Three former owners of the website Backpage, a site mainly known as a place where sex workers advertise their services, have been convicted for federal crimes including promoting prostitution and money laundering, the US Department of Justice announced on Friday.
The recently convicted trio, Michael Lacey, 75, Scott Spear, 72, and John “Jed” Brunst, 71, came to own Backpage in 2010. Since then, the government says, they encouraged sex work ads by creating a system for “johns”, or customers, to leave reviews about the sex workers they had engaged with. Website workers and an automated system filtered out words that made it obvious that sex was being offered in exchange for money.
“Through this attempt to sanitize the ads, the conspirators sought ‘plausible deniability’ for what the conspirators knew to be ads promoting prostitution,” the justice department said in a statement.
Backpage, founded in 2004 by Lacey and his partner, James Larkin, as an answer to Craigslist, has been at odds with the US government and law enforcement for more than a decade for facilitating sex work and over allegations that Backpage gave child sex traffickers a safe space to post victims. These allegations and government actions to weaken Backpage have been decried by first amendment and sex work advocates alike.
In 2018, Larkin and Lacey were arrested for allegedly facilitating prostitution and money laundering and had their assets seized. That same year the site was shut down by the US government, and Carl Ferrer, another of Backpage’s co-founders and the then CEO, and Dan Hyer, Backpage’s sales and marketing director, pleaded guilty to those same charges.
In 2021, an Arizona judge declared a mistrial in the case of Larkin and Lacey after they found that prosecutors’ arguments hinged on the horrors of child sex trafficking even though neither defendant was facing charges related to it. The new trial was scheduled to start at the beginning of August of this year, but days before, Larkin died by suicide.
Lacey, Spear and Brunst each face 20 years for each count of money laundering.