In her new book Taking Down Backpage (NYU Press), prosecutor Maggy Krell tells the behind-the-scenes story of how she and her team started with the prosecution of street pimps and ultimately battled the corporate sex-trafficking monolith Backpage.com, which operated in more than 800 cities throughout the world, raking in millions of dollars from commercial sex ads, including ads featuring children. In this excerpt from the book, Krell describes waiting for Backpage CEO Carl Ferrer to land on his flight from Amsterdam to Texas, so that her team could arrest him and execute a search warrant at Backpage’s Dallas headquarters.
Carl Ferrer’s flight from the Netherlands to Houston was the longest flight of my life that I was never on.
Once Homeland Security confirmed that he had boarded United Flight 21, we tracked it on the airline’s website, watching as it made its way across the world. And waiting. We couldn’t raid Backpage’s offices while Ferrer was in the air—inflight Wi-Fi might have notified him of our move, and he’d start destroying evidence and contacting others from whatever handheld device he had with him.
So we sat tight, making small talk and discussing the investigation ad nauseam, full of anxiety. At lunchtime, my Texas counterpart Kirsta Melton dragged me to a legendary Texas barbeque place. The man behind the counter filled my tray with cornbread, potatoes, pulled pork, sliced tri-tip, and greens. It looked fabulous. I couldn’t eat a bite. I snapped a photo and texted it to Cary, my husband, so that at least one of us could enjoy it. Then I resumed my obsessive monitoring of United.com.
At last, Flight 21 was approaching Texas. I texted my colleague Brian Fichtner, needing to do something, anything, to ease my anxiety:
Me: Hey, looks like his flight is landing soon?
Brian: Yeah, I should probably get to the airport.
He’d been there for hours, of course, waiting like me. And I knew that this arrest would be easy compared to the arrests that officers make every day in uncontrolled street environments, with armed subjects and no backup. I should have been calm. I should have been eating barbeque! But the stakes were too high. Years of my life and countless hours of work by dozens of good people were sunk into this operation. More importantly, what we did here today would stop thousands of victims from being sold for commercial rape and would prevent thousands more from getting ensnared in Backpage’s web.
Time crawled by. At last, when we knew Flight 21 was only moments from touching down, Kirsta, I, and several cars full of Texas agents parked in a lot behind Backpage’s headquarters.
Finally, we got a text: Flight 21 had landed. And Brian and his team arrested Carl Ferrer without incident.
Kirsta’s agents immediately stormed Backpage’s shiny glass office building. I had to wait. This was standard protocol: when nonarmed personnel such as lawyers, evidence technicians, and victim advocates accompany law enforcement on an operation, the officers enter first to ensure that there are no armed or dangerous individuals at the scene. Non-law-enforcement personnel are summoned after the officers give the “all clear” signal.
I sat in the car in a daze, waiting to be summoned. It was a cloudy, gray afternoon, just starting to drizzle. Through the rain-spattered windshield, I watched the last agents rush into the building.
We got him.
I thought about Leslie and Shyla and Andrea and Genevieve and Shenevla and Lizzie and Kim and Drea and Kayla and another Kayla and all the kids who had been sold on Backpage. I thought about what this would mean to them. Lizzie had said in her interview that nobody cared about girls like her. If they cared, they wouldn’t have allowed them to be sold for sex on Backpage. “How could it be illegal?” she’d asked. It was easier than ordering pizza.
I thought about Carissa Phelps, the tenacious survivor, leader, and lawyer who first talked to me about going after Backpage years ago, and how proud and gratified she would be that this day had finally come.
Then I thought, “What is taking them so long?”
As I reached for my phone, Kirsta appeared at the car window.
“Come on, girlie,” she said, a big smile on her face.
Before getting out of the car, I sent a text I’d been looking forward to for years.
Maggy: Watch the news.
Yiota: What’s going on? What can you tell me?
Maggy: I’ll call you later. But I’m in Dallas, Texas.
Yiota Souras, my tireless partner at the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, knew there was only one reason for me to be in Backpage’s hometown.
On my way into the building, I got a call from my press office, wanting to know if they could issue a news release. I told them to hold. Our first order of business was interviewing Ferrer’s employees—if those employees saw the news before we talked with them, it could influence whether or how they answered our questions. But as it turned out, the Texas attorney general was about to start a press conference, so that got away from me.
I followed Kirsta into the tall glass building at 2501 Oak Lawn Ave. The scene was chaotic: dozens of freaked-out employees were meandering around bullpen-style cubicles, while twenty or so Texas agents did their best to create order. As Kirsta and her team identified the employees and began the interviews, I went in search of Ferrer’s office.
It was a large corner room with broad glass windows. He had a bottle of Macallan whisky on a shelf and a certificate from the FBI for “outstanding cooperation” for all the times Backpage helped law enforcement “find” victims—whom Backpage then continued to exploit and victimize.
I steeled myself and examined the place, doing a mental inventory. I was sick to my stomach, standing in this room that had served as a command center for the world’s largest child-sex-trafficking operation. When agents came in for documents, I took the opportunity to escape.
After we dismissed the Backpage employees, we began identifying, seizing, and searching evidence: computers, hard drives, piles of papers, and binders of information. Following standard procedure, the officers sketched and labeled each office, listing what, if any, items would be taken. We needed to account for every piece of paper we took and precisely where we took it from. The details mattered. An incriminating document found in Ferrer’s shred bin had much- greater legal significance than one found in a low-level accountant’s cubicle. Moreover, if we couldn’t establish when and where we obtained an item, the court might deem it inadmissible. Despite the madness, our officers had to be organized, diligent, and totally meticulous.
The process should have been mind-numbing. In fact, it was gripping. We were looking for Backpage’s policies, its financial records, and evidence that Ferrer, James Larkin, and Michael Lacey knew they were enabling sex trafficking. We were looking for communications among the three of them. And we were looking for instructions and employee manuals directing employees on how to moderate sex ads. The documents would bolster our case that Backpage was no mere internet platform but an informed, financially invested, and active enabler of sex trafficking.
The search started in the afternoon. We ordered pizza around eleven that night, careful to prop the doors open since we didn’t have keys. All the agents were there, combing through files, until the following afternoon.
Larkin and Lacey were still at large. Eventually, their attorneys contacted us, and we made arrangements for them to turn themselves in, which spared them the embarrassment of a public arrest. They both showed up at the Sacramento jail and stayed in custody that weekend, pending arraignment.
At some point that evening of Ferrer’s arrest, I left the Backpage offices with two Texas agents. We wanted to track down a former employee who had been deeply involved in Backpage’s finances and who would have been an ideal witness for us. He wasn’t home, but we decided to wait a bit. While I was in the car, I called Yiota. She told me she was getting bombarded with calls from victims, from victims’ parents, and from other advocates at NCMEC. Everyone was crying with joy and overwhelmed with gratitude. An entire movement was rejoicing that Ferrer had been arrested. As sleep-deprived and brain-fogged as I was, for a few precious moments I was able to step back and relish how far we’d come. It felt unbelievably good.
Excerpt from Taking Down Backpage: Fighting the World’s Largest Sex Trafficker by Maggy Krell, printed with permission from NYU Press.