Murder by Craigslist

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

Back in Akron, Beasley began to improvise. He’d heard from a friend about the reality-TV show Storage Wars, in which people bid on abandoned storage units hoping that there might be valuable items hidden inside. Beasley told people he was involved in that kind of thing, and began to unload Pauley’s stuff: he returned the U-Haul, sold Pauley’s truck for $1,000, and sold the other belongings—the Christmas lights, the model trains, some tackle boxes, the Jeff Gordon memorabilia—to neighbors or at flea markets.

The Pauley money quickly dwindled, but Beasley wasn’t all that concerned. He already had a still-better victim lined up in Scott Davis. Before Davis had even hit the road for Ohio, Beasley told his landlord that he’d won a bid on a fantastic storage unit that contained a flat-screen TV, a computer, some lawn-care equipment, and, best of all, a Harley. He told Rafferty that he thought he could net $30,000 on this kill, enough for him to make it through the winter.

But at Beasley’s moment of anticipated triumph, his gun jammed. Rafferty was waiting in the car when he saw Beasley hustling back toward him. “He got away,” Beasley said, breathing hard as he climbed back into the Buick. If they saw Davis along the road, Rafferty told the investigators, “I was to hit him with my car.” But they didn’t find him, so they headed back out onto the highway. Beasley started madly tossing things out of the car—the shovels, a leather jacket, the air freshener, even his own laptop. If Davis made it to the police, he didn’t want the Buick to be easy to identify. Rafferty went along, but he refused to toss out the rosary beads hanging from the rearview mirror. They were a gift from his Gram Rita.

Eventually, they made their way back to Akron, where, as Rafferty saw it, any logic or purpose to Beasley’s actions went out the window too. Following a botched murder like Davis’s, you’d think Beasley would lie low. But he’d been counting on that haul, and now that it had fallen through, he recklessly pursued another. Though police were already talking with Davis and beginning to track down leads, they didn’t move quickly enough to save Beasley’s fourth and final victim. On Sunday, November 13, exactly a week after the attempt on Davis’s life, Beasley and Rafferty picked up a man named Timothy Kern in the parking lot outside a pizzeria in Canton, where he’d spent the night sleeping in his car. Kern was from the Akron area, 47 years old and divorced. He’d recently lost his job as a street cleaner.

Beasley had a mental inventory of the items he thought Kern was bringing with him, and almost as soon as they got into Rafferty’s Buick, Beasley began questioning him. Did he have that laptop he’d mentioned? Kern said no, he’d left it behind with his sons Zachary and Nicholas. The flatscreen TV? Same story: Zach and Nick had it. Instead, Kern had brought an old TV. Apart from that, he just had a couple of garbage bags full of clothes and cassette tapes, which fit easily in the back of Rafferty’s car. That, and the late-’80s sedan that he’d abandoned in the pizzeria parking lot because it barely ran.

“I get half a pit in my stomach,” Rafferty later told the investigators, “because as the story goes on and on, I’m realizing that I’m about to help Beasley do this for no reason at all. Not that I even wanted to do it at all. But it takes, like, all the minimal sanity and reason out of doing this … It would be like if a lion killed a zebra just to kill it … Just ’cause it wanted, like, its hoof or something. The man literally I think had $5 in his pocket.” One other thing struck Rafferty at the time—enough so that he mentioned it to the investigators more than once: Timothy Kern had given everything he had of value to his sons, who were just a little older than Rafferty himself. It was clear that Kern’s family had broken up, but just as clear was that “he loved his kids,” Rafferty told the investigators.

In his e-mails to Jack, Kern had described himself as single and “available for immediate relocation,” but hadn’t said much about his sons. In truth, Kern was ambivalent about the caretaker job he’d been offered—he described it on his Facebook page as a “good offer” but with “drawbacks,” because he would be more than two hours away from his sons and wouldn’t have cellphone service. Kern and his ex-wife Tina had divorced in 1997, and Zach and Nick were already 19 and 17. But Kern made a point of seeing them nearly every day, even if that meant waiting around the corner from their house until after Tina left for work.

