Murder by Craigslist

A serial killer finds a newly vulnerable class of victims: white, working-class men.

Next Pauley called his twin sister, Deb, who lives in Maine. She told him that she hated the thought of him sitting alone on some farm for Christmas and made him promise that he’d come visit her for the holidays. He told her that his new boss was a preacher and said he felt like the Lord was finally pointing him toward the place where he might “find peace.”

That week, Pauley went to the men’s Bible-study group he’d been attending since he’d moved into Richard’s house. For weeks he’d been praying—never to win the lottery or get a girlfriend, always for steady work. Everyone there agreed that God had finally heard his prayers.

The church gave Pauley $300 from its “helping hands” fund so that he could rent a U-Haul trailer. He packed up all his stuff—his model trains, his books and DVDs, his Jeff Gordon T-shirts and posters, his Christmas lights, and the small box containing the ashes of his old cat, Maxwell Edison—and hit the road.

Pauley arrived at the Red Roof Inn in Parkersburg, West Virginia, on the night of Saturday, October 22, 2011. It was not far from Marietta, Ohio, where he was supposed to meet his new employer at a Bob Evans for breakfast the next morning. He called his sister, who told him that she loved him and said to call back the next day.

Then, just before going to bed, he called up Maul, who told him, “Good luck. As soon as you’re done talking to them tomorrow, let me know. Give me an exact location so I can come down Saturday and we can hang out.”

The next day came and went with no call from Pauley. Maul tried him on the walkie-talkie, but there was no response. He then called Richard and got the number for Pauley’s new employer, Jack, whom he reached on his cellphone. Yes, everything was all right, Jack told Maul. He’d just left Pauley with a list of chores. Yes, he would pass on the message when he saw him the next day. But a few more days went by without a call, so Maul dialed Jack again. This time Jack said that when he showed up at the farm that day, Pauley had packed all his things in a truck and said he was leaving. Apparently he’d met some guy in town who was headed to Pennsylvania to work on a drilling rig, and he’d decided to follow him there.

There was no way, Maul thought to himself, that Pauley would take off for Pennsylvania without telling him. The two men had been best friends since high school, when they’d bonded over their mutual distaste for sports and love of cars. Over the years they’d moved to different cities, gotten married, gotten divorced, but they’d stayed “constantly in touch,” Maul said.

They kept their walkie–talkies on their bedside tables and called each other before they even got up to brush their teeth in the morning. They talked, by Maul’s estimate, about 50 times a day. “Most people couldn’t figure out how we had so much to talk about,” Maul said. “But there’d always end up being something.” But after Pauley reached Ohio? Nothing.

Early in November, about two weeks after he’d last spoken to Pauley, Maul called his friend’s twin sister. Deb hadn’t heard from him either, and was also worried—a habit she’d honed over a lifetime. When she and her brother were 14, their mother got emphysema. Since their father had left the family and their older siblings were already out of the house, Deb quit school and, as she put it, “basically became David’s mother.” Years later, she moved to Maine with her second husband and Pauley stayed in Norfolk, but the twin bond remained strong.

By the time she received the concerned phone call from Maul, Deb had already spent several days sitting with her laptop at the kitchen table, in her pajamas, looking for clues to explain why she hadn’t heard a word from her brother. With a red pen and a sheet of legal paper, she’d made a list of places to call—the motel in Parkersburg, the U-Haul rental place—but she’d learned nothing from any of them. It wasn’t until Friday night, November 11, nearly three weeks after Pauley had left for Ohio, that she remembered something else: Cambridge, the town where he had said the farm was located. She typed the name into Google and found the local paper, The Daily Jeffersonian. She scrolled through the pages until she landed on this headline, dated November 8: “Man Says He Was Lured Here for Work, Then Shot.” There was no mention of the man’s name, but there was one detail that sounded familiar: he said he’d been hired to work on a 688-acre ranch. The article cited the Noble County sheriff, Stephen Hannum. Deb called his office right away.

After picking up Scott Davis five days earlier, Hannum and his team had been following up on his strange story, but not all that urgently. They had Davis’s explanation about the Craigslist ad, and they’d located security-camera footage from his breakfast meeting with his “employers.” But Deb’s phone call lit a fire under Hannum’s investigation. She told Jason Mackie, a detective in the sheriff’s office, that Pauley had talked with his friend Maul 50 times a day and then suddenly stopped. Although no one said it explicitly at the time, a sudden drop-off like that meant a missing person, and that in turn meant there might be a body.

The next day, a Saturday, the sheriff’s office called an FBI cyber-crimes specialist to help them get information about who had written the Craigslist ad. They also sent a crew with cadaver dogs back to the woods where Davis had been shot. One FBI agent would later recall the “torrential downpour” that day and the sound of coyotes howling. A few hours before dark, the investigators found a patch of disturbed soil overlaid with tree branches. They began digging with their hands, until they found blood seeping up from the wet earth and a socked foot appeared. The body they discovered was facedown, and one of the items they removed from it was a corded black-leather bracelet with a silver clasp. Mackie telephoned Deb and described the bracelet. Yes, it was her brother’s, she told them. The investigators also found a second grave, this one empty. They later learned it had been meant for Davis.

Now the investigators knew they were looking for a murderer. By early the next week, they had identified the man in the breakfast-meeting footage as a local named Richard Beasley. Additionally, the cyber-crimes specialist had received enough information from Craigslist to trace the IP address of the ad’s originating computer to a small house in Akron. When the investigators arrived at the house, its occupant, Joe Bais, said he’d never written any ads on Craigslist and he didn’t know anyone named Richard Beasley or Jack. But when they showed him a picture, he recognized the man who’d called himself Jack. It was someone he knew as Ralph Geiger, who until recently had rented a room from Bais for $100 a week. “Real nice guy,” Bais would later recall on the witness stand. “He didn’t cuss, didn’t smoke, didn’t drink … First Sunday he was there, went to church.” As it happened, Geiger had just left him a note with his new cellphone number. The landlord called Geiger and kept him on the line as investigators traced the call. On November 16, an FBI SWAT team arrested the man outside another Akron house, where he had been renting a room after leaving Bais’s place. The suspect’s name was, in fact, Richard Beasley. Although investigators didn’t know it yet, Ralph Geiger was the name of his first victim.

Tracking down the teenager who had been with Beasley/Jack when he drove Scott Davis out into the woods proved easier. Just as Jack had said, his name was Brogan, Brogan Rafferty to be exact, and he was a junior at Stow-Munroe Falls High School. A detective and an FBI agent drove to the school and interviewed Rafferty in the principal’s office, while another set of investigators searched his house. Rafferty later told his mother that before he left school that day, he had found a girl he liked and kissed her, even though her boyfriend was nearby. He had been worried that he’d never see her, or anyone else from his high school, again. He was right to worry: that evening, police arrived with a warrant, and he was taken into custody.

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Hanna Rosin is an Atlantic national correspondent.

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