Facts Contradict Maggy Krell’s Claim that Backpage’s Demise Helped Victims/Survivors

Maggy "Napoleon" Krell: Waterloo was a big win for the French. No, really. (artist's conception)
In her new book, "Taking Down Backpage," former California prosecutor Maggy Krell claims that victims of sex trafficking are better off post-Backpage. But the facts do not back this up.

Like the proverbial resident of a mental hospital who claims to be Napoleon, former California prosecutor Maggy Krell crafts a grotesquely self-congratulatory alternate reality in her new book, Taking Down Backpage: Fighting the World’s Largest Sex Trafficker, wherein Krell self-identifies as the patron saint of sex trafficking victims, a comic book heroine who took on the imaginary beast of Backpage and slew it with her tiny sword.

Which makes for a nice bit of hot air to further bloat a big head, but bears no resemblance to the truth. Krell had zero to do with the takedown of Backpage. The FBI did that in 2018, after Krell left the California AG’s office for a position with a nonprofit.

Backpage’s deletion from the internet caused untold misery and violence, which Krell turns a blind eye to in her book. (NYU Press)

Rather, in 2016, while in the employ of the California AG’s office, Krell twice brought bogus state “pimping” charges against Backpage’s former owners, Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin, and the man they sold the company to the year before, Carl Ferrer. Those charges were twice thrown out of court, on motions to dismiss filed by the defense.

Krell did this to further the political career of her boss, then-Cali AG Kamala Harris, who was running for U.S. Senate at the time and triumphed at the polls shortly thereafter. Only some piddling money laundering charges survived the dismissal motions, and Backpage continued until the feds seized it in 2018 and effectively destroyed it.

So far, there has been no great legal triumph. Ferrer turned state’s witness, pleading guilty to trifles in federal and state courts. The first federal case against Lacey and Larkin for the facilitation of state prostitution misdemeanors under the U.S. Travel Act (not trafficking) ended in a mistrial and is currently tied up in the courts.

Krell gloats over the felling of Backpage as if she did it, and throughout her book, she contends that sex trafficking victims are better off for Backpage’s demise. Backpage “never made any aspect of their lives safer,” she writes. The site was simply a “criminal marketplace where people were sold.”

There was “no screening” of clients, she maintains. Backpage’s extensive cooperation with law enforcement? A mere charade to fool authorities. And the kicker: “After the shutdown of Backpage, instances of sex trafficking decreased.”

human trafficking stats
An FBI chart detailing the increase in reported incidents of human trafficking, disproving Krell’s claims. (from FBI’s 2020 trafficking report at its Crime Data Explorer)

But both the feds’ own stats and the voices of sex workers and sex worker rights advocates, some of whom have been trafficked and/or work with trafficking victims, prove Krell wrong at every turn.

The combination of the Backpage seizure and the passage of federal legislation, known as FOSTA/SESTA, made it risky for U.S.-based sites to post anything online that even resembled adult advertising, forcing websites in the U.S. to self-censor. For example, Craigslist famously took down its personals section for fear of prosecution.

In a paroxism of hyperbole, Krell calls her disastrous attempt to prosecute Lacey, Larkin and Ferrer on pimping charges “the most important case in the history of the world.”

Government studies have since revealed that the Backpage takedown left law enforcement without a crucial resource. State and federal cops frequently used Backpage to locate and rescue trafficked women and children and prosecute their traffickers.

Backpage worked with law enforcement and responded to subpoenas within 24 hours, faster if a victim was endangered. Adult advertising fled overseas after Backpage’s fall, far from the jurisdiction of a U.S. subpoena, leaving law enforcement with no way to pursue leads.

Krell admits this was foreseeable. In her book, she mocks the agency that actually took down Backpage, the FBI, as being too skittish to go after the site.

Krell writes:

“Backpage was a prolific source of information for law enforcement. We used it to locate victims and as evidence against pimps. If Backpage closed, the FBI was concerned it would have dozens of little sites to monitor, and those little sites might be uncooperative and offshore.”

Which is exactly what happened.

Gaslighting 101

Krell’s credibility isn’t helped by outrageous claims such as calling her attempt to prosecute Lacey. Larkin and Ferrer on pimping charges “the most important case in the history of the world.”

O.J., the Lindberg kidnapping, Enron, the Scopes Monkey Trial, Ted Bundy, Sacco and Vanzetti, the Nuremberg trials, etc. They all pale in comparison to Krell’s failed stab at bringing false pimping charges that two, count ’em, two judges consigned to the dung heap.

Such nonsense aside, Krell’s assertion that “instances of sex trafficking decreased” after the FBI eradicated Backpage don’t hold water.

The former prosecutor and budding fiction writer relies on a Reuters report that quotes a study from an artificial intelligence company, Childsafe.AI, released one year after Backpage’s takedown.

