Last week, a federal jury in Phoenix convicted three former owners of Backpage.com of multiple counts of promoting prostitution business enterprises and multiple counts of money laundering, including conspiracy offenses.
Michael Lacey, 75, of Paradise Valley, Arizona, was convicted of one count of international concealment money laundering, and the jury was unable to reach a verdict on most of the other counts charged against him. Scott Spear, 72, of Phoenix, was convicted of a conspiracy to violate the Travel Act by facilitating prostitution, and multiple separate violations of the Travel Act, along with a conspiracy to commit money laundering and multiple separate money laundering violations. John “Jed” Brunst, 71, of Phoenix, was convicted of a conspiracy to violate the Travel Act by facilitating prostitution, along with a conspiracy to commit money laundering and multiple separate money laundering violations.
Lacey, Spear, and Brunst each face a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison for the money laundering charges. Spear and Brunst also face up to 5 years in prison for the Travel Act violations. Federal District Court Judge Diane J. Humetewa will determine any sentence after considering the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines and other statutory factors.
According to court documents and evidence presented at trial, the defendants owned Backpage.com, which was the internet’s leading forum for prostitution ads from September 2010, when Craigslist shut down its prostitution ad section, until April 2018, when the United States seized Backpage.com. Evidence at trial showed that the defendants knowingly promoted prostitution via various marketing strategies. For example, the defendants engaged in a reciprocal link program with an independent web forum that permitted “johns” to post reviews of prostitution acts with specific women. Additionally, the defendants utilized an automated filter and human moderators to remove known sex-for-money terms, while still allowing the ads to be posted. Through this attempt at sanitizing the ads, the defendants sought “plausible deniability” for what the defendants knew to be ads promoting prostitution.
Over the life of the conspiracy, the defendants earned more than $500 million. In an effort to preserve the money earned, Lacey, Spear, and Brunst engaged in extensive money laundering by creating numerous shell companies in multiple foreign countries.
On March 28, 2018, a grand jury in Phoenix charged the defendants in an indictment with the crimes of conspiracy to facilitate prostitution using a facility in interstate or foreign commerce, facilitating prostitution using a facility in interstate or foreign commerce, conspiracy to commit money laundering, concealment money laundering, international promotional money laundering, and transactional money laundering.
In April 2018, Carl Ferrer, 57, of Frisco, Texas, Backpage’s co-founder and CEO, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to facilitate prostitution using a facility in interstate or foreign commerce and to engage in money laundering. Additionally, several Backpage-related corporate entities, including Backpage.com LLC, have entered guilty pleas to conspiracy to engage in money laundering.
In August 2018, Dan Hyer, 54, of Dallas, Texas, Backpage’s Sales & Marketing Director, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to facilitate prostitution using a facility in interstate or foreign commerce.
Co-defendants Andre Padilla, 50, of Plano, Texas, and Joye Vaught, 42, of Dallas, Texas, were acquitted on all charges. The remaining defendant, James Larkin, 73, died on July 31 before trial was scheduled to begin in August.