Reprinted from the April 15 St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Carl Ferrer is suddenly singing a different tune. The chief executive of the online site Backpage spent years proclaiming his company’s innocence despite overwhelming evidence it was facilitating child sex trafficking. He has been dragged kicking and screaming into court and before Congress, insisting his classified advertising site wasn’t responsible for its own smutty content.
On April 9 in Phoenix, 93-count federal indictments were unsealed against seven Backpage executives. But Ferrer was nowhere to be seen in the indictments because he’s now a cooperating witness and, on Thursday, entered guilty pleas to charges of conspiracy and money laundering. The company pleaded guilty in Texas to facilitating prostitution.
Ferrer’s cooperation comes in exchange for a lighter sentence he most certainly does not deserve. Hundreds, if not thousands, of young lives have been destroyed because of his handiwork.
Backpage websites across the country — including St. Louis — have been seized as part of a joint federal enforcement action. Where visitors previously could access hundreds of local ads, now all they see is a big U.S. government stamp that notably mentions the Justice Department’s Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section.
Advertisers for years used code words such as “cute Lolita,” “young babe” and “little angel” to alert clients to the availability of minors for sex. When local prosecutors tried to crack down on Backpage for facilitating child sex trafficking, Ferrer adamantly defended Backpage as being no more responsible than daily newspapers are for their advertising content. He asserted First Amendment protections whenever lawmakers proposed bills to censor the site.
Now Ferrer admits it was all a smokescreen. He wrote in his federal plea agreement: “I have long been aware that the great majority of these advertisements are, in fact, advertisements for prostitution services,” adding parenthetically, “which are not protected by the First Amendment and which are illegal in 49 states and in much of Nevada.” He and the other defendants conspired “to find ways to knowingly facilitate the state-law crimes being committed by Backpage’s customers.”
Prosecutors have agreed not to seek more than five years in prison for him. All bets are off for the seven others who also are accused of laundering money to evade federal banking regulations.
Their enterprise helped facilitate the rape of countless kids, some of whom were kidnapped and held captive for years while Backpage marketed their captors’ sex-trafficking operations. Missouri Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill and Republican Rep. Ann Wagner played key roles in hearings that exposed Backpage’s role, then led a bipartisan effort that yielded the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, which President Donald Trump signed into law Wednesday.
These bold actions won’t make the problem disappear, but traffickers now will have a much harder time finding facilitators for their disgusting trade.