A Winnipeg woman is part of an international investigation into an Italian military police officer who allegedly drugged and sexually assaulted some of the women he connected with on the popular online travel website couchsurfing.com.
Dino Maglio, 36, has been charged with raping a 16-year-old girl from Australia. That case will go to trial next month in Padua, Italy.
Meanwhile, nine other women have provided statements about Maglio to journalists at the Investigative Reporting Project Italy. The IRPI has turned those statements over to lawyers and the prosecutor, who will decide whether to include them as evidence in next month's trial, or recommend a separate trial. A handful of other women have also come forward with similar stories.
A 22-year-old Winnipeg woman — who we're identifying as Emma — is among those who gave a statement.
Emma connected with Maglio, who went by the name Leonardo, through couchsurfing.com when she was backpacking in Europe with a German friend in 2013.
Couchsurfing is an online travel service, matching travellers with local hosts willing to put them up in their homes and show them around their community. It's based largely on reviews.
Emma says from the beginning, Maglio gave her and her friend a bad feeling.
"We were very uneasy," she told CBC News.
Plied women with alcohol
Maglio picked the two women up late, and in a panic. He took them to a bar on their first night in Padua, near Venice. There, he plied them with alcohol and hit on them and two other women from Hong Kong who were also staying at his home.
"He was massaging one of the girl's shoulders, kissing her on the cheek. He told me I had beautiful eyes," Emma says.
On their second night, Emma says Maglio insisted his visitors try a glass of his special homemade wine. He went to work, while the women say they were feeling more and more tired.
Emma managed to snap a photo of her three friends passed out on a bed.
She woke up the next morning with Maglio, wearing no shirt, in the bed between her and her friend.
"I wanted to move, and my body couldn't move, and my brain couldn't function and I knew I was scared," she said.
"I knew we had to have been drugged … it was all pretty blurry."
Emma doesn't believe she was sexually assaulted, but isn't sure. "I don't remember anything, at all."
Court records translated by IRPI describe a similar situation in the case now before the courts involving the 16-year-old Australian girl.
She had a few drinks in Maglio's kitchen and passed out in a guest room, where she says Maglio sexually assaulted her, including performing oral sex on her. Her mother and younger sister were in the next room.
"She recalls having tried to stop him because she did not want to have sex, but could not properly resist for some sort of drug he must have gave her," court documents say.
"The fact he was kissing her mouth stopped her from screaming and asking for help."
Accused claims sex was consensual
In a statement to police, Maglio admitted to having sex with the girl and putting a Lorazepam in her drink, but says it was consensual.
"Dino Maglio said during the sex intercourses [the girl] never said 'no' and actually seemed like she liked it," court documents say.
Another American woman, studying in London, told Scotland Yard she drank a chamomile tea at Maglio's home and immediately fell asleep. She says he performed oral sex and other sexual acts on her later that night.
Court records show that after the alleged rape of the Australian girl, Maglio's home was raided in March 2014, and his electronic devices were confiscated. He was put under house arrest and ordered not to communicate with anyone.
Ten days later, police raided his flat again – only to find him in the company of two girls he was hosting through couchsurfing.com. One was reportedly feeling sick.
Maglio is currently suspended from the military police and is being held in a military prison.
Praise for website's response
In a statement, Jennifer Billock, CEO of Couchsurfing said, "These horrific crimes hit close to home on a deeply personal level for everyone here."
Couchsurfing has a trust and safety team to help travellers and the site works with law enforcement when necessary, Billock writes.
Travellers are encouraged to look for verified members with multiple positive references, meet in a public place, have a backup plan, trust their instincts and report negative interactions.
Emma said she initially gave Maglio a good review when he asked for a reference, but later went back to the site and left a negative one. Other women with similar experiences immediately reached out to her.
She feels couchsurfing.com dealt with her experience appropriately – they contacted her, encouraged her to speak to police and promised Maglio's profile would be deleted.
Despite her negative experience, Emma said she would still use couchsurfing.com.
"Out of all the 13 hosts, I've only dealt with one sick, messed up, twisted guy and I don't think that's Couchsurfing's fault,” she told CBC News.
American Anna Ackerman isn't so sure.
The woman from Duluth, Minn., and a friend stayed with Maglio in 2013. He offered her wine at dinner and she accepted some cold medicine from him. She believes the wine was drugged.
Ackerman, now 22, doesn't remember much between falling asleep on the floor in his hallway, and throwing up in a garbage can in Rome the next day.
"I don't remember the flight or the airport or getting through security or anything like that," she told CBC News in a Skype interview.
Still, Ackerman was shocked when she was contacted by other women who'd stayed with Maglio.
"It was really frightening to think I was staying at his place and that my story could've been so much worse," she says.
Ackerman hasn't used couchsurfing.com since then and is wary about using it in the future.
"I think it's easy for people who have that awful mindset to go on places like Couchsurfing and get travellers who are just looking for a place to stay and turn it into a horrible situation," she says, adding travellers should always check the reviews of the potential host before they commit to staying there.
"As nice as those people seem to be ... make sure that what you're eating and drinking and taking in is something you get straight from a restaurant or something you've bought yourself, maybe not something he or she would offer you," she says.
"Just be smart about it."
The following statement was issued to CBC News by Jennifer Billock, chief executive officer of Couchsurfing:
These horrific crimes hit close to home on a deeply personal level for everyone here at Couchsurfing. We're reminded that these women could have been any of us, our friends, or family. Our deepest sympathies are with the women who were affected. We would like the community to know safety is a top priority for us, and we're constantly evolving our tools and processes to find and halt abusers of our system.
The safety of our community is of the utmost concern, which is why we have a dedicated trust and safety team that is available to help our users at any time during and after their travel. We also have safety information on our website that provides tips on how to travel safely.
Additionally, we work with local law enforcement groups to the full extent permitted by law. We proactively reach out to law enforcement groups when appropriate and appreciate any opportunity to assist in investigations.
When preparing for a Couchsurfing trip, we encourage members to:
- Look for members with verified profiles with multiple positive references.
- Read profiles and references carefully.
- Communicate through Couchsurfing.
- Meet first in a public place.
- Trust your instincts and remove yourself immediately from any situation that doesn't feel right.
- Have a backup plan.
- Report any negative interactions with other users to our safety centre.
It's important to remember that the overwhelming majority of Couchsurfing experiences are positive ones, which we believe reflects the good intentions of the vast majority of our growing community. For additional information, please visit our safety centre.