Backpage.com founders, five others indicted on prostitution-related charges

WASHINGTON, April 9 (Reuters) - Seven people associated with the sex ad website Backpage.com, including its founders Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin, are facing charges of knowingly facilitating prostitution as part of a 93-count indictment that was unsealed on Monday.

The indictment, which also includes money laundering charges, was made public after Backpage.com and its affiliated websites were seized on Friday by U.S. federal law enforcement authorities and taken off the internet.

Lawmakers and law enforcement officials have long been working to crack down on the website, which was used primarily to sell sex and was the second largest classified ad service in the United States after Craigslist.

Backpage and some advocacy groups have argued that the ads on the site were free speech protected by the U.S. Constitution.

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Controversy surrounding Backpage.com
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Controversy surrounding Backpage.com
An image of the current home page of the website backpage.com shows logos of U.S. law enforcement agencies after they seized the sex marketplace site April 6, 2018. backpage.com via REUTERS
Backpage.com CEO Carl Ferrer, left, former owner James Larkin, former owner Michael Lacey and COO Andrew Padilla, in Sacramento Superior Court on October 12, 2016. (Hector Amezcua/Sacramento Bee/TNS via Getty Images)
Carl Ferrer is pictured in this photo from his driver's license. Ferrer, the chief executive of advertising website Backpage.com, was arrested on Thursday on criminal charges including pimping, as authorities investigate the company which has been accused of facilitating sex trafficking of minors. Texas Attorney General?s Office/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY
Backpage.com CEO Carl Ferrer, center, and controlling shareholders James Larkin, left, and Michael Lacey, right, listen to Sacramento Superior Court Judge Lawrence Brown during a hearing on Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2017, in Sacramento Superior Court. (Hector Amezcua/Sacramento Bee/TNS via Getty Images)
Backpage.com CEO Carl Ferrer, left, former owner James Larkin, former owner Michael Lacey and COO Andrew Padilla, in Sacramento Superior Court on Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2016. (Hector Amezcua/Sacramento Bee/TNS via Getty Images)
Greg Reese, president of Clear Image Investigations, exits the hotel room of a girl he had contacted through backpage.com. A group of about a dozen people meet every other Friday night to try to reach out to and rescue women engaged in prostitution. While inside, Reese made a 5 minute pitch to the girl to see if she is interested in leaving the business. Before he left she let him pray with her. (Photo by Rick Loomis/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
Norma Manzo and Greg Reese work to set up a 'date' with a prostitute using the internet and a throwaway cell phone. A group of about a dozen people meet every other Friday night to try to reach out to and rescue women engaged in prostitution. They scour listings for escorts on backpage.com looking for young women. One of the members, Greg Reese, a private investigator, makes contact and arranges a 'date' - usually a local hotel. One contact is made, Reese makes a 5 minute pitch to the girl to see if she is interested in leaving the business. (Photo by Rick Loomis/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
Kevin Brown, left, a retired police officer turned pastor, leads a short prayer in a Santa Ana parking lot before the group sets out on a mission. A group of about a dozen people meet every other Friday night to try to reach out to and rescue women engaged in prostitution. They scour listings for escorts on backpage.com looking for young women. One of the members, Greg Reese, a private investigator, makes contact and arranges a 'date' - usually a local hotel. One contact is made, Reese makes a 5 minute pitch to the girl to see if she is interested in leaving the business. (Photo by Rick Loomis/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
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The unsealed indictment, returned by a federal grand jury in Arizona, lays out details concerning 17 alleged victims, including both adults and minors as young as 14 years old, who were trafficked on the site.

In one case, a customer murdered one of the victims and attempted to burn her corpse, an official from the U.S. Attorney's Office in Arizona said. Later, when the victim's father tried to have his daughter's pictures and ads taken down, the website did not immediately comply, according to the official.

In the indictment, the U.S. Justice Department accuses Backpage of earning $500 million in prostitution-related revenue since its inception in 2004, and of money laundering that entailed routing funds through seemingly unrelated entities, wiring money in and out of foreign accounts and converting it into and out of bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies.

Backpage associates were also actively involved in editing ads and advising on how they should be worded, according to the indictment.

