Craigslist classified ads may have kneecapped the newspaper business, but they are doing wonders for amateur comedians, finders of false teeth, and fashioners of crucifix-shaped guitars played by men dressed as Funky Jesus.
"I am an atheist seeking friends who are pious and who will be wisked away for the rapture that kirk cameron says is coming may 22nd 2011," said one obviously humorous ad last year. "I get to keep all your stuff because you won't need them as you will be in rapturous bliss basking in the love of the great creator. I, however, will need your stuff since I will be trapped here on earth with all the rest of the unclean, deniers, and cravens."
But most unbelievable posts concern sex. A famous find from 2008 instructed any interested woman to arrive at a certain hotel, walk into a certain room (the door would be open), and lie down naked on the bed with posterior in the air. The woman was to pick up the NES controller lying there and start up Super Mario Bros. The man who posted the ad—hiding in the bathroom until this point—said he would only come out when the game had begun.
"When you reach the end of level one, make sure to trigger the fireworks. This is vital to the entire experience. I must hear the fireworks. When level 2 begins and Mario walks into the pipe, I will penetrate you... I will continue having sex until the level ends. DO NOT take the secret level skip. If you die I will pull out and spank you until the level restarts."And the trolls aren't just writing the posts; at least one guy makes his living by responding to classified ads in the most obnoxious possible way and posting the results.
So when one sees an ad on the site asking for "any single moms and dads around that would like to see me use your daughters panties" to masturbate with, one hopes that it falls into the same "unbelievable" category as many other posts. But what happens when the thirtysomething man writing the ad is serious?
"im DEF interested"Baltimore County Police Detective Kevin Smith has served as a cop since 1994, starting on street patrol but taking classes in online investigation and peer-to-peer networking until, in 2008, he was assigned to the department's Crimes Against Children Unit. As part of the job, he struck up conversations with local people whose online postings suggested an unhealthy sexual interest in children.
On September 17, 2010, Smith responded to a Craigslist post titled "Your Daughters Panties - m4w - 30 (Harford County)." He told the person behind the post that he was a "40 wm [white male] stepdad with 11 yo step daughter... we r close and like to play... if interested let me no... we can work something out for her panties."
"I wasn't even really looking for panties, i was looking for someone like you to reply."The response came quickly. That evening, email@example.com wrote back with the name "Billy Warner" in the header of his e-mail. "Hey man im def interested," he told the detective, "and if you have her trained already im DEF more interested in that then in just the panties."
So—not a joke, a prank, or a shock post. This was the real deal, and Billy Warner was insistent. He sent an e-mail at 6:14pm, then another at 9:55pm, and finally a third just after midnight. "Hey man are you around or what??" he asked. "I want to get some info about your step:)"
The e-mails continued throughout the weekend. On Sunday evening, Warner wrote twice more, begging for pictures or even just descriptions of the girl. "Is mommy in on it too?" he asked.
The next week, Smith began exchanging e-mails with the man. It took only hours for Warner to send over two pictures of nude children, one of which probably qualified as child pornography.
Conversations moved onto Yahoo Instant Messenger, where Warner made clear that his ad had only been a dangler, that he hoped to find something less legal than a child's underwear. "I wasnt even really looking for panties," he said. "i was looking for someone like you to reply."
People like Detective Smith had been replying—too many, in fact—and Warner freaked. Two days after he first exchanged instant messages with Smith, Warner returned to say that someone else had contacted him online with a very similar persona to Smith's own adopted "40 year old stepfather."
"I deleted my whole hard drive cuz i thought you 2 were the same guy and were coming for me," Warner wrote when he got back in touch. But his groin overpowered his good sense, and he went back to communicating with Smith—even providing his home phone number on October 4. Smith called him; "Billy" answered. For someone with his proclivities, Warner wasn't exercising much caution.
This isn't unusual. As Steve DeBrota, an assistant US attorney in Indianapolis who has brought down major child porn sites through extensive litigation, told me recently, "Being able to find a like-minded individual easily and communicate about sexual fetishes wasn’t very easy to do in 1992, but today is trivially easy. That lowers a barrier to what are people with already low impulse control.”
Now Smith just had to find Billy Warner.
Cold feetIn their online conversations over the next weeks, Smith brought out bits of Warner's background. Smith apparently made a comment about what sexual activity with a child might actually be like, to which Warner replied, "ive seen PLENTY of hardcore vids of it... all the vicky vids, tons of other ones off limewire with girls aged 2 and up."
That admission alone could have put him on the hook for thousands of dollars in damages. The "Vicky" series of child sex abuse videos show a young girl engaged in sexual acts with her own father; they have been widely traded online. But "Vicky" (not her real name) has made national news by suing numerous child porn possessors for restitution under the theory that she was harmed not just by the initial horrific acts of her father but every time someone views the videos of those acts.
"When I learn about one defendant having downloaded the pictures of me, it adds to my paranoia, it makes me feel again like I was being abused by another man who had been leering at pictures of my naked body being tortured, it gives me chills to think about," Vicky wrote in a victim impact statement in several Texas cases last year. "The fact that each one is out there and has seen me and watched me being raped makes me sicker, makes me feel less safe, makes me feel more ashamed and more humiliated."
The woman, now in her early 20s, says that she can't shake the thought that men will attempt to contact her after seeing the videos; in a few instances, she says, they have done so through sites like Facebook. Nationally, Vicky has secured numerous judgments in her favor. In 2011, for instance, a Rhode Island man was ordered to pay her $15,000.
But none of this stopped Warner from admitting to all sorts of behavior to someone he knew only as an Internet alias. "I met and f---ed up a 13 y/o when I was 25, and i tried my hardest to do things with my friends girl when she was 8,9, and 10 lol," Warner told Smith. "8 or 9 lol thats my dream age."
"Lol"? Clearly this was someone to bring in quickly, and Smith spent much of his time working Warner toward an in-person meeting so as to catch him in the act. (Warner had totally destroyed his hard drive after his scare that he was being targeted and now claimed to have no child porn anymore at home.)
The two finally agreed to a meeting at a Baltimore hotel on November 3, one in which Smith's imaginary 11 year stepdaughter would be available for sexual contact. But when the date arrived, Warner didn't show; he later claimed that his father had entered the hospital.
The stakeoutWarner didn't limit himself to just one Craigslist ad; he had a whole strategy for finding like-minded people online. He admitted to Smith during one of their chats that he regularly posted ads for "free babysitting" in which he volunteered to watch people's "daughters" free of charge. Smith immediately went looking for these ads and found three current ones.
Warner had also been posting variations on his "daughter's panties" ads. In a separate November ad, Warner had made his panty pitch again, though this time he added: "If you are a brother or sister and have access to your younger sisters panties that would work too."
After the failed November 3 meeting, Smith's connection to Warner cooled. So he responded to this latest ad of Warner's under a new persona, that of a 13-year old girl with an eight year old sister. "Billy Warner" responded once again, asking "are you for real? send me a pic or two." Smith sent him two non-nude pics of a young girl, one from the beach with the girl in a bikini. Warner replied with a pic of a man's face and one of an erect penis.
For the rest of November, Smith worked under this alternate persona to arrange a new meeting with Warner. Warner made clear what he wanted to do, which included: "f--- the s--- out of you plus take some pics and we cant do that in a CAR lol."
So they agreed to meet at a McDonald's parking lot in Essex, a near northeastern suburb of Baltimore. Smith, posing as the 13 year old girl, said he and a younger sister would walk to the parking lot, where they would meet Warner, who would drive them back to their home. There the older girl and Warner would have sex while the younger one watched. In reality, of course, the parking lot would be crawling with cops.
In preparation for the December 1 meeting, Smith served a subpoena on Verizon for Warner's phone number. The line belonged to 32-year old Larry William Warner—"Billy Warner" or "lordbdub," who had not even disguised his electronic identity. Warner lived in an apartment in Joppa, a far northeastern Baltimore suburb. Pulling his motor vehicle records, Smith saw a picture of his target; the photo matched the male face his 13-year old alter ego had received.
Baltimore County's Crimes Against Children unit staked out the McDonald's parking lot on the evening of December 1. At 7pm, Warner's 2003 Hyundai Elantra pulled into the lot, circled once, and then parked. The cops moved in and put Larry William Warner under arrest. Down at Baltimore's Child Advocacy Center that evening, Warner waived his right to remain silent and began to talk.
Craigslist controversyBy virtue of its simplicity, popularity, and price (free!), Craigslist has been a huge boon to anyone in the market for local used goods. In my own house, the dining room table, bedroom dresser, kitchen stroller, deck chairs, and rowing machine all came through people we met through the site—and every single transaction has turned out to involve cool people, good quality products, and no problems.
But those same virtues always mean the site will attract not-so-cool people. Last year, the self-proclaimed "toughest sheriff in America" contacted Craigslist to complain that his Arizona office had just wrapped up "an undercover investigation that spanned several months during 2010 and 2011,” one that “resulted in the arrest of two individuals for conspiracy to commit bestiality." According to a separate press release, “Sheriff's detectives set up meetings through computer communications where the suspects believed they were meeting the owners of dogs to have sex with the animals at a hotel."
No one had ever provided him with underwear; no one had ever taken him up on the "free babysitting."More common criticisms have concerned prostitution. Craigslist used to have a section called "erotic services" that became notorious among law enforcement for rampant use by prostitutes and johns. State Attorneys General from across the US pressured Craigslist until the site changed the section to "adult services" and instituted more hurdles to posting. It also worked with groups like the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) to tighten up Craigslist's phone verification system and make other changes. But eventually, Craigslist bowed to the pressure and killed the section altogether.
"Those who formerly posted adult services ads on Craigslist will now advertise at countless other venues," said the company's director of law enforcement relations in a 2010 Congressional hearing. "It is our sincere hope that law enforcement and advocacy groups will find helpful partners there." In other words: we were
willing to help the cops police this stuff; good luck getting that cooperation from less savory sites.
Warner's case makes the questions clear, though it provides no easy answers: was it better that he have access to such a simple tool for finding those who shared his perverse interests, since the very openness of Craigslist made such posts easy to find and then police? Or would it have been better to vet such posts more closely first, driving them further underground but also making it more difficult for Warner to find fellow travelers?
The existence of numerous posts like Warner's on the site might suggest that his method had produced results, and that he routinely met young girls for abusive encounters. But that apparently wasn't true—as he told police that night after the parking lot arrest, he posted on Craigslist about once a week. No one had ever provided him with underwear; no one had ever taken him up on the "free babysitting."
Warner further claimed that he would "have been shocked if a real 13 year old girl showed up that day," according to a later FBI document, in part because the chats didn't seem like "something a 13 year old would say." Had a real 13 year old been waiting in that McDonald's parking lot with a younger sister in tow, Warner claims that he would have "probably freaked out and left." Warner said that it was all "just fantasy."
Yet he had expected something or he wouldn't have driven all that way. And he had talked about the Vicky photos and mailed shots of his genitalia to someone claiming to be 13 and he had shared possible child porn with Detective Smith. Baltimore County police obtained a search warrant for Warner's apartment the next day and seized a laptop, an iPod, a cell phone, and a thumb drive. The FBI was later asked to help with the material and obtained its own federal warrant to go through the devices. "Numerous" images of child pornography were found.
The dealIn late 2011, Warner signed a plea deal for a single federal count of using an "interstate commerce facility to entice [a] minor to engage in sexual activity." He was sent to his parents' home to await sentencing and ordered to stay away from pornography. He discovered the site Goodreads, where a "lordbdub" from Joppa, Maryland hung out in Stephen King fan groups and said he was looking for writing that "actually makes me FEEL something. If a book can move me emotionally or physically then theres a good chance I'll enjoy it." He planned to read 120 books a year in 2012.
The prospect of prison clearly alarmed him. User "lordbdub" joined the Prison Talk website in December 2010 and posted a comment in the "Headed to Prison" forum. The comment heading was "Can someone help me please?" An attorney responded with a bit of helpful advice: "First, shut up. Do not talk the facts of the case. Do not talk about your mental health history."
You need to go over to the Loving a Sex Offender forum and browse around there. Educate yourself on civil commitment, and see if your state has a civ confinement law, or are you federal? See, if you are a sex offender, and they decide that because of the risk of re-offending due to a mental disease or defect is high enough, you could be committed to a civil "treatment facility" for the rest of your life. Admission that you have these problems, as you have here, is a big thing. That you "wanted to get caught" is another thing they'll look at...."Lordbdub" deleted the body of the post.
On January 13, 2011, he learned his fate: 120 months in a federal prison. The judge left him free until March, when he had to turn himself in to the Bureau of Prisons and begin a new life for the next decade. Once he gets out, he will remain a registered sex offender.
Cop on the beatThe Internet is an enormous communications network, and there's no possible way to stop all the people like Warner from looking for online comrades. Leaning on a site like Craigslist may or may not reduce the problem, but no one believes than any single site or any single set of rules can bring it to a complete stop.
Warner certainly knew that he could troll all sorts of unusual venues looking for his kicks. My own research showed that, a few weeks before his 2010 arrest, he had responded to a Yahoo Answers question—hardly the first spot someone would think of going to bust someone looking for child sex.
"Do guys like when a girl can put her legs behind her head? Turn on? or what haha," asked the initial poster. Warner responded, "YES!!!! Well i guess it depends on how hot the girl is, but i would say if your a good looking girl AND can do that its HOT!!!... better yet....send me a pic of it!!!! firstname.lastname@example.org"
But the Internet gives investigators opportunities of their own—finding and contacting people like Warner requires only e-mail and a Web browser. And despite the perceived anonymity of the Internet, most actual Internet-enabled crimes have some component through which identity is quite easily revealed. Trolling Craigslist for sex with children? Offenders need to contact their targets by phone or e-mail or instant message; eventually, they need to meet. Subpoenas, stakeouts, undercover officers—all the traditional policing tools still work in this new world.
The new policing doesn't rely on cops coming in as computer geniuses, either; training in such topics has become routine. Detective Smith was able to take courses throughout his career in topics like "electronic surveillance," "intercept of secure communications," "protecting children online," "basic online undercover investigations," and "FBI peer to peer advanced computer training."
Smith got good enough at it that by 2011, he was giving seminars of his own (PDF). In one talk on "Chatting, Sexting, Social Networks—Who are you really talking to?", Smith showed fellow investigators how "social networking sites, as well as sexting, chat rooms, etc. are the same when it comes to investigation techniques." And he demonstrated "how children and adults are tricked into believing they are talking to someone else online."
If even a notorious hacker like Sabu can't keep himself hidden, people like "lordbdub" are unlikely to succeed. And increasingly, they are being taken down even by local cops patrolling their local communities—by hanging out on the international Internet.
The federal case USA v. Warner is number 11-mj-02061 in the District of Maryland.