COOK COUNTY, IL – Cook County Sheriff Thomas J. Dart thanked jurors and the U.S. Attorney’s Office following guilty verdicts in the criminal case against Backpage executives, who oversaw one of the largest and most profitable websites known for prostitution ads, including those that involved sex trafficking.
“This is a good day for justice. I commend the jury and prosecutors in this historic trial for seeing through the lies and speaking up for the victims of sex trafficking who were advertised like objects. It was obvious that Backpage profited immensely while ignoring the harm it caused individuals,” Sheriff Dart said. “This should be a wakeup call to any company that wants to be in the business of making money from human trafficking.”
Late Thursday in Arizona, a jury found Backpage co-founder Michael Lacey guilty of money laundering. Two other Backpage executives were convicted on charges that included money laundering and conspiracy to violate the Travel Act, a federal law barring the use of interstate commerce to facilitate prostitution.
Sheriff Dart has led the fight against online human trafficking for nearly 15 years.
The use of widescale, web-based classified advertisements for illegal prostitution and sex trafficking started on Craigslist, which Sheriff Dart unsuccessfully sued in 2009. Shortly after the suit was filed, Craigslist shut down its erotic services section, and illegal ads for prostitution, including trafficked persons, started to migrate to other websites. Eventually the market coalesced around Backpage.
Sheriff Dart attempted to work with Backpage to protect victims. When that outreach failed, Sheriff Dart pushed efforts to raise awareness about the problem and reached out to credit card companies doing business with Backpage.
Backpage sued Sheriff Dart, in his capacity as Sheriff and personally, when the credit card companies ceased business with them. The lawsuit ended when Backpage was seized by the U.S. Department of Justice in an investigation that now concludes with these verdicts. The federal court overseeing Backpage’s lawsuit against Sheriff Dart ordered Backpage to pay $250,000 in sanctions for “knowingly and repeatedly” making false statements in its suit.
At the time, Sheriff’s Police had made more than 800 arrests related to Backpage ads over six years. Horrifically, a 16-year-old girl being sold on Backpage in 2016 was killed in Markham.
During the recent criminal trial in Arizona, former CEO Carl Ferrer told jurors that when the credit cards stopped doing business with Backpage, the company began utilizing shell companies, which played a role in the money laundering charges, according to news reports.
Meanwhile, Sheriff Dart’s efforts to combat trafficking continue.
On Oct. 23, Sheriff Dart called on existing websites to work with law enforcement to prevent trafficking after 10 people were charged over just 14 days. In half of the cases, the victims were advertised online through the website MegaPersonals. The Office sent letters to the owners of that website, among others, asking it to help combat trafficking.
“As a society, we should be making life harder for traffickers, not easier,” Sheriff Dart said. “And I will not stand by and watch people or companies profit when individuals are being forced into trafficking.”