The Senate Accused Them of Selling Kids for Sex. The FBI Raided Their Homes. Backpage.com’s Founders Speak for the First Time. “An inside look at how indie media veterans James Larkin and Michael Lacey became the targets of a federal witchhunt.”
Both men argue that the case against them is politically motivated and that current stalling on the state’s part is designed to force a plea. But “they’re going to have to win this in court,” says Lacey, “and we don’t think they can. And our lawyers don’t think they can.”
Officially, Larkin, Lacey, and several of their former colleagues were accused of money laundering, conspiracy, and violating the Travel Act, which says local crimes become federal business when they cross state lines. But in the court of public opinion, you’ll hear that they were complicit in facilitating underage prostitution as the founders and former owners of the now-shuttered classified ad website Backpage.
After its 2004 launch, Backpage became inextricably linked in the popular imagination with sex trafficking, thanks to a relentless campaign by well-funded activists, government lawyers, and some of the nation’s most prominent politicians. Officials heralded the April 2018 FBI seizure of the website and the arrests of Lacey and Larkin as a major victory against the exploitation of women and children.
Yet even the charges both men face hint at the weakness of that story. Neither Lacey nor Larkin is accused of directly participating in any sexual exchange or of having knowledge about any particular crimes advanced through the platform. In fact, law enforcement sources have over the years consistently applauded Backpage for its help making cases against predators and locating runaway teens.
The story of their arrest, then, is better understood as one of near-religious fervor, government greed, and political retribution, in which an escalating panic over commercial sex coincided with a booming online publishing platform.