In June 2015, an ad appeared on Backpage.com in Texas with a series of alluring photos of a naked woman, who described herself to potential dates as “fun, young, exotic,” and “ready to be your fantasy girl.” By the end of the month, the woman had been murdered by a customer who responded to the ad. He set her corpse on fire in an attempt to destroy the evidence. When the victim’s father contacted Backpage.com to try and get the pictures of his dead daughter removed from the site, the company didn’t immediately comply.
At the time, Backpage was the largest online publisher of sex ads in the world with city-specific sites spanning 97 countries. In the 11 years since it had been launched, it had earned some $500 million for its owners. But it was also the scourge of law enforcement officials across the country whose investigative files teemed with hundreds of examples of cases that had connections to ads on the site: a young girl forced to perform sex acts at gun point, choked to the point of seizures and gang-raped; a woman whose pimp fed her drugs, stole her identification documents and sexually assaulted her with a firearm; yet another woman who tried to escape her pimp by jumping out of a vehicle on the highway and was run over and killed. Attorneys general in multiple states had tried to shut down the site and prosecute its owners and all had failed.
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But in 2015, the same year the ad in Texas ran, Congress launched its own investigation, ultimately forcing the release of over 1 million pages of documents which provided the evidence necessary for the Department of Justice, in 2018, to file a massive indictment against seven of the company’s executives. (The horror stories mentioned above formed the backbone of the case.) Altogether, the officials face 93 federal charges of facilitating prostitution, money laundering and participating in a criminal conspiracy, which could send them to prison for upward of 20 years. The two men at the center of the operation, say federal investigators, were a pair of longtime media iconoclasts, Mike Lacey and Jim Larkin.
“These are the bad guys,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who helped lead a Senate investigation that spurred the indictments. “They were making millions of dollars off the backs of children being sold for sex, and I am not for one minute going to let them get away with acting like they’re the good guys.”
But that’s exactly what Lacey and Larkin say they are.
The longtime business partners portray themselves as First Amendment martyrs, fighting to preserve free speech on the internet. They believe this battle isn’t just a self-preservation strategy but a natural extension of the pioneering newspaper company they planted in the Arizona desert more than four decades ago, a network of alternative weeklies that would span the country before taking a massive revenue hit from the internet. Their innovation—Backpage.com—not only saved the company, they say, but it brought needed sunlight to a sexual underground.
“Backpage is part of the solution,” Lacey bragged in a draft editorial quoted in the indictment. “Eliminating adult advertising will in no way eliminate or even reduce the incidence of prostitution in this country. … For the very first time, the oldest profession in the world has transparency, record keeping and safeguards.”
The sex-trade profiteering that helped make Larkin and Lacey incredibly wealthy leaves First Amendment purists feeling queasy. Not even their former colleagues can agree on whether to admire or renounce them.
“The idea that money motivated them is bullshit,” said Francine Hardaway, who was the first film critic for Lacey and Larkin’s flagship newspaper, Phoenix New Times, back in the ‘70s, and has remained friends with Lacey over the ensuing decades. “This is a guy who is simply a free speech advocate, and he simply will be a free speech advocate until he dies.”
But Jana Bommersbach, who joined Phoenix New Times in 1976 and helped it become a tenacious, respected newspaper, takes a very different stance. “They were using the First Amendment as a shield to make themselves filthy rich,” Bommersbach said.
At the heart of the case is a legal defense that has so far proved remarkably effective. Backpage has repeatedly evaded civil and criminal penalties over the past decade for its purported complicity in criminal enterprises. The reason Backpage has emerged largely unscathed from previous legal fights is that since 1996 federal law has provided broad protections for online publishers of third-party content. Backpage has successfully argued that it can’t be held legally responsible for the criminal conduct of others—no matter how reprehensible. Lacey and Larkin’s defenders also point out that—despite the grisly details in the indictment and inflammatory accusations by activists—they aren’t even charged with human trafficking.
Still, these prosecutions could be different. That’s because an exhaustive Senate investigation published last year documented in painstaking detail how company officials systematically altered ads in order to remove explicit references to prostitution and suggestions that services were being offered by juveniles. It’s also the first time they’ve faced federal criminal charges, pitting them against the vast legal resources of the Justice Department. Another worrisome development for the seven defendants: former Backpage CEO Carl Ferrer has pleaded guilty to charges of money laundering and conspiracy to facilitate prostitution, and is expected to testify against his former colleagues.