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Los Angeles Police Department's (LAPD) vice squad
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Los Angeles Police Department's (LAPD) vice squad
LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 31: Vice squad officers with the Los Angeles Police Department draw their pistols on 4 people in a car January 31, 2013 before they're searched, arrested and brought to South Central's 77th Street Division station on charges of prostitution in Los Angeles, California. While the charge of soliciting, supervising or loitering with the intent to commit prostitution is a misdemeanor, the four will be held for 2-4 days until they're formally charged. In South Central Los Angeles, prostitution is rampant and often controlled by pimps who are former Bloods or Crips gang members. (Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - MAY 16: Officers of the Los Angeles Police Department's vice squad arrest a woman May 16, 2017 in the southeast area of Los Angeles, California. The woman was arrested for soliciting an undercover police officer for the purpose of prostitution, a misdemeanor charge. (Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - MAY 18: Officer Valerie Lancaster, an officer with the Los Angeles Police Department's vice squad, records the personal possessions of 13 women arrested earlier in the day at the South East division's police headquarters May 18, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. The women were arrested for soliciting undercover police officers for the purpose of prostitution. The thirteen women were arrested in 30-minutes starting at 5:35am along Figueroa Street, a renowned thoroughfare for prostitution. (Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - MAY 18: Officer Valerie Lancaster, an officer with the Los Angeles Police Department's vice squad, records the personal possessions of 13 women arrested earlier in the day at the South East division's police headquarters May 18, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. The women were arrested for soliciting undercover police officers for the purpose of prostitution, a misdemeanor charge. The thirteen women were arrested in 30-minutes starting at 5:35am along Figueroa Street, a renowned thoroughfare for prostitution. (Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - MAY 18: Officer Marcos Mercado, an officer with the Los Angeles Police Department's vice squad speaks into his radio after the arrest of three women May 18, 2017 in the southeast area of Los Angeles, California. The women were arrested for soliciting undercover police officers for the purpose of prostitution. Thirteen women were arrested in 30-minutes starting at 5:35am along Figueroa Street, a renowned thoroughfare for prostitution. (Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - MAY 18: Police officers with the Los Angeles Police Department's vice squad count the cash found with the 13 women arrested earlier in the day at the South East division's police headquarters May 18, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. The women, seen behind, were arrested for soliciting undercover police officers for the purpose of prostitution, a misdemeanor charge. The cash will be returned to the women once they're released. The thirteen women were arrested in 30-minutes starting at 5:35am along Figueroa Street, a renowned thoroughfare for prostitution. (Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - MAY 16: Officer Valerie Lancaster, right, from the Los Angeles Police Department's Vice Squad arrests a woman May 16, 2017 in the southeast area of Los Angeles, California. The woman was arrested for soliciting a plain clothes officer for the purposes of prostitution, a misdemeanor charge. (Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - MAY 17: Police officer Marcos Mercado, an officer with the Los Angeles Police Department's vice squad, watches over an arrest being made of a woman May 17, 2017 in the southeast area of Los Angeles, California. The woman was arrested for soliciting an undercover police officer for the purpose of prostitution. In a gang infested neighborhood, police observe their colleagues during an arrest process for who is watching them as a form of counter-surveillance and protection. (Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - MAY 17: O A warning sign is attached fro a door of a motel along Figueroa Street where the Los Angeles Police Department's vice squad often arrest prostitutes and their clients May 17, 2017 in the southeast area of Los Angeles, California. This area of Figueroa Street is a main thoroughfare for prostitutes. (Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - MAY 16: Officer Valerie Lancaster from the Los Angeles Police Department's Vice Squad arrests a woman May 16, 2017 in the southeast area of Los Angeles, California. The woman was arrested for soliciting a plain clothes officer for the purposes of prostitution, a misdemeanor charge. (Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - MAY 17: Police officer Marcos Mercado, an officer with the Los Angeles Police Department's vice squad, runs after two women at a train station who solicited a police officer for sex May 17, 2017 in the southeast area of Los Angeles, California. The women managed to escape onto a departing train. (Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - MAY 18: Officer Valerie Lancaster, an officer with the Los Angeles Police Department's vice squad, records the personal possessions of 13 women arrested earlier in the day at the South East division's police headquarters May 18, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. The women, seen behind, were arrested for soliciting undercover police officers for the purpose of prostitution, a misdemeanor charge. The thirteen women were arrested in 30-minutes starting at 5:35am along Figueroa Street, a renowned thoroughfare for prostitution. (Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - MAY 17: An officer of the Los Angeles Police Department fingerprints a 17-year old woman following her arrest May 17, 2017 in the southeast area of Los Angeles, California. The underage woman was arrested for soliciting an undercover police officer for the purpose of prostitution. (Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - MAY 17: Police officer Marcos Mercado, an officer with the Los Angeles Police Department's vice squad, runs after two women at a train station who solicited a police officer for sex May 17, 2017 in the