The Disappearance of Dahlia Yehia
A 25-year-old American traveled to Nepal to volunteer after the earthquake. She found a friendly host on Couchsurfing.com. She was never heard from again.
Photo by Holly Andres
In 2011, Gizmodo published an article titled, “How to Couchsurf and Not Get Killed.” The piece, topped by a still from the horror flick Hostel, contained tips for self-preservation: Avoid posting “racy” photos online, feel out a host by meeting at a café ahead of time, and send contact information to someone who will notice if you disappear. “Fortunately, you can now crash on a person’s sofa using an online travel network,” the article noted. “Unfortunately, that person might be a batshit-crazy rapist.”
Despite its jesting tone, the piece was responding to real-life events. Two years prior, Abdelali Nachet, a 34-year-old Moroccan émigré in Leeds, England, had used Couchsurfing to lure a 29-year-old woman to his home. According to prosecutors, Nachet pushed her down on his bed, raped her twice, and forced her to take a bath to eliminate forensic evidence. Then he let her go, apparently believing she wouldn’t talk or that, if she did, he could argue the sex was consensual. Instead, after the victim went to police, Nachet was convicted of rape and sentenced to 10 years in prison.
That assault wasn’t an isolated incident. Dino Maglio, a former police officer in Padua, Italy, who used the nickname “Leonardo” on his Couchsurfing profile, opened his home to more than a dozen female travelers in 2013 and 2014, served them drugged tea or wine, and raped them, according to police. A 20-year-old American victim told journalists at the Investigative Reporting Project Italy, which collected statements from many of Maglio’s accusers, that she had stayed with him because, “I checked his profile. It was long and detailed.… It said he was a police officer. He looked like a nice guy.” Maglio was convicted in April 2015. (Other lodging sites aren’t immune to misuse: In October 2011, for instance, Pablo Cesar Cordoba Riascos, a 34-year-old Airbnb host, raped two women staying at his home in Barcelona, Spain. He’s now serving 11 years behind bars.)
Like most businesses in today’s sharing economy, Couchsurfing takes an enter-at-your-own-risk approach. It offers a verification process — for $20 per year — that confirms a user’s valid phone number or address, indicated by a green check mark on the person’s profile. Yet it also warns members in a disclaimer that it “has no responsibility or liability with respect to … any relations whatsoever between you and any other member.” Couchsurfing encourages users to report “anyone through our services who you feel is acting or has acted inappropriately.” It emphasizes, however, “[W]e are not obligated to take any action.”
In the United States, the legal heft of this sort of language is still being assessed. Last November, an article in the Berkeley Technology Law Journal described sharing websites as falling into a gray area between “purely passive message boards” and “direct service providers.” Taking advantage of this space, companies have managed to stave off most civil actions. An Illinois court held in 2009 that Craigslist is not legally responsible for users’ conduct, including soliciting sex, because the site is an “interactive computer service” that merely publishes information generated by outsider providers. In 2014, a California family sued Uber for wrongful death after one of the company’s drivers struck and killed their 6-year-old daughter. In court documents, Uber argued that it doesn’t provide a service; it only helps “riders to connect with … a range of independent transportation providers” and so cannot be held liable for drivers’ actions. (Uber settled out of court for an undisclosed sum.)
In some instances, companies have gone so far as to delay help from reaching people in distress. Last year, Jacob Lopez, a 19-year-old American tourist, rented a room in Madrid from an Airbnb host who allegedly held him captive and assaulted him. Lopez managed to text his mother in Massachusetts, and she called Airbnb, which wouldn’t release the host’s address or contact law enforcement. Lopez eventually escaped, after which an Airbnb representative acknowledged to Boston.com that “one incident is too many, and while no industry has a 100 percent safety record, that’s what we strive for.” The company has said it will ensure that its phone operators call police when they suspect a crime is in progress.
Similarly, during Maglio’s trial in 2015, Jennifer Billock, Couchsurfing’s CEO, told the Guardian that her company was “evolving our tools and processes to find and halt abusers of the system.” It isn’t clear what steps were taken, if any, before Yehia stayed with Paudel in Nepal seven months later. Couchsurfing declined to divulge Yehia’s data to family and friends, citing U.S. privacy law and company policy.
