A day after the 5th anniversary of his SWAT-style arrest by the FBI, release conditions for journalist Michael Lacey were amended, allowing the removal of his "cankle jewelry."
Award-winning editor, journalist, and publisher Michael Lacey walked with a bit more swagger than usual on Monday as he exited the Sandra Day O’Connor U.S. Courthouse in downtown Phoenix.
Lacey’s left leg was less encumbered, you see. On Monday, U.S. Pretrial Services removed an ankle monitor that he’s been wearing for five years as part of his release conditions following his arrest on April 6, 2018, on charges related to his former ownership of the classified listings giant, Backpage.com.
“It’s like having a tumor cut out,” Lacey explained outside the atrium-like courthouse. “It’s an enormous relief — not to have to check it a couple of times a day to make sure it’s charging.”
At inopportune times, Lacey’s “cankle jewelry,” as he calls it, would tell him to “charge your battery,” drawing stares at grocery stores and parks. Although he could shower with it on, bathing and swimming were out of the question because “the water pressure from any body of water made it non-functional.”
It also served as a constant reminder that he was under the thumb of law enforcement.
The restrictions were unnecessary. After he was arrested and imprisoned for eight days in 2018, Pretrial Services recommended that Lacey and his former business partner and co-defendant, Jim Larkin, be released on their own recognizance.
Federal prosecutors instead demanded $1 million bonds for each of them, requiring that they each wear monitoring devices and not leave Maricopa County without permission. The prosecutors’ demands were punitive and call to mind legal scholar Malcolm Feeley’s phrase, “The process is the punishment.”
At least for now, Larkin’s release conditions remain unchanged, and his ankle monitor remains on. Lacey and Larkin’s co-defendants were released on their own recognizance after their arrests and have not been subject to the same conditions.
Both Lacey and Larkin have deep ties to The Valley, having begun their careers in journalism here, founding the Phoenix New Times in 1970 and expanding it into a 17-paper chain of alternative weeklies that won more than 3,800 writing awards, including a Pulitzer. They’ve also raised their families here.
Before their arrests, Lacey and Larkin’s attorneys offered to have the two men turn themselves in if indicted. Reputedly, the prosecutors’ answer was: “When we want them, we’ll come and get them.”
What followed was a display of “shock and awe” with 20 or 30 armed FBI agents assaulting Lacey’s home with guns drawn on the eve of his planned wedding celebration. Larkin’s home was similarly raided, and Larkin was arrested in a plane on the tarmac of Sky Harbor International Airport, returning from a trip with his son.
A five-year-long parade of prosecutorial wrongdoing followed, with the feds seizing nearly all of Lacey and Larkin’s assets (including $10 million from defense lawyers’ trust accounts), destroying a trove of exculpatory evidence (the website itself), and causing a mistrial in September 2021 due to repeated prosecutorial misconduct.
What did Lacey and Larkin do to deserve this prosecutorial overreach?
Smuggle fentanyl into the U.S.?
Sponsor acts of international terrorism?
Follow in the footsteps of Murder, Inc.?
They owned a website from 2004 to 2015 that mimicked Craigslist and allowed users to post First Amendment-protected ads for everything from car sales and apartment rentals to dating, escorts, and massage.
Stay of Execution
Lacey said he was “shocked” that prosecutors did not oppose a recent motion by his attorneys to alter his release conditions.
He tried to have the ankle monitor axed back in 2019 because he wanted to resume his practice of swimming for health reasons. At that time, the prosecution objected, arguing that Lacey was a flight risk, though his passport was confiscated upon his arrest.
In a motion filed on Good Friday, April 7, Lacey’s attorneys wrote that “during a recent home visit,” Lacey’s Pretrial Services Officer suggested that Lacey “petition this Court to have his ankle bracelet removed.”
According to the document, Lacey’s counsel spoke with prosecutors about it, and they did not “object to the removal of the ankle bracelet.” The defense filed the unopposed motion, and that same day, U.S. District Court Judge Diane Humetewa issued an order amending Lacey’s release conditions.
Lacey had to wait the weekend, but he was at the federal courthouse early Monday morning to have the ankle monitor removed.
He left the courthouse a little lighter than when he arrived but still will have to ask for permission to leave Maricopa County.
At least Lacey is now free of his electronic leg iron, which he admitted “haunted” him.
Along with Larkin and four co-defendants, Lacey faces 100 counts, including 50 counts of facilitating misdemeanor state prostitution offenses in violation of the U.S. Travel Act and attendant money laundering and conspiracy charges.
Lacey is 74, and may die in prison if found guilty.
However, prosecutors face a tough nut. Convincing a jury that Lacey, Larkin, et al. are vicariously responsible for illegal acts allegedly linked to ads they never saw by people unknown to them is as absurd as trying to hold the CEO of Glock criminally liable for facilitating murder because he or she generally knows that Glock’s firearms can be used to commit homicides.
In 2021, prosecutors poisoned the jury by incessantly introducing inflammatory material unconnected to the underlying charges, resulting in a mistrial. They seem poised to do so again come August.
What prosecutors misunderstood in 2018 when they demanded outrageously high bail for Lacey and Larkin and insisted on ankle monitors and other restrictions is that neither man has ever shied from a fight.
Lacey likened it to “that great scene in The Irishman,” where Jimmy Hoffa, played by Al Pacino, is threatened by a gun-wielding member of the public.
After the gunman is subdued, Hoffa says, “You always charge a guy with a gun. With a knife, you run away.”
Lacey and Larkin are headed toward this fight, not away from it.
- Judge Sets Sentencing Dates for Backpage Defendants - February 14, 2024
- Judge Sets Date for Third Trial of Journalist Michael Lacey - January 29, 2024
- Feds Will Retry Lacey, Humetewa Seals Trial Exhibits - January 23, 2024