The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

After Craigslist seller’s armed-robbery convictions, prosecutor warns: ‘Avoid becoming a victim’

Craigslist’s Atlanta homepage. (Craigslist)

Lavunte Collins used Craigslist to lure his victims with the promise of cheap iPhones.

When they arrived at their designated meeting points in Stone Mountain, Ga., Collins met the purchasers at their cars, flashed a gun and demanded their money before he fled on foot.

Over a two-week period in 2013, federal prosecutors say, “Collins robbed five sets of victims of their phones, wallets, and cash.”

Charged with five counts of armed robbery and one count of “brandishing a firearm in furtherance of a crime of violence,” Collins was sentenced Monday in federal court to 13 1/2 years in prison. The 23-year-old was also ordered to pay restitution to his victims.

The robberies in an outer suburb of Atlanta — and other violent Craigslist-related crimes across the United States, including multiple slayings — have sparked wariness among some Internet bargain hunters and given police department parking lots a second life as a place to buy stuff from strangers.

Indeed, following Monday’s sentencing hearing at the federal courthouse in Atlanta, John Horn, the assistant U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Georgia, issued a warning.

“This case highlights the dangers of meeting strangers for commercial transactions of any kind,” Horn said in a statement. “The victims only expected to purchase electronic devices, but may not suffer from the trauma of these encounters for years. To avoid becoming a victim of these crimes, we urge members of the public to arrange meetings with online vendors in public places, such as local police departments.”

After Craigslist crimes, police across U.S. are opening safe havens for transactions

In the case of Collins, his victims would show up looking for a man named “Jonathan” who was offering a really good price on a new iPhone or some other electronic device.

Instead, prosecutors say, they encountered Collins, holding a gun and demanding money.

One man escaped by slipping out of his shirt and sprinting away, according to court documents. Another victim was robbed while his wife and young child were inside the car watching — “increasing the victims’ trauma,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office said.

All five crimes were committed within two miles of Collins’s residence in Stone Mountain, prosecutors said.

Collins was far from the only person to look at the near-anonymity of Craigslist with criminal intent.

Last May, police in Missouri charged a 24-year-old man in the killing of a teen who was trying to buy a 2007 Nissan 350ZX through a Craigslist ad.

Taylor Clark, a student at Southern Illinois University, had arranged to meet Michael Gordon to test-drive his red sports car, police said.

Clark’s family reported him missing when he didn’t return home.

The next day, police found his body hidden nearby with gunshot wounds. They found Gordon’s name in Clark’s emails about the car.

In February, Debvon Buckner, 24, of Kansas City, pleaded guilty to robbery after prosecutors said he lured people to isolated sites with bogus offers to buy Xboxes and a Hyundai Sonata, according to the U.S. attorney in the Western District of Missouri.

In one case, Buckner walked away saying he had to talk to his wife about selling their Sonata. When he was out of sight, two men emerged from the shadows, holding guns. As the victims attempted to flee, they were shot and injured.

A robbery crew from Oakland, Calif., stole more than $500,000 worth of jewelry from victims it lured from six states. Crew members posed as music producers looking to buy diamond engagement rings or Rolex watches. They persuaded their victims to go to the San Francisco Bay area — sometimes even paying for airfare and picking victims up in a limousine, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Instead of meeting them at a jewelry store or a bank, though, they met at a predetermined location and used guns and physical violence to rob them.

Officials from Craigslist did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

On the website’s personal safety page, though, Craigslist emphasizes that a tiny fraction of transactions conducted through the site end in crime.

“The overwhelming majority of craigslist users are trustworthy and well-meaning,” the site says. “With billions of human interactions, the incidence of violent crime related to craigslist is extremely low.

“Millions of violent crimes occur in the U.S. each year: 10,000+ homicides, 600,000+ robberies, 5 million assaults. Vanishingly few of these are craigslist-related.”

Still, as Peter Holley wrote in The Washington Post last year: Violent crimes that begin with an exchange between strangers on Craigslist have sent law enforcement officials searching for solutions.

As Holley wrote:

For a growing number of U.S. police departments, the answer is creating safe havens for Craigslist transactions. The goal, police around the country say, is to create public space for legitimate transactions to take place, often under the watchful eye of authorities.

“It’s a real problem,” Juan Perez, deputy director of the Miami-Dade Police Department, told the Miami Herald. “We’ve had people advertise cars on some of these websites. People come with the money, and they rob them.”

In Hartford, Conn., where police arrested two men involved in the violent robbery of a man who used Craigslist to sell a laptop, authorities called their initiative “Operation Safe Lot,” according to the Hartford Courant.

Here’s how it works: Buyers and sellers hoping to carry out a potential transaction through Craigslist can arrange to meet in a small parking lot beside a recently built police station, according to police. Well-lit and under constant surveillance, the lot will be open to the public for Craigslist transactions 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Operation Safe Lot came about after Hartford police officials noticed similar plans had proved successful in other cities, Deputy Chief Brian Foley told the Courant.

“Research shows it’s been a success,” he said.

When his son sold a car on Craigslist in Manchester, Md., the Associated Press reported, Police Chief John Hess had him complete the transaction in a police parking lot.

“Nine out of 10 times, if that person had any criminal thoughts, they’re not going to come to a police station,” Hess said.

In addition to telling users to carry a cellphone with them during transactions, Craigslist also warns buyers and sellers: “Do not meet in a secluded place,” “be especially careful when buying/selling high value items” and “consider having a friend accompany you.”

Peter Zollman, whose classified-ad consulting firm tracks crimes linked to Craigslist, told the AP early last year that his firm located news reports for more than 20 killings related to the site in 2014.

A 2011 report titled “Crime and Craigslist: A Sad Tale of Murders and More” said the site was linked with 330 crimes the previous year, including “12 murders and 105 robberies or assaults in the United States,” according to Fast Company. At the time, a Craigslist spokesman suggested that the numbers were negligible considering the massive number of transactions that occur without incident.

“It’s probably worth considering we had over 573 million postings on Craigslist last year in North America,” the spokesman told Fast Company. “What are the odds?”

Mark Warr, a criminologist and sociology professor at the University of Texas at Austin, made a similar point, telling the AP that the frequency of crime does not warrant the level of fear associated with it.

“My research shows that the public tends to exaggerate the frequency of relatively rare but serious crimes like homicide, because these crimes are selected out and disproportionately reported by the news media because of their newsworthiness,” Warr said.

One particularly troubling case made headlines last year.

Atlanta couple June and Elrey “Bud” Runion organized a meeting with a seller they’d found on Craigslist and thought they were one step closer to purchasing the 1966 Ford Mustang convertible that Bud so desperately wanted to drive.

But authorities said the Runions unwittingly arranged for their own ambush, providing Ronnie “Jay” Towns with the opportunity to rob and kill the Georgia couple before dumping their bodies in a pond in rural Telfair County in early 2015.

Towns was charged with armed robbery and murder while members of the Runion family were left with heartache and anger.

Prosecutors are now seeking the death penalty for Towns, the district attorney told the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

Read more: 

She loved the river. A ‘brain-eating amoeba’ lurking in the water ended up killing her.

This attorney wore a Black Lives Matter pin to court — and went to jail for it