After four Detroit women were slain, three of whom had placed ads for escort services on Backpage.com, suspect James Brown has been charged with four counts of first-degree murder. The 24-year-old resident of the suburb Sterling Heights, who has been locked up on other charges, pled not guilty on Monday.
In December 2011, four women in their 20s were each found dead in car trunks in Detroit. On Dec. 19, Demesha Hunt and 23-year-old Renisha Landers were found dead in a car trunk. The next week, on Christmas Day, Natasha Curtis and Vernithea McCrary were also found in the trunk of a burning car. Three of the four women had listed ads on Backpage.com for "prearranged adult dating services."
Backpage.com earns more than $25 million annually from "adult" ads and has come under fire for its role in human trafficking.
Brown was charged with arson and moving the bodies earlier this year, but did not face murder charges until he appeared in court Monday. Investigators say Brown contacted the women through Backpage.com, who met him at his home in pairs the day before their bodies were found.
According to the Associated Press, Brown has insisted on his innocence:
Brown's lawyer Jeffrey Cojocar said that from his review of evidence so far it appears the case is circumstantial. Cojocar suggested, however, that Brown may have incriminated himself during a videotaped interview with Detroit police earlier this year. He said he anticipates a long trial.
"He has maintained his innocence 100 percent with regard to the homicides," said Cojocar, who plans to fight to suppress statements to Detroit police.
A mother of one of the victims said she was happy that the additional murder charges had been filed, according to Fox 2.
"The parents and relatives of these women have suffered so greatly," Macomb Prosecutor Eric Smith told the Associated Press. "We will work to bring closure to these grieving families."
Earlier this year, 51 attorneys general called on Backpage.com owner Village Voice Media to shut down the adult services part of the website. In September, the media group's many news sites and alternative weeklies, including New York's the Village Voice, split off, leaving Backpage.com with its original owners. The site still contains a section for individuals to advertise for escort, body rub and other adult services.
Brown will return to court Jan. 9 for a hearing to decide if there is enough evidence for a trial. He faces a mandatory term of life in prison without parole if convicted.