Backpage vs Feds: An Inside Glimpse Part I

In Michael Lacey’s younger and more vulnerable years, his father gave him this advice:

“Whenever someone pokes a finger in your chest, you grab that finger and you break it off at the knuckle.”

Lacey had grown up in the 1950’s as a bright, bookish boy. His father, a sailor turned enforcer for a New York construction union, had little use for his son’s intellectual gifts. If Lacey lost a fight at school, he says, his dad “came home and beat me again.” But the boy toughened up, and he carried the lessons he’d learned into adulthood. He became a newspaper editor and earned a reputation as a dirty First Amendment brawler. Early on in his career, he struck up a partnership with James Larkin, a publisher whose sensibilities matched his own. Together, they built the nation’s largest chain of alternative newsweeklies.

Lacey and Larkin had been seen by some as angry anarchists—so-called micks from the sticks who made a fortune thumbing their snouts at authority. Their papers went after mayors and police chiefs, governors and senators, Walmart and the Church of Scientology. They provoked no small outrage with their business practices too, by setting up Backpage, the infamous sex peddling red-light district of the internet. As attorney Don Moon, the pair’s longtime adviser, put it:

“Their brand was always ‘Fuck you. We don’t have friends. We have lawyers.’ ”

That approach served them for 45 years, right up until the morning Michael Lacey found himself staring into the barrel of a Glock.

A few minutes before 9 am on April 6, 2018, a fleet of unmarked vehicles with government plates rolled up in front of Lacey’s multimillion-dollar compound in Paradise Valley, a few miles outside of Phoenix. These weren’t the guests he’d been expecting.

The 69-year-old had recently gotten remarried, and he was preparing to host a lavish party to celebrate. Tents were pitched on his lawn; retired journalists and overworked lawyers were winging their way into town. FBI agents informed the groom that he was being arrested on charges of money laundering and facilitating prostitution. They cuffed him, then subdued the home’s other occupants.

For the next six hours, the lawmen tossed the compound looking for, among other things, “evidence of wealth.” They seized art, cash, computers, even the bride’s wedding ring. Meanwhile, at the Phoenix airport, federal marshals awaited a 747 inbound from London. When it touched down, the flight crew made an announcement: Police would be boarding, so passengers must stay put. Larkin wondered who they were there for before quickly realizing it was for him.

Partygoers soon received a cryptic text message. Owing to “unforeseen circumstances,” it said, the wedding celebration had been “postponed.” A notice went up on Backpage, explaining that the website had been seized “as part of an enforcement action.” More than a few guests completed the journey to Phoenix anyway; reporters can’t resist a story, and Lacey had already paid for a block of rooms at the Hotel Camby. They gathered at various local watering holes, offering what one attendee described as “toasts to the accused,” and pieced together a powerful narrative—a tale of self anointed free-speech crusaders crossed over to the dark side, dedicated news hounds become digital pimps.

Many saw this raid by the Feds as the beginning of the end of the sordid reign of Backpage’s prostitution empire. But it was only the end of the beginning.

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