The walls appear to be closing in on Backpage.com after Associated Press reports that federal agents shut down the controversial website at its Phoenix offices Friday afternoon in what looms as a major development in the Sacramento criminal case against the site’s founders.
“This is a big step forward for the California case,” said Maggy Krell, the former state deputy attorney general who prosecuted the Sacramento case. Krell is now lead counsel for Planned Parenthood in California. “This day has been a long time coming. It’s a tremendous victory for everyone who has been victimized by Backpage.”
Federal authorities have yet to make a formal announcement regarding Friday’s action, Kevin Smith, spokesman for Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, who spearheaded newly passed legislation targeting Backpage, told The Sacramento Bee Friday afternoon. California attorney general’s officials offered confirmation in a press release Friday afternoon, but soon removed it from its website.
Backpage was branded as the “world’s largest online brothel” by then-state Attorney General, now Sen. Kamala Harris, for its now-shuttered adult section, which prosecutors argued was a multibillion-dollar front for prostitution and sex trafficking including the selling of children for sex.
California Attorney General’s prosecutors alleged that nearly all of the money taken in by the site came from its adult services section – including some $51 million in California alone from 2013 to 2015. Prosecutors also alleged that 2,900 incidents of suspected child sex trafficking were alleged to have occurred through Backpage since 2012.
A raft of criminal charges against the men behind the site: Carl Ferrer, former New Times and Village Voice owners James Larkin and Michael Lacey soon followed in October 2016, the first ones for pimping and pandering that briefly landed the trio in a Sacramento jail cell following their arrest and extradition to California.
After a Sacramento Superior Court judge threw out the pimping charges on First Amendment grounds, state prosecutors refiled nearly 40 money laundering charges alleging Backpage created shell companies to hide the millions in advertising revenue they say were amassed from pimps, sex workers and the johns who paid for their services. That case continues to wend through the Sacramento courts. The case is before Sacramento Superior Court Judge Lawrence Brown.
Backpage attorneys were either unavailable or declined comment when contacted by The Bee Friday. Attorneys had argued from the outset of the case that federal legislation protecting publishers of third-party content shielded the site from prosecution and that the criminal case against Ferrer and his partners violated their First Amendment rights.