AN IT whizz who created a spoof assassin-hiring website as part of a school project has helped to thwart dozens of would-be murder-for-hire plots, potentially saving the lives of more than 150 people.
Bob Innes, 54, set up RentAHitman.com in February 2005 while studying information technology at a local business school in his native of Northern California.
He bought the domain for $9.20 and had originally intended to use the website to start up a cybersecurity business with a few of his classmates.
The name of the website was a play on words, with "Rent" implying to hire, "Hit" referring to website clicks and analytics, and "man" referring to the team of professionals on hand to offer their computing expertise.
Bob also gave the site a catchy tagline, insisting that Rent-A-Hitman.com was "Your point and click solution" for all IT-related needs.
"By point and click I meant with a mouse," Bob told The Sun. "Again it was all very tongue-in-cheek - nothing nefarious."
But it appears the joke was lost on some.
Bob's cybersecurity business never did get off the ground. After he graduated from business school a few months later, his prospective business partners took up jobs at other large companies so Bob decided to put the Rent-A-Hitman domain up for sale.
On the webpage, he shared an email address for anyone interested in buying the site to contact, but after more than three years there were still no suitors and Rent-A-Hitman sat collecting dust.
Then one day in 2008, Bob decided to comb through the website's email account and what he found left him "flabbergasted", he said.
In the account's inbox, he found hundreds of messages - several of which included dark and disturbing requests from people all over the world, seeking services to have family members and former loved ones whacked.
"There were one-line emails inquiring about 'asset extraction'," Bob recounted. "Others asked 'Are you serving these countries?', 'How much to take out a minor?', 'Are you hiring?'
"And there was even an email from a woman in the UK, who was looking for a relationship with a hitman and wanted to learn the tricks of the trade.
"I was just so shocked," Bob continued. "I honestly didn't think anyone would be stupid enough to firstly fall for the website, but also look to hire a hitman on the World Wide Web.
"I was under the impression that only happened on the dark web," he said. "I was kind of an eye-opening but disturbing experience."
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Bob ultimately decided to keep the domain. He assumed the online persona Guido Fanelli and offered to put prospective customers in contact with killers in the field.
"Got A Problem That Needs Resolving?" he tweaked the homepage to read. "With Over 17,985 U.S. Based Field Operatives, We Can Find A Solution That's Right For You!"
The fake company also claimed to adhere to the privacy laws of HIPPA, a fictitious statute known as the Hitman Information Privacy & Protection Act of 1964.
Two years after making the tweaks, Bob received a message from his first serious "client", a British woman stranded in Ontario, Canada named Helen Kaplan.
REAL MURDER PLOT
Kaplan, then 44, sent a long rambling email to Innes, addressed "Dear Guido", which detailed how she had been reportedly "screwed" out of her father's inheritance by three family members, who she now wanted to be killed.
The woman told Innes that she had no money, no place to live, and she was stranded in Canada because she was forbidden from returning back to the UK.
"I really hope you can help me. I'm a young and only child. My family did bad things to me. I ended up in a mental hospital in the UK. I was given nasty drugs and nearly ended up dead in the UK and then I got threatened with a prison sentence," her email read in part.
Kaplan also provided the addresses of the three members she wanted dead and offered ideas for how they should be killed.
In one suggestion, Kaplan advised that their Honda could be tampered with so they could all die in a crash together. She also suggested that the home they inherited could be blown up, with the hitman gaining access to the property by posing as a gas fitter.
Innes didn't reply to the initial email, he was helping his brother move house in LA at the time and didn't read Kaplan's message in-depth.
But she followed up seven hours later with a second email titled "URGENT", demanding to know what it would cost to kill three people in the UK, and shared more detailed information about her familial targets.
Believing that Kaplan was a "troubled person" that seemed hellbent on doing harm to her relatives, Innes responded.
"I responded to that email and asked two simple questions: 'Do you still require our services?' and 'Would you like me to put you in contact with the field operative?'"
When Kaplan confirmed that she did, Innes immediately began compiling the information she shared and contacted a friend at his local police department, who contacted authorities in Canada.
Canadian police conducted a welfare check on the address Kaplan shared. It was soon discovered she was wanted on an outstanding warrant in the UK and she was later convicted for the failed murder-for-hire plot.
Explaining why he felt compelled to reply to Kaplan and turn her in, Bob said: "If I didn't act on the information that she shared, I think someone else would've - and three people would be dead.
"The whole situation was completely mind-blowing," he added. "I was relieved I was able to have the opportunity to intervene and prevent any harm from occurring to these people."
After Kaplan's arrest, Bob was inspired to continue running RentAHitman.com to catch other would-be criminals seeking to off enemies and family members alike.
In the more-than decade since, Kaplan has received hundreds of emails seeking the services of a hitman. While many of the messages are hoaxes, Bob estimates that around 10 percent have turned into legitimate investigations - and more than a dozen have resulted in an arrest.
To discern between real requests and hoaxes, Bob says he investigates the information shared in a solicitor's email to see if it's real.
