The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A prosecutor’s fight against sex trafficking — and Backpage.com

From left, Backpage.com chief executive Carl Ferrer, former owner James Larkin, chief operating officer Andrew Padilla and former owner Michael Lacey are sworn in at a Senate hearing in January 2017 on the site's alleged facilitation of sex trafficking. (Cliff Owen/AP)
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correction

An earlier version of this review incorrectly said that Carl Ferrer received a reduced sentence of five years on charges of money laundering and conspiracy to facilitate prostitution. He pleaded guilty in April 2018 but has not been sentenced. The review also incorrectly said that Mike Lacey and James Larkin are under house arrest while awaiting trial on charges of facilitating prostitution, money laundering and conspiracy. The men are subject to location monitoring and travel restrictions but are not under house arrest, and their case is now before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit following a mistrial. The text has been corrected.

Maggy Krell was a young prosecutor driven by a desire to do good when, in 2004, a scene in a Stockton, Calif., courtroom jolted her. Among her tasks that day was to charge a group of zombie-eyed teenage girls with prostitution. Reading the police reports and booking information, Krell was shocked by the girls’ circumstances when they were rounded up in a late-night arrest in a motel parking lot. The police reports indicated that the girls had been skimpily dressed — “short skirts, tank tops, and heels” — in 30-degree weather. In court, Krell writes in her book “Taking Down Backpage: Fighting the World’s Largest Sex Trafficker,” “they stared blankly into space and looked numb and lifeless.” Krell couldn’t see the justice in charging them. Instead, she wondered, “Who was making money off their misery?”

Krell turned her attention to the motel’s owner and its manager. Realizing that the motel was set up to profit from the girls’ exploitation, she and her office came up with a way to prosecute not the girls, or the men who bought their services or the individuals who sold them, but the people who provided the setting for the encounters. Krell charged the motel owner and manager with conspiracy to commit prostitution and pimping — essentially, owning and operating a brothel. The motel shut down.

Correction:

In “Taking Down Backpage,” Krell tells the story of how that awakening led her to years of fighting child sex trafficking — culminating in helping to shut down Backpage.com, a website that made such sales easier and more profitable. The motel case came the same year that three men who ran a chain of alternative-weekly newspapers launched Backpage.com to compete with Craigslist for erotic classified advertising. That type of advertising had migrated to the Internet, and because of the anonymity available online these ads were increasingly used to sell sex with underage girls and boys. When advocates for the young victims demanded that websites stop offering the ads, Craigslist complied. But Backpage.com kept going — and a loose coalition of nonprofits, government offices, outraged parents and others spent years working to shut it down. Krell offers a thoughtful account of the exhaustive, meticulous work, roller coaster ups and downs, and careful collaboration she put into the campaign to curb the sale of children for sex.

After working for a few years as a county prosecutor, Krell took a job with the California Department of Justice, where she pulled together colleagues and persuaded bosses to let them target sex traffickers throughout the state. They shut down a chain of outlets that advertised themselves as massage parlors and lured women to the United States with promises of legitimate jobs. But once the women arrived, their passports were taken away, and they were sold for sex. Separately, Krell and her colleagues went after individual men who lured miserable and often abused teenagers away from their homes and put them out for sale; the men controlled the girls with the same kinds of coercive techniques used in abusive relationships.

Krell discovered that the seemingly endless stream of abused girls and women had something in common: Backpage.com. Brothels posing as massage parlors advertised through Backpage. Sex traffickers used the website to sell girls, sometimes to more than 10 men a night, and gangs used it to move victims through illicit networks. “Backpage made this much easier, more lucrative, and more exploitive,” Krell writes. The website was so entangled with traffickers, Krell believed it was as guilty as the motel owner she took down.

Others were arriving at similar conclusions. Parents of trafficked girls sued the website or pressured state legislators to require Backpage to confirm the ages of anyone for sale on the site. Groups that battle sex trafficking, such as the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the Polaris Project, Shared Hope, and many others, worked with government officials, law enforcement and the media, prompting the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations to hold hearings into Backpage’s activities.

But legal efforts to rein in Backpage ran up against a surprising roadblock: the Communications Decency Act of 1996. Congress had passed the CDA to protect children from seeing pornography online. Under industry pressure, the act included a provision that shields Internet platforms from liability for what others publish on their sites. The Supreme Court struck down parts of the CDA as violations of free speech — but left the protections for Internet platforms, known as Section 230. As legal complaints landed Backpage in court, judges ruled repeatedly that Section 230 freed the owners from responsibility for the site’s sex ads.

The bulk of Krell’s book examines how her team painstakingly gathered evidence and wrote warrants to prove that Backpage was not a neutral platform occasionally used by nefarious traffickers, but was actively soliciting and helping to create these illegal ads — or as she writes, that the owners “knew their website incited rape and torture and even murder and that they didn’t care.”

Backpage.com had been launched by Mike Lacey and James Larkin, owners of the New Times chain of alt-weeklies, along with an employee named Carl Ferrer. Its headquarters were in Dallas. Working with authorities in Texas and California, Krell got arrest warrants for all three men. Ferrer was arrested in Dallas on Oct. 6, 2016, and the offices of Backpage were raided. Lacey and Larkin turned themselves in to authorities in Sacramento. Ferrer was transferred to Sacramento, and after the three men spent a weekend in prison, a California judge ruled that they could not be charged because of Section 230.

A devastated Krell dove into the evidence seized in the Dallas raid and brought in a forensic auditor to examine the movements of Backpage’s money through various accounts. Two days before Christmas in 2016, she filed money laundering charges. In this round, she and her colleagues got Ferrer to plead guilty and become a cooperating witness against his former bosses in exchange for a lighter sentence.

Separately, the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, whose members included Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), subpoenaed much of the same evidence and more. When Backpage’s lawyers refused to comply, the Supreme Court ordered them to hand over documents.

In April 2018, Ferrer pleaded guilty to charges of money laundering and conspiracy to facilitate prostitution, but has not been sentenced. The Justice Department then began prosecuting Lacey and Larkin; their case is now before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit following a mistrial. Lacey and Larkin are subject to location monitoring and travel restrictions. At the Senate subcommittee’s recommendation, the FBI seized and shut down Backpage.com. At the same time, in early 2018, Congress acted on another of the subcommittee’s recommendations and passed a bill eliminating Section 230’s safe harbor provision for sites that knowingly facilitate sex trafficking, which President Donald Trump signed into law in April 2018.

Of course, no one argues that the demise of Backpage means the end of child sex trafficking. In the years when the site was active, reports of suspected child sex trafficking climbed significantly. Since its demise, advocates say the numbers have declined. People who seek to exploit children can no longer do so with one click. Their hunt is now harder and must take place in murkier corners of the Internet, which, it is hoped, discourages some. Children and teens are still being exploited and sold. But Krell and her fellow crusaders are rightly proud of the strides they’ve made in cracking down on this scourge.

E.J. Graff is the managing editor of The Monkey Cage at The Washington Post. She has reported on human trafficking in international adoptions for Foreign Policy, Slate and The Washington Post.

Taking Down Backpage

Fighting the World’s Largest Sex Trafficker

By Maggy Krell

New York University. 177 pp. $22.95

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