At 16, Desiree Robinson ran away from her home in Chicago. Soon, federal authorities believe, she met a man named Joseph Hazley, and by November of last year, she had moved into his apartment on the city’s South Side.
And within a week of that, another woman told the FBI, Hazley began posting ads for Desiree on the classifieds site Backpage.com. On Christmas Eve, after meeting a man who contacted her through Backpage, Desiree was found beaten and stabbed to death in a garage outside Chicago, while Hazley dozed in his car nearby, according to an FBI affidavit filed in federal court in Chicago.
Desiree’s mother, Yvonne Ambrose, filed a wrongful-death suit against Backpage in May. But where numerous other civil and criminal cases against Backpage have failed to hold the website liable for sex trafficking, Ambrose believes two major new developments may make her case different:
■A U.S. Senate subcommittee report in January showing that Backpage edits prostitution ads to delete words implying an advertiser is underage while allowing the ads to remain posted, and
■A recent discovery by a Washington-based real estate data company of documents showing that Backpage actively solicits sex-related ads from other sites, creates the ads for those advertisers on its own Web pages and redirects customers from other sites to Backpage, seemingly contrary to its long-stated defense that Backpage has no role in the content on its site.
Ambrose’s lawyers subpoenaed that data, then provided it to The Washington Post.
“As much as this hurts myself and my family,” Ambrose said, “I believe this has probably been going on for years and nobody talks about it. Until somebody speaks up on the reality of everything, I think this is going to be a problem. And I decided I have to be the one to speak.”
Backpage general counsel Liz McDougall reviewed some of the documents Ambrose provided to The Post but declined to comment.
Backpage has not responded yet to Ambrose’s lawsuit, filed in Cook County, Ill., in May. But in other litigation, including a lawsuit Backpage filed against the Cook County sheriff when he tried to get credit card companies to stop servicing Backpage, Backpage has stated that it “employs extensive, voluntary monitoring measures to prevent and remove improper user postings . . . Backpage.com blocks or removes over a million ads per month and immediately reports any that may concern child exploitation to [the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children].”
But the Senate subcommittee report noted, and the newly discovered documents confirmed, that in some instances Backpage deletes incriminating words but allows the ads to stand. Backpage also coached its users on how to post “clean” ads for illegal transactions, the Senate’s report found.
In response to the Senate report, Backpage shut down its “adult services” section and said it would “continue to pursue its efforts in court to vindicate its First Amendment rights . . . for third party expression.” The adult advertisers now appear in the “dating” section on Backpage.com.
“I think the level of involvement [by Backpage] is so much more than we ever believed it to be,” said Gina A. DeBoni, one of Ambrose’s lawyers. “It’s like putting lipstick on a pig. Just because you’re changing around words still doesn’t mean it’s not the sex trafficking of a minor. There’s so much information we uncovered via our subpoena.”
In addition to allegedly writing the ads, Hazley reportedly was careful in how he paid for them, according to federal authorities. Another woman, identified as a prostitute and named “Individual B” in the FBI affidavit filed last month, said that Hazley paid for the Backpage ads through bitcoin currency he purchased at a local store. Sex-trafficking activists have urged Backpage not to accept bitcoin because it can be used to avoid detection.
Individual B told the FBI that Hazley told her to photograph Desiree for her Backpage ads and teach Desiree how to communicate with Backpage customers, according to court documents. She saw Hazley post Backpage ads about Desiree, and records show Hazley’s computer was used to post this ad on Dec. 10:
“Hi Guys My Name is Nicki I’m New in town for a short stay and looking for upscale Gentlemen to have a great time with.”
Mary Mazzio, director of the documentary “I Am Jane Doe,” covering sex trafficking and Backpage, said that “ ‘New in Town’ signals minors, as advocates and those in the field tell me. Other terms that are used to signal underage children: ‘fresh’ and ‘off the boat,’ in addition to the obvious, ‘Brly Legal,’ ‘Lolita’ and ‘Amber Alert,’ that the Senate discovered.”
The FBI’s review of Desiree and Hazley’s text messages, phone and Internet records and Facebook postings confirmed numerous trysts arranged through Backpage, the affidavit by Special Agent Jonathan Williamson shows. Individual B told the FBI that Hazley took Desiree on about five to six appointments per day and that he would sometimes set up joint dates with both Desiree and Individual B, because “two girls equals more money.”
Hazley was arrested last month and charged with sex trafficking of a minor. He was ordered held without bond on Thursday and has not yet entered a plea.
“What happened to Desiree is beyond tragic,” said Hazley’s lawyer, Michael Schmiege. “However, Mr. Hazley had nothing to do with it. When all of the evidence is presented to a jury we are confident that Mr. Hazley will be acquitted.”
Early on Dec. 24, Hazley posted another ad for Desiree on Backpage, the FBI affidavit states. Desiree texted with and then met a man in Markham, Ill., a small city outside of Chicago, with Hazley driving her. At about 6:30 a.m., the same man requested a second visit from Desiree, and again Hazley drove her to the location.
But she did not emerge. The alleged customer, Antonio Rosales, was charged with murder, and his case is pending. His lawyers did not return a call seeking comment.
“It’s so scary,” Ambrose said. “This could affect absolutely anybody at any time. Backpage is making millions and millions of dollars off our babies. Not only is it sick to think they played a role in my daughter’s death, but they’re still operating.”