DALLAS (CN) — A very bad week for the CEO of Backpage.com got even worse Thursday when he was arrested on charges of running a “pimping conspiracy” by posting online escort ads featuring minors.
Carl Ferrer, 55, was arrested at Houston George Bush Intercontinental Airport after arriving on a flight from Amsterdam, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said.
Paxton said a “lengthy joint investigation” with California Attorney General Kamala Harris “uncovered evidence that adult and child sex trafficking victims were forced into prostitution” through ads that repeatedly appeared on the website.
Sheriffs, police departments and prosecutors across the country have been tracking Backpage.com for years, sometimes saying publicly that they suspect the web page’s “escort” ads are a cover for sex trafficking of children.
In September, Backpage was forced to comply with a subpoena from the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, which wants information on how Backpage screens ads for escorts. Backpage began turning over the documents after the U.S. Supreme Court refused to block the subpoena on Sept. 13.
On Tuesday this week, 21 state attorneys general added their names to an amicus brief filed with the Supreme Court, arguing that the Communications Decency Act does not shield website operators from liability when they use language designed to attract sex traffickers in advertisements.
As Ferrer was arrested Thursday, Paxton’s Law Enforcement Unit executed a search warrant on the Backpage offices in Dallas’ Oak Lawn neighborhood.
Ferrer was indicted in Sacramento County Superior Court on Sept. 26.
He faces one count of pimping conspiracy, three counts of pimping a minor under 16 years of age, one count of attempted pimping of a minor under 16 years of age, one count of pimping a minor and four counts of pimping.
The 9-page indictment describes 17 alleged incidents of pimping conspiracy, including accepting payments for posting escort advertisements featuring minors.
California authorities say the website raked in more than $2 million a month from October 2014 to May 2015.
Paxton said that authorities believe children are involved “against their will.”
“In the business of modern life, we lose sight of the fact that there are those among us that live without the fundamental, American guarantee of freedom,” Paxton said at a news conference. “Instead, they live as slaves right here in America. This indescribable evil does not live underground, it is in plain sight.”
Attorney General Harris said that raking in millions of dollars from trafficking and exploitation of the vulnerable is “outrageous, despicable and illegal.”
“Backpage and its executives purposefully and unlawfully designed Backpage to be the world’s top online brothel,” Harris said in a statement.
Liz McDougall, Backpage’s general counsel, deemed the arrest and raid “an election year stunt” that was not performed in good faith by law enforcement. She said the actions of Paxton and Harris are “flatly illegal.”
“They ignore the holdings of numerous federal courts that the First Amendment protects the ads on Backpage.com,” McDougall said in a statement Friday evening. “The actions of the attorneys general also violate Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act preempting state actions such as this one and immunizing web hosts of third-party created content. Backpage.com will take all steps necessary to end this frivolous prosecution and will pursue its full remedies under federal law against the state actors who chose to ignore the law, as it has done successfully in other cases.”
Sens. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and Claire McCaskill, D-Missouri, both members of the Senate subcommittee, applauded Ferrer’s arrest.
“We certainly wish that Backpage had willingly cooperated with our investigation,” the senators said in a statement Thursday. “Despite its refusal to do so, our investigation was the first to uncover Backpage’s practice of editing ads in manner that serves to conceal evidence of criminality. As law enforcement officials in Texas and California do their job, we will continue to press forward and complete our longstanding investigation.”
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