“Free!” the Craigslist ad read. “Come one, come all, everything on the lot is free!”
So enthusiastic was the advertisement it used the word “free” five times in the headline alone.
The problem: The ad was bogus. The lot in question, a sprawling building surrounded by a mad jumble of free-floating items on Route 202 in Greene, belongs to George Stanley, who happened to be away in Florida when the ad was placed.
The result, one neighbor said, was a seagull-like looting of Stanley’s property as men and women showed up at all hours to grab all they could grab, ignoring numerous “no trespassing” signs.
“I’ll bet in the past week, there have been probably 10 or 12 vehicles out there every day,” said Mike Burgess, who lives down the road, in Leeds. “Pickup trucks, cars — there were actually ramp trucks out there.”
Burgess has seen people at Stanley’s property, near the Leeds line, in the morning, and seen them there in the middle of the night.
“I can’t believe that from an ad, people are going there and cleaning it out,” Burgess said. “This stuff doesn’t belong to them. Why isn’t somebody stopping them?”
That’s what Stanley would like to know. Reached in Orlando, Florida, Stanley said neighbors had notified him his property was being scavenged because of the bogus Craigslist ad.
“Some neighbor has been texting me and saying that they’re even taking the landscaping, brand new Home Depot bushes I bought this summer,” Stanley said. “They’re stripping it of $10,000 worth of merchandise, easily. By the time I get there, there will be nothing left. They’re having a field day.”
Stanley said looters had hauled away bushes, fruit trees, a pallet of roofing supplies worth $45 per bundle, a pair of new generators and a sunshade with solar lights worth at least $1,000. And those are only some of the purloined items.
“Even brand-new merchandise in boxes worth thousands of dollars,” Stanley said. “It wasn’t just a bunch of junk on the side of the road. It’s not just a bunch of whatchamacallits and thingamajigs and knickknacks.”
The swarms of people eager for free stuff did not stop on the outside, however. Stanley said he was told that they had gained access to the building, as well, where more merchandise was taken.
“They took bolt cutters and cut through double sets of double-locked doors, chains, locks and bolts, and got inside the building,” Stanley said. “The building is wide open. They’re stripping it. They’ve stripped the place of everything.”
When he was first told about the wholesale ravaging of his property, Stanley went to Craigslist, eventually convincing the company to take down the ad.
“I had it removed on the third day,” Stanley said. “It was too late. The damage was done. If it was shared on Twitter and God knows all these other things on the computer, it’s out and all over.”
Although a cached preview of the Craigslist ad can be found through a web search, the ad in its entirely can no longer be viewed. Based on the preview, it appeared the ad began running Sept. 25.
Stanley said he reported the thievery to Maine State Police and was soon contacted by a trooper. The trooper agreed to move people along from the property when he sees them, Stanley said, but little else has been done.
“He says, ‘Shoo, shoo, get away.’ That’s all he can do,” Stanley said. “He can’t close doors, he can’t secure it, he can’t guard it. He can’t arrest anybody because a Craigslist ad sent them to that address.”
The trooper handling the investigation did not return messages left for him at the barracks in Augusta. Stanley said there had been no attempts to recover his stuff or to track down the people who took it.
“I’m wiped out,” said Stanley, now in his 70s. “My whole life. I’ve been working on that building for 11 years to turn it into something. I’m coming back to face — whatever it is that I’m facing.”
So, who placed the Craigslist ad? By Thursday afternoon, there was only speculation.
Stanley was pursuing harassment charges against three neighbors. In fact, he missed a court hearing as a result of his trip to Florida and had to ask for a continuance. Stanley believes that move may have irked the neighbors in question enough to seek revenge through the online classifieds.
There were other theories, too.
Years ago, Stanley filed a lawsuit against the town of Greene because officials would not let him operate as a flea market. The issue was contentious and resulted in a flurry of court complaints filed by Stanley, who asserted that the town’s flea market ordinance was unconstitutional.
As a result of that old hostility, many locals believed that the town had seized the property back from Stanley and was simply getting rid of the inventory.
Not so, said a town clerk.
“It has nothing to do with the town,” she said. “We haven’t put anything on Craigslist. We would have no reason to take ownership of that property.”
Stanley said he means to get to the bottom of things when he comes back to Maine later this month. In the meantime, he said, he has been writing back and forth with district attorney candidate Seth Carey in hopes of finding answers.
Stanley said Thursday he was also running an ad in the Sun Journal seeking help from a local handyman to replace locks and clean up damage to his building. The ad will appear Friday, Stanley said, and will run through the weekend.
He said he was also worried about fire. If someone were to sneak in and torch his building, Stanley said, “it would be the biggest fire in the history of the region.”
Neighbor Burgess said while he has had his own issues with Stanley over the years, he did not approve of how strangers were allowed to pick through the property without restraint.
For Burgess, the matter raises uncomfortable questions.
“If I left my home for a couple weeks on vacation,” he said, “does that mean someone can put a fictitious ad on Craigslist and people are going to show up and clean my house out?”