It’s unclear how many of Vann’s apparent victims were targeted using Backpage, but it was his final act — finding his victim through classifieds on the site — that led police to his doorstep, authorities said.
Like many sex-crime victims whose services were openly advertised on the Internet (sometimes unwillingly), the dead northwest Indiana women seemed to share the commonality that they “might be less likely to be reported missing,” said Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson, according to the Chicago Tribune. Of the seven women found with Vann’s help — some of them long dead — only one, 35-year-old Anith Jones, had been reported missing.
Police said Vann found the most recent woman, 19-year-old Afrika Hardy, on Backpage a week before he allegedly killed her. He had met her, according to police, by responding to one of the hundreds of ads for “body rubs,” “escorts” or “adult jobs” that populate the site.
Hardy had just arrived in Chicago last summer and was excited about starting over in a new city, according to her mother. Online, she went by “Octavia” or “Ms. Youngin” in a prostitution business advertised on Backpage. Initially, her meeting with Vann was set for Oct. 9, but he suddenly cancelled, claiming “he couldn’t get a babysitter,” according to charging documents reported by USA Today.
About a week later, the meeting was back on. Around 5:13 p.m. last Friday, Hardy texted a woman — who police called the “facilitator” — to say that Big Boy Appetite had arrived at a room at the Motel 6 in Hammond.
But when the “appointment” ran long, the woman called Hardy’s cellphone eight times, according to the court documents. The only replies she received were suspicious messages, police said. Later that night, the woman drove to the motel room with a male friend to check on Hardy, police said; she found Vann gone and Hardy’s lifeless, naked body in the bath tub with the shower still running.
Not long after, Hammond police pulled up at the Motel 6. It wasn’t the first time they had been called there — and it also wasn’t unusual that Backpage.com had been used by a suspect in allegedly committing a crime.
“Motel 6 in Hammond has cooperated with Hammond in the past involving criminal investigations, many of them involving Backpage.com,” Hammond Police Chief John Doughty said at a news conference Monday. The Motel 6, he added, “is considered a reputable business in the City of Hammond.”
Backpage officials did not immediately respond to The Post’s request for comment. This report will updated if they do.
“He told our officers at the scene that he had messed up by committing the crime in Hammond, and was surprised by how quickly he was located after the incident,” Doughty said.
After Craigslist caved to law-enforcement pressure to eliminate its adult classified listings in 2010, Backpage zoomed to the top of the heap. The Web site, which at one time was an online complement to Village Voice Media’s network of alternative weekly tabloids, has become the most popular place on the Web for listings that advertise sex, with only thinly veiled pretense.
“There really aren’t any legal consequences for running the ads,” said Mark A. Whittaker, who was a senior consultant at AIM and produced the firm’s report on the online adult advertising business. “So there’s really no downside, except for the expense of what it costs you to run these ads, which is pretty low.
“It goes to the history of alternate weekly newspapers, where most of them had, on or in their back pages, adult ads.”
Law enforcement officials in Hammond, as in many other parts of the country, are all too familiar with Backpage.com and the crimes that seem inextricably linked to its seedy underworld of prostitution peddlers, predators and traffickers.
In Detroit, James C. Brown was convicted in February of carrying out the murders of four women he met in the adult classifieds section of Backpage.com — all in the same week before Christmas in 2011. His crimes were dubbed the “Backpage murders.”
Brown lured the women to his mother’s home, killed them and dumped their bodies in the trunk of his car. And similar to the allegations against Vann, he tried to hide the bodies — two of which he attempted to burn — in some of the many blighted, abandoned homes in Detroit.
Last year in Florida, after three sex-trafficking rings that used Backpage.com were exposed, law enforcement officials issued a stern warning to the site.
“Backpage,” said Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, according to the Tampa Bay Times, “you’re going to be criminally investigated and so are the people that are in charge of the organization.”
He added: “It’s abundantly clear to us that they are facilitating organized prostitution. They are facilitating human trafficking. We’re not going to have that.”
In response, Backpage’s lawyer, Liz McDougall, argued that the company works with law enforcement officials to combat sex trafficking and that attempts to shut down its forums would only push this activity elsewhere, the Tampa Bay Times reported.
According to McDougall, Backpage’s triple-tiered policing system includes an automated filter that screens for 36,000 terms. She said a round-the-clock team of some 80 staffers checks ads before and after publication.
The site, she said, also works with a national trafficking shelter, uses an expedited system to report about 25 potential trafficking victims per day to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, and helps police investigate traffickers by gathering additional evidence from other websites.
“Vilifying” Backpage, McDougall said, would only push the problem elsewhere, as evidenced by cases in Ireland and Finland.
“Unless the Internet is wholly shut down,” she wrote, “the end result of this strategy will be that our children are advertised through offshore websites … who are outside the jurisdiction of U.S. law enforcement so they can thumb their noses at U.S. law enforcement requests, even pleas, for evidence to find a child or stop a perpetrator.”
But with each high-profile crime or victim lawsuit, Backpage faces additional pressure from police, prosecutors, legislators and activists to abandon the business.