Ranee Mckelvey, 53, was twice divorced when she decided to try her luck with the Canadian-based dating website, Plenty of Fish.
Through the platform, she met 47-year-old David Reed. After dating less than a year, Reed moved into Mckelvey’s Grand Blanc home in December.
Today, Reed is facing a charge of open murder and attempted arson in her death. According to police, Reed smothered Mckelvey, then tried to burn the house down.
“Ranee was one of the kindest women I knew,” said Tina Jacob, Mckelvey’s friend and co-worker. “She never had a bad word to say and was always there for you when you needed her. Anyone that met her, liked her. She just had a big heart full of gold.”
When people turn to online dating apps, they hope to make a connection, not end up as a victim. But authorities warn that as online dating sites grow in popularity, so do the risks. While the Mckelvey case is extreme, it’s the latest example of violence stemming from online dating apps:
In 2017, two Muskegon men were convicted on charges related to the rapes of multiple women that occurred in 2013. They lured most of the women through online dating platforms and social media sites.
There have been three reported cases of sexual assault by people who had met on an online dating platform on Wayne State University’s campus since the beginning of the fall 2017 semester — two cases involved the use of Tinder and one involved Plenty of Fish, said Wayne State University Police Lt. David Scott.
Michigan State Police Lt. Mike Shaw said he advises people to be cautious when it comes to online dating.
“Trust your gut and always let trusted friends know of your plans with a person you met online,” Shaw said. “All ages are at risk.”
Online dating apps have exploded in popularity. A study by the Pew Research Center found that nearly 30% of people ages 18-24 used online dating sites — up from 10% in 2013. And it isn’t just the younger crowd: 12% of 55- to 64-year-olds used the services in 2015 — a 100% increase from two years earlier, the study found.
Many people find lasting relationships.
Canton resident and U.S. Marine Tom Eggleston, 27, found his wife, Courtney, by using Plenty of Fish.
“I was always a little skeptical about using the Internet to find a long-term relationship, but I was determined to find someone,” Eggleston said. “I felt like it was a shot in the dark and I didn’t think I’d find anyone of interest, but I ended up finding my wife.”
Eggleston said he is not fond of the stigma surrounding the use of dating sites. He added that when used correctly, dating sites are a tool.
“When people asked how I met my wife, I used to have a small sense of embarrassment when telling them it was through a dating site,” Eggleston said. “I don’t care about how I met her; I just care that I met her ”
Although Eggleston was lucky enough to find the woman of his dreams, those surfing the web to search for their soul mate may come across profiles of people who are not who they say they are.
That’s exactly what happened in Mckelvey’s case, said her friend and co-worker, Tina Jacob of Flint.
“Anyone can put anything they want on a profile — you don’t know who’s behind the screen,” Jacob said.
Jacob was worried when Mckelvey didn’t show up to her shift at Omega Ham & Corn Beef Deli on Feb. 11.
So Jacob and Mckelvey’s sister-in-law decided to stop at Mckelvey’s house to check on her. What they found still haunts her.
Mckelvey was dead, a natural gas line was turned on and candles were burning throughout the dwelling on Southhampton Avenue. Police believe Reed asphyxiated Mckelvey and tried to burn the house down.
Jacob said Mckelvey never showed any sign of problems with Reed.
“Their relationship sounded pleasant,” she said.
Jacob said she doesn’t blame the dating app for what happened. She said the fault lies with the justice system.
“(Reed’s) parole officer should have never approved for them to live together,” Jacob said. “He had a history of crimes against women.”
Reed’s rap sheet included several offenses, including two counts of aggravated stalking, two counts of assault with intent to do great bodily harm and illegal weapon possession — details he left out of his dating profile.
Plenty of Fish spokeswoman Shannon Smith said the company is cooperating with authorities.
“At Plenty of Fish, we care deeply about our community, and are disturbed by this senseless act of violence,” said Shannon Smith, spokesperson for Plenty of Fish. “We support bringing this case to justice.”
Authorities said dating apps were the common thread for a pair of serial rapists who were convicted last year.