The story Ferrer is expected to tell is the last chapter in a nearly half-century saga that in many ways encapsulates the plight of print media in the digital age. Larkin and Lacey came of age crusading against government corruption and blasting away at the political and media establishment, often relying on First Amendment protections to help send bad guys to jail. Forced to adapt to a rapidly changing business model, they latched on to one segment of the advertising market that has survived untouched: sex. Now, they’re clinging to the First Amendment again, but this time they’re the ones in the investigative crosshairs.
Backpage’s roots stem from an unlikely moment: The killing of four unarmed Vietnam War protesters at Kent State in 1970. In response to that seminal event, Michael Lacey and some other Arizona State University students created a free newspaper that was originally known as The Arizona Times.
It barely survived those early years, limping along with an initial circulation of less than 20,000. But in 1977, what had become known as Phoenix New Times had its first big break. A fledgling organization called Investigative Reporters and Editors spearheaded an investigation into the car-bombing murder of Arizona Republic journalist Don Bolles. The Republic—the state’s dominant, conservative newspaper—refused to publish the 23-part series that exposed widespread corruption in the state. Phoenix New Times happily stepped into the journalistic void.
By this time Lacey and his business partner Jim Larkin had taken full control of the paper. They were a formidable team, with Lacey handling editorial duties and Larkin running the business side. In the ensuing years, the free weekly became a journalistic dynamo, publishing ambitious, investigative stories in a target-rich desert boomtown. New Times’ reporting on then-Governor Fife Symington’s investments and questionable financing schemes helped lead to his ouster from office under a cloud of 21 criminal charges.
“They were fearless,” recalled Bommersbach. “They had no sacred cows. They were screaming truth to power.”
By 1990, the paper had a weekly circulation of 140,000 and annual revenue of $8.3 million, according to a profile at the time in Phoenix magazine. Lacey also became notorious for his bombastic and confrontational style. At an Arizona Press Club ceremony in the mid-90s, as a New Times reporter delivered a speech eviscerating The Arizona Republic for disbanding its investigative unit, Lacey could be heard in the audience egging him on: “Fuck ‘em, John! Fuck ‘em!” That was followed by the sound of plates shattering as Lacey hurled them to the floor.
“[Lacey] could be one of the most charming, wonderful guys to work with and one of the most infuriating bastards you ever met in your life, and sometimes in the same minute,” said Bommersbach, who left the company in 1990.
The paper’s most high-profile battle was against Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, documenting civil rights abuses by his officers. New Times raised questions about how Arpaio was able to purchase multiple homes on his modest salary. One night, after Lacey and Larkin published a story detailing secret grand jury proceedings, unmarked squad cars appeared outside their homes and they were thrown in jail. The misdemeanor charges for violating grand jury secrecy were almost immediately dropped. Lacey and Larkin sued and eventually received a $3.75 million settlement for violations of their civil rights.
By then, Lacey and Larkin had set their sights well beyond Phoenix. In 1983, they purchased Westword, a free weekly in Denver; four years later they bought Miami’s The Wave. By the turn of the century, they owned 11 papers spanning the country. The capstone to their ambitions came in 2005, when they purchased the legendary Village Voice and five other weeklies. The New Times chain boasted a combined circulation of 1.8 million and reported market value of $400 million. Lacey explained his editorial philosophy in a profane, wine-fueled interview in New York magazine.
“Our papers have butt-violated every goddamn politician who ever came down the pike! The ones who deserved it. As a journalist, if you don’t get up in the morning and say ‘fuck you’ to someone, why even do it?” Lacey said. “Look, a lot of people think I’m a prick. But at least I’m a prick you can understand. I don’t sneak up on you. You can see me coming from a long way away. Like the Russian winter.”
But that bravado masked an unsettling financial reality: Just as Lacey and Larkin had ascended the alt-weekly mountaintop, their business model was crumbling underneath them.
The threat , of course, was the internet, specifically a free classified ads website called Craigslist that was devouring newspaper revenues like some kind of flesh-eating bacteria. But Larkin and Lacey weren’t about to sit back and let Craigslist cannibalize the business they’d spent more than three decades building. In 2004, they established Backpage.com to maintain the company’s hold on ads that traditional newspapers had largely shunned—what was modestly known as adult services.
Sex had always been part of the business model for alt-weeklies. Escort ads, which were really just thinly veiled prostitution ads, were a staple of the industry. On deadline days for escort ads, the offices of New Times publications filled with young women wearing skimpy outfits and too much perfume, along with sullen men lurking in the hallways. (I witnessed firsthand this weekly parade of “escorts” at two papers owned by Lacey and Larkin, one in South Florida in the late ‘90s and the other, several years later, in Minnesota. Through their attorneys, Lacey and Larkin declined comment for this article.)