Kern’s marriage wasn’t the only thing in his life that had fallen apart. In the 1990s, he’d worked as a sound engineer at a local club, but when he lost that job in 2000, he had trouble finding a new one. He lived with his parents for a few years, but then his father kicked him out, and after that no one was sure where he slept. Maybe in his car.

But despite all that, or maybe because of it, he was never unsteady in his commitment to Zach and Nick. He focused on his children in the intense way certain divorced dads do when they’re cut off from the daily routines of their families. (He had another son from an earlier marriage, whom he didn’t see much, and that might have played a part, too.) “He only cared about these two. I mean, that was his purpose, that was his thing,” his ex-wife told me. It sometimes drove her crazy that he’d spend his last penny on cellphone bills to make sure he could stay in touch with the boys—instead of, say, keeping up with his child-support payments. “All day, texting, every day,” Tina said.

Inset: Victim Timothy Kern with his sons Nick and Zach around 2001 (Courtesy of the Kern family). Large photo: Zach and Nick today (Gregg Ruffing).

Zach and Nick present themselves to the world as pretty tough—they’re both covered in tattoos, and Zach plays in a heavy-metal band—but they had remarkably tender relationships with their father. They knew, for instance, to always answer his texts quickly, so that he didn’t get his feelings hurt and follow up with Oh, I see you’re busy or 2 cool 4 dad. The day Kern left for Ohio, Nick, who was a senior in high school, lent him $20. That night, Nick texted him before going to a party: I love you. I miss you. I’m proud of you. Good luck. When Kern got up the next morning, he wrote Nick: Text me when you wake up. Love you. Leaving soon.

Rafferty knew that they weren’t taking Kern to the same spot where they’d shot Geiger, Pauley, and Davis—not even Beasley was that crazy. Instead, their destination was a narrow wooded area behind a mall on the western edge of Akron, where Beasley had had Rafferty dig a grave the night before. He’d done a sloppy job: it was barely two feet deep and uneven, but Beasley no longer seemed to care. It was a Sunday, and the mall was empty. Locals refer to the place as a “dead mall” because every store had gone out of business during the recession, except for a mattress-and-furniture liquidator, where desperate families went to sell their belongings. The other storefronts were suspended in a last moment of forced cheer, with neon signs in the windows still reading Everything must go and Wall to wall savings.

They parked, and Beasley told Kern that they had been there squirrel hunting earlier and he’d lost his watch. Kern followed Beasley into the woods behind, which were littered with plastic cups and beer cans from a party. Rafferty kept his distance, he told the investigators, and then “heard a pop.” He saw Kern on his knees, holding the side of his head. He kept taking “enormous gulp[s] of air.” Three shots later, he was still gulping. Finally, on the fifth shot, he stopped.

That night, Nick tried to call his dad and got no answer, but he figured he was just getting settled. Then a couple of days went by and Nick started to get worried. “I called him like 2,000 times. Because he would contact us like every hour of every day. And now nothing?” Nick began sleeping with his phone in his hand and waking up to listen to the messages, even though no new ones had registered. The next Sunday, a week later, he was at a friend’s house watching a football game when his mom called and told him to come home immediately—she had something she needed to tell him.

“Tell me now!” he screamed into the phone. “Tell me right fucking now!” As he explained to me, “I knew. Because that would be the only explanation for him not calling us.”

I was initially drawn to the story of the Beasley murders because I thought it would illuminate the isolation and vulnerability of so many working-class men, who have been pushed by the faltering economy from one way of life—a nine-to-five job, a wife, children—into another, far more precarious one: unemployed or underemployed, single or divorced, crashing on relatives’ spare beds or in the backseats of cars. At what other moment in history would it have been plausible for a serial killer to identify middle-aged white men as his most vulnerable targets?

