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In Junean ad appeared on Back. He set her corpse on fire in an attempt to destroy the evidence. At the time, Back was the largest online publisher of sex in the world with city-specific sites spanning 97 countries. But it was also the scourge of law enforcement officials across the country whose investigative files teemed with hundreds of examples of cases that had connections to on the site: a young girl forced to perform sex acts at gun point, choked to the point of seizures and gang-raped; a woman whose pimp fed her drugs, stole her identification documents and sexually assaulted her with a firearm; yet another woman who tried to escape her pimp by jumping out of a vehicle on the highway and was run over and killed.

Attorneys general in multiple states had tried to shut down the site and prosecute its owners and all had failed.

A question of liability

The horror stories mentioned above formed the backbone of the case. Altogether, the officials face 93 federal charges of facilitating prostitution, money laundering and participating in a criminal conspiracy, which could send them to prison for upward of 20 years. The two men at the center of the operation, say federal investigators, were a pair of longtime media iconoclasts, Mike Lacey and Jim Larkin. Claire McCaskill D-Mo.

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The longtime business partners portray themselves as First Amendment martyrs, fighting to preserve free speech on the internet. Their innovation— Back.

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The sex-trade profiteering that helped make Larkin and Lacey incredibly wealthy leaves First Amendment purists feeling queasy. Not even their former colleagues can agree on whether to admire or renounce them. But Jana Bommersbach, who ed Phoenix New Times in and helped it become a tenacious, respected newspaper, takes a very different stance. At the heart of the case is a legal defense that has so far proved remarkably effective. Back has repeatedly evaded civil and criminal penalties over the past decade for its purported complicity in criminal enterprises. The reason Back has emerged largely unscathed from legal fights is that since federal law has provided broad protections for online publishers of third-party content.

Still, these prosecutions could be different.

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Another worrisome development for the seven defendants: former Back CEO Carl Ferrer has pleaded guilty to charges of money laundering and conspiracy to facilitate prostitution, and is expected to testify against his former colleagues. The story Ferrer is expected to tell is the last chapter in a nearly half-century saga that in many ways encapsulates the plight of print media in the digital age. Larkin and Lacey came of age crusading against government corruption and blasting away at the political and media establishment, often relying on First Amendment protections to help send bad guys to jail.

used coded language, officials say

Forced to adapt to a rapidly changing business model, they latched on to one segment of the advertising market that has survived untouched: sex. In response to that seminal event, Michael Lacey and some other Arizona State University students created a free newspaper that was originally known as The Arizona Times.

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It barely survived those early years, limping along with an initial circulation of less than 20, But inwhat had become known as Phoenix New Times had its first big break. A fledgling organization called Investigative Reporters and Editors spearheaded an investigation into the car-bombing murder of Arizona Republic journalist Don Bolles. Phoenix New Times happily stepped into the journalistic void.

By this time Lacey and his business partner Jim Larkin had taken full control of the paper. They were a formidable team, with Lacey handling editorial duties and Larkin running the business side.

In the ensuing years, the free weekly became a journalistic dynamo, publishing ambitious, investigative stories in a target-rich desert boomtown. They were screaming truth to power.

Lacey also became notorious for his bombastic and confrontational style. New Times raised questions about how Arpaio was able to purchase multiple homes on his modest salary.

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One night, after Lacey and Larkin published a story detailing secret grand jury proceedings, unmarked squad cars appeared outside their homes and they were thrown in jail. The misdemeanor charges for violating grand jury secrecy were almost immediately dropped. By then, Lacey and Larkin had set their sights well beyond Phoenix. By the turn of the century, they owned 11 papers spanning the country. The capstone to their ambitions came inwhen they purchased the legendary Village Voice and five other weeklies.

The New Times chain boasted a combined circulation of 1. Lacey explained his editorial philosophy in a profane, wine-fueled interview in New York magazine.

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The ones who deserved it. You can see me coming from a long way away. Like the Russian winter.

The role of editing

But that bravado masked an unsettling financial reality: Just as Lacey and Larkin had ascended the alt-weekly mountaintop, their business model was crumbling underneath them. The threatof course, was the internetspecifically a free classified website called Craigslist that was devouring newspaper revenues like some kind of flesh-eating bacteria.

Inthey established Back. Sex had always been part of the business model for alt-weeklies. Escortwhich were really just thinly veiled prostitutionwere a staple of the industry. On deadline days for escortthe offices of New Times publications filled with young women wearing skimpy outfits and too much perfume, along with sullen men lurking in the hallways.

Through their attorneys, Lacey and Larkin declined comment for this article. Larkin immediately recognized the ificance. Indeed, Back. This success did not escape the notice of the same people who had targeted Craigslist.

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That same year, almost all the state attorneys general sent a letter to Village Voice Media, as the company was now known, demanding that it shutter the adult section of the classified site. A broad coalition of religious groups ed the growing chorus of outrage. Lacey scoffed at the moral hectoring. We must be doing something right.

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But Back. The company ended up settling with the plaintiffs for an undisclosed amount. Perhaps feeling empowered by their run of successes, Lacey and Larkin, around this time, cut their ties to journalism. They sold off their 13 remaining weeklies to a group of employees—although the financial details were murky—but held on to Back. A few days later, I got home to find a FedEx envelope in my mailbox. Dozens of former employees across the country received similar expressions of gratitude from Lacey.

I happily deposited the check in my bankjustifying it as deserved compensation for years of hard work at modest pay. That was the last I heard from Lacey. I can only guess at his motivation.

FBI raids, arrests and a seized website

Maybe he knew trouble was on the horizon. Less than a month later, then-California Attorney General Kamala Harris brought criminal charges of conspiracy to pimp against Lacey, Larkin and Ferrer. But, once again, those criminal charges were swiftly dismissed by the courts. California subsequently filed additional criminal charges of money laundering and bank fraud against the Back defendants, which are still pending.

Internet free speech advocates believe that the repeated legal victories by Back shows the value of the Communications Decency Act in protecting online discourse. Lacey, in particular, displayed an air of bored reation with the proceedings. At one point, he conspicuously yawned as senators laid out the grim details of human trafficking through Back. The appearance before the Senate subcommittee was the culmination of an month investigation.

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Back fought the effort every step of the way. Ferrer ignored a subpoena to show up for a Senate hearing. In response, the Senate voted to compel the testimony of Back officials.


The company fought efforts to hand over documents all the way to the U. Supreme Court, but ran out of legal options in The million s of s, memos and financial records that Back had produced under court order revealed what company officials had refused to discuss in public. The investigation also determined that Back was involved in three out of every four child trafficking reports received by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

In addition, the report concluded that the purported sale of Back to Ferrer in was a sham, and that Lacey and Larkin retained ownership stakes and operational control of the company.

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