How a Fake Rent-a-Hitman Site Became an Accidental Murder-for-Hire Sting Operation
A few months ago, a 51-year-old woman from Michigan named Wendy Wein sent an email to a man she believed was named Guido Fanelli, the proprietor of a website called Rent-A-Hitman.com. “Got A Problem That Needs Resolving? With Over 17,985 U.S. Based Field Operatives, We Can Find A Solution Thats Right For You!” the website promised, along with a badge touting the site’s HIPPA compliance. Wein, indeed, had a problem that needed resolving: as she recounted in her email to Fanelli, there was a man who had ripped her off for $20,000 (her ex-husband, as authorities later discovered), and she wanted him taken care of. “I prefer not going jail. Thank you for your time,” the email concluded.
There was a small problem with this request. Guido Fanelli was not actually Guido Fanelli but Bob Innes, a repo-man in the Bay Area and the owner of Rent a Hitman, a website that has been used at least a dozen times to ensnare would-be assailants. Had Wein been paying attention, she would’ve noticed a few red flags that the site was not real: the fact that “HIPPA” stands for “Hitman Information Privacy and Protection Act of 1964,” for instance, or the section promising group and senior discounts. (The fact that the website openly offers the services of killers-for-hire is also a pretty significant tell). Nonetheless, these key facts eluded her, and as soon as she reached out to Innes, he alerted the authorities, who placed her under arrest; she was charged with solicitation to commit murder and illegal use of a computer to commit a crime, and is currently awaiting trial. (According to Monroe County first district courthouse records, her case is still pending, and her next hearing is scheduled for October 21st. Her court-appointed attorney did not respond to a request for comment.)
News of RentAHitman.com and the woman dumb enough to fall for it went semi-viral when it was reported last July, but Rolling Stone wanted to learn more about Innes’s operation and how, precisely, the website works. So we reached out via — what else? — the Rent a Hitman website, where “Guido Fanelli” responded immediately. We spoke to Innes about the origins of the site (“I really didn’t think that people were gonna be that stupid. Boy, did they show me,” he says), why Indonesians love murder-for-hire plots, and why you should be very, very careful when hiring a babysitter.
Can you start by telling me: Who are you?
My name is Bob Innes. I’m an IT guy with a passion for being a kitchen detective, I guess you might say. In 1999, I went through the Napa Valley Police Academy, I graduated the police academy there with the ambition of going into law enforcement. I had applied at several agencies throughout the Bay Area here in California. And then in the following years, California had hiring freezes and budget cuts. All the positions were pretty much gone at that point. That’s when I started driving limousines to make some income while I would continue to look for a real job. I decided, well, it’s time to retool and find a profession that is always gonna be there. So in 2003, I enrolled in a business trade school in Northern California called Empire College. I went into IT, and took a program of information technology with an emphasis on the security aspect of it.
What was the genesis of the Rent-a-Hitman domain name?
One of the courses that I was taking was a penetration testing and risk analysis type course. Basically, you would try and penetrate a network and find out what the vulnerabilities of the network are, and would then work to patch up those vulnerabilities so it strengthens the network. There were a couple of my friends in that class, and we decided we wanted to start a business doing the penetration testing. One Sunday, we were playing paintball, and we were discussing business plans and a name for the particular company. And I came up with “Rent-A-Hitman.” Rent as in, hire us. Hit as in visitor traffic, analytics, and that kind of thing. It just sounded good. It was a play on words. So that was in February of ’05. And after graduation right around June, a couple of the guys ended up going to work for a different company. They moved out of state. I was left holding the domain name and trying to auction it off, but really there weren’t any buyers for that.
How much did it cost, that domain?
I have a receipt, it’s $9.20. That was February 5th, 2005. So after several months, I put the domain up for auction on one of the Web sites. I also put a simple little splash page, a little graphic that I made that said, ‘This domain is for sale. If interested, contact at RentAHitman.com’ with the email address. After about six, eight months of trying to auction it off, I wasn’t getting any serious buyers, no serious inquiries, so I decided to just hold on to it. About two and a half years later, I go into the inbox just to kind of clean it up and see what mail is in there, and to kind of revisit if somebody wants to buy it. Well, I was simply shocked when I saw the 250 to 300 emails in the account or in the inbox from people around the world that were seeking various services. Some of these emails were from people looking for asset extraction, to get money out of, like an individual or a bank or something. “How much to perform a hit in Austria? Do you service minors? Are you hiring?” One in particular was a lady out of the U.K. who was looking for a date. She wanted to have a hit man companion and learn the trade.