But what I discovered in the course of my reporting was something quite different. As traditional family structures are falling apart for working-class men, many of them are forging new kinds of relationships: two old high-school friends who chat so many times a day that they need to buy themselves walkie-talkies; a father who texts his almost-grown sons as he goes to bed at night and as he wakes up in the morning.

Christians often talk about a “God-shaped hole,” a need inside us that can be filled only by faith. But perhaps we share a “family-shaped hole.” When the old structures recede for men, they find ways to replace them with alternative attachments, bonds with one or two people that offer the warmth and intimacy typically provided by a wife or significant other. If anything, these improvised families can prove more intense because they are formed under duress and, lacking a conventional domestic routine or a recognized status, they must be constantly tended and reinforced.

While researching a recent book she co-wrote about working-class fathers, Doing the Best I Can, the sociologist Kathryn Edin noticed something surprising. The men she spoke with were exceptionally emotional when it came to their children—children whom many of the men did not live with and were not steadily providing for. They had taken the ethos that fathers should be involved with their children and “kind of gone overboard with it,” Edin explained to me, “so they were even more expressive than middle-class men.” Often this emotiveness spilled over into other areas or landed on children who were not their own, or even on other adults—a sibling or cousin, a childhood best friend—as if the men were inventing a new language of intimacy. In some cases, when a man was courting a woman, Edin found that he would court her child so intensely that it seemed “the child was the main audience for his affections,” not the mother.

Edin concluded that for men who are failing the traditional tests of marriage and parenting, this kind of intense emotional connection “is the last form of identity available.” It’s a way to maintain a sense of family if you can’t be a reliable breadwinner, or even keep up with child support.

David Pauley had his friend Chris Maul and his twin sister, Deb. Timothy Kern had his sons Zach and Nick. Scott Davis was fortunate enough to live to tell his own story, but even if he hadn’t, his mother was eagerly waiting for him to arrive in Ohio to help fix her house. Of all Beasley’s victims, the one it took me the longest to learn much about was the first, Ralph Geiger. He had some family in California and Atlanta, but unlike the relatives of the other victims, they did not attend the trials of Beasley and Rafferty. After Geiger was cremated, his ashes were delivered to a young woman named Summer Rowley. Though she was not a relative of Geiger, she did attend the trials, and I visited her at home one day. She mentioned that she was afraid of what people might think about Geiger’s relationship with her, that he was just “hitting on the pretty young girl. But he would never do that.”

Rowley met Geiger in 2004, when she was 19 and he was 49. A friend had set her up with a job cleaning his house, and after a few visits he asked her whether she wanted to try painting some drywall. Rowley didn’t know how to do that, but Geiger taught her, and after a while they began working together regularly. He taught her how to fix a drain, caulk a hole, and perform various other plumbing tasks. He taught her how to cook a roast and make soup. “He was like a father,” Rowley told me. He helped change her from a wild teenager into a young woman who was ready, at 25, to have a baby with her fiancé. When her daughter was born, she presented Geiger as the little girl’s “pa-pa.” On the mantle beneath Rowley’s TV is a picture of Geiger nestling the infant, barely a week old, against his big chest.

Richard Beasley had believed that no one would come looking for the divorced, unsettled, middle-aged men he was targeting. But he should have known better. Like his victims, Beasley was himself divorced, and lived apart from his child, and was only sporadically employed. And like them, he too had created an intense surrogate family relationship, with Brogan Rafferty.

When prosecutors interviewed Beasley’s daughter, Tonya, she said that when she saw her dad and Rafferty together on Sunday mornings, they seemed like father and son—much closer to one another than she and her dad had ever been. On the stand, Rafferty described Beasley as “the one person that I could go to … about anything,” “a father that I never had.”

