The U. Attorney's Office in Phoenix unsealed indictments Monday against seven people associated with Back, officially charging that the classified advertising website operated as a thinly-veiled and lucrative online brothel. Among the two named in the count indictment are the co-founders of Back, Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin.
They had ly been the editor and publisher, respectively, of New Timesa Phoenix alternative weekly newspaper. The indictment charged the pair, along with others, of conspiring to knowingly facilitate prostitution offenses through the website.
Authorities contend some of the trafficked people included teenage girls.
Prosecutors have asked that both Lacey and Larkin be detained before trial, "unless and until stringent release conditions are imposed. It does not appear prosecutors asked a court for these conditions on any of the other defendants.
Back had long defended the posting in its escortsaying it was not responsible for the consequences of created by others. It also said its website provided a tool for law enforcement to find and rescue exploited women and girls.
The indictment instead said Back only wanted to create the perception that it was attempting to stop the selling of children for sex. Caution: Contains graphic language. The were sometimes written in a code deciphered by law enforcement and activists and seemingly understood by customers.
As the website became a popular spot for "escort"it also became the target of civil lawsuits and state statutes. Ferrer, who had been a co-defendant with Lacey and Larkin in other cases, was not charged Monday in the federal case.
The indictment contains several references to a C. Back evaded charges and judges dismissed civil lawsuits based on a federal law that said websites were not liable for postings created by others. Congress altered that law last month, saying such liability doesn't extend to websites that knowingly facilitate sex trafficking.
The federal grand jury spent more than a year hearing evidence in the case.
Word of the grand jury probe was first mentioned in a February court filing by Back attorneys as part of a civil lawsuit in Washington. One month before, the U. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations had released a report that concluded the website's operators carefully tailored wording in the to mask potential illegal activity. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo, said the report could serve as a road map for prosecutors to bring criminal charges against Back.
The prostitution charges are largely based on s sent among Back employees that showed them discussing what phrases or images could be allowed. The guidelines seemed to shift, the s showed, based on whether executives thought they were more prone to scrutiny by law enforcement.
Some s showed employees discussing how to censor the without invoking the ire of its customers, the people posting the. The indictment, returned by a grand jury that spent at least 14 months listening to evidence, lists 50 specific instances where were alleged to have been used to facilitate prostitution.
It also summarized the experiences of 17 victims trafficked through the website, according to Cosme Lopez, a spokesman for the U. Attorney's Office in Phoenix. One victim was killed by a customer she met through an ad, Lopez said, during a Friday briefing.
Several of the victims were as young as 14 when trafficked, he said. The indictment, Lopez said, also contains more than 40 counts of money laundering. Money, Lopez said, was wired into and out of foreign countries and converted to Bitcoin and other so-called crypto-currencies.
Lacey and Larkin sold their interest in Back in Lacey's charges were first reported by The Republic on Fridaythe day his Sedona area home was the site of activity involving FBI agents. On Friday, Lacey's attorney, Larry Kazan, had not yet seen which of the 93 charges related to his client, as portions of the indictment provided to him were still redacted.
The Back website, and its associated websites, carried a banner on Friday announcing they had been seized by federal law enforcement agencies. At times, the banner would not be present and Back's normal site appeared.
But users received an error message when clicking on any category. That banner also said the Justice Department earlier would release more information on the case by 3 p. Arizona time on Friday. By that time, officials said in a background briefing, all the accused would have had their initial appearance in court.
But, as the court closed on Friday night, a spokesperson for the Department of Justice said in an that a judge had ruled the case was still under seal and no new information would be forthcoming. Larkin, Spear and Brunst appeared for their initial appearance Monday afternoon in federal court.
All three pleaded not guilty.
In nearly matching motions, prosecutors said both Larkin and Lacey posed ificant flight risks based on the "nature of the charges" and "massive financial resources" and "frequent international travels. These factors, the prosecutors said, suggest each man "could easily flee the country and use the wealth he has stashed overseas to live out the remainder of his life, in lavish style, as a fugitive. It appeared, from court documents, that Lacey and Larkin were the only two defendants the government wanted to be detained.
Spear and Brunst were ordered released from the courthouse on Monday.
The custody status of Hyer, Padilla and Vaught was not clear. Vaught, according to the Senate report, had supervisory roles over the people moderating .
In an e-mail quoted in the Senate report, Vaught criticized an employee who alerted the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children about an ad the employee thought contained an underage girl who appeared drugged and bruised. Padilla also supervised Back moderators.
Lacey was its longtime crusading editor; Larkin, who ed New Times shortly after its founding, would become its publisher. The tabloid became known for aggressive award-winning reporting.
It also became known for satirical stunts, like having the Attorney General unknowingly pose for a cover photo with a felon who had just escaped from jail. Or announcing a fictitious program that would gives guns to homeless people in downtown Phoenix. New Times grew into a national empire of alternative weeklies. It eventually bought out the Village Voice in New York City, the most notable publication in the genre.
Back started as a classified ad website in The name comes from the title given to the literal back of the tabloid, which was filled with classified sold at a premium. It had been considered a nuisance crime of vice that police would either ignore or tolerate, so long as it was confined to certain parts of the city. But activists and politicians successfully redefined prostitution as domestic sex trafficking.
The women were not criminals, but victims in need of rescuing.
InCraigslist, bowing to pressure from law enforcement and advocates, shut down its adult section. According to an internal history of the company contained in a Senate report, Back saw a lucrative opening. Also a time when we need to make sure our content is not illegal.
Soon, Back became the home for the the purported to offer legal escorts as companions. According to the indictment,Back employed an automated system that screened out words possibly indicative of illegal activity, rather than passing that information on to law enforcement, investigators concluded. The business was lucrative.
The adult were among the few Back charged users to post. A February appraisal included in the U. Employees of Back told investigators with the U. Senate that it was common knowledge that prostitution was being conducted on the website.
Lacey and Larkin sold the New Times chain of newspapers inbut kept Back. At the time of the sale, Lacey said that he sold New Times because the furor over Back kept him from focusing on journalism.
Lacey said in an interview at the time that Back attempted to stop children from being sold on the website. The indictment unsealed Monday quotes an editorial that Lacey drafted, saying that Back was helping the prostitution industry. Facebook Twitter .
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