Prior to that, had you at any point realized that anybody might take the domain seriously?
I really didn’t think that people were gonna be that stupid. Boy, did they show me. You always heard stories, even back then of people on the Dark Web going to find a hitman, and there was always Silk Road and all these other sites. But you never really heard of anybody doing it on the surface web. So I thought, you know, ‘Nobody’s really going to mess with this. Nobody is going to take it seriously.’ It was not my intention to set up a snare for some people.
What was the first serious inquiry you got?
It was from a female by the name of Helen. She was out of the U.K. but stranded in Canada. She had written an email to the contact email address, and it basically just it was a long and rambling email saying how she was screwed out of her father’s inheritance by three family members. She has no money. She has no place to live. She is stranded in Canada without a passport, so she can’t even leave. She wanted retaliation against her aunt, uncle, and one other family member. She provided physical addresses and whatnot. So when I first received that e-mail, I was helping my brother move from L.A. back up here to the Bay Area, so I was loading a U-Haul truck full of his belongings. I didn’t really take the time to read Helen’s e-mail in-depth. I just thought, this is a troubled person. I really didn’t give it much thought. Then she sends a second e-mail with “Urgent” in the subject line with more detail, more corroborating information. And I responded to that e-mail and I asked two simple questions. “Do you still require our services? Would you like me to put you in contact with the field operatives?”
Why was that your immediate response?
Because I could tell that this person was in a bad place. She obviously was serious about causing harm to people overseas. Her email was long and rambling and with great detail. This is a person that was in desperate need… The other emails, they were basically one line emails to the e-mail account, and there wasn’t a lot of information to go off of. Nobody was leaving names or addresses or anything like that. These were people just kind of feeling the water. And I didn’t respond, so they kind of just went away with this. This Helen email, I knew just reading her first e-mail that this is a person who wanted to have these people murdered. There was no doubt in my mind that was her intent. She responded back and said, yes, I’m staying at this hostel in Canada. Mind you, I’m driving up I-5 with a U-Haul full of stuff, and I have all these thoughts going through my head. “What am I getting myself into? You know, this lady is serious. I need to go home and start Googling and researching this.” So I did just that when I got home. I started printing out about 20 pages of details, names and addresses and Google satellite images and and all of the information was corroborated.
At that point, that’s when I went to the local police department and spoke with a friend of mine [who] at the time was a sergeant. And I told him what was going on. I gave him the information. He reached out and contacted the police department that had jurisdiction. They went out and they did a welfare check on this person to make sure that she was OK. And during the course of their investigation, they found out she was wanted out of U.K. on extraditable warrants for serious charges. So she was taken into custody. She spent 126 days in Canada before being extradited back to the U.K.
Why did you automatically assume that this was a person who was serious about committing murder?
If I didn’t get the email, somebody else would have got the email and taken different action. This was one of those extenuating circumstances that just had to be addressed. This was definitely a threat towards three people. So if I didn’t act, in my opinion, somebody else may have. And the results would have been a lot different.
Where did the Hit Man Information Privacy and Protection Act of 1964 come from?
In 2008, two years before I got this Helen request, I started working for an I.T. company, and we performed data recovery for public and private homeowners and businesses and governments and medical offices. And part of the requirements for performing data recovery for a medical facility is we had to maintain HIPPA compliancy. Everybody is familiar with HIPPA when you go to the doctor. So when I redesigned the website after this 2010 incident with Helen, I created a fictitious HIPPA for the Web site called the Hit Man Information Privacy and Protection Act of 1964. Now, it doesn’t mean anything. I mean, it’s purely fictitious. I also modified the Web site to include its own Web form so that people can fill out in their own words as to who, what, why, when, where they want done. There was no mention of any services, no mention of compensation or anything on the Web site. It was initially redesigned to just be so over-the-top fake, nobody could be that stupid to fill out this Web form and expect to contact a hit man. I wanted to make this Web site so glaringly obvious to the normal user that this is a parody…I wanted to make it obvious to law enforcement that, hey, this is not a real website. Yet people have gone to the Web site and solicited to have other people murdered.