The company’s CEO told Reuters that “even as ad levels have begun to rebound, demand remains lower as sex trafficking has become more difficult and less profitable on the internet.” Though adult ads were bouncing back, supposedly the “demand” side had significantly diminished, the study maintained.

The problem with the underlying report is that it conflates consensual adult sex work (which involves a wide range of legal activity) with sex trafficking, which unlike prostitution, involves either minors, who by law cannot consent, or adults coerced into commercial sex. And the study does not offer a full accounting of alternate host sites that sprang up post-Backpage and even lists one as being kaput that seems to be doing brisk business now, Rubmaps.ch.

One recalls that old line about lies, damn lies and statistics, but the FBI’s annual report on human trafficking, a term that includes forced labor and forced sex, does not support a post-Backpage decline.

None of the defendants in the Lacey/Larkin case have ever been accused of hurting a woman or a child. They’ve never been charged with sex trafficking, nor could they be. Krell tried “pimping charges” and got her tuchis handed to her by the court, twice.

On the contrary, the 2020 report shows a steady increase in state human trafficking cases from 2013 to 2020.

And this holds true for the number of sex trafficking cases reported. In 2016, the last full year before Backpage began to curtail adult-themed advertising on the site, there were 1007 trafficking cases involving commercial sex acts. In 2017, there were 994. For 2018, the year Backpage was seized, 1,242. In 2019, 1,607, and in 2020, 1,693.

The FBI’s stats do not link the cases to Backpage, nor would I assume causation. Moreover, the number of states reporting these numbers have increased over time, which may explain the overall rise.

At least, per the FBI stats, local law enforcement reports of state sex trafficking cases did not take a huge dive post-Backpage.

Adult-themed advertising rebounded on a plethora of platforms overseas. Sex workers also took to dating apps and used free social media sites to advertise.

The ability of law enforcement to subpoena one central, cooperative website had been dashed. Backpage execs reportedly trained law enforcement officers, developed a guide for the police in how to use the site for investigations and served as witnesses in criminal cases against traffickers.

According to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University, federal child sex trafficking prosecutions have declined since 2017.

DOJ officials have indicated that the combination of the feds’ Backpage takedown along with the chilling effect of FOSTA/SESTA hampered law enforcement’s ability to successfully investigate and prosecute such cases.

“Instead of being able to go to one site to find someone who might be missing or in trouble, you have to go to multiple sites or just hope somebody’s able to be found.” — Alex Andrews, Woodhull Freedom Foundation

In her book, Krell mocks the 2011 commendation Ferrer received as Backpage’s CEO, describing it as “a certificate from the FBI for the ‘outstanding cooperation’ for all the times Backpage helped law enforcement ‘find’ victims — whom Backpage then continued to exploit and victimize.”

This is a particularly perverse view of helping federal law enforcement rescue victims from actual sex traffickers. Krell goes on to call Backpage “the world’s largest child sex trafficking operation.”

Which is absurd. Backpage is no more responsible for the content uploaded to it by users than a cell phone company is culpable for the countless drug deals done on their service, or a beer company is for the people who die from DUIs.

None of the defendants in the Lacey/Larkin case have ever been accused of hurting a woman or a child. They’ve never been charged with sex trafficking, nor could they be. Krell tried “pimping charges” and got her tuchis handed to her by the court, twice.

SESTAPOCALYPSE

Asked about Krell’s statement that sex workers were not able to vet clients using Backpage, Kristen DiAngelo, a sex worker, sex-trafficking victim and co-founder of the Sacramento chapter of the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP), the largest sex-worker-rights organization in the country,  explains that Krell misunderstands how the vetting of clients took place.

No, Backpage did not vet clients for its users. Sex workers (a broad term that includes any adult who provides consensual sexual services — whether legal or illegal — for money or goods) could do that on their own.

“Backpage was an advertising site in which people contact you,” she says. “The vetting happens in other places. The fact that you can post an ad on the internet gives you time to collect data about the client.”

Photo of a woman on a stage speaking into a microphone attached to a bullhorn, held by another woman.
SWOP Sacramento co-founder Kristen DiAngelo (right) speaking at a protest of FOSTA/SESTA in 2018. (photo by Stephen Lemons)

Backpage was cheap, and for as low as $5 or $10, someone could post a dating ad or an ad for various adult services that have all been ruled to be legal by the courts, including escorts and massage. Once communication is established, a Backpage user can run the person’s phone number and the name, check out their social media, look at their LinkedIn page, ask for ID, and check sites where sex workers would blacklist or whitelist clients.

“I’m not going to say anything is 100 percent,” DiAngelo says. “You do the best you can to take care of yourself. We vet through each other, we get references.”

Alex Andrews, a sex worker, co-founder of the Tampa-area group SWOP Behind Bars, and director of the Woodhull Freedom Foundation’s Human Rights Commission, agrees.

“We were able to warn people about a potentially violent client,” Andrews explains. In the post-Backpage era, things are different, communication is less open and “everything is very disconnected and fragmented.”

