Underage sex trafficking, assault and now murder – all linked to the sex trafficking and prostitution ads in the adult section of Village Voice Media’s Backpage.com.
Two men have been arrested in connection with the slayings last December of four Detroit women whose bodies were discovered in car trunks.
The killings were widely dubbed by the press as the “Backpage murders,” after three of the women placed online escort ads on the site, police said.
The men, ages 32 and 24, were arrested by a federal, state and local law enforcement task force in Sterling Heights, a mostly middle-class community north of Detroit.
The men were taken into custody after a four-month investigation.
In the raid, officers confiscated cell phones, a computer and financial records. Evidence showed, according to sources, that one of the men communicated with the victims and may have solicited them for sex through a Backpage.com ad.
Investigators cracked the case by tracking the computer IP address to a location in Sterling Heights.
The men were “placed in police custody for questioning in regard to the Backpage cases,” Det. Eran Stephens said.
Detroit Police Chief Ralph Godbee has said that three of the slain women had placed ads for “prearranged adult dating services” on Backpage.com, prompting investigators to publicly say late last year that someone may have been targeting escorts.
Godbee stopped short of saying the slayings were the work of a serial killer.
Little other news about the cases had surfaced since the women’s bodies were found in December.
The bodies of 24-year-old Demesha Hunt and her 23-year-old cousin, Renisha Landers, were discovered Dec. 19 in separate car trunks in Detroit. The bodies of two more women – friends Natasha Curtis and Vernithea McCrary – were found Christmas Day in the trunk of a burning car parked in a garage.
Backpage.com said in late December that it had provided police with information about ads that a suspect may have posted on numerous websites.
That news came too little – and too late – for the victims who all appear to have been connected to their killers by way of the adult ads on Backpage.com.
In other Backpage.com news:
Reports out of Greeley, Colorado reveal that a grandmother and her daughter have been arrested for running a place of prostitution in their home where the two-year-old grandson also lived.
Greeley Police arrested 43-year-old Sherry Whitacre and her daughter, 25-year-old Amanda Becker on Tuesday after an undercover sting.
Cops had gotten a tip that the two were running the prostitution operation with a child in the house and advertising their services on Backpage.com.
Whitacre and Becker are being held on one charge each of child abuse and prostitution charges.
The toddler is now in the custