Like couples all around the region, Loren West and Dustin Smith followed the tragic story of David Messerschmitt.
At first, details were vague. The intellectual-property lawyer was found stabbed to death inside a room at a boutique hotel in downtown Washington.
Then more became clear: The February evening he went missing, Messerschmitt had texted his wife saying he’d be home soon; hotel surveillance video showed a mysterious figure climbing a staircase toward his room; court records revealed Messerschmitt, 30, had posted on Craigslist seeking sex with men; police thought he was targeted in a robbery that went bad.
“What were you thinking?” West remembered asking out loud.
“I feel so bad for his wife,” Smith said.
More than most couples, though, West and Smith had unique insight. The two are cops, with a clear understanding of risk. And they are gay men, who met online, and are now married.
“In this day and age, you never really know who you’re meeting,” Smith said.
Smith and West took safeguards when they connected through a dating app, including exchanging photos, asking questions and meeting in a public place the first time they got together.
The latest online dating services are those that help push real identities to the forefront. “People are looking for a higher level of transparency,” said Britanny Carter, an analyst at the market research firm IBISWorld.
Still, Craigslist and similar bulletin-board sites remain a popular venue for people who seek relationships in secret and for men seeking sex with other men. On Thursday, the Washington area Craigslist page displayed more than 850 ads for men seeking men in its “casual encounters” section. Fewer than 5 percent appeared to have photographs of the poster’s face, and fewer still included a name for the poster.
For predators, the calculation is simple: If someone doesn’t want to show an identity online, he will be less likely to report an assault or robbery. “All criminals have a niche, and online predators in this field prey on vulnerabilities — be that closeted men, married men or others seeking sex this way,” said Sgt. Ken Penrod, a longtime Montgomery County detective who has worked the robbery, homicide and vice beats.
In Fairfax County, Detective Darrin DeCoster said that even when victims speak with police, they can be vague about the details of crimes.
“You will have a person say, ‘They came into my room and took my laptop.’ And you can tell you’re only getting half of the story. But you can’t force the whole story from them if they don’t want to give it,” said DeCoster, who investigates sex crimes.
Craigslist declined to comment for this article. But police and online dating experts point out that Craigslist personals ads are, in many ways, simply an extension of those in print publications. And the safety of Craigslist users depends on how they use the site.
“If you go this way, you have to be very, very careful,” said a man in his 50s who has placed Craigslist ads seeking other men in the D.C. area. He spoke on the condition of anonymity to guard the same anonymity he maintains in online posts.
The man said that over the past two decades, he has met about 100 men through Craigslist. He starts with a carefully worded post seeking a relationship and not simply sex; he assesses responses; he meets people for the first time at a coffee shop or restaurant.
Although Craigslist’s anonymity can make it a draw for predators, Jonathan Crutchley, a founder of the gay-dating Web site Manhunt, said all online dating sites — gay and straight, dating-focused or sex-focused — have deceptive users looking to commit crimes. “It’s the dark side of the business, but it’s the truth.”
Indeed, in Prince George’s County, a trial is pending against a 24-year-old man accused in two rapes at gunpoint of women he met online in 2014. Court records do not specify which site was used.
Few details of Messerschmitt’s personal life have been released publicly by police, and a family spokesman declined to comment.
“I have lost everything,” Messerschmitt’s wife, Kim Vuong, said earlier, “my husband and my best friend.”
The roots of online dating go back to the mid-1990s. For gay men, early “chat rooms” offered a place to talk to hundreds of people about topics that many avoided with family, friends and co-workers. In the mid-1990s, Craigslist was formed in California and swept the country offering simple, free connections arranged by users — whether to sell a sofa or start a relationship.
Craigslist grew to be one of the largest players in online dating for men. In Washington and elsewhere, the secrecy meshed well for men in the closet or those seeking immediate sex. “That was exciting. That was discovering. That was also very dangerous,” said Mark Brooks, a longtime online dating consultant and president of the Internet Dating Executive Alliance.
As Craigslist grew, so did a category of advertisements called erotic services, for which the company charged money. The ads also were used by people offering and seeking prostitution. In 2009, a man dubbed the “Craigslist Killer” was charged with fatally shooting a woman in Boston whom he met on Craigslist.
Craigslist chief executive Jim Buckmaster wrote in a 2008 blog post that “the incidence of crime on craigslist is actually exceedingly low, considering the tens of millions of legitimate ads posted each month by well-intentioned users.” Still, facing criticism from state attorneys general, Craigslist voluntarily removed the erotic services category.
Around the same time, some online dating companies headed in a new direction, linked to advancing smartphone technology. Users could look for mates in their immediate area — around the corner at a Starbucks, for instance. Companies like Grindr, Hornet, Scruff and Jack’d were designed for men looking to meet men.
Dustin Smith, 29, fell into the category. He worked for a federal law enforcement agency in the District, lived in Annapolis and had just come out of a relationship. A friend suggested he load Grindr on his phone.
He did, giving himself the screen name “Copster” and posting a casual photo of himself at a restaurant with a female friend. One of the first responses was immediate, sex-laced and off-
putting. A man wrote that he was nearby at his office and available for sex in a matter of minutes.
“I was appalled by it,” Smith remembers. He didn’t respond.
Later, Smith checked Grindr again. A message popped up — “Howdy” — from a guy who’d taken an informal selfie and went by a name that evoked his previous career in the Air Force: “Flyboyndel.”
Seemed harmless enough to Smith, who responded over a platform similar to a text message.
“What does Copster mean?” the man asked.
“I’m a cop in DC,” Smith responded.
“So am I, in Virginia,” West, 42, wrote back.
Smith didn’t believe him, West could sense, so he sent a photo of himself in uniform.
The two continued to exchange messages, talking about their professions and sending photos of their dogs. Later, when West was at the Hard Times Cafe in Springfield, Va., shooting pool with two friends, he was spending so much time messaging Smith that one of his friends grabbed the phone and wrote to Smith: “Just come out and meet us.”
Smith was just getting off work in the District and decided to go. After arriving, he took a seat at the downstairs bar and ordered a Miller Lite. “I’m going to do a stakeout,” he remembered thinking.
He sent more messages to West and went upstairs to look for a man responding on his phone. He spotted West. He was with a man and woman, as he had said. Check. He was the same guy in the photos. Check. He and his friends looked normal. Check. Smith approached.
They hung out for hours. Two days later, they had dinner. Six months later, they were married.
These days, Smith and West live on a cul-de-sac in Alexandria, help care for three foster children and are looking to adopt. West said although they took basic precautions for online dating, something else was at play.
“I really think in our case,” West says, “it was also that police mentality: ‘Is this person legit? Is this person really who he says he is?’ ”