Rafferty, of course, did have a father, one with whom he lived and who provided for him—right down to the white Buick LeSabre. But long before the murders, Rafferty would complain to his half-sister Rayna about how tough his dad, Michael, was on him. Michael hardly had an easy situation himself. When Brogan was not yet a week old, Michael came home from work one day to discover that his wife, Yvette, and his infant son were gone. It was bitterly cold that week—Brogan was born on Christmas Eve—and Michael searched for 48 hours before Yvette came back home. He assumed she was doing drugs again, and as much as Michael loved her, he decided to kick her out and raise Brogan alone, with the help of his own mother, Rita.

At the trial, the local press seized on the story of how, at age 5, when he was in kindergarten, Brogan would eat breakfast alone, get himself dressed, and make his own way to the bus stop. “He raised himself, in my opinion,” one grade-school counselor who knew him told the jury. But things weren’t quite so simple: Michael explained to me that he worked an early shift at a machine shop and had to leave the house by 6:30 a.m. Before he left, he laid out clothes for his son, poured his favorite cereal in a bowl, and left him a little pitcher of milk. Then he gently woke him up and left for work.

That said, Michael allows that “I put a lot of responsibility” on Brogan, because it was “just the two of us.” Michael is regimented and strict and has a fierce temper. He had been raised to believe that boys don’t cry, and he raised Brogan the same way. Rayna believes that Brogan drifted toward Beasley because he was a little scared of his father, and Beasley was “like an escape.”

Rafferty’s lawyers wondered whether Beasley and the boy had a sexual relationship. Rafferty’s dad wondered too. How else to explain a bond so intense it led Rafferty to pick up a shovel and dig four graves? But Rafferty rolled his eyes when his dad asked and said, “It wasn’t like that at all.” The real explanation seems less complicated. Michael represented an old vision of fatherhood: strict, manly, and reliable, working the early shift to put food on the table but coming home worn and agitated. Beasley, by contrast, had no such parental obligations and was free to represent a newer and in some ways more appealing vision: expressive, loving, always around to listen and give advice. It was easy for Beasley to be a hero to Rafferty—and, to a lesser degree, to Rayna and the other kids at their church. He did what their distracted, overworked, and somewhat traumatized parents couldn’t do, Rayna says, which was “really connect to us.”

In November 2012, a jury convicted Brogan Rafferty of two dozen criminal counts, including murder, robbery, and kidnapping. Judge Lynne Callahan told Rafferty that he had been “dealt a lousy hand in life” but that he had “embraced the evil,” and sentenced him to life without parole. In April 2013, Richard Beasley was also convicted of murder and was sentenced to death. Throughout his trial, he maintained that he was innocent. (Both Beasley and Rafferty are appealing their convictions.)

In letters to his father now, Rafferty sometimes sounds like a kid and sometimes like a damaged man: “I’m sorry … I left my room a mess when I left. I’m sorry for disgracing you and the family name,” he wrote from jail. He reads books from the library straight out of a high-school curriculum—The Grapes of Wrath and Catcher in the Rye and Treasure Island. He identifies with All Quiet on the Western Front, he wrote, because prison life is like war: “Each man fights his own battle, and each with an invisible enemy.” He has admitted to his dad that he used to resent him for being so strict, but now he’s grateful, because thanks to all the rules and the chores and the premature independence, he knows how to take care of himself.

Mostly, though, his letters are full of longing for family, for his dad and his half-sisters, his dog, Whiskey, and his cats, Cow and Monkey, his mom and his grandma and grandpa and his aunts and uncles. The Raffertys are an old Irish clan, with a coat of arms hanging in the living room. Rafferty draws that coat of arms sometimes in prison, along with the two tattoos he wants to get, one that says Dad and another that says Rita.

I deserve to be here, but I don’t deserve to sit in a hole while my loved ones and pets die around me. That’s Hell.

I love you Dad, and I always will.
Presented by

Hanna Rosin is an Atlantic national correspondent.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


A Stop-Motion Tour of New York City

A filmmaker animated hundreds of still photographs to create this Big Apple flip book


The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"


This Japanese Inn Has Been Open For 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.


What Happens Inside a Dying Mind?

Science cannot fully explain near-death experiences.

More in National

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In