Every age has its emblematic murders: acts of violence that tap into a wider zeitgeist blowing through a society in turmoil.
Jack the Ripper exposed the perils facing Victorian London slum-dwellers just as much as any social reformer. The slaughter of pregnant actress Sharon Tate by Charles Manson’s followers symbolised the dark underbelly of the 1960s. The Happy Valley murder of aristocrat Josslyn Hay in Kenya in 1941 exposed the decadent hypocrisy of Britain’s colonial elite. And the sociopathic murder spree of handsome, all-American Ted Bundy captured the nihilistic “Me Decade” of the 1970s.
Now, it seems America’s modern Age of Anxiety has found its own uniquely savage and bloody crime. After all, in an era where millions are unemployed and where those lucky enough to have work live in constant fear of losing it, what more grim symbol of contemporary evil could there be than a killer luring their victims with a job advert?
The Craigslist ad for a “caretaker position for a farm” must have read like a vision of paradise to those who would eventually die because they answered it. A simple, low-paid, hard-working Eden where home was nothing grander than a two-bedroom trailer in a forest – but a heaven-sent chance, nonetheless, in an America crippled by joblessness and a sickly economy.
“Simply watch over a 688-acre patch of hilly farmland and feed a few cows, you get 300 a week,” the job ad read. It described a bucolic vision of plentiful game ripe for hunting in the southern Ohio woods and a well-stocked fishing pond. “The place is secluded and beautiful, it will be a real getaway for the right person,” it read.
No wonder more than 100 people replied. They were all people, no doubt, desperate for any work at all, for whom the promise of living alone in the woods on $300 a week was almost too good to be true: an offer that could not be passed up.
Of course, the ad was not real. It was a lethal trap. At least three of the men who apparently answered it are now dead, their bodies buried in graves on the “farm” – which turned out to be land owned by a coal mine. Or hidden near the blighted city of Akron, deep in the heart of Ohio’s Rust Belt – itself a grim icon of tough times and lost American glories.
Scott Davis, 48, survived getting the job, shot in the arm by someone who he thought had employed him, but who instead wanted to take his life. He had travelled for work all the way from South Carolina, only to find a gun pointed at his head. He struggled for his life and fled, hiding out for long hours in the forest, wounded, bleeding and terrified, before finally stumbling upon help.
Two men, 52-year-old Richard Beasley, of Akron, and 16-year-old Brogan Rafferty, of nearby Stow, have been arrested in connection with the crimes. More bodies may still be uncovered in the days and weeks ahead.
Now that we know what lay behind the Craig’s List posting, there is a chilling and malevolent genius to it’s wording. “Permanent position”, it reads, like tempting bait on the end of a fishing rod. That looks like a real jackpot in a workforce where part-time contracts, outsourcing and piece work have become commonplace. “Job of a lifetime if you are ready to relocate,” it enthuses.
But, seriously, you might think, who would pack up all their bags to live in an isolated trailer for a few hundred dollars a week? The answer, in the America of 2011, is depressingly simple: lots of people. Desperate people, jobless people, poor people, people with little to lose, single people, people with struggling families to support, people willing to ignore the warning signs and take a gamble. Check the small print of the latest jobless figures: the unemployment rate fell – but chiefly because more than 300,000 people stopped looking for work and dropped out of the reckoning.
In modern America, there is no shortage of such desperate humanity. After all, this was a permanent job, bringing with it all the cultural respect, financial safety and psychological satisfaction that employment is meant to bring in our society, but which the Great Recession has stripped mercilessly away. That was what Virginia man David Pauley, 51, likely thought when he answered the ad. He ended up buried in the woods. So, too, did another, so far unidentified man, whose body ended up hidden nearby.
So did Timothy Kern, of Massillon, Ohio. He ended up buried near a mall in Akron. On his Facebook profile ,Kern, a father-of-three who had also worked cleaning gas stations and delivering pizza, had posted about the odd job offer, lamenting he would have to leave his kids behind. “A good offer but strange … life can be such a bitch sometimes,” he said.
But he took the risk. Like so many other Americans, he just wanted to work. He ended up losing his life.