PHOENIX (CN) — James Larkin, co-founder of the Phoenix New Times, an anti-war newspaper founded at Arizona State University in 1970 that would lead to an empire of alternative weeklies in 18 cities across the country, and co-defendant in a federal trial just days away, died by suicide on Monday.
Local police confirmed the 74-year-old died by a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head in Superior, Arizona.
The former newspaper owner, along with former New Times editor Michael Lacey and five others, was staring down a three-month trial, collectively facing 100 felony counts of facilitating prostitution in violation of the U.S. Travel Act, money laundering and conspiracy before his death.
A grand jury indicted the seven in 2018 over their alleged actions while running the website backpage.com, a forum for classified ads that ran parallel to Craigslist until the FBI seized it, accusing its owners and staff of allowing thinly veiled prostitution advertisements — many of which advertised minors and trafficking victims — to proliferate on the site.
Larkin and Lacey vehemently denied the accusations, saying the website’s staff has cooperated with law enforcement to investigate and remove ads suspected to be illegal or abusive in nature.
“I never saw my friend do a dishonest or dishonorable thing in his entire life,” Lacey said of Larkin after his death. “I had a four-decade friendship with a wonderful man. Now I have only his memory.”
Lacey founded the Phoenix New Times after the 1970 Kent State shooting, in which four students were killed and nine more were wounded by the Ohio National Guard while protesting the Vietnam War on campus. Larkin joined him a year later, and the paper quickly gained a reputation for its irreverence and anti-establishment attitude.
"Jim Larkin was one of my heroes,” said Stephen Lemons, who worked for the New Times from 2004 to 2017. “My heart aches for his family."
The New Times made much of its profits off of classified ads on the back page of the paper, inspiring the website that eventually caused its leaders' downfall.
A response to Craigslist upending the classified ads market in 1995, backpage.com became a haven for adult-oriented ads for “escorts” and “sensual massages.” While directly advertising sex for money is illegal, ads offering sexual services for free or offering “companionship,” massages and other “sensual” activities aren’t. Prosecutors claim such ads were used to lure pimps and prostitutes to the site under the guise of legal activity.
While most advertisements listed in the indictment didn’t directly offer sex for money, some did, like an ad that ran in 2015 saying, “80 for head, 120 for hooking up without head and 150 for hooking up with head.” Many of the ads included the phrase “GFE,” meaning “girlfriend experience,” and some even asked users to confirm they weren’t affiliated with any law enforcement.
In 2016, the pair sold the company to Carl Ferrer, who pleaded guilty in 2018 to conspiring to facilitate prostitution.
The company also pleaded guilty to money laundering, but Lacey and Larkin maintained their innocence.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton wrote after Ferrer's guilty plea that backpage.com was involved in 73% of all child trafficking cases reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. “Taking down Backpage and obtaining a criminal conviction for the company and its CEO represents a significant victory in the fight against human trafficking in Texas and around the world,” Paxton said.
But two internal Department of Justice memos released in 2012 and 2013 tell a different story. Investigators apparently found no evidence at the time that either man knew about or allowed ads for child prostitution. The investigation failed "to uncover compelling evidence of criminal intent or a pattern or reckless conduct regarding minors.”
The memos indicate that Lacey and Larkin often held seminars to teach law enforcement how to best use their site and records to identify and stop trafficking. Ferrer even received a certificate from the FBI in 2011 thanking him for his cooperation with their investigations.
A 2021 Government Accountability Office report found that backpage.com’s takedown, paired with the passing of the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, actually made it harder to investigate and prosecute sex trafficking cases, as adult advertisers took their businesses to less cooperative websites hosted overseas where United States subpoenas mean very little.
Larkin was expected to face trial from August 8 to November 3 in a federal courthouse in Phoenix. His attorney notified the court Wednesday that he plans to discuss dismissing the indictment against Larkin in a pre-planned hearing Friday afternoon.
It’s unclear how Larkin’s death may affect the rest of the defendants at trial moving forward, but Zachry Stoebe with the Department of Justice said he anticipates answers to arise at the final status conference set for Friday.
“We send condolences to his family and friends, and wish them sustenance and strength in a difficult time,” Stoebe said.
Defense attorneys for Larkin and the other defendants have not replied to requests for comment.
If you are having thoughts of suicide, call or text 988, or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK). Visit SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for a list of additional resources.Follow @@JournalistJoeAZ
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