Crime - Sacto 911

Teen girls say they were sold for sex, sue

Sex worker advocate says case prosecuting the wrong people

Kristen DiAngelo speaks after CEO Carl Ferrer and controlling shareholders Michael Lacey and James Larkin appear in Sacramento Superior Court on Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2016.
Up Next
Kristen DiAngelo speaks after CEO Carl Ferrer and controlling shareholders Michael Lacey and James Larkin appear in Sacramento Superior Court on Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2016.

Five teenage girls who say they were sold for sex on the advertising website have sued the site and its embattled executives in California and three other states, alleging the team behind the website created an online marketplace for sex trafficking, attorneys for the teens announced Wednesday.

The girls, ranging in age from 14 to 16 at the time of the alleged sex-for-sale transactions, filed suit in Riverside Superior Court in Southern California, as well as courthouses in Tacoma, Wash., Dallas and Alabama. The girls allege in the suits that they were advertised on between 2013 and 2015, and that helped traffickers avoid the law by doctoring ads used to sell sex.

The four lawsuits were spurred by a Senate subcommittee’s investigative report released earlier this month alleging Backpage CEO Carl Ferrer and partners, former Village Voice and Phoenix New Times owners Michael Lacey and James Larkin, knowingly facilitated online sex trafficking including child sex trafficking, Seattle attorney Jason Amala, who represents the two Washington state girls, said in a statement.

“(Backpage) has gone to great lengths to conceal its involvement in sex trafficking, but the truth is finally coming out,” Amala said in the statement.

The civil filings are the latest in a growing list of legal troubles for Ferrer, Lacey and Larkin, who face arraignment Feb. 9 in Sacramento Superior Court on 39 criminal counts brought by state attorney general’s prosecutors of money laundering, pimping, pandering and conspiracy connected to alleged sex trafficking and child sex trafficking on the site.

State prosecutors filed the charges in January after an earlier batch of pimping and pandering allegations that briefly sent the three men to jail were thrown out by a Sacramento Superior Court judge on free speech grounds in December.

Attorneys for Backpage called the new charges “utter nonsense” in a dismissal filing last week, but declined to speak to reporters after a brief hearing Tuesday in Sacramento Superior Court. The attorneys have argued since the Backpage’s executives arrests in September and October that Backpage and its team are third-party content providers immune from prosecution because they did not produce the ads soliciting sex online.

But California attorney general’s prosecutors and the Senate subcommittee say the site’s adult services section was a treasure trove of illicit profits taking in tens of millions of dollars in ad revenue from pimps, prostitutes and their online johns, calling the site “the leading online marketplace for commercial sex.”

They say Ferrer and others at Backpage concealed criminal conduct, sanitized ads by pruning them of sex trafficking terms that would draw scrutiny, and opened other corporate entities to launder funds. A clutch of holding companies along with New Times Media and Netherlands-based UGC Tech Group, are also named in the civil actions.

Ferrer, Lacey and Larkin declined to testify at a Capitol Hill hearing on the report on the day after its release, invoking their rights against self-incrimination.

Backpage’s adult services section went dark the day the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations released its findings, citing “unconstitutional government censorship.”

Users seeking Backpage’s adult section are now met with the word “censored” in red letters under its headings for dominatrices, escorts and strip clubs. A click on the red-lettered icon reveals a message to users that “The United States Government has unconstitutionally censored this content.”

But critics claim content from the adult section has merely been moved to the site’s dating section.

A disclaimer on the site’s dating section cautions users that the section contains sexual content including nudity and asks users to agree to report suspected exploitation of minor and/or human trafficking to authorities.

Darrell Smith: 916-321-1040, @dvaughnsmith

Related stories from Sacramento Bee