When 36-year-old John Steven Burgess picked up 19-year-old Donna Jou on an ’81 Yamaha two years ago, it was the kind of incongruous rendezvous that, before the Internet, didn’t happen easily. Burgess, after all, was a convicted sex offender. Jou was a straight-A sophomore at San Diego State. They weren’t the types whose paths would cross easily, but cross they did, on Craigslist in May 2007.
When Burgess responded to Jou’s post offering her services as a math tutor, he described himself as a loving father, a devoted son, and a decorated veteran of Desert Storm. Soon the two had struck up a correspondence, and after a month of chatting, they arranged to go to a party at his house. The Yamaha, with Jou on the back, spirited them to the dingy, one-story Los Angeles cottage he called home.
Then they went inside, and before sunrise, she was dead. Burgess later told authorities he stuffed her body in a duffel bag and tossed it into the sea.
Before sunrise, she was dead. Burgess later told authorities he stuffed her body in a duffel bag and tossed it into the sea.
Her death, for which Burgess will be sentenced today to five years on involuntary manslaughter charges, is raising new concerns about the dangers of Craigslist and how strangers use it to meet one another. After masseuse Julissa Brisman was murdered in a Boston hotel last month, allegedly by Philip Markoff, dubbed the "Craigslist Killer," the free-advertising Web site said it will more closely monitor its sections designated for sex ads.
But such monitoring would do nothing to prevent strangers from meeting through ads like the one Jou posted. Which is why today, after Burgess is sentenced, the Jou family’s attorney, Gloria Allred, will publicly call on Craigslist to require all registered sex offenders to disclose that fact to other users, Allred told The Daily Beast. Allred, who famously filed a complaint with Child Protective Services about “Octomom” Nadya Suleman, said she believes that had Jou known Burgess was a convicted sex offender, she would never have agreed to meet him.
“If Craigslist had that policy,” she said last week, “Donna might be alive today.”
The 19-year-old Jou, an aspiring doctor, often tutored and volunteered at charities around her Rancho Santa Margarita home. She loved to help people, her family said. By contrast, court records show that Burgess had a criminal history with three battery convictions in 2002, an arrest in 2005 after police accused him of beating up an ex-girlfriend, and a 146-day jail sentence after committing a lewd act on a girl younger than 14 in 2002. For that last offense, Burgess had to register as a sex offender. He did at first, but in 2006 he failed to re-register, and police left him unchecked because he told them he planned to move out of state. At this point, he apparently fell off the radar of law enforcement.
After he responded to Jou’s ad in 2007, they began an email conversation. Over the course of the next few weeks, they talked about school, family—and drugs, which Jou told Burgess she was interested in trying. Eventually, Burgess asked her if she wanted to go to a party with him. She accepted, and Burgess borrowed a friend’s motorcycle. On June 23, Jou told her parents she was going to a party, and that a friend’s boyfriend was swinging by to pick her up. As her family left to go out to dinner, Burgess pulled up and Jou hopped on the back of the bike. It was the last time her parents would see her alive.
What happened after that remained a mystery for nearly two years, until earlier this month, when, on May 6, Burgess, already convicted of manslaughter, met with Jou’s parents and Allred to talk about what happened that night. A few detectives and Burgess’ defense attorney sat in a conference room with them at Los Angeles Police Department headquarters. Allred took detailed notes of the meeting, which she later shared with The Daily Beast.
Burgess’ story went like this: The pair arrived at his home just west of Culver City in greater Los Angeles, a messy, overcrowded house with sticky floors and a cluttered yard. It was early evening, and guests were still showing up with booze and drugs—cocaine, heroin, and marijuana. Jou seemed apprehensive and innocent, “not knowing about the world yet,” Burgess told Jou’s parents.
“Everyone was having a decent time,” he said. “She was friendly with everyone, but seemed shy, like a new kid at school.” He said he had parties every weekend at his house, and that when Jou was there, some guests were doing ecstasy and prescription pills in addition to the pot, the coke, and the heroin.
At first, Jou just listened to the music playing on the stereo and chatted with a few people, Burgess said. He said he unfurled a Swisher cigar and rolled her a blunt with some heroin in it. She took a few hits while Burgess snorted a couple lines of cocaine. Sufficiently high, they played board games for a few hours. Jou would get up every once in a while to make a phone call, Burgess said. Her boyfriend, Sean Oberle from San Diego, told authorities she called him that night and that they had a brief, casual conversation. Burgess said he overheard Jou talking to him on the phone about going to San Diego.
