeting someone from the Internet, tell someone you know exactly when and where you plan to meet the person — and then do so in a public place.
“Deciding to meet unknown persons via the Internet can be extremely dangerous,” he said. “Our sole purpose is for the public to be cognizant of this website when engaged in adult activities.”
At 7:57 p.m. Monday, someone posted a warning on Backpage.com. In part: “Never go any where with just anybody … If U no some crazy person that U have seen recently & he tried to really harm U, I would contact the Detroit Police Department.”
More than two dozen women who posted ads on Backpage.com did not return calls from Free Press reporters seeking comment.