Co-founder’s suicide delays prostitution trial of Backpage executives

Previous trial of executives at now-closed website ended in mistrial

Josh Marcus
San Francisco
Tuesday 08 August 2023 00:47 BST
Judge declares mistrial in Backpage.com case

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A federal judge pushed back the trial of executives at now-shuttered online classified webpage Backpage.com, following the July suicide of site co-owner James Larkin.

The 74-year-old died by a gunshot on Monday at his home in Paradise Valley, Arizona, according to officials.

Larkin the longtime publisher of the Phoenix New Times was alternatively celebrated as a free speech advocate, and charged in 2018 as part of a group of Backpage executives who allegedly facilitated prostitution and money laundering through the site’s “adult services” section.

In this Jan. 10, 2017 file photo former Backpage.com owners, James Larkin, left, and Michael Lacey wait on Capitol Hill in Washington, to appear at a congressional hearing examining the classified site
In this Jan. 10, 2017 file photo former Backpage.com owners, James Larkin, left, and Michael Lacey wait on Capitol Hill in Washington, to appear at a congressional hearing examining the classified site

The site, founded in 2004 to compete with Craigslist, allegedly featured online ads through which women and girls were trafficked. The site’s founders maintained that they cooperated with law enforcement, screened ads for prostitution, and hosted ads from consensual sex workers that should be protected by the First Amendment.

Among the executives charged in the case, Daniel Hyer of Dallas and former CEO Carl Ferrer struck plea deals.

The remaining employees were previously tried, but the case ended in a mistrial in 2021, after a judge ruled the jury heard too many references to child sex trafficking, even though none of those charged were accused of that offence.

On Friday, US District Court Judge Diane Humetewa ruled to push back the trial, which is now scheduled to begin 29 August and last until 9 November, from the original 8 August start date.

In court, the judge warned that Larkin’s death could impact the handling of evidence exhibits in the case, as well as limit the potential jury pool, because a “tremendous amount” of potential jurors in the case may have heard about the executive’s suicide.

Following Larkin’s death, some celebrated his memory.

"I never saw my friend do a dishonest or dishonorable thing in his entire life," fellow defendant Michael Lacey wrote in a statement. "I had a four-decade friendship with a wonderful man. Now I have only his memory."

“Jim was an incredible husband, father, grandfather, colleague and friend,” his family said in a statement to the New Times, saying the media mogul “fearlessly blazed his own path in life and always stuck to it.”

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