DETROIT—A series of horrific murders in Detroit may be the work of a serial killer targeting escorts by way of Backpage.com, the online classifieds service owned by Village Voice Media that has steadfastly resisted efforts by clergy and law enforcement officials to get it to close its adult services section.
Police confirmed Monday that three of the four women found burned beyond recognition in the trunk of cars were linked to sex-related ads on Backpage.com that "specifically dealt with prearranged adult dating services.”
Adding to the unsolved mystery, the women were found in pairs. According to the Detroit Free Press, “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 [Detroit Police Chief Ralph] Godbee. They were 28 and 29,” the article continued.
Though Godbee was not prepared to state that the killings are the work of a serial killer, or that whoever was responsible used Backpage.com as a method of introduction, he did say during a news conference Monday, “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.”
Tuesday, Backpage.com legal counsel Steve Suskin issued a statement in response to the Detroit killings, which is reprinted below in its entirety:
After we heard about these terrible crimes, we reached out to the Detroit Police Department, even before we heard from them, to offer assistance in the investigation. Our team has already provided the police with detailed information about the ads that the suspect or others posted on numerous web sites.
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. 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.
We have a team of more than 100 content monitors and internet experts who will continue to cooperate with the investigation and provide as much helpful information as we can.
Backpage.com shares the concerns of law enforcement and the community that every effort be made to stop violent criminals from using the internet to commit their crimes.
Backpage has developed strong cooperative relationships with front-line state and federal police agencies nationwide, assisting with sting operations, promptly responding to subpoenas, and otherwise aiding in the identification, apprehension and prosecution of criminals.
We do our best to provide a safe and legal environment for our customers through aggressive content monitoring and sophisticated content filtration software.
We agree with a recent USC study that recommended leveraging online technologies and data driven information in real time to detect and apprehend online criminals.