Indictment Unsealed, 93 Criminal Charges Detailed

CYBERSPACE—The United States Justice Department late Monday unsealed a massive, 93-count criminal indictment against the co-founders of the online classified ad site, and five other top executives at the site—an indictment that contains graphic details of crimes, including murder, against 17 victims who the government alleges were trafficked through ads on Backpage, according to the news agency Reuters

In addition to charges of facilitating prostitution, the indictment also charges the Backpage execs and founders with laundering millions of dollars that the site collected through prostitution advertising. The indictment clams that Backpage raked in more than a half-billion bucks in what it calls "prostitution-related revenue."

The seven people charged with various felonies in the indictment include site co-founders Michael Lacey, 69, and James Larkin, 68, both of Paradise Valley, Arizona.

Also indicted were Backpage executives Scott Spear, 67, of Scottsdale, Arizona; John E. “Jed” Brunst, 66, of Phoenix, Arizona; Daniel Hyer, 49, of Dallas, Texas; Andrew Padilla, 45, of Plano, Texas; and Jaala Joye Vaught, 37, of Addison, Texas.

The entire indictment against the Backpage founders and executives may be downloaded in PDF form by clicking on this link

Federal law enforcement authorities “seized” the domain on Friday, taking all of the site’s content offline. Instead, visitors to the site saw the announcement from the Justice Department pictured at the top of this page.

In the few days since the site was shut down, numerous sex workers have come forward to defend the site, saying that it offered a safe forum in which they could offer their services, and provided tools that helped them make a living from the sex work profession.

Lacey’s attorney, Paul Cambria, slammed the charges as “baseless” and called the federal shutdown and prosecution of the site’s founders and operators a “massive assault on the First Amendment.” Cambria is well-known for defending controversial First Amendment cases, previously representing Hustler Magazine founder Larry Flynt, rock star Marilyn Manson and rapper DMX, among others.

But the indictment alleges that the Backpage execs were not only aware that underage children as young as 14 years old were being offered for prostitution via the site’s advertisements, but that the site had an “official policy” of rewriting ad copy to conceal that fact that children were being offered for sex in the ads.

Investigators found emails in which Backpage employees discuss how to doctor advertisements to keep law enforcement in the dark while at the same time maintaining good relations with the customers who placed the ads.

In the indictment's most dramatic passages, however, federal prosecutors detail alleged incidents of horrifying crimes committed by customers who answered Backpage ads, against prostitutes whose services were offered through the site.

One victim was stabbed to death by a customer who answered a Backpage ad, while another was also murdered by a man who then tried to dispose of her body by incinerating it, according to the indictment. In another incident, a 15-year-old victim was gang-raped and forced to perform sex acts at gunpoint after being offered for sexual services through Backpage, the indictment claims.

Though the indictment says that Lacey privately boasted that Backpage “was part of the solution” to making prostitution a safer business, in fact, according to prosecutors, the site did little to aid law enforcement in curtailing child prostitution.

“Backpage has allowed such ads to be published while declining—for financial reasons—to take necessary steps to address the problem,” the indictment alleges.