Trial of Backpage executives delayed after co-founder’s death | Phoenix New Times


Trial of Backpage executives delayed after co-founder’s death

Jim Larkin died by suicide on July 31, just days before his second criminal trial was scheduled to begin.
Phoenix New Times co-founders and former Backpage owners Michael Lacey (left) and Jim Larkin during a U.S. Senate panel hearing on Jan. 10, 2017.
Phoenix New Times co-founders and former Backpage owners Michael Lacey (left) and Jim Larkin during a U.S. Senate panel hearing on Jan. 10, 2017. Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations
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The second criminal trial of five Backpage executives will be delayed three weeks as a result of the sudden death of Jim Larkin, the celebrated longtime publisher of Phoenix New Times and a key defendant in the case.

Larkin died by suicide on July 31, days before his retrial was scheduled to begin on Aug. 8. He was 74.

At a hearing on Friday in downtown Phoenix, U.S. District Court Judge Diane Humetewa pushed the trial's start date to Aug. 29. Lawyers for both the U.S. Department of Justice and the five remaining defendants — including New Times co-founder and Larkin's longtime business partner, Michael Lacey — have scrambled to revise plans for the trial since Larkin's death.

In a motion filed under seal Wednesday, defense attorneys asked for a two-month delay, which prosecutors opposed. "I'm willing to entertain a trial date of Aug. 29, and I think that's as far as I can go," Humetewa said Friday. By the end of the hearing, it was settled: The trial will begin Aug. 29 and is slated to end by Nov. 9.

In 2018, Larkin, Lacey and five other executives of Backpage, a now-defunct classifieds site, were indicted on charges of facilitating prostitution and money laundering related to the site's "adult services" section. The others charged in the case were Scott Spear of Scottsdale, John "Jed" Brunst of Phoenix, Daniel Hyer of Dallas, Andrew Padilla from Plano, Texas and Jaala Joye Vaught from Addison, Texas.

Hyer and Backpage CEO Carl Ferrer struck deals with federal prosecutors and pleaded guilty. On Friday, Larkin's indictment was dismissed.

For years, the government had fought unsuccessfully for Backpage to shut down its adult advertising. While Backpage worked with law enforcement to fight sex trafficking on the site, it maintained that its adult advertising, including ads by consensual sex workers, was protected by the First Amendment. For some years, the courts agreed.

In 2017, facing mounting pressure, the website shuttered its adult advertising. That did not stop federal prosecutors from seizing the website in April 2018 and charging Larkin, Lacey and the others in a 93-count indictment, which alleged the site and its executives violated the law by encouraging and facilitating advertisements for prostitution.

Larkin, Lacey and Ferrer founded Backpage in 2004 to compete with Craigslist.
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Michael Lacey (left) and Jim Larkin hold up a California judge’s order in August 2017 tossing out criminal charges against them.
Stephen Lemons

Larkin remembered as fierce First Amendment advocate

Lacey and Larkin launched Backpage in 2004. At that time, the site was part of the duo's pioneering alt-weekly empire, which began with Phoenix New Times in 1970 and grew to include 17 alt-weeklies around the country. In 2012, Lacey and Larkin sold the papers but retained control of Backpage.

Larkin's death on July 31 left family, friends and supporters in mourning. The longtime publisher was remembered as an ardent defender of free speech, always unafraid to take on the powerful. "I never saw my friend do a dishonest or dishonorable thing in his entire life," Lacey wrote in a statement on Wednesday. "I had a four-decade friendship with a wonderful man. Now I have only his memory."

A private memorial service was held for Larkin on Saturday, according to Front Page Confidential, which is a site operated by Larkin and Lacey that focuses on free speech issues.

Larkin's death will have significant implications for the Backpage trial. As the co-founder of Backpage, Larkin — along with his legal team — was a key part of the case. The jury pool could be limited if potential jurors become aware of Larkin's death, Humetewa said.

The first trial against Lacey and Larkin ended in a mistrial in September 2021. A judge ruled that the prosecution's lurid references to child sex trafficking in the case — despite the fact that none of the executives were charged with trafficking — went too far.

Now, in just a matter of weeks, the government will try again. 
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