New Orleans-area police looking for cases on Backpage.com

It was late March when undercover New Orleans police used Backpage.com to set up a date with a 19-year-old woman at a Central Business District hotel.

By the time the sting was done, officers said they had broken up a prostitution ring that was formed when a man and woman picked up three 19-year-old women in Waco, Texas, and brought them to the city specifically to have sex for money.

The man was booked with pandering and human trafficking, although he was only prosecuted for pandering. Three of the women also were arrested, two for charges related to prostitution. Two of them were charged in criminal court, and all pleaded guilty in June.

Last month, the FBI conducted a nationwide sex-trafficking sting that in some cases used Backpage.com, leading to the arrests of 70 people in Louisiana, including 17 in New Orleans and nine in Jefferson Parish. The task force also busted 19 people in East Baton Rouge Parish.

As the shadowy underworld of prostitution and sex trafficking has migrated online, popular sites such as Backpage.com have become a double-edged sword for law enforcement.

The adult services section of Backpage.com has facilitated these crimes by connecting prostitutes — mostly women but also some men — to clients.

Yet the website also has proven to be an invaluable tool for investigators seeking out prostitutes and their pimps. Authorities have increasingly posted advertisements and set up stings to arrest people seeking sexual services.

“It has changed the way we investigate these cases,” said David Ferris, section chief of the High Technology Crime Unit in the state Attorney General’s Office. “It makes it easier for both, for criminals and law enforcement.”

Many of the ads listed in Backpage.com’s adult-services section feature scantily clad women and lewd language. But the postings themselves are often completely legal.

“You still have to rely on traditional law enforcement to figure out whether they are advertising a crime,” East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III said.

New Orleans police Commander Henry Dean, who oversees the vice squad, said that while it is important to monitor websites, it remains important to keep boots on the ground to combat prostitution. That includes keeping police in neighborhoods and responding to neighbors’ complaints.

In the city, he said, police also monitor obvious hot spots, such as the French Quarter, that host thousands of people who might be willing to spend money on unsavory activities, but they also regularly set up stings in other neighborhoods known for prostitution, such as Tulane Avenue and parts of Airline and Chef Menteur highways.

The cost of setting up Internet-based stings is sometimes cost-prohibitive for a cash-strapped department, Dean said, noting that there are hotel rooms to rent and that websites charge fees for ads.

For its part, Backpage.com has pointed to its cooperation with law enforcement and regular monitoring for potential cases of human trafficking. An attorney said the website is positioned to assist in such cases by gathering digital and financial clues about perpetrators and flagging suspicious ads.

“The aim of stopping the sex trafficking of minors, indeed the trafficking of any human being, is laudable,” Liz McDougall, Backpage.com’s attorney, said in an email. “However, identifying and vilifying a single U.S. website (previously Craigslist, now Backpage.com) as the cause of the problem and the key to the solution are ill-founded and unproductive.”

Craigslist, which features classified advertisements, weathered a firestorm of public criticism before axing its adult services section in 2010.

Backpage.com, accused of profiting from prostitution and sex trafficking, is facing mounting pressure from the public and elected officials to remove its adult services ads.

“To be blunt, their business model facilitates the sexual exploitation of children,” Angela Aufmuth, of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, said of Backpage.com. “With the proliferation of all the different ways for people to connect and communicate online, you’re going to continue to see that there are people who will use those types of resources for insidious purposes.”

While her organization has seen no shortage of these cases, Aufmuth said, it’s difficult to quantify Backpage.com’s impact on the sex-trafficking industry because “there is not a lot of tangible research.”

Arizona State University released a study last year that claimed nearly 80 percent of the ads listed on Backpage.com’s adult-services section in Phoenix were for sex or prostitution. About 10 percent of the girls appeared to be under 18.

Despite the overwhelming number of criminal cases involving the use of Backpage.com, the site avoids liability under a federal law that shields websites from being held accountable for user-generated or third-party content.

Last month, however, Louisiana Attorney General Buddy Caldwell and 48 other attorneys general signed a letter urging Congress to amend that law — the Communications Decency Act of 1996 — to allow state and local authorities to prosecute companies profiting from the online sex trade.

“Federal enforcement alone has proven insufficient to stem the growth of internet-facilitated child sex trafficking,” the letter says. “Those on the front lines of the battle against the sexual exploitation of children — state and local law enforcement — must be granted the authority to investigate and prosecute those who facilitate these horrible crimes.”

Eric Goldman, a professor at Santa Clara University School of Law, called the letter “the most coordinated effort by the most politically influential people asking for a change that we’ve seen to date.”

“Since that law was passed, they’ve been basically blocked from looking for ways to use their criminal tools to go after intermediaries online,” Goldman said of state authorities. “In some sense, the state AGs are giving the big birdie to the federal government, saying you guys aren’t doing a very good job.”

But Goldman cautioned that the federal law in question has been the “cornerstone of the entire Internet industry,” noting that websites such as Google, Wikipedia, Twitter and others have benefitted from its protections.

He said the change demanded by the attorneys general is an “overbroad solution by many orders of magnitude” that could have unintended consequences.

“We’ve never lived in a world where state and local prosecutors can bring crimes based on third-party content at their discretion,” Goldman added, “so we don’t know how bad that world’s going to look.”

During the FBI’s sting, and in many local ones, undercover agents arrange to meet someone through an online posting and prenegotiate a price for sex or other services. Once the money changes hands — or clothes are removed in anticipation of payment — the agent gives the “take-down signal,” and officials move in for the arrest.

Operation Cross Country VII, a three-day action in late July to combat commercial child sex trafficking, resulted in 105 children being recovered and 150 “pimps” arrested.

Kenner police said the Internet has facilitated young or underage women entering prostitution by choice or force.

Detective Jessica Cantrell, who is assigned to the FBI Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, is one of three Kenner police officers who investigate online ads that might involve prostitution.

She said that in some instances, posting an ad online is an easy way for a young girl — whether of legal age or not — to essentially run her own “lucrative” business.

For underage girls who are under the thumb of a pimp, it’s an easy way for her to be advertised as someone of legal age since photos posted with ads do not have to be of the person who posted them.

Though Cantrell pointed out that it has never been a safe way to make a buck, the ability to be completely anonymous online lends itself to even greater danger than getting into a car with a stranger.

One group of cases offers a cautionary tale.

In August 2011, 22-year-old Anita McDonald arrived in Kenner, placed an ad on Backpage.com offering sexual services and within a day was strangled.

About the same time, the body of Jateese Hudgins, 21, who also was strangled, was found in a room at a Metairie hotel. Hudgins too had posted an ad on the website.

Soon after, an 18-year-old woman was choked at a Harvey motel but survived. That happened after she also agreed to meet Kylan Laurent, a man believed to have killed the other two women, through Backpage.com.

After Laurent was identified as the suspect following the murders of McDonald and Hudgins, he eluded law enforcement for several days.

On Aug. 23, 2011, he was involved in a high-speed chase with State Police. The pursuit ended when he pulled over on the Veterans Memorial Bridge over the Mississippi River in St. James Parish and jumped 165 feet to his death.

Police Sgt. Brian McGregor said the fate of Laurent’s alleged victims should demonstrate the dangers women face in arranging dates online. Even police do not know exactly whom they will meet when they set up stings through websites.

“We don’t know who we’re meeting, and they don’t know who they’re meeting,” McGregor said.

Staff writer Ben Wallace

contributed to this report.