Joshua Humphrey, 35, and Larry Stiff, 32, are believed to be responsible for as many as 28 reported rapes, according to prosecutors.
Here’s how the pair arranged their crimes, according to Muskegon Chief Assistant Prosecutor Timothy Maat:
Humphrey would contact a woman through Tinder, Plenty of Fish and other websites and convinced her to meet at a local bar, where Stiff would be waiting to drug her drink.
The woman would feel dizzy and pass out, then the men would take her to Stiff’s home, where they’d rape her.
Tinder did not respond to the Free Press’ request for an interview.
“Josh did the setting up,” Muskegon County Circuit Judge Timothy Hicks said. “He made the connections. He brought Larry into the case later.”
Both are serving sentences of up to 51 years in prison after being convicted of multiple counts of criminal sexual conduct.
Companies who fail to conduct a background check or disclose information such as prior arrests can possibly be held liable for illegal acts committed through their platform, said Maureen Mapp, a lecturer at the University of Birmingham Law School in the United Kingdom.
“Culpability for criminal offenses by a company would depend on the extent to which they provide the opportunity for the crime to be committed,” Mapp said.
In 2011, a Los Angeles woman sued match.com for negligence after she was sexually assaulted by another user. The case was settled out of court and led match.com to carry out checks on members to ensure they are not on the sex offender registry.
“Checking the register is not in itself standard practice, but online companies that sell ‘relationships’ could find themselves having to comply with consumer protection regulations and (doing) all they can to keep their users safe,” Mapp said.
At Wayne State University, none of the victims who were sexually assaulted after meeting people through online dating sites wanted to pursue charges, said Wayne State University Police Lt. David Scott.
Scott added that he fears many other cases of sexual assault — especially ones involving online dating sites — go unreported because victims feel embarrassed. He urged students who are sexually assaulted to report it to police immediately.
“We are not the morality police,” said Scott. “We just want to make sure everyone is safe.”
Safe dating in today’s landscape
There are several online platforms currently available or in development that are intended to make dating safer and invoke conversation about sex.
We-Consent, an app developed by the Institute for the Study of Coherence and Emergence, allows users to document agreements for sexual acts through the app. We-Consent does not serve as a dating platform, as users do not meet new people through the app.
“The purpose of We-Consent is to get people to talk before they do something sexual,” said Michael Lissack, director of Institute for the Study of Coherence and Emergence. “The whole problem with today’s dating landscape is people do things with one another without talking about it first, leading to miscommunication and a slew of other issues.”
We-Consent works by Partner 1 stating his/her name on video and the name of the other partner who he/she desires to have sex with. Partner 1 is then required to videotape Partner 2 agreeing to engage in sexual relations. The media is then double-encrypted and stored in a server.
To supplement We-Consent, the Institute for the Study of Coherence and Engagement also developed an app called I’ve-Been-Violated, which will be renamed Guardrail some time this year.
This app is geared toward abuse victims — through Guardrail, survivors have the ability to document a case of sexual assault or domestic violence.
Once the app is opened, users are asked a series of questions regarding the nature of the incident they are reporting and their responses are video-recorded. The media is then double-encrypted similarly to We-Consent.
Lissack said his organization allows only law enforcement to gain access to those videos.
He added that it is not ideal to expect victims of sexual abuse to get in contact with police immediately after an incident, as many are going through severe stress and trauma. Lissack described Guardrail as a gatekeeper of allegations until the victim is ready to report it to police and the recordings are needed for legal purposes.
“Ninety percent of sexual assault victims never report because the system treats them unjustly and law enforcement treats them nastily, setting survivors up for a second series of trauma,” Lissack said. “If the system was more kind, more people would report.”
LegalFling — an app currently being developed by Netherlands-based LegalThings —which declined an interview request from the Free Press — allows users to consent to sex with other users with a single tap “in a legally binding agreement,” according to its website.
However, Mapp, the University of Birmingham lecturer, said there are several factors which may diminish the legal validity of an agreement for sex through the Internet.
“Just because somebody has ticked a box, does not mean they give full consent,” Mapp said.