DETROIT — Detroit police fear a killer may be targeting escorts after learning that three of four women found dead in car trunks within blocks of each other had placed sex-related ads on the same website.
Attorneys general for 45 states had raised concerns earlier this year about how the site, Backpage.com, polices ads for adult services.
The latest two victims, women aged 28 and 29, were found Christmas morning when Detroit firefighters discovered their badly burned bodies in the trunk of a car that had been set ablaze in a garage. Two other women were found Dec. 19 in a separate car trunk. The medical examiner’s office has not determined how they died.
But Police Chief Ralph Godbee said that three of the women had placed ads for “prearranged adult dating services” on Backpage.com, and investigators were preparing search warrants Tuesday to get more information from the Phoenix-based website. Police were stopping short of calling the deaths the work of a serial killer, Godbee said.
Backpage.com said Tuesday that it had provided police with information about ads that a suspect may have posted on numerous websites, and said that the police investigation involves at least 30 different ads on multiple websites, “separate and distinct from ours.” The company said it was cooperating with the investigation.
“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,” the company said.
Detroit police didn’t immediately comment Tuesday on the company’s statement.
Meanwhile, the families of Demesha Hunt, 24, and Renisha Landers, 23, whose bodies were found Dec. 19, prepared Tuesday for a joint funeral on Thursday.
The Detroit women were found in the trunk of a car parked in the driveway of a vacant home on the city’s east side. They were reported missing by relatives after they didn’t return from a night out and police said there were no outer signs of trauma to the bodies.
Relatives of Hunt, who had a 10-month-old daughter, and Landers did not immediately respond to messages from The Associated Press. Their mothers told the Detroit Free Press on Tuesday that the cousins weren’t escorts.
“These were good girls. They were not on the streets. They had homes,” said Landers’ mother Chikita Madison.
Hunt’s mother Denise Reid said neither her daughter nor Landers were escorts who advertised services online.
“That was nothing that they were into,” Reid said. “It’s nothing that I would even say, ‘Oh, yeah. Maybe.’ It’s absolutely not.”
The names of the two other victims hadn’t been released Tuesday. Police also haven’t said which three of the women had promoted themselves as escorts on Backpage.com, which is used to buy and sell things but that also carries personal ads.
Paul DeCailly, a Tampa, Fla.-based attorney who represents escort services in court, said he doesn’t believe that Backpage.com could be held liable for providing a service that brings people together. He said a newspaper, for example, wouldn’t be held liable for a personal ad placed in its pages.
“I don’t think that throwing in the term ‘escort’ in this particular situation changes the outcome of potential liability,” DeCailly said.
He noted that the killings come amid government efforts to stamp out the use of the Internet for arranging escorts.
“Whoever did this, regardless of where he found his victims, was going to do the same thing,” DeCailly said. “The question is when they catch him is he going to be someone who even had access to the Internet.”
The attorneys general of Michigan and Illinois were among those across the country who wrote Backpage.com on Aug. 31 demanding that it show it was not promoting illegal sexual activity. The officials had raised similar concerns about Craigslist, which agreed to close its adult services section last year.
“My heart goes out to these women and their families,” said Rob McKenna, the attorney general in Washington state. “Those advertised on adult services sites like Backpage.com are exploited and sometimes terribly harmed. This may be one of those cases.”
James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University in Boston who has written about serial killers, said Detroit police could be dealing with a case of a serial killer or a copycat double-killing. Because the bodies were found in pairs it’s possible, he said, that more than one person was involved.
He said the women may have been killed elsewhere and their bodies dumped, a common way that serial killers operate. He noted that online ads for escort services are risky for those involved because they’re dealing with strangers. And he said the police warnings for caution might not be heeded.
“Even when a perpetrator is known to be on the loose, many women will put profit over protection,” Fox said.
On Tuesday, printing business Can You Picture This in Detroit made T-shirts in memory of Hunt and Landers. Money from the sale of the shirts was to go to their families, said owner Clayton Carter.
Near signs promoting printing for business cards, banners and Christmas cards for the just-passed holiday, three adult-sized shirts in memory of Hunt and Landers sat on a counter along with an infant’s shirt showing Hunt and her young daughter, their photos in a heart with red roses.
“It’s disturbing to have this kind of stuff going on in our city,” Carter said.
Associated Press writers David N. Goodman and Ed White in Detroit and Rachel La Corte in Olympia, Wash., contributed to this report.