Web site CEO Carl Ferrer made his first appearance in a Sacramento courtroom Wednesday to face charges of using his Backpage.com to run a multi-million dollar sex trafficking and prostitution ring.
The appearance in Sacramento Superior Court comes days after Ferrer, 55, was arrested on a California warrant after arriving at Houston's Bush Intercontinental Airport on a flight from Amsterdam.
Ferrer, who remains held without bail at Sacramento County Main Jail, faces 10 felony charges including pimping of a minor, pimping and conspiracy to commit pimping, according to California Attorney General Kamala Harris, who in a statement said the arrested website executive and his leadership team "purposefully and unlawfully designed Backpage to be the world's top online brothel."
Backpage controlling shareholders Michael Lacey and James Larkin were arraigned on charges of conspiracy to commit pimping. All three men are to return to court Thursday, when they are expected to enter pleas.
They also are scheduled for a Nov. 16 hearing where defense attorneys plan to argue against the complaint, saying it violates their clients’ First Amendment rights.
The charges against the men are the result of a three-year joint investigation by Texas and California attorneys general official.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reported 2,900 incidents of suspected child sex trafficking since 2012 that occurred through the adult entertainment site’s classified ads, according to an affidavit.
State attorney general's officials said nearly all of the website's income from January 2013 through March 2015 came from its adult section, while in California almost all of its $51 million in self-reported revenue from the same two-year period was made through advertising, officials said.
Sex Workers Outreach Project of Sacramento, a sex workers’ advocacy group says the arrests fail to address the root causes of sexual exploitation and set a “dangerous precedent for free speech.”
Group member Kimberlee Cline said online sites like Backpage.com provide a safer, more independent outlet for those working in the sex industry. Cline, who attended Wednesday’s hearing, said shutting down the website and its online advertising would put sex workers at greater risk, sending them back to the streets to ply their trade.
“I don’t think this is relevant to helping the people who are struggling. If Backpage closes down, they’ll look for less safe avenues of work,” Cline said outside the courtroom. “Nothing is happening in that courtroom that’s going to help people. It’s going to make people a lot less safe.”