Backpage.com, CEO Plead Guilty in Sex-Trafficking Crackdown

The chief executive of a website that authorities have dubbed a lucrative nationwide "online brothel" pleaded guilty Thursday to state and federal charges including conspiracy and money laundering, and agreed to testify in ongoing prosecutions against others at Backpage.com, authorities said.

The U.S. Senate also recently approved the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA), which would remove a legal loophole that shields websites that knowingly take part in human sex trafficking from legal liability.

In the Arizona plea, Ferrer acknowledged knowing that a great majority of Backpage.com's ads were for sex services. But a letter provided to the committee before the hearing said the site and its employees "agree that human trafficking is abhorrent and should be eradicated" and that it "has spent thousands of hours and millions of dollars" working with law enforcement to fight trafficking.

In response, Ferrer admitted that he worked with his co-conspirators to find ways to fool credit card companies into believing that Backpage-associated charges were being incurred on different websites, to route Backpage-related payments and proceeds through bank accounts held in the name of seemingly unconnected entities, and to use cryptocurrency-processing companies for similar purposes.

Azariah Conley, Armando Valdivia and Moses Avila all pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit first degree burglary and identity theft after reaching an agreement with the state.

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Ferrer has also agreed in his California plea to take down every Backpage-affiliated website that he can within five days and forfeit all Backpage-related domains within 14 days.

The most serious of the charges carries a maximum sentence of up to 20 years in prison, the official added.

From the Texas Attorney General's Office.

According to California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, Ferrer has agreed to assist in the prosecution of Backpage's co-founders Michael Lacey and James Larkin, shut down the site worldwide, and hand over the site's data to law enforcement.

The company founders were among Backpage officials indicted by a federal grand jury in Arizona.

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Ferrer additionally pleaded guilty to state money laundering charges in California as well as Texas, where the company itself pleaded guilty to human trafficking, according to the attorneys general in those states. This comes less than a week after the attorney general's office assisted the Department of Justice with permanently shutting down the website.

State prosecutors changed tack a year ago, filing almost 40 new money laundering charges against Ferrer, Larkin and Lacey.

The agreements were published one day after President Trump signed anti-sex-trafficking legislation into law on Wednesday.

As the largest online sex trafficking marketplace in the world, Backpage facilitated the sex trafficking of innocent women and children through sites it ran for 943 locations in 97 countries and 17 languages.

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