On the morning of April 6, 2018, the FBI arrested Michael Lacey and James Larkin and seized Backpage.com, the website they created in 2004, on allegations that it was a platform for underage sex trafficking. Lacey and Larkin were later charged with money laundering, conspiracy, and facilitating prostitution. The two men have maintained their innocence and are now confined to Maricopa County, Arizona, via ankle monitors. Their trial is scheduled for 2020.

Veteran newspaper publishers, Lacey and Larkin see their arrest and prosecution as an assault on the First Amendment. In the early 1970s, they built an alt-weekly empire specializing in muckraking journalism. In the process, they made enemies of powerful figures in Arizona politics, including John McCain, his wife, Cindy, and former Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

After the internet and Craigslist gutted their business model, Lacey and Larkin launched Backpage.com, an online version of the classified sections of their print newspapers. Illegal activity was never allowed on Backpage, but sex workers advertised their services via innuendo. Connecting with clients online turned out to be considerably safer than walking the streets or working for a pimp. The internet empowered sex workers.

Lacey and Larkin were able to fend off legal challenges thanks to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA), which said that website platforms aren’t responsible for third party content. As sex work became conflated with sex trafficking, that defense was eroded.

Lost in the panic was Lacey and Larkin’s behind-the-scenes collaboration with law enforcement in responding to subpoenas and even training vice officers on how to use the site to catch traffickers. Backpage’s Carl Ferrer even received a certificate from then-FBI Chief Robert Mueller for his outstanding cooperation helping with sex trafficking investigations.

This is the story of the rise and fall of a newspaper empire, and how a new moral crusade is endangering sex workers, shielding traffickers, empowering pimps, and undermining free speech online.

Written, shot, produced, edited, graphics, and narrated by Paul Detrick. Additional camera by Todd Krainin, Zach Weissmuller, Meredith Bragg, Alexis Garcia, Mark McDaniel, and Justin Monticello.

Video of Anti-Vietnam War Protesters and Richard Nixon at Sky Harbor Airport; Credit: Arizona State University Library
Video of Fiesta Bowl, 1971; Credit: Arizona State University Library
Photo of Cindy McCain; Credit: Jack Kurtz UPI Photo Service/Newscom
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Photo of Lacey and Larkin in courtroom; Credit: Hector Amezcua/TNS/Newscom
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Photo of computer with Backpage.com screen; Credit: Mirrorpix / MEGA / Newscom
Photo of Cindy McCain in 2018; Credit: Andreas Gebert/dpa/picture-alliance/Newscom
Photo of Sen. John McCain in 2018; Credit: Rok Rakun/ZUMA Press/Newscom
Photo of Sheriff Joe Arpaio in 2018; Credit: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Newscom
Photo of Ann Wagner talking about sex trafficking; Credit: Alex Edelman—CNP/Newscom
Photo of U.S. Capitol; Credit: Aurora Samperio/ZUMA Press/Newscom
Photos of President Trump signing FOSTA; Credit: Chris Kleponis/UPI/Newscom
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Photo of Backpage screen; Credit: ZUMA Press/Newscom
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Photo inside U.S. Capitol; Credit: Cheriss May/ZUMA Press/Newscom
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Photos of Sacramento courtroom; Credit: Hector Amezcua/ZUMA Press/Newscom
Photo of Kamala Harris; Credit: Hector Amezcua/ZUMA Press/Newscom
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Photos of President George W. Bush; Credit: MARTIN H. SIMON/UPI/Newscom
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Photos of Sheriff Joe Arpaio; Credit: JEFF GRACE/LA OPINION/Newscom
Photos of Craig Newmar;: Credit: MANTEL/SIPA/Newscom
Photo of Sheriff Joe Arpaio; Credit: JEFF TOPPING/REUTERS/Newscom
Photo of Demi Moore, Ashton Kutcher; Credit: SIPA USA/SIPA/Newscom
Photo of Sheriff Thomas J. Dart; Credit: Michael Tercha/MCT/Newscom
Photos of Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore at Clinton Global Initiative; Credit: Sharkpixs/ZUMApress/Newscom
Photos of Village Voice; Credit: Richard B. Levine/Newscom
Photo of Kamala Harris in elevator; Credit: Jonathan Ernst/REUTERS/Newscom
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Photo of Michael Rubio; Credit: Visions of America/Newscom
Photo of Attorney General Bill Schuette; Credit: Jessica Griffin/TNS/Newscom
Photo of Ann Wagner; Credit: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Newscom
Photo of Lacey and Larkin; Credit: Giulio Sciorio
Photo of Lacey and Larkin; Credit: Stephen Lemons
Photo of Sen. John McCain; Credit: Nancy Kaszerman/ZUMA Press/Newscom
Photo of Sen. Kamala Harris; Credit: Jeff Malet Photography/Newscom
Photo of Sheriff Joe Arpaio; Credit: Jack Kurtz/ZUMA Press/Newscom
Photo of Rep Ann Wagner; Credit: Alex Endelman/SIPA/Newscom

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