It wasn’t until 2010, however, when Craigslist backed down under pressure from anti-trafficking advocates and shuttered its adult content section, that Backpage.com became the main financial driver of the company. Larkin immediately recognized the significance. “It is possible that this will mean a deluge of adult content ads for Backpage.com,” he wrote in an internal memo at the time. “It is, like it or not, in our DNA.”
Indeed, Backpage.com quickly became the dominant publisher of escort ads. In 2011, profits topped $50 million, according to the federal indictment. Just three years later, they’d surpassed $130 million. This success did not escape the notice of the same people who had targeted Craigslist. That same year, almost all the state attorneys general sent a letter to Village Voice Media, as the company was now known, demanding that it shutter the adult section of the classified site. A broad coalition of religious groups joined the growing chorus of outrage.
Lacey scoffed at the moral hectoring. “I am beginning to like our odds,” he told the New York Times. “We have all these practicing politicians and concerned clergy after us. We must be doing something right.”
But they couldn’t as easily dismiss the lawsuits that began landing in courts across the country. Since 2010, more than two dozen lawsuits have been filed against the company seeking damages for individuals who say they’ve been victimized by traffickers who relied on the online marketplace to facilitate their crimes.
“What they had been doing is providing a platform where it was incredibly easy to sell a child to be raped multiple times a day,” said Yiota Souras, general counsel for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
But Backpage.com has prevailed repeatedly in those cases, typically getting them dismissed even before any significant evidence was collected. The company’s defense was simple: Federal law—specifically Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act—protects online publishers from civil or criminal penalties for hosting content posted by third parties. In short, they’re no more responsible than a knife manufacturer whose product is used in a stabbing.
In 2016, for example, the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a trial judge’s dismissal of a case brought by three women who’d been trafficked as juveniles through Backpage. One of the plaintiffs said in the civil complaint she had been raped more than 1,000 times as a result of Backpage’s alleged misconduct. The appellate judge’s opinion was unambiguous.
“Congress did not sound an uncertain trumpet when it enacted the CDA, and it chose to grant broad protections to internet publishers,” it reads. “If the evils that the appellants have identified are deemed to outweigh the First Amendment values that drive the CDA, the remedy is through legislation, not through litigation.”
The one blemish on Backpage’s legal scorecard was a 2012 case in Washington state, where the company’s standard argument was ultimately rebuffed by the state Supreme Court. The company ended up settling with the plaintiffs for an undisclosed amount.
Perhaps feeling empowered by their run of successes, Lacey and Larkin, around this time, cut their ties to journalism. They sold off their 13 remaining weeklies to a group of employees—although the financial details were murky—but held on to Backpage.com.
In September 2016, I received an email from a Scottsdale, Arizona law firm representing Lacey. The missive explained that he was seeking to create a database of former New Times/Village Voice Media employees for “communication purposes.” I thought it was a bit peculiar, but figured it couldn’t hurt to send along my mailing address. A few days later, I got home to find a FedEx envelope in my mailbox. Inside was a check for $5,000 from Lacey. “Mr. Lacey has asked us to convey that this gift is a small token of his appreciation,” the accompanying note said. Dozens of former employees across the country received similar expressions of gratitude from Lacey. I happily deposited the check in my bank account, justifying it as deserved compensation for years of hard work at modest pay. That was the last I heard from Lacey.
I can only guess at his motivation. Maybe he knew trouble was on the horizon. Less than a month later, then-California Attorney General Kamala Harris brought criminal charges of conspiracy to pimp against Lacey, Larkin and Ferrer. But, once again, those criminal charges were swiftly dismissed by the courts. California subsequently filed additional criminal charges of money laundering and bank fraud against the Backpage defendants, which are still pending.
Internet free speech advocates believe that the repeated legal victories by Backpage shows the value of the Communications Decency Act in protecting online discourse. “We view Section 230 as one of the most important and foundational laws of the internet,” said Aaron Mackey, an attorney with the Electronic Freedom Foundation.
Backpage’s victories, however, only further energized the company’s critics. But instead of continuing to focus on the company itself, they followed the judge’s advice and changed the law.
In January 2017, Lacey, Larkin and three other top Backpage officials strode into the third floor of the Dirksen Senate Office Building to testify before the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. Lacey, in particular, displayed an air of bored resignation with the proceedings. At one point, he conspicuously yawned as senators laid out the grim details of human trafficking through Backpage.
The appearance before the Senate subcommittee was the culmination of an 18-month investigation. Backpage fought the effort every step of the way. Ferrer ignored a subpoena to show up for a 2015 Senate hearing. In response, the Senate voted 96-0 to compel the testimony of Backpage officials. The company fought efforts to hand over documents all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, but ran out of legal options in 2016. At the hearing, they didn’t pretend to cooperate, repeatedly citing their Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination.