She adds:

“Instead of being able to go to one site to find someone who might be missing or in trouble, you have to go to multiple sites or just hope somebody’s able to be found.”

Regarding the Backpage closure, Andrews says, “They didn’t shut down trafficking, they just made it harder to find victims and survivors.”

Some sex workers and survivors dubbed the combination of SESTA/FOSTA and the Backpage takedown, “the SESTApocalypse,” and the reality was not far from that.

For former sex worker, filmmaker and founder of the Tucson chapter of SWOP, Juliana Piccillo, the seizure of Backpage on April 6, 2018 was a dark and depressing event.

“I’ll never forget the day it closed down,” she says. “The panicked emails and phone calls and postings on social media sites . . . It was devastating, it was horrible.”

“She knows full well that she did not have a positive impact,” Piccillo says of Krell. “I think she’s trying to leverage this for a political career.”

Piccillo and other sex-worker rights advocates say many sex workers had no choice but to turn to more perilous methods of seeking clients. Faced with the horror of relinquishing their independence or going hungry, some committed suicide, Piccillo said.

“We’ve seen such an uptick in violence,” DiAngelo says. “We’ve seen such an uptick in street prostitution. We’ve seen an uptick in people choosing to be with pimps and traffickers  . . . because we have lost our resources.”

Indeed, one academic study has charted the period from 2002 up till 2010, when Craigslist bowed to government pressure and got rid of its erotic services sections. It concluded that the national female homicide rate was 17 percent lower when Craigslist still had a section for adult ads.

In a podcast interview, the study’s author speculated that increasing violence against sex workers was likely inevitable given FOSTA/SESTA and the feds’ takedown of Backpage.

A Janus-Faced ‘Savior’

None of the sex worker rights advocates that I spoke with thought much of Krell’s supposed concern with the fate of sex workers in general. They found it telling that Krell opposes the repeal of a California law that criminalizes loitering for the intent of prostitution.

Regarding the misdemeanor loitering statute Krell recently told the LA Times that “while she doesn’t believe sex workers should be arrested or criminalized, law enforcement needs a legal reason to intervene in their lives.”

Piccillo blasted Krell’s statement as “paternalistic” and punitive.

“I don’t know what these people are obsessed with,” Piccillo says. “But they don’t like the idea of people doing sex work for a living. So they’re going to continue to make it difficult, and they don’t care about the body count behind that.”

DiAngelo says Krell’s statement is hypocritical. As the LA Times piece points out, women on the street rack up citations, possibly a bench warrant and a criminal record because of the loitering statute. And this makes it less likely someone will get out of sex work, score an apartment and a “straight” job.

“That’s as blatant a lie as you can get, because it doesn’t help anyone,” she argues. “It only hurts you having a record half a mile long because you’ve got like 13 or 15 tickets for loitering with intent [to commit prostitution].”

And social services for trafficked individuals are practically nonexistent, these activists contend.

“Let’s face it, there are more shelters for homeless animals in this country than there are for people,” Andrews notes.

In celebrating the seizure of Backpage and opposing reforms like the repeal of the loitering law, Krell was helping to ensure that violence and suffering will continue and increase, the exact opposite of her goal of playing savior.

“Vulnerable populations do not accept the fact that there is no more Backpage as an answer to the lack of income,” Andrews adds. “They don’t say, ‘Okay, looks like Backpage is shut down, so let’s go ahead and take those corporate jobs with company cars and health benefits.”

Piccillo is particularly blunt in her condemnation of Krell’s jihad against Backpage and Krell’s hollow claim of victory in the wake of Backpage’s erasure by the feds.

“Everybody advertising on Backpage had an incredible injustice visited upon them,” says Piccillo. “People went back to the streets, people got killed, people killed themselves. And the people who survived jumped to other websites to advertise . . . And how are we going to look for trafficking victims now that Backpage is not there?”

Piccillo says taking down Backpage accomplished nothing but more harm for the poor, the marginalized, people of color, victims of sex trafficking and women in general.

But for Krell, it was an opportunity for cynical self-promotion.

“She knows full well that she did not have a positive impact,” says Piccillo. “I think she’s trying to leverage this for a political career.

“I think she even knows that decriminalization . . . is the best harm reduction method. At Maggy Krell’s level of involvement in this, it’s not even willful ignorance. She knows better.”

ICYMI, please also see:
Judge Vacates Feb. 9 Trial Date in Lacey/Larkin Case, Awaiting Outcome of Ninth Circuit Appeal
and
Kamala Harris’ Ex-Underling Maggy Krell Did Not ‘Break’ Backpage, as NY Daily News Claims

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About Stephen Lemons

Stephen Lemons is an award-winning investigative journalist with more than 20 years of experience covering everything from government corruption to white-supremacist gangs. In addition to Front Page Confidential, his work has appeared in Phoenix New Times, the Los Angeles Times, Salon.com, and the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Report magazine.

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