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Courts & Trials

How Backpage.com Became Embroiled in a Legal Battle Over Sex Trafficking

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From left, Backpage.com CEO Carl Ferrer, former owner James Larkin, COO Andrew Padilla and former owner Michael Lacey in January while testifying before the U.S. Senate.
Cliff Owen/AP

Only 15 years old at the time, a girl known as J.S. — one of several sex trafficking survivors in the new documentary film I Am Jane Doe, in theaters today — was rescued from a hotel room and reunited with her family. Now, she along with others around the country are suing Backpage.com, an online marketplace they argue allowed the selling of minors for sex.

The classifieds site’s CEO, Carl Ferrer, and its former owners, Michael Lacey and James Larkin, have been accused in J.S.’ lawsuit of knowingly permitting the trafficking of underage girls.

“Child sex trafficking in America today is a corporate enterprise,” says Yiota Souras, general counsel for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. “Child sex trafficking happens in every state, in every community, in every jurisdiction. It’s big business and it’s one of the worst crimes imaginable.”

A blistering bipartisan report released last month from the U.S. Senate’s Subcommittee on Investigations found that “Backpage has knowingly concealed evidence of criminality by systematically editing” advertisements to disguise the fact that they involve prostitution and child sex trafficking.

“The profit they were making was obscene,” says Sen. Claire McCaskill, who co-authored the report. “And the fact they were comfortable making that profit on the backs of children that were being sold for sex — it’s hard to contemplate that kind of evil.”

However, many of the suits against Backpage have been dismissed due to to the Communications Decency Act, a federal law which protects websites from liability from third-party content, such as ads, hosted on their sites.

• For more on J.S. and her fight against sex trafficking, subscribe now to PEOPLE or pick up this week’s issue, on newsstands now.

Attorneys for Backpage executives have not commented on the Senate report or the lawsuits. But earlier this year, the website suspended its section for “adult” advertisements.

The site’s attorney Elizabeth McDougall claimed the section actually assisted law enforcement.

“It breaks my heart we had to shut it down,” she says. “Now the cops don’t know where to find the kids or find the evidence. It hasn’t stopped anything.”

The state of California recently charged Ferrer, Lacey and Larkin with money laundering and conspiracy to commit pimping. All three have pleaded not guilty to the charges and are free on bail.

In a hearing Thursday, their defense said the charges were baseless.

“All they did was publish and get paid,” said attorney James Grant, according to the Sacramento Bee. He argued that prosecutors were instead cracking down on “free speech.” Another hearing is scheduled for March.

• Want to keep up with the latest crime coverage? Click here to get breaking crime news, ongoing trial coverage and details of intriguing unsolved cases in the True Crime Newsletter

Meanwhile, J.S.’s attorney Erik Bauer is scheduled to go to trial against Backpage in April. Bauer calls the family courageous for taking on a multimillion-dollar company.

J.S.’s mother, Nacole, says her battle against Backpage is simple.

“We are not wanting to shut down the Internet,” she says. “Our goal is to make sure that no other child or family goes through what we’ve suffered.”