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: Jou had said she was going to a party in Santa Monica, and the boyfriend of a friend was going to take her there.
That’s the last time a family member saw Jou. According to information posted on the memorial Web site set up by Jou’s family, a few hours after jumping onto the motorcycle, Jou called a friend in San Diego. She said she had locked herself in the bathroom of the apartment of the man who picked her up. He was freaking her out, Jou 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 said that the communication began when Burgess responded to an ad placed by Jou, an honors student enrolled at San Diego State, 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, 2009, 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 that Jou had overdosed on heroin and cocaine at his rented West L.A. home, and that he later dumped her body from a boat off the California coastline.
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Burgess initially pleaded not guilty, but just before L.A. Weekly went to press on Wednesday, he changed his plea to guilty at a pretrial hearing in Los Angeles Central District Court. Before the guilty plea, Gloria Allred, the family’s lawyer, said the Jous were 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.”
Allred thinks that Craigslist should implement measures to detect sex offenders who use the site and either block their postings or warn others about whom they’re dealing with. The Weekly’s calls to Craig Newmark and other Craigslist spokespeople were not returned.
“[Donna’s] parents want to do whatever they can to prevent something like this from happening ever again,” Allred says. “I would hope and expect that Mr. 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.”