BACKPAGE PATROLS

Advocate staff photo illustration by TRAVIS SPRADLING -- Illustration using Backpage.com website on monitor. Show caption
Advocate staff photo illustration by TRAVIS SPRADLING -- Illustration using Backpage.com website on monitor.

Pimps, clients and police converge on websites used by sex traffickers

In late May, East Baton Rouge Parish sheriff’s deputies during a routine traffic stop rescued a 20-year-old woman they say was forced to sell herself for sex across four states by a pimp advertising her services on Backpage.com.

Last month, Baton Rouge police reported using the same website to arrest a married couple accused of running a prostitution enterprise out of their home — a business that had drawn a suspicious flow of traffic to the neighborhood.

And just a few weeks later, the FBI conducted a nationwide sex-trafficking sting that in some cases used Backpage.com, leading to the arrests of more than 70 people in Louisiana alone, including 19 people in East Baton Rouge Parish and 17 in New Orleans.

As the shadowy underworld of prostitution and sex trafficking has migrated online, popular sites like Backpage.com have become a double-edged sword for law enforcement. The adult services section of Backpage.com has, in countless cases, facilitated these crimes by connecting prostitutes — mostly women but also some men — to clients near and far, investigators say.

Yet the website has also 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.

For its part, Backpage.com has pointed to its cooperation with law enforcement and regular monitoring of the site for potential cases of human trafficking. A company attorney says the website is uniquely positioned to assist in such cases by gathering digital and financial clues about the perpetrators and by 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, another website featuring 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 now 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 about 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 those ads featured girls appearing to be younger than 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 states. “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 who focuses on Internet 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 like Google, Wikipedia, Twitter and countless others have benefitted greatly 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.”

While the future of Backpage.com remains uncertain, law enforcement officials are doing all they can for the time being to use it to their advantage.

“We monitor the ads, looking for familiar ads of suspects that we have arrested in the past,” Lt. Wally Cowart, commander of Baton Rouge Police Department’s narcotics division, said of Backpage.com.

Cowart also said detectives could not possibly investigate every single ad or potential violation on the website, but that it focuses on known local ads, especially explicit ones.

CityVibe.com and Backpage.com were listed in the affidavits of probable cause for the Baton Rouge sting operation.

“Backpage is a popular place right now, but there are hundreds and hundreds of other ones that are being investigated by law enforcement and that individuals are using,” said Ferris, the state attorney general’s investigator.

During the FBI’s sting, and in many local ones, undercover agents typically arrange to meet someone through an online posting and pre-negotiate 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 nearby officials move in for the arrest.

Operation Cross Country VII, a three-day action conducted the last weekend in July to combat commercial child sex trafficking, resulted in 105 children being recovered and 150 “pimps” arrested across the United States. Since 2003, Operation Cross Country, part of the Innocence Lost National Initiative, has resulted in rescues of 2,700 children.

Other cases begin by happenstance. The 20-year-old discovered by East Baton Rouge Parish sheriff’s deputies in May had been riding with Nicholas D. Crutchfield, a 29-year-old Collierville, Tenn., man previously convicted of promoting prostitution who was pulled over for a traffic violation on Siegen Lane.

The woman told authorities Crutchfield would beat her and make her sit in a corner like a punished child if she tried to leave, and that he would charge customers $100 for 30 minutes of sex with her. Prosecutors last month charged Crutchfield with one count of human trafficking, a felony.

The Sheriff’s Office encountered a similar case in June after a 16-year-old girl was arrested for a probation violation. In an interview with a detective and an FBI agent, the girl said she had been forced to prostitute by men she identified as Ken, Trap, Ray, Rock, Carlos and “Daddy Love.”

The girl told authorities she had been forced to perform oral sex on a man, and that advertisements for her services had been placed on Backpage.com.

The victims of sex trafficking can be “everybody from a young child coming out of poverty to a multimillionaire’s daughter,” Ferris said.

“We’ve worked cases where they were high school students in school during the week and during the weekends they were prostituting themselves or being prostituted by individuals,” he added. “It literally can be everyone.”