Law enforcement officials worry the Craigslist-style website is becoming the future of prostitution.
Over the last three months, the number of prostitution busts that have involved the marketing of underage girls on the popular classified ad service Backpage.com have left many in the law enforcement community questioning what must be done about this online nuisance.
For example, in Maple Grove, Minnesota, an 18-year-old cheerleader is accused of pimping a 16-year-old girl via an online ad. Monita Marie Parker, a senior at Hopkins High School, faces felony sex trafficking and promotion of prostitution charges. She is scheduled to appear in court June 12.
Parker set up an ad on Backpage.com for the 16-year-old — whose name has not been released over privacy concerns — drove her on March 5 to an apartment to give oral sex to a respondent and took the $60 the girl made. Authorities allege that Parker attempted to make another solicitation with the girl the next day, but left when the man refused oral sex.
The 16-year-old had mentioned to others that she was trying to earn some cash. Parker allegedly contacted her on Facebooked, suggesting she could make some cash, and requesting that the girl sent photos of herself.
Under her own telephone number, Parker posted the girl’s photo on Backpage.com. Parker deposited the $60 into her own bank account. On March 6 — pretending to be the girl’s mother — Parker had the 16-years-old excused early from school where Parker directed the girl to have sex with a man. She refused. “You’ll be fine — I didn’t drive up here for nothing, and eventually you will need to have sex,” Parker allegedly told the girl. The girl rejected this and offered oral sex, instead, which the john rebutted. Parker returned the girl to the high school.
Upon noticing changes in the girl’s behavior and hearing about unexcused absences, the girl’s mother checked the girl’s cellphone. It was at this point that the mother contacted local police.
As of recently, the number of prostitution cases that have involved Backpage.com has escalated to the point that the website is now considered the primary online forum for prostitution. In the wake of the cleanup on Craigslist, perpetrators of sex crimes are now simply moving to Backpage.com.
The case against Backpage
In May, the Southeast Michigan Crimes Against Children (SEMCAC) Task Force and the Bay City Child Exploitation Task Force arrested 20-year-old Desiree Poole for the sex trafficking of a 14-year-old girl, who Poole claimed to be 18 in postings on Backpage.com. The 14-year-old ran away from home after being expelled from school, only to run into Poole — who ran ads for the two of them for “dates.”
On Tuesday, the Hennepin County (Minn.) Medical Examiner reported that 24-year-old Klaressa Lorayne Cook of Gaynesville, Ga. — who was found dead last month in the trunk of a car towed from a Brooklyn Park Rainbow Foods — died as a result of “homicide by unspecified means.” The suspected murderer, 24-year-old Alberto Prece Palmer, is thought to have met Cook on Backpage.com. Palmer confessed to killing 18-year-old Brittany Clardy of St. Paul and stashing her body in the trunk of a car, similar to Cook.
In May, three individuals — Donnell O. Jenkins, 21; Antron Smith, 30; and Stacey Jo Bumgarner, 28 — were charged in St. Petersburg, Fla. for the sex trafficking of a 15-year-old runaway and a 16-year-old. The trio promoted the girls on Backpage.com. One of the girls was referred to as “Candy” on the site; according to the St. Petersburg Police, “Candy” would service five men a day for a week, while the three would receive anywhere from $100 to $350 per session.
“There was nothing she wasn’t supposed to do,” Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said at a press conference. “She was told that if she didn’t follow the rules she’s going to be beaten.”
But all of this seems trivial compared to the announcement made Monday by the Nassau County (N.Y.) District Attorney that the Nassau County Police Department — after a month-long undercover operation — has arrested 104 alleged johns suspected of using Backpage.com to sollicit prostitutes. The “prostitutes” in question were undercover Nassau County police officers.
“Sex workers are often vulnerable victims of traffickers and pimps, yet they too often remain the prime targets in prostitution investigations while the johns who fuel the exploitation are treated as mere witnesses,” said Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice. “My office and the police department are turning the tables on the illogical and immoral nature of that equation.”
Frustration and disgust
In light of all of this, Backpage.com finds itself under extreme scrutiny. The Dallas-based paid classified advertising site allows buyers to post anything — from furniture and requests for roommates to local events and political meetings. However, the service is best known for its adult-services section. It was estimated by Arizona State University in May 2012 that of the prostitute ads that ran on Backpage.com for the metro Phoneix area, almost 80 percent featured girls under the age of 18.
In three days in May, three sex-trafficking rings involving Backpage.com in Central Florida were busted. Polk County — one of the counties involved in the stings — have taken a no-tolerance stance to Backpage.com. “Backpage,” Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd said, “you’re going to be criminally investigated and so are the people that are in charge of the organization.”
“It’s abundantly clear to us that they are facilitating organized prostitution. They are facilitating human trafficking,” he said, adding, “We’re not going to have that.”
According the the U.S. Department of Justice, 300,000 children in the U.S. are at risk every year for commercial sex exploitation. Of the 2.8 million runaways each year in this country, as many as one-third could be recruited or lured into pornography or prostitution within 48 hours of hitting the streets.
Defending the indefensible
Backpage.com has swung back, claiming that it is as concerned with child sex trafficking as anyone else. Liz McDougall, general counsel for Backpage.com’s former parent company Village Voice Media, said that Backpage.com is an “ally in the fight against human trafficking”. She said that the adult services section of Backpage is closely monitored, and that shutting it down “would simply drive the trafficking underground”. McDougall said that websites like Backpage.com — who are able to monitor trafficking activity and report it to law enforcement — are key in the fight against human trafficking.
“When traffickers use the Internet, especially in a financial transaction, they leave forensic footprints that create unprecedented tools to locate and rescue victims before they are exploited, and to investigate and convict pimps and their criminal networks,” McDougall wrote in an op-ed to the Seattle Times. “A key to disrupting and eventually ending human trafficking via the World Wide Web is therefore an online-service-provider community — of businesses including Backpage — that aggressively monitors for and traces potential trafficking cases, and promptly reports to and cooperates with law enforcement.”
“Backpage.com already employs a triple-tiered policing system that includes automated filtering and two levels of manual review of the adult and personal categories, McDougall continued. “It also responds to law-enforcement subpoenas within 24 hours or less in almost all cases. It uses its own technological tools to voluntarily collect and submit additional evidence to law enforcement from across the Internet. And it is ready to do more.”
This may be little comfort for those victimized on Backpage.com. “I can guarantee you,” said a former teenage prostitute to the New York Times, “if you have came out late tonight — in this area, 28th and Lexington — and watch, you are going to see a whole bunch of pimps recruiting these girls and you listen to their pitch… Their pitches are that ‘you don’t have to walk outside any more.’ ‘I can do it so that you can just stay in a hotel and travel the world.’ And you know how this is possible? Because of websites like Backpage.”
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