The transformation of communication globally through the medium of the Internet has also fostered a new form of homicidal interaction, referred to as cybermurder or Internet murder. Historically, murderers have used various approaches to identify strangers as potential victims, including the use of newspaper advertisements. Henri Landru, the French serial killer, placed ads in the lonely hearts columns of newspapers during World War I. Landru first seduced his victims, and having gained their trust, he embezzled their assets and finally murdered them. The term cybermurder is applied to murders that occur as a result of Internet advertisement or connection through chat rooms, dating sites, sex-for-sale sites, online role-playing games, Internet forums or groups, listservs, or bulletin boards. It also has been used to refer to the use of the Internet by persons to solicit their own murder or to induce others to take their own lives.
Cyberhomicide presents a significant challenge for law enforcement since the identification of perpetrators may prove difficult or impossible given the anonymity provided by the World Wide Web. Consensual homicide is one form of this phenomenon. This involves Internet advertisement by one individual to cannibalize or to be cannibalized by another. The most oft-cited legal case involves the murder of Bernd Brandes, a German engineer, in 2001 by Armin Meiwes. Meiwes murdered, dissected, and then ate 20 kilograms of Brandes’s body, with Brandes’s consent captured on videotape, before being apprehended by the police. Meiwes was initially sentenced to 8 years in prison but received a life sentence on appeal. The active solicitation of an individual to murder another with the person’s consent was reflected in the 1996 case of a Maryland businesswoman, Sharon Lopatka, who met Bobby Glass through an Internet chat room. After a lengthy correspondence centering on sadomasochistic sex and her desire to be tortured and murdered, she met with him in person in a trailer he owned. Her husband alerted the police, who located her body buried near Glass’s trailer. Glass was convicted of manslaughter but claimed that her death was the result of an accident that occurred during their consensual sexual activities.
The term Craigslist killer is often associated with cybermurders in the media; however, given the overwhelming number of sites on the Internet that can just as readily provide a forum for communication, the term ascribes too much blame to one service. The case most commonly associated with this term is that of Phillip Haynes Markoff, a medical student who answered advertisements for sexual services in two cases in which he was alleged to have committed armed robberies. Markoff was indicted for the murder of Julissa Brisman on April 14, 2009, but subsequently hanged himself while awaiting trial. Brisman had posted an Internet ad offering massage services (often understood to be synonymous with paid sexual services).
Another well-known case illustrative of this form of cybermurder is that of Miranda Barbour. Barbour, aged 19 at the time of the crime, posted an ad on Craigslist offering to provide “companionship” to men for the sum of $100. Troy LaFerrara, age 42, answered the ad, and they met in her car at a mall parking lot. Unbeknown to Ferrara, Barbour’s husband of 3 weeks, Elyette Barbour, was hiding in the back seat of the car hidden under a blanket. Her husband did not attack LaFerrara as planned, so Miranda stabbed Ferrara multiple times with a knife, ending his life.
In a 2013 Canadian case, Tim Bosma of Ancaster, Ontario, advertised for the sale of his truck. Two individuals arrived to inspect the vehicle, and Bosma was last seen going with them for a test drive. His body was eventually found burned beyond recognition on farmland located some distance from his home. Dellen Millard was arrested and charged with forcible confinement, theft of more than $5,000, and first-degree murder. Millard is awaiting trial on the charges.
In 2014, The Huffington Post reported that since 2009 there have been 29 such homicides, which typically stem from attempted robberies that are unsuccessful and lead to the murder of the victim. However, murderous situations can emerge from other forms of advertisement too, including those for items for sale, room rentals, sexual partners, and romance. The relative anonymity of the Internet for those seeking to harm others provides ample opportunity for violent interactions to occur.
Serial killers, according to Elliot Leyton, kill three or more persons over a period of days, weeks, months, years, or even decades, with resting periods between the murders. Some serial killers have used the Internet to identify victims and commit homicide. From 1993 onward, John Edward Robinson utilized Internet chat rooms and social networking sites to select his victims. Robinson advertised as a dominant male looking for submissive women for sex. His motive in the first of two of these murders was economic gain. His victims, Sheila Faith and her teenage daughter, moved to Kansas City to join him and were never seen again; but, Sheila Faith’s pension checks continued to be cashed by Robinson for almost 7 years. Two other women eventually disappeared after becoming involved with him; their bodies were found in chemical drums on his farm. Robinson was eventually charged and convicted for the deaths of these women. He received the death sentence as well as life sentences without the possibility of parole in five of his cases.
Inducing others to take their own lives has been considered by some commentators to constitute a specific form of cybermurder. However, from a legal perspective, it is likely more accurate to describe this practice as assisting suicide via the Internet. Such cases provide a significant legal challenge for prosecutors because freedom of speech is protected in the United States. The case of William Francis Melchert-Dinkel illustrates this dilemma: Although he was originally convicted of assisting a suicide, his conviction was overturned by the Minnesota Supreme Court and remanded back to a lower court. As the Internet evolves and as technology increasingly connects the globe, new forms of cybermurder may emerge.
See also Crime
Brenner, Susan W. Cybercrime and the Law: Challenges, Issues and Outcomes. Boston, MA: Northeastern University Press, 2012.
Harding, Luke. “Victim of Cannibal Agreed to Be Eaten.” Guardian (December 4, 2003). https://www.theguardian.com/world/2003/dec/04/germany.lukeharding (Accessed August 2017).
Leyton, Elliot. Hunting Humans: The Rise of the Modern Multiple Murderer. Toronto, Ontario, Canada: McClelland Stewart, 1986.
McCormack, Simon. “There Have Been at Least 45 ‘Craigslist Killings’ Since 2009: Report.” Huffington Post (October, 29, 2014). http://www.huffingtonpost.in/entry/craigslist-killings_n_6064756 (Accessed August 2017).