How Two Aurora Murders Could Shake the App Business

A portrait of the late Joseph and Jossline Roland.
A portrait of the late Joseph and Jossline Roland. Family photo via People
For nearly six months, some of the most powerful law firms in the country have been battling in U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado over a lawsuit filed by representatives of onetime Aurora residents Joseph and Jossline Roland — and not only millions of dollars, but the future of an entire industry could be hanging in the balance.

The Rolands were murdered on August 14, 2020, while trying to buy a car for their daughter, Madison, the lead plaintiff in the suit, using Letgo, an app that specializes in "buying and selling used stuff." The person with whom they thought they'd be dealing was listed by Letgo as a "verified seller," but he turned out to be eighteen-year-old Kyree Brown, who'd created a fake account. According to the 18th Judicial District DA's office, which prosecuted Brown, he pulled a gun on the couple at the Southlands mall, their designated meeting place, and shot them before taking the $3,000 they'd brought and fleeing the scene in their vehicle. He later ditched the car in the area of Havana Street and East Colfax Avenue, where he set it on fire.

On August 31, a jury found Brown guilty of twelve charges: two counts apiece of second-degree murder, first-degree felony murder and aggravated robbery, and three counts of aggravated motor-vehicle theft, as well as second-degree arson, felony theft and bait advertising.

In the meantime, attorneys for Letgo and its parent company, OfferUp, have been fighting claims that the app's business model facilitated the Rolands' "wrongful death" by way of "negligence, gross negligence, misrepresentation, fraud, deceptive and unfair trade practices, [and] loss of consortium." Should the court agree and hold the outfits liable, the ruling could be costly, given that OfferUp is reportedly valued at well over a billion dollars. But it could also fundamentally alter the way sales apps based on in-person meetings operate, and potentially force the entire business model to change.

The locally based Law Offices of Dianne Sawaya LLC is representing the family. Jossline worked there in an administrative capacity prior to her death, and the office has posted an online tribute that describes her as the "firm 'mom' and superhero." Partnering on the effort is Los Angeles's Geragos & Geragos, APC, whose principal, Mark Geragos, is one of the most famous lawyers in the country, a network- and cable-TV staple. His online bio notes that his client list has included "former Congressman Gary Condit, former first brother Roger Clinton, Academy Award-nominated actress Winona Ryder, pop star Michael Jackson, Nicole Ritchie, singer Chris Brown, hip hop stars Nathaniel 'Nate Dogg' Hale and Sean 'Diddy' Combs (aka Puff Daddy), [and] international arms dealer Sarkis Soghanalian, and the Sarkisyan family, whose seventeen-year-old daughter died when Cigna Corporation refused to authorize a liver transplant."
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Mark Geragos during an Access Hollywood interview about a former client, onetime Empire star Jussie Smollett.
Access Hollywood via YouTube
The defense team for Letgo and OfferUp comes from two high-powered firms: Hall & Evans LLC, which is based in Denver but has satellites in Santa Fe, Kansas City and Salt Lake City, as well as multiple branches in Wyoming and Montana; and WilmerHale, whose main hubs are in Washington, D.C., and Boston, but has offices not only in Denver, but around the country, Europe and Asia.

The suit's claims are founded on what is characterized as Letgo's lack of security. The app "allowed users to become 'verified' by simply providing an unverified name along with unverified contact information (or by linking a Google or Facebook account)," it states. "Once a user is 'verified,' you will see 'VERIFIED WITH' on their profile (along with the method they chose). Yet there is no background check or other verification process to ensure the user is who they hold themselves out to be. ... Letgo distinguished itself from its direct competitors through this 'verified user' feature. However, all that is required to become 'verified' is to provide a functioning e-mail address and a name — the same as its competitions [sic] such as Craigslist."

Letgo prohibits the sale of stolen merchandise, the suit concedes, and "even advertises its apparent
collaborative effort with law enforcement to remove these items. Furthermore, the app promotes its 'anti-fraud technology'  to help detect signs of possible scams based on keyword usage." But the plaintiffs maintain that the defendants "had actual and constructive knowledge that they had no meaningful security measures or policies in place to effectively safeguard Letgo buyers from being murdered by anonymous Letgo sellers."

Attorneys for firms on both sides either declined to comment or failed to respond to Westword's inquiries about the lawsuit, but the Pacer Monitor list of court actions to date speaks volumes. Its roster includes 35 separate actions from the suit's filing on April 14 through this month, and while some of them are pro forma (requests to add new lawyers to the case or ask for extensions, for example), several represent major moves. In June, for instance, the defense filed a motion to dismiss the case accompanied by eleven separate exhibits; the documents essentially argue that users acknowledge inherent risks when agreeing to use the app and point out that Letgo promotes best practices, such as completing transactions at places such as police stations. On September 6, the plaintiffs issued a response to the motion in which they contend that such suggestions fell woefully short of protecting the Rolands.

Brown is scheduled to be sentenced on November 21 — a date by which the lawsuit is unlikely to be any closer to resolution than it is now. Such court fights can take years, especially when there's so much at stake.

Click to read Madison Roland, et al., v. Letgo Inc., et al.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts

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