Men seeking sexual assailants

The horrifying story of an alleged Craigslist rape

By Mary Elizabeth Williams
Published January 11, 2010 9:38PM (EST)

The Wyoming Craigslist ad read, "Need a real aggressive man with no concern for women."  It included a photograph of a 25-year-old woman.

A week later, Ty Oliver McDowell allegedly broke into the home of the woman in the picture, tied her up, blindfolded and gagged her, raped her and penetrated her with a foreign object at knifepoint. "I'll show you aggressive," he reportedly told her. McDowell later says he believed he was acting on his victim's wishes: That original ad appeared to have come from the woman herself, in pursuit of a very aggressive domination scene.

But it didn't come from her at all. In fact, the ad was removed in early December after the woman spotted it and contacted the Natrona County Sheriff's Office and Craigslist, but by then, the wheels were already in motion -- McDowell was already in communication with the person who placed the ad, exchanging messages that described a desire for "humiliation, physical abuse, sexual abuse." Prosecutors now say that person was the woman's ex-boyfriend Jebediah James Stipe, a former Marine who was in the process of an administrative separation from the Corps for misconduct. He is now charged with conspiracy to commit first-degree sexual assault. McDowell meanwhile is charged with first-degree sexual assault, aggravated kidnapping and aggravated burglary.

This isn't the first time Craigslist has apparently been used for men seeking potential sexual assailants – in June, a North Carolina man was jailed for allegedly hiring someone to rape his wife while he watched. And the same place many of us have used to find apartments and freelance jobs and mint-condition mid-century furniture has been under increasing scrutiny after last year's brutal murder of Julissa Brisman, who allegedly met her killer via Craigslist's now shuttered "erotic services" section.

In the face of abominable crimes, it's difficult not to feel a shuddery revulsion -- and a sense of blame -- toward the medium that cultivated them. Speaking on the McDowell assault, Natrona County district attorney Mike Blonigen told reporters that this incident is "probably only possible in our modern age."  Craigslist has also faced (and so far triumphed in) lawsuits for promoting prostitution and could soon face accountability for having "facilitated the crime" in the Wyoming rape case.

Yet the site that's been a hot zone for begetting crimes has also been instrumental in solving them. It was Craigslist that helped authorities find accused rapist Rodney Liverman after that North Carolina assault last spring. And in Michigan,  people are using Craigslist to solicit aid – asking for witnesses to assaults and help in recovering stolen goods.

The bigger issue – of how accountable Craigslist in particular and the internet in general should be for its role in bringing together people to do terrible things  – remains incredibly amorphous. But as Mike Godwin, general counsel of the Wikimedia Foundation, explains, service providers have "broad immunity" from liability regarding material posted on their sites by third parties. That's generally good for anybody who hosts a site -- which, at this point, is almost everybody. It also makes simple logistic sense -- who wants to be the one to make the call of what's the orchestration of a violent act, and what's an ad for a consensual scenario? Because as dubious as it may seem, it's still remotely possible that on the night of December 11, Ty Oliver McDowell believed he was headed into a willing sexual encounter when he allegedly broke into that house in Casper, Wyoming.

This morning, using one search term on my local Craigslist, I was able to find a woman seeking someone "to come to my house while I am sleeping at night (door will be unlocked for you) and ravage me," a male looking to "Force rape you when I want!" and a "dominant abusive looking for a new bitch." That last ad includes a grainy photo of a man behind a naked woman, apparently engaged in sex, his arm around her in a chokehold. "Whatever happens" he says, "happens."

Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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