A founder of the New Times tabloid has been charged in Phoenix in the apparent culmination of a federal human-trafficking investigation.
Authorities had spent months probing whether Backpage, the online classified advertising website he co-founded, served as a willing participant in the online sale of sex, including with underage girls.
An attorney for Michael Lacey, Larry Kazan, told The Arizona Republic at the federal courthouse in Phoenix on Friday afternoon that his client had been charged. Kazan said he did not know how many counts Lacey faced because the 93-count indictment was sealed.
The courtroom was closed to the public, and it was not immediately clear what charges are included in the indictment.
On Friday evening, a spokesperson for the Department of Justice said in an email that a judge had ruled the case was still under seal. The Justice Department earlier had said, in a posting on seized Backpage websites, that more information would be released by 3 p.m. Arizona time on Friday.
FBI officials in Phoenix confirmed there had been “law-enforcement activity” at the Sedona-area home of Lacey, one of the co-founders of Backpage.com.
An Arizona Republic reporter also witnessed FBI activity at the Paradise Valley home of Jim Larkin, another Backpage co-founder.
Backpage website seized
By noon Friday, users started posting on social media screenshots of what appeared to be a federal notice of the seizure of Backpage.
“Backpage.com and affiliated websites have been seized,” the headline of the notice read.
The notice said the seizure was “part of an enforcement action by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, and the Internal Revenue Service Criminal Investigation Division, with analytical assistance from the Joint Regional Intelligence Center.”
The notice was no longer present on the United States version of Backpage.com, though an error message appeared. The Canadian version of Backpage still had the Justice Department notice.
Backpage had shut down its adult section in January 2017, the same day Lacey, Larkin and other Backpage executives testified at a U.S. Senate subcommittee hearing. The men refused to answer questions at that hearing.
Elizabeth McDougall, an attorney for Backpage, said Friday evening that she could not comment on the day’s events.
Francine Hardaway, a longtime friend of Lacey’s, said the case was “trumped up.”
“It’s ridiculous. It’s completely ridiculous,” she said.
Hardaway said in the last several years, Lacey was making efforts to curb human trafficking, including starting a women’s’ shelter in Los Angeles.
“It was always, ‘Oh my God, this is awful, what can the New Times do to help?’ ” she said, recalling Lacey’s frame of mind. “’Well, the New Times can take credit cards, and those credit cards can be an audit trail so that we can keep the whole thing aboveboard, and the police will have the police will have a way to catch the people who are doing the trafficking.”
Hardaway said her foster daughter had issues when she was a teenager, and said she used to “commiserate” with Lacey about human trafficking.
And he was against human trafficking “completely,” Hardaway said. “So, this ‘felony pimping’ is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard in my life.”