Breaking Backpage: A prosecutor’s quest to fight sex trafficking in America

·6 min read

It’s the best justice system money can buy.

As a prosecutor in California, Maggy Krell saw that unfairness daily, particularly when cops would do sweeps of streetwalkers. Pimps and johns who exploited prostitutes went free. The women went to jail.

Krell’s book, “Taking Down Backpage: Fighting the World’s Largest Sex Trafficker,” is about her yearslong fight to change that. And it explains how she defeated a billion-dollar business that profited from selling human beings, some as young as 12.

“Some say prostitution is a victimless crime,” Krell writes. “There in the San Joaquin County courtroom, I saw the defendants for the victims they truly were – thrust into scary Stockton parking lots on a nightly basis, nowhere else to go, no one to even call. … Who was making money off their misery?”

The answer, Krell ultimately decided, was the giant company promoting online listings for “Erotic Services.”

Her initial target was much smaller. Krell noticed many of the women met clients in a motel parking lot. After striking a deal, couples would go to the front desk, often staffed by the owner. Renting the room, he would also hand over a condom and even tell the man, “Have a good time.”

“The owner was not just complicit in making a living off the commercial sex trade but was actually promoting it,” Krell writes. “It kept him in business, and he did not care that a teenager might be getting raped in one of his dingy little rooms.”

The usual legal strategy would have been to charge the motel’s owner with operating a “public nuisance,” as if he were merely annoying the neighbors. Instead, Krell charged him with conspiracy to commit prostitution and pimping.

He pleaded guilty. The motel was shut down.

Naturally, the sex trade wasn’t.

A year later, in 2005, Krell became a California deputy attorney general. She spent the rest of the decade going after carjackers, gangbangers, and murderers. But, “I never forgot the women from the motel in Stockton,” she writes.

The state soon had a new attorney general, Kamala Harris, who spoke out regularly against human trafficking. By 2012, Krell became part of a small team with a simple goal: Instead of arresting the women turning tricks, go after the pimps who forced them.

“These women lived their entire lives inside a succession of dirty little rooms, having sex with strangers for money,” she writes. “These strangers found the brothels and massage parlors through websites, word of mouth, ads in foreign-language newspapers, and even business cards handed out at swap meets, casinos and bars.”

Eventually, Krell zeroed in on Backpage.com, where sex was for sale. Of course, it accepted ads for other things, but Krell guessed that was mostly a sham.

To prove it, her team placed two ads. One, featuring the photo of a young staffer, promised sex with a teenager. The other offered a nice, reasonably priced couch.

The sex ad garnered 806 replies within two days. The couch ad? Not one.

Clearly, Backpage.com was being used to promote prostitution, but there was a big hurdle, thanks to the Communications Decency Act. Under that 1996 law, sites like Backpage.com weren’t treated like old-fashioned newspapers but like modern bulletin boards. Owners weren’t legally responsible for what people posted.

Krell disagreed. Although Backpage executives made a show of cooperating with the FBI and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, agreeing to delete ads for underage girls. But the same photos would quickly reappear with a new ad.

The exploitation continued in this ugly cycle.

“When NCMEC suggested steps that would impact Backpage’s bottom line, it refused,” Krell writes. “In most cases, the trafficker could simply reconfigure the ad until Backpage accepted it. Rather than prevent sex trafficking, Backpage merely helped pimps thwart law enforcement.”

To Krell, Backpage.com seemed as complicit in the illegal sex trade as the motel owner who passed out condoms. But proving that would be difficult. The company had teams of lawyers. Many judges would see any prosecution as an attack on the First Amendment.

Talking to Harris, Krell painstakingly laid out both the evidence and the difficulty in getting a conviction. The attorney general listened carefully, then gave her opinion: “Go get ‘em,” Harris said.

Nothing about this would be easy, starting with the logistics. Krell obtained arrest warrants for the three men at the top of the Backpage business – Carl Ferrer, Jim Larkin and Michael Lacey. All, however, had multiple addresses. And Ferrer, Krell’s team learned, was currently in the Netherlands.

When Ferrer returned to the U.S, though, on Oct. 6, 2016, law enforcement was waiting. And as he was being arrested, Backpage’s offices were being raided. Attorneys for Larkin and Lacey quickly contacted the authorities. The two men surrendered in Sacramento.

The obstacles Krell expected soon arose. Editorials attacked the case as an assault on free speech or a cheap career move by Harris. At the first hearing, protestors rallied outside in defense of sex workers. Inside, a team of defense attorneys laughed off the charges as absurd.

“I am the First Amendment lawyer,” one attorney announced, approaching Krell. “First Amendment,” he repeated. “Did you do any constitutional research before filing this?”

Eventually, the judge agreed with him. On Dec. 9, 2016, he dismissed the case, saying that while “the court understands the importance and urgency in waging war against sexual exploitation,” the Communications Decency Act provided the defendants with a “complete shield” against prosecution.

Krell was devastated. But too determined to be defeated.

There were other charges still to consider. Money laundering, for example, didn’t involve a tricky free speech issue but the defendants’ own actions. Working with a forensic accountant, Krell drew a paper trail, mapping how money from Backpage ads was collected, received, and ultimately concealed.

Two days before Christmas, she filed new charges.

“I knew we would be attacked,” she writes. “I expected the defense to kick and scream, possibly even demand sanctions or try and take my bar card. I knew that they would use their money, their power and every tool at their disposal to dismantle me and my case. And I didn’t care.”

Krell was confident because she had something extra on her side. She had corporate emails, many of them detailing ways Backpage got around financial regulations.

Ferrer’s name was on many of them, and he folded first. In exchange for a five-year prison sentence, he pleaded guilty to money laundering and conspiracy, agreeing to forfeit company assets and fully cooperate in the prosecution of his former partners.

The pressure against online sex ads grew. There were federal charges against the company now, too. And In April 2018, a new law, the Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act, removed Communications Decency Act protection from internet providers who knowingly facilitated sex trafficking.

It was the end of the site, but not the end of the story.

The case against Larkin and Lacey drags on. Even though Backpage.com was shut down, a current quick computer search for “sex escorts” turns up 6.9 million results. “Find verified high-class escorts, prostitutes, crack whores, and street hookers,” promises one.

The world of exploitation continues.

But, at least in one small corner of it, justice was done.