“They tried everything you would expect people to try if they didn’t want to come clean,” said Senator Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who chairs the subcommittee on investigations.
The million pages of emails, memos and financial records that Backpage had produced under court order revealed what company officials had refused to discuss in public. They had systematically edited ads, routinely deleting words such as “Lolita,” “school girl” and “amber alert” in favor of coded terms such as “red roses” (money) and “GFE” (girlfriend experience). The investigation also determined that Backpage was involved in three out of every four child trafficking reports received by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. In addition, the report concluded that the purported sale of Backpage to Ferrer in 2014 was a sham, and that Lacey and Larkin retained ownership stakes and operational control of the company.
The final report, released in January 2017, set in motion events that would lead to Backpage’s downfall in barely over a year. Many of the details in the criminal indictment are taken practically verbatim from the reports put together by Senate investigators.
“We didn’t rush it; we didn’t try to cut corners,” Portman said. “I think that’s why the Justice Department has used it so extensively.”
McCaskill, the ranking member on the subcommittee for investigations, relished the sight of the executives who had refused to testify and defied a Senate subpoena being arrested.
“I’ll never forget how I felt the day that the three of them showed up at the hearing and took the Fifth,” McCaskill said. “I’m a former prosecutor. I put a lot of people in prison over a long period of time. And I remember thinking, ‘These guys really belong in prison. These are stone cold criminals of the worst kind.’”
At nearly the same time as the indictments were handed down in March, Congress voted by overwhelming margins to amend the Communications Decency Act. The bipartisan bill allows prosecutors or victims to take websites to court if they knowingly enable sex trafficking through advertisements, posts or other means. Advocates hailed the two developments as a breakthrough moment in fighting online trafficking of juveniles.
“We are seeing complete disruption right now of the online markets with relation to online sex trafficking,” said Souras, of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. “We are finding it is much harder to find a child for sex right now online.”
But many advocates of online free speech fear the weakening of federal protections will spark a wave of litigation and open the door to Congress further eroding protections. They also point out that the criminal prosecutions against Backpage officials focus exclusively on prostitution and money laundering, despite the incessant focus on the more incendiary allegation of human trafficking by activists. In late June, Human Rights Watch and other plaintiffs filed a lawsuit in federal court seeking to invalidate the new law, arguing that it’s vague, broad restrictions violate the First and Fifth Amendments.
In the days after the federal legislation was enacted, dozens of websites dealing with adult content shut down out of fear that they might be sued and face huge financial penalties. Among the sites that were shuttered: Craigslist personals, Reddit forums devoted to escorts, YourDominatrix.com and USASexGuide.info.
“People don’t know what to do,” said Alexandra Levy, a professor at the University of Notre Dame Law School, who has argued Backpage served as a valuable tool for law enforcement to crack down on human traffickers. “I don’t know what to tell people when they ask whether they’re now on the hook and what they’re on the hook for, and people are reasonably cautious.”
Advocates for sex workers are horrified at the shuttering of sites that their clients utilized to conduct business and share information with colleagues. They say it’s forcing prostitutes back out onto the streets and making their work much more dangerous.
“Backpage was exploiting sex workers in the same way that restaurants are exploiting hungry people who want food,” Kate D’Adamo, a longtime sex worker advocate based in Washington, D.C., said with obvious sarcasm. “It was low cost, it was accessible and it was desperately important for the most marginalized folks.”
McCaskill and Portman both say they are confident the legislation is narrow enough to protect free speech on the internet while giving prosecutors and trafficking victims the necessary tools to seek justice. “If it curtails some advertising for sex for hire between consenting adults,” McCaskill said, “I’m not going to cry a river over that.”
Jana Bommersbach, the longtime Phoenix New Times editor, published a novel this year called “thedeadgirlinthevacantlot.” The plot focuses on teenage girls who are sold for sex on the internet by pimps who utilize Backpage.com. Making cameo appearances in the book are Bommersbach’s old allies, Lacey and Larkin, as the evil moguls of human trafficking.
“When I went in to start looking at it I was just horrified,” Bommersbach said. “I had no clue.”
Lacey, now 69, and Larkin, now 68, have been officially out of the newspaper business since 2012 when they sold off their remaining papers to a group of longtime employees. Their stated intent was to insulate the newspapers from the legal and criminal threats that were increasingly circling around Backpage. But it also meant that they were giving up on a group of financially beleaguered newspapers and sticking with the incredibly lucrative online marketplace for sex ads.
Bommersbach and other critics of Lacey and Larkin view it as ultimate proof their First Amendment crusade was a charade. “They left journalism and kept Backpage,” Bommersbach said. “What does that say about them?”