"Once that can identify the email has come from a legitimate person, I'll start looking into the target information," Bob said. "I'll corroborate names, cities, address and phone numbers, and then look them up on social media."
If the information checks out, Bob says he affords the applicant a "cooling off period" of 24 hours, before replying and asking whether they are still seeking his company's services and whether they'd like to be put in touch with a field operative.
"If they responded that they do want to, then that's when I contact police," he said.
"I also have exceptions where I contact the police straight away. The first is if the email comes from a minor.
"There could be some abuse going on there, so if there's any indication that the child wants to take out their parents due to any kind of abuse, police will be contacted.
"That may not be a murder investigation, but it may turn into a welfare check just to ensure the kid is okay.
"The other exception is when someone asks to take out a government official - that gets reported straight away.
"The webform I ask people to fill out captures their IP address, so I'm able to quickly determine a location for where the applicant is based."
WOULD-BE KILLERS CAUGHT
Bob shared a number of screenshots with The Sun, showing some of the most disturbing requests he's received over the years.
In a message from a person asking for their roommate to be killed, the applicant wrote: "I need her taken care of because she won't leave. I need her gone.
"Pin her to the wall via knives through her wrists and ankles. Cut her open her abdomen [sic] and let her bleed out. Hang her with her intestines. Leave her heart in my room in a cooler with Ice."
When asked how the person heard about RentAHitman, they responded: "Google."
Another message, dated July 17, 2020, came in from Wendy Wein, a 52-year-old woman from South Rockwood, Michigan, who wanted her ex-husband to meet an untimely end.
"Hi, I have an issue I've needed to be resolved for a year now it cost me being ripped off for $20,000 there's a person who is taking advantage of my special needs children," the email began.
"I wondered if you could help with this issue and the best way to handle it? Cost? I'm not a rich person especially since I've been taken for that much money. This is kind of weird that your company is not on the deep or dark web.
"I prefer not going to jail. Thank you for your time," Wein signed off.
But go to jail Wein did.
After Bob informed the police of her email, she was arrested and later pleaded guilty to solicitation of murder and using a computer to commit a crime.
She was sentenced to 7-20 years for both counts.
Similarly, 20-year-old Devon Fauber was arrested in 2018 after contacting Innes to have his ex-girlfriend and her parents killed. He also requested his ex-lover's baby be abducted and taken to him in Texas so he could start a new family with his new girlfriend.
"Make sure u kill them and don't kill the baby," Fauber wrote.
During his background search of Fauber, Bob discovered that he had two profiles on local child-care-for-hire websites, offering his services as a babysitter.
Seemingly growing frustrated that his ex-girlfriend's execution was taking too long, Fauber wrote a follow-up email to Bob which read: "I see the job didn't get done they are still alive hmmm I thought I said I wanna then kill [sic] I want the baby and Sarah here what happened."
Fauber was eventually arrested and pleaded guilty in the plot. He received a 10-year-prison sentence in March 2019.
Bob's bogus hitman website has been well covered by the press over the years, which he says makes him all the more surprised that, even now, genuine requests for a hit continue to pour in.
In January this year alone, Bob said he has had close to 13,500 visitors, 27,000 page views, and 65 hit requests.
Of those requests, Bob says 29 of them have enough information in them to open a police investigation. So far, nine of the cases have been reported to police.
"I don't know the proper word but I would just say I'm flabbergasted," he said. "It's absolutely crazy to me that people are out there searching the internet on hot to hire a hitman, and they stumble across this page.
"They see it in the number one ranked spot on Google for example. But they don't see the 4000 news stories that are just below and then they get to the page and still think it's real."
To more discerning eyes, the website is clearly fake.
In addition to the company touting its compliance with the Hitman Information Privacy & Protection Act of 1964," a play on the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, there is also a fake ad offering to check if your credit card number has been stolen.
Clicking on the advertisement leads one to the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Internet Crime Complaint Center.
The site even features three amusing fake "customer testimonials."
"Caught my husband cheating with the babysitter and our relationship was terminated after a free public relations consultation. I'm single again and looking to mingle. Thanks Guido!" reads one of the bogus reviews.
But still, the inquiries continue to flood in.
'I WON'T STOP'
Bob estimates that around 60 percent of the inquiries are made by women, while around 20 percent are made by children.
Those children are often kids who are being bullied and are looking for revenge, he said.
"It's scary because these people walk among us, they're everyday people," Bob told The Sun. "It really makes you wonder about who's out there. These people could be your neighbors, your business associates, or your ex-spouses - you never know."
Bob said he's proud of the potentially life-saving work he's been able to do through RentAHitman, insisting he's "happy to make a difference."
"I'm just a regular guy with a website who kind of just accidentally put himself in this position," Bob said. "I'm happy to have saved a life and to make a difference in somebody else's."
Bob insists he has no plans to shut down RentAHitman any time soon.
"So long as the emails keep coming in, I will continue to operate the website," he said.
"I have even been working with a Hollywood Media Group on the development of an entertainment-related venture about the site."
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