By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
In October 2007, Katherine Olson was looking for work. Since graduating summa cum laude from St. Olaf College with a dual degree in theater and Hispanic studies, she had mostly cobbled together part-time jobs waitressing, teaching Spanish, coaching high school speech.
Olson was looking at nanny listings on Craigslist.org when she came across an ad from a mother who needed someone to look after her 5-year-old daughter. Olson sent an email saying she was interested, and the mother, Amy, agreed to hire her for 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Thursday the 25th. Amy sent along her address.
A pretty 24-year-old with freckles and tight red curls, Olson wore a pink fleece jacket and spandex stretch pants on the day of the babysitting job. She parked her gold 2003 Hyundai Elantra outside the light teal home in Savage, Minnesota, and walked up the paved driveway.
But when the front door opened, it wasnt Amy who answered. It was a paunchy young man with acne, armed with a Ruger .357-caliber Magnum Blackhawk revolver.
When Craig Newmark began sending out emails to his buddies during the winter of 1995, he had no intention of starting a billion-dollar business. A recent transplant to San Francisco whose disarming shyness masked a counterculture streak, Newmark simply wanted to keep fellow computer geeks abreast of local events.
Word spread quickly. During the ensuing months, droves of new members subscribed and began posting their own ads. Newmark made no attempt to moderate, letting the list grow organically. Within a year, Craigs-list had come to resemble more of a digital classifieds section than a mere email list. When Newmark began organizing posts by category, the transition was complete. In 1999, he incorporated the site, making it a for-profit outfit but sticking with the dot-org domain name to reflect its self-described noncommercial nature.
The site experienced exponential growth during the mid-2000s, thanks to word of mouth and its intuitive, no-frills layout. Although Newmark and company wont disclose their financials, estimates conducted by industry observers with the AIM Group suggest that Craigslists revenues skyrocketed from $7 million to $81 million between 2003 and 2008.
We arrived at those figures the simplest way imaginable, says Peter Zollman, AIM Groups founder. We counted ads.
Users post more than 40 million new ads per month, according to the sites fact sheet, making it by far the worlds largest source of classified advertising in any medium. The site that once catered exclusively to Newmarks Bay Area pals has established itself in 570 cities in 50 countries and produces upward of 22 billion page views per month.
Newmark attributes his sites success to its DIY format. Unencumbered by registration fees or account requirements, commerce flourishes.
But its precisely this anything-goes ethic that has politicians and law enforcement officials around the country gunning for Newmarks brainchild. They point to the popular Erotic Services category intended for legal trades such as phone sex and escorts as a cesspool of prostitution.
Prostitution is not a victimless crime, says Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, who has spearheaded a national campaign to pressure the site to clean up its act. Prostitution ads, pornography, and other promotions of illicit activity can lead to the kind of horrific tragedies weve been seeing.
Hes referring, of course, to the recent spate of headline-grabbing murders that have given us Craigslist Killer as a top Google search term. In February, a Dallas man was found guilty of capital murder for killing a 21-year-old man who responded to his Craigslist ad for a 1995 Chevrolet Caprice. In March, New York City police discovered the body of WABC radio newsman George Weber hed been stabbed to death, allegedly by a 16-year-old knife fetishist hed solicited via Craigslist. Three weeks later, Boston University medical student Philip Markoff was arrested and accused of murdering a prostitute hed solicited through Craigslist. And just last week, authorities nabbed a man in Kent, Washington, after he allegedly posted a Craigslist ad titled A strange desire, with the intent to solicit a woman to have sex with and then kill.
In South Florida, headlines about Craigs-list thievery are common. In the past year, cops have heard complaints from three Craigslist customers who say they got ripped off over iPhones, with one ending in a scuffle and another a robbery at gunpoint. In April, a Lantana man found his stolen Chevelle on Craigslist; he arranged a meeting, then reported it to the cops after confirming it was his car. In February, police in Palm Beach County arrested a former Delray Beach cop accused of taking part in posting stolen goods on Craigslist.
In an attempt to tamp down the negative headlines, both Newmark and Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster have taken to the TV airwaves. Both men were greeted with considerable skepticism. Newmarks April 24 appearance on Nightline came across as less an interview than an ambush, with the balding computer programmer cornered at his desk by interviewer Martin Bashir. Buckmasters interview on CNN that same week was more cordial and nuanced, but he was still on the defensive.