A relative (who wished not to be named or interviewed for this article) contacted Billock directly by email on Aug. 31. “The embassy reached out to CS but didn’t get much help,” the relative wrote. “I get the whole privacy thing but there has to be a way around it…. It shouldn’t be this hard when a life is at stake.”
On the morning of Sept. 2, 2015, two CIB agents knocked on Paudel’s door. He let them in and served them tea. They told him they knew about the iPhone. Paudel explained that Yehia had left it charging in a wall socket, and he hadn’t noticed it until she was gone. After a few days of not hearing from her, he had decided to keep it. A local shopkeeper had helped him put in a SIM card, but he hadn’t been able to break the phone’s security code.
Did he have the iPhone now? No, Paudel said, it had dropped through a hole in his pocket one day.
Unsatisfied by his answers, the police arrested Paudel for theft. In an interrogation room at Pokhara’s police headquarters, officers grilled him about possible foul play. Initially, Paudel stuck to his story. “He was not accepting all these things” he was being accused of, recalls Bhishma Humagain, a CIB inspector. “He was saying, ‘I just met Dahlia.… I don’t know where she went.’” The police gave him a polygraph test, which Humagain says Paudel failed. As they pressed him further, Paudel cracked.
“He told me,” Humagain says, “‘I threw her from the bridge.’”
Paudel allegedly told police that he and Yehia had gone walking along the Seti River after dark on Aug. 6. While crossing a suspension footbridge over the river, they had begun chasing each other playfully, and he accidentally had knocked her over the edge of the span. But the police found his story implausible. The bridge had guardrails and fencing, and it would take considerable effort to shove someone over. So the officers kept questioning Paudel. He was lying, they told him, and he had to admit what really happened.
After two days, says Ram Adhikari of the Pokhara police, Paudel confessed that Yehia had never made it out of his apartment — at least not alive.
On her second night staying with him, he had risen from his bed, crept up to Yehia while she slept, raised a hammer, and smashed her forehead twice. He then picked up a heavy wooden bar, used to lock his apartment door from the inside, and hit her three more times. Within a few minutes, Yehia was dead.
Police say Paudel admitted that he stuffed her corpse into a large burlap sack used for storing rice, tied it to the back of his motorbike, and rode a few hundred yards to a river overlook. He heaved the body, along with Yehia’s backpack, into what had become a swirling torrent at the height of Nepal’s monsoon season. Paudel also allegedly confessed to wiping down his walls and floor, cramming bloody bedsheets into a bag with the remainder of Yehia’s belongings, and dumping them with the murder weapons in brush along the riverbank. Police suspect that he kept the iPhone, a valuable item in Nepal, and discarded it only when the U.S. Embassy paid him a visit.
The day after the confession, police dogs obtained Yehia’s scent from Paudel’s apartment and followed it down a road to the Seti. In thick vegetation, the canines found a pair of black pants, a rope, and a bedcover that, according to police, Paudel acknowledged he had used to tie Yehia’s body to his motorbike. Farther down the road, they retrieved other items: a water bottle, a baseball cap, a blouse, and linens stained with what appeared to be blood.
As Paudel stood watching next to a police van, a crowd of curious onlookers gathered. Word spread that he had killed a young American woman. “He was ashamed, he bent his head, he covered his head with his jacket,” recalls Adhikari, who was at the scene. “These people were saying, ‘Burn him alive. Throw him into the river.’”
The next morning, as two officers escorted Paudel to a toilet, which required walking across the roof of the police station, he reportedly broke free, hurled himself off the edge of the building, and fell three stories. “He wanted to commit suicide,” Adhikari says. “[At first,] we were thinking, ‘It’s better to let him die here.’ But then we did everything we could [to save him].” The fall shattered Paudel’s left leg and tore a deep gash in his scalp. He was taken unconscious to a Pokhara hospital, where he remained for 40 days.
After his release, according to police, Paudel reiterated his guilt before a judge in a small chamber of Pokhara’s colonial-era courthouse. Surrounded by law enforcement, with only one distant relative present, he described in graphic detail how he had killed Yehia. He was charged with robbery, kidnapping, and murder and sent behind bars to await trial.
It seemed that might punctuate the end of the story. Questions about Yehia’s disappearance, however, were about to get more complicated.