southeast area of Los Angeles, California. The women managed to escape onto a departing train. (Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - MAY 16: Officers of the Los Angeles Police Department's vice squad arrest a woman May 16, 2017 in the southeast area of Los Angeles, California. The woman was arrested for soliciting an undercover police officer for the purpose of prostitution, a misdemeanor charge. Her left arm is tattooed with a crown signifying her pimp's ownership and a letter representing her pimp's initial. (Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - MAY 17: An officer of the Los Angeles Police Department fingerprints a 17-year old woman following her arrest May 17, 2017 in the southeast area of Los Angeles, California. The under-age woman was arrested for soliciting an undercover police officer for the purpose of prostitution, a misdemeanor charge. (Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - MAY 18: Officers of the Los Angeles Police Department's vice squad prepare thirteen women for transportation after being arrested for prostitution May 18, 2017 in the southeast area of Los Angeles, California. The women were arrested for soliciting undercover police officers for the purpose of prostitution. All thirteen women were arrested in 30-minutes starting at 5:35am along Figueroa Street, a renowned thoroughfare for prostitution. (Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 2: A pair of hand-cuffs hangs on a holding room door February 2, 2013 used by the Los Angeles Police Department's South Central's 77th Street Division station in Los Angeles, California. Each night the holding rooms are filled with suspects picked up by the division's vice squad and charged with prostitution. In South Central Los Angeles, prostitution flourishes and is often controlled by pimps who are former Bloods or Crips gang members. (Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 2: A 17-year old girl in hand-cuffs is questioned February 2, 2013 by a vice squad policeman, Sergeant Brian Gallagher, with the Los Angeles Police Department's South Central's 77th Street Division about committing prostitution in Los Angeles, California. While the charge of soliciting or loitering with the intent to commit prostitution is a misdemeanor, the girl will be held for 2-4 days. As a minor, the girl was formally charged with loitering with the intent to engage in acts of prostitution. The majority of juveniles arrested for prostitution in Los Angeles county come from the city's foster care program. In 2010, police in Los Angeles arrested 174 juveniles for prostitution. In South Central Los Angeles, prostitution flourishes and is often controlled by pimps who are former Bloods or Crips gang members. (Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - MAY 16: Officer Valerie Lancaster, left, from the Los Angeles Police Department's Vice Squad arrests a woman May 16, 2017 in the southeast area of Los Angeles, California. The woman was arrested for soliciting a plain clothes officer for the purposes of prostitution, a misdemeanor charge. (Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY A vice squad officer with the Los Angeles Police Department checks the contents of a car driven by a man suspected of being a pimp or a potential client January 31, 2013 after he was seen associating with a prostitute in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 1: Women who are about to be charged with prostitution by vice squad officers of the Los Angeles Police Department February 1, 2013 wait in a holding cell at the South Central's 77th Street Division station in Los Angeles, California. While the charge of soliciting or loitering with the intent to commit prostitution is a misdemeanor, the women will be held for 2-4 days until they're formally charged. In South Central Los Angeles, prostitution is rampant and often controlled by pimps who are former Bloods or Crips gang members. (Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 1: A woman under arrest has her hand-cuffs removed in a holding cell February 1, 2013 by vice squad officer with the Los Angeles Police Department's South Central's 77th Street Division station on a charge of prostitution in Los Angeles, California. While the charge of soliciting or loitering with the intent to commit prostitution is a misdemeanor, the woman will be held for 2-4 days until she's formally charged. In South Central Los Angeles, prostitution is rampant and often controlled by pimps who are former Bloods or Crips gang members. (Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 31: Vice squad officers with the Los Angeles Police Department take information from a hand-cuffed man, 2nd left, January 31, 2013 and two women, center and right, before they are brought to South Central's 77th Street Division station on related charges of prostitution in Los Angeles, California. While the charge of soliciting or loitering with the intent to commit prostitution is a misdemeanor, the suspects will be held for 2-4 days until they're formally charged. In South Central Los Angeles, prostitution is rampant and often controlled by pimps who are former Bloods or Crips gang members. (Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)
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The indictment relies on the same law used in a similar case in California several years ago against the founder of MyRedbook.com, who pleaded guilty to charges that the website hosted ads largely posted by prostitutes.

A Justice Department official said the case against Backpage does not rely on sex trafficking charges, but rather on charges connected to prostitution, which are easier to prosecute.

To prove sex trafficking, prosecutors would need to show each individual ad either involved a minor, or featured an adult who was selling sex through force or coercion.

Last month, Congress passed legislation that makes it easier for state prosecutors and sex-trafficking victims to sue website operators that facilitate online sex trafficking.

The bill, which President Donald Trump is expected to sign into law this week, amends the Communications Decency Act, which largely shielded website operators from state criminal charges or civil liability if they were facilitating sex ads or prostitution.

Efforts to get that law changed were featured prominently in a Netflix documentary called "I am Jane Doe."

(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch, Editing by Rosalba O'Brien)

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