How many requests have you gotten?
I run a spreadsheet of the requests that I’ve received. About 350 requests are on that spreadsheet. Not all of them are for murder for hire. Some of them are for people looking for assisted suicide options. Some of them are clearly hoaxes where they’re trying to prank their friend. Some of them are for people that are seeking employment, which I clearly can’t help them with. And out of the 350, about 10 percent are for those people that are seeking to cause harm to others. Now, of those, I ask the same two questions I always do. “Do you still require our services?” “Would you like me to place in contact with a field operative?” If I never hear back from them, maybe they have figured it out. Maybe they get a free pass on this one. But if they respond back with, “Yes.” OK, I’ll put you in contact with the field operatives. I’ll be your matchmaker.
How do people find you? Like do you look at your analytics? Where do you get your traffic from?
Most of the traffic is organic, meaning people are out there searching the Internet, Yahoo and Google and Bing and whatever, looking for a hit man. I’m not advertising the website anywhere. It’s clearly been picked up in the media. A lot of people have seen news stories on it. But the solicitations are still coming in. I’ve had a couple last week, I had one this week.
Can you give an example of a request that you got?
This is a request that was out of Kansas. This was from a female, Danae Wright. She said, under services requested, “shut down and take take them out to shut up the drama.” People were talking bad about her in her small town in Oakley, Kansas. She provided three names, which I was able to verify on Facebook. She wanted them taken out using “guns, bombs or anything or any way to remove them.” She additionally stated this was an urgent request. I asked her if she required our services and wanted to be placed in contact with the field operative. She said yes. That’s when I reached out to the Oakley Police Department, who forwarded this on to the Kansas Bureau of Investigation. The female was found guilty and sentenced to three years supervised probation after admitting to criminal solicitation to commit murder in the second degree. She had profiles on childcare-for-hire Web site. She wanted to watch people’s kids.
So you follow up with these cases, like you keep track of them.
She’s not even really one of the bad ones. There was another kid whose name is Devon Fauber. He was out of Augusta County, Virginia. This is a 20-year-old kid who was working at a seafood fish restaurant. He was upset with his ex-girlfriend and solicited to have his ex, her mother, and her stepfather murdered. But in addition, he wanted to have his ex-girlfriend’s infant kidnaped with the birth certificate and brought from Virginia to Texas so that he could start a family with this other female. This kid was so persistent. Again, I asked the two questions. He responded right away, said, yes, this is the address. Make sure you get the job done. He was so persistent over the next 10 to 12 days: “How come the job’s not done yet? I’ve given you everything you need to know about where they can be found. Remember, don’t kill the baby.” When I reported it to the Augusta County sheriff’s deputy, he said, OK, this guy is public enemy number one. They set up a sting. They made an arrest…. This is [also] a kid who also had two profiles on child care for hire Web sites in his small town. He wanted to watch other people’s kids again. You wanted to, you know, cook and do their homework with them. This is a predator and somebody that had to be stopped. So he is currently serving out his time. [Ed. note: Fauber pleaded guilty to two charges of solicitation of murder and was sentenced to 20 years in prison with 10 years suspended.]
Do these people pay you?
No, when I say that I’ll have a field operative contact you, that’s for [law enforcement] to work out the details. When they perform the sting and when they sit down with the person, that’s for them to discuss, because if there’s any money brought to that little meeting, that shows intent as well. I don’t discuss any of that. That would change me from a state’s witness to coconspirator, and that’s a road I’m not going to go down. So I have to be very cognizant and careful about not getting into any kind of conversation about that.
So he was expecting you to have killed his girlfriend and her family without having paid you?
Yeah, apparently. [Laughs] Maybe he had coupons or something, I don’t know.
Do you ever call the alleged targets and let them know they’re in someone’s crosshairs?
No. Once I report this information to the police, it’s up to the police to make that contact. And I do that because I don’t know what the full story is. I don’t know if the target is somebody who is vindictive enough to take matters into their own hand and go out and kill this guy. And that’s not something that I want to be weighed down with. That’s above my pay grade.
What are the most common reasons that someone wants somebody else murdered?
