Craig Newmark Speaks at Victim's Memorial in Wake of Craigslist Killings

An update to this story written on May 7, 2009 can be found here.

In October 2007, Katherine Olson was looking for work. Since graduating summa cum laude from St. Olaf College with a dual degree in theater and Hispanic studies, she'd mostly cobbled together part-time jobs—waitressing, teaching Spanish, coaching high school speech.

Craigslist creator Craig Newmark and CEO Jim Buckmaster are weathering a storm of criticism.
Gene X. Hwang
Craigslist creator Craig Newmark and CEO Jim Buckmaster are weathering a storm of criticism.
Katherine Olson was killed after responding to a babysitting ad on Craigslist.
Courtesy of the Olson Family
Katherine Olson was killed after responding to a babysitting ad on Craigslist.

Olson was looking at nanny listings on Craigslist.org when she came across an ad from a mother who needed someone to look after her 5-year-old daughter. Olson sent an e-mail saying she was interested, and the mother, Amy, agreed to hire her for 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Thursday the 25th. Amy sent along her address in nearby Savage, about 18 miles southwest of Minneapolis.

A pretty 24-year-old with freckles and tight red curls, Olson wore a pink fleece jacket and spandex stretch pants on the day of the babysitting job. She parked her gold 2003 Hyundai Elantra outside the light teal home and walked up the paved driveway.

But when the front door opened, it wasn't Amy who answered. It was a paunchy young man with acne, armed with a Ruger .357 Magnum Blackhawk revolver.

His name was Michael Anderson, and he would soon be dubbed "The Craigslist Killer."


When Craig Newmark began sending out e-mails to his buddies during the winter of 1995, he had no intention of starting a billion-dollar business. A recent transplant to San Francisco whose counterculture streak belied a disarming shyness, Newmark simply wanted to keep fellow computer geeks abreast of events throughout the Bay Area.

Word spread quickly. During the ensuing months, droves of new members subscribed and began posting their own ads. Newmark made no attempt to moderate and let the list grow organically. Within a year, Craigslist had come to resemble more of a digital classifieds section than a mere e-mail list. When Newmark began organizing posts by categories, the transition was complete. In 1999, he incorporated the site, making it a for-profit outfit, but nonetheless sticking with the dot-org domain name, to reflect its self-described "noncommercial nature."

The site experienced exponential growth during the mid-2000s, thanks to its intuitive, no-frills layout and great word-of-mouth. Although Newmark and Co. refuse to disclose their financials, estimates conducted by industry observers with the AIM Group suggest that Craigslist's revenues skyrocketed from $7 million to $81 million between 2003 and 2008.

"We arrived at those figures the simplest way imaginable," says Peter Zollman, AIM Group's founder. "We counted ads."

Users post more than 40 million new ads per month, according to the site's fact sheet, making it by far the world's largest source of classified advertising in any medium. The site that once catered exclusively to Newmark's Bay Area pals has established itself in 570 cities in 50 different countries and produces upward of 22 billion page views per month.

Newmark attributes his site's success to its DIY format. Unencumbered by registration fees or account requirements, commerce flourishes.

But it's precisely this anything-goes ethic that has politicians and law enforcement officials around the country gunning for Newmark's brainchild. They point to the popular Erotic Services category—intended for legal trades such as phone sex and escorts—as a cesspool of prostitution.

"Prostitution is not a victimless crime," says Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, who has spearheaded a national campaign to pressure the site to clean up its act. "Prostitution ads, pornography, and other promotions of illicit activity can lead to the kind of horrific tragedies we've been seeing."

He's referring, of course, to the recent spate of headline-grabbing murders that have given us "Craigslist Killer" as a top Google search term. In February, a Dallas man was found guilty of capital murder for killing a 21-year-old man who responded to his Craigslist ad for a 1995 Chevrolet Caprice. In March, New York City police discovered the body of WABC radio newsman George Weber—he'd been stabbed to death by a 16-year-old knife fetishist he'd solicited via Craigslist. Three weeks later, Boston University medical student Philip Markoff was arrested and accused of murdering a prostitute he'd solicited through Craigslist. And just last week, authorities nabbed a man in Kent, Washington, after he allegedly posted a Craigslist ad titled, "A strange desire," with the intent to solicit a woman to have sex with and then kill.

"My phone's been off the hook," says Trench Reynolds, a Charlotte, North Carolina, blogger who's been tracking what he calls "Craigslist crimes" since August 2007. "It's been surreal. I was on CNN last night. The Boston Globe, the Patriot Ledger, I'm talking with CBS right now."

In an attempt to tamp down the hysteria, both Newmark and Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster have taken to the TV airwaves. Both men were greeted with considerable skepticism. Newmark's April 24 appearance on Nightline came across as less an interview and more an ambush, with the bald computer programmer cornered at his desk by interviewer Martin Bashir. Buckmaster's interview on CNN that same week was more cordial and nuanced, but he was nonetheless on the defensive.

In full damage-control mode, Newmark has become considerably harder to reach, rebuffing the New York Times and the Boston Globe and insisting on seeing interview questions ahead of time.

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1 comments
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Jane
Jane

What a great, thought-provoking article on Craigslist! And polarizing, to boot!

I have some things to say and forgive me for speaking disrespectfully about the dead. Let me preface this by saying that I don't mean to be disrespectful, but I believe that the folks at Craigslist are being blamed for things that aren't their fault. In our world today, people need to remember "Caveat Emptor." If you answer an ad on Craigslist for rough sex, you might get rough sex, and you might get killed.If you're a prostitute, oh whoops, I mean massage therapist, and you advertise your services on Craigslist, you might get killed.

And, if you answer an ad for a babysitter, you might get killed. (And this is where I feel badly for speaking disrespectfully about Katherine Olson...)

Are you freakin' kiddin' me??!! What kind of a mother would run an ad on Craigslist for a babysitter for their 5 year old??!! And then hire someone sight-unseen??!! NO DECENT MOTHER. And that should have been a red-flag for Katherine. She should have seen red-flags everywhere all over that ad!

"Hi, I don't know you, I've never met you, but please come to my home where I'm going to leave my 5 year old alone with a TOTAL AND COMPLETE stranger." Totally unrealistic scenario.

Wouldn't you want to meet such an awful parent first to see what the deal was? What kind of environment the home is? Every cop in the world tells you that you don't go to a total stranger's home! You meet in a Starbucks first, or something like that...you don't just answer an ad & show up at a person's home. If you do, you might get killed.

I have no problem with organized religion...but here is where it failed Katherine Olson...the daughter of a Pastor, God is good, and God will save you, and people are good, and rainbows and butterflies are beautiful, and always believe the best in people...BLAH, BLAH, BLAH...how about, not all people are good, some are pyschos, and God didn't save the Pastor's daughter from a brutal death, because she was silly enough to beleive that it's all good...but it's not.

People need to take responsibility for their own actions and stop putting the blame on everyone else.

Caveat emptor...let the buyer beware.

 
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