Hours after she first arrived to the party, Jou locked herself in the bathroom for about 30 minutes. While she was in there, she phoned a friend to say the guy she was with was “freaking her out,” investigators said. Burgess said he didn’t know what was going on in the bathroom, but that people at the party kept asking if Jou was OK. Burgess said that when Jou came out of the bathroom at about 11 p.m., they knocked back a few shots of rum together. She drank three, Burgess four. He “felt fire in (his) belly,” he told Jou’s parents.
At that point, the guests were starting to leave. Only the five people who lived with Burgess stayed, and Jou went into his bedroom, where he said they talked about college for a while. At 1 a.m., Burgess said he wanted to go to sleep. She left his bedroom for the back of the house, he said, and he lay down on his bed and started to watch Comedy Central. At some point, she came back in to ask about when she should go home. Burgess said he told her it was too late, and that she might as well wait until morning. He fell asleep in his bed, and she wound up sleeping on the chair in his bedroom room, he said.
When Burgess woke up, a horrifying scene lay before him.
When Burgess woke up, he told Jou’s parents, a horrifying scene lay before him. He said Jou’s head was flopped limply to the side; she was stiff, slumped, and covered in vomit. Burgess told police and Jou’s parents that the combination of drugs and alcohol had killed her. He didn’t even try to resuscitate her, he said, because it was obvious she was dead. He felt for her pulse on her neck and arm, but her blood had stopped coursing. He dropped to the ground, and felt “really bad, really stupid, and really scared”—he didn’t know what to do. He stayed on the ground like that for about 30 minutes before getting up again. He vomited. And after he regained his composure, he said he wrapped Jou up in a couple of sheets and stuffed her into a military duffel bag, initially entertaining the idea of returning her to her parents. But he couldn’t bring himself to do it—he was too ashamed. He got it into his head that it might be somehow respectful to throw Jou into the ocean, so that’s what he did.
Looking back, he said he probably should have picked up the phone and dialed 911. For two to four days after dumping Jou’s body, he said he wandered around “like a zombie.” Then he started thinking about how to deal with his predicament. He thought he should get out of California. He decided to go to Florida, where he got busted for possession of drugs and was sent to the Jacksonville County Jail. But when California found out he’d skipped the sex-offender registry, he was extradited back to there.
Meanwhile, police pieced together his involvement with Jou through interviews with the partygoers and Jou’s family, and named him a suspect in her disappearance. But without the physical evidence of the victim’s body, Burgess’ confession was key. He refused to talk. More than a year would pass before his arrest. Then, on March 17 this year, a judge charged him with involuntary manslaughter and concealing an accidental death. He pleaded not guilty. Allred and the Jou family bombarded Burgess with phone calls and visits, urging him to talk about what he knew. He finally caved, entering his guilty plea and agreeing to talk to the family about what he says happened.
Burgess insists he’s not a bad person, and that he didn’t directly hurt Jou. At the meeting that day, Jou’s parents showed Burgess photos of their daughter growing up. Her father said she wanted to be a doctor someday so she could take care of her parents in their old age. Jou’s mother said her daughter volunteered at battered women’s shelters, babysat, and volunteered for food drives.
“We hope to find her,” they told Burgess that day.
“I do, too,” he replied.
How much of Burgess’ story is true remains to be seen. Until investigators find Jou’s remains, they have no physical indication of how she died. To Jou’s parents, already devastated at the loss of their child, the mystery surrounding the whereabouts of her remains only worsens the suffering, Allred said.
“It just tears them apart,” she said. “For them to know that she might be at the bottom of the ocean somewhere is just devastating.”
Allred said she hopes Craigslist runs with the precautions she plans to formally present to the company after the sentencing this afternoon.
“I think they’re very reasonable suggestions,” she told The Daily Beast. “I think it’s a very important step. It’s constructive and positive, something they could implement and something that could truly have prevented a story like this.”
UPDATE: This article originally stated Jou attended UCLA.
Jennifer Wadsworth is a reporter for the Tracy Press in Tracy, California, where she writes about schools, politics, and crime.