It’s been my experience that a lot of these are “ex-boyfriend, bad breakup, people need to move on” kind of thing. Here’s one right here: [reading from email] “this girl has been a problem in my life for a long time. I just need someone to take her out of the picture, someone who can kidnap and capture and disarm the situation, please. Thank you.”
There’s a lot of different reasons. Some are trying to get somebody removed so they can be happy with somebody else. I’ve received requests for services from people that want their teachers harmed. Maybe they don’t like their homework. A number of the requests that I had gotten have involved students under the age of 18 or schools. They’ve named academic facilities. On those particular requests, I don’t waste my time with those two questions. I’ll Google some information. I’ll find out what I can about the teacher. I’ll find out what I can about the student, find out what I can about the school. But those are automatically reported. I don’t want to play that game, in this day and age with all the school shootings and all the bullying. I get peace of mind knowing that if if the school has been named or a juvenile has been named, maybe there’s an abuse issue that is far beyond anything I can tell just from an email…maybe they need medical help, psych help or whatever.
There was a case out of Anchorage, Alaska, from a 14-year-old kid who wanted his mom, dad, brother, and sister murdered. He gave instructions and said that he sleeps downstairs and in a bunk bed and that he wanted this done quietly. As fast as possible, that was reported to the Anchorage Police Department. They went out and did a welfare check on this kid and there was a history of abuse with this particular individual. So that’s, again, an example of why I would forward those on in and get the authorities involved fast on those.
Are they mostly from men or women?
You know, it’s about a 60/40 split. Mostly men. And that’s that’s kind of the way it’s shaking out to be, I’m not the best person at keeping statistics on that.
How many people have you gotten arrested?
There’s probably been about a dozen cases that have ended up in arrest with authorities….but I do want to tell you, the website itself has been seen in over 160 countries. I’ve received a couple of hundred e-mails from people in Indonesia who are seeking to have other people murdered in that country.
Somebody in Indonesia did a YouTube video and they were talking about the dark web and they mentioned my Web site by name, which caused a surge of people to go on Yahoo and Google to search Rent a Hitman. They would end up on my page and they would then send a solicitation: name, address, the target’s social media, all this information caused a real surge in solicitation activity. I took it upon myself to contact the Indonesian consulate in San Francisco. I gave them one hundred of the e-mails. The most gripping part of this whole thing is that five of those e-mails were for their own president, Joko Widodo. They were assassination requests for the Indonesian president….it’s hard to say why it happens, but it was a real problem for a long time.
Why do you give interviews if you’re trying to catch people committing a crime?
I’m confident that what I’m doing is saving lives. The interviews and the news media that have gotten involved in this and aired stories, it’s not slowing down the number of solicitations that are received. The fact is that people are online, and they’re going to search on how to hire a hit man, and they’re ending up on the Web site. The internet is not a safe place. We know that. But I’m just one person trying to make it a little better for everybody.
Are you worried about violence or retaliation?
Not terribly, no. There’s danger in everything that people do every day. My personal safety I’m not too worried about. There’s a lot of dangerous people out there. I have to be cognizant of that. But this has become my personal mission. To save other people’s lives, who may never even know that they were in danger. And if I have to be the face of the Web site to get it out there and to help people, I have no problem doing that.
Why do you think people still contact you, given how much coverage there have been of this? It’s very easy to Google this and see it’s a joke.
Not everybody watches the news, reads the news. Not everybody listens to a podcast about this. I think some people, they get online [and search] “how to hire a hit man,” or “how to contact a hit man,” they see that first webpage. They see it’s HIPPA-compliant and they they feel compelled to leave their real information. It is beyond me why people do that, but they do. I don’t want to say it’s human nature, but these people are just not educated enough to know the difference, I guess.
What has it taught you about human nature?
I look at things a little bit differently than some, I guess, after these experiences. I don’t know what’s traveling through somebody’s head when they send an e-mail. I don’t know if they’re in deep despair. I don’t know if they’re looking for assisted suicide, I don’t know if they want their ex-husband or wife taken out, I don’t know what the situation is. I have to take every precaution and look at these e-mails and make sure I’m asking the right questions and researching this properly. There’s a lot of mental illness that’s out there. A lot of it shows up in my email. Let’s put it that way. A lot of it shows up from people seeking to cause harm to others. Everybody’s got their own story going on inside their head. And unfortunately, my website is like a magnet for those that are just hell bent on causing harm to others.