‘But for Craigslist, Donna Might Be Alive Today’
Court proceedings are under way in Southern California’s own Craigslist-connected tragedy
*UPDATE: Late-breaking events in the case ocurred after the print edition went to press. To read more, please click here.
Donna Jou’s mother didn’t see the face of the man on the motorcycle who picked up her 19-year-old daughter in June 2007. He was wearing a helmet, and she was heading off to dinner from her Rancho Santa Margarita apartment. All she knew was this: Donna had said she was going to a party, and the boyfriend of a friend was going to take her there.
That’s the last time a family member saw Donna. According to information posted on the memorial website set up by her family, a few hours after jumping onto the motorcycle, Donna called a friend in San Diego. She said she had locked herself in the bathroom of the apartment of the man who had picked her up. He was freaking her out, Donna said, and he wouldn’t take the hint that she wasn’t interested in him.
The Jou family now believes that man was 36-year-old John Steven Burgess, a previously convicted sex offender. In late May or early June 2007, Jou and Burgess began exchanging messages on Craigslist. Jou’s parents have said that the communication began when Burgess responded to an ad placed by Donna, an honors student enrolled at San Diego State University, offering her services as a math tutor.
The day after Jou left on the motorcycle, she sent her mother some text messages. The last one read, “Battery’s dying. I’m in San Diego. Be home soon. I love you Mommy.” Her mother never heard from her again. On March 17 of this year, Los Angeles police charged Burgess with involuntary manslaughter, concealing an accidental death, and two counts of selling or transporting a concealed substance. According to the Los Angeles Times, police said that Burgess told them Jou had overdosed on heroin and cocaine at his rented West Los Angeles home and that he later dumped her body from a boat off the California coastline.
Burgess has pleaded not guilty; a pretrial hearing in the case was scheduled for May 6 (after the Weekly goes to press) in Los Angeles Central District court. Gloria Allred, the family’s lawyer, says the Jous are focused on finding Donna and bringing Burgess to justice. But they’re also thinking about the role Craigslist played and haven’t ruled out a suit against the site.
“But for Craigslist, Donna might be alive today,” Allred says. “She most likely never would have met Mr. Burgess without it.”
The classifieds site should implement measures to detect sex offenders who use the site and either block their postings or warn others about who they’re dealing with, Allred says.
“[Donna’s] parents want to do whatever they can to prevent something like this from happening ever again,” the attorney says. “I would hope and expect that Mr. [Craig] Newmark would reach out to the family to express his condolences and to have a conversation with the family as to how this occurred and what steps he plans to take, if any, to prevent this in the future. If he takes no such steps, I think it’s highly probable that there will be other such meetings of innocent victims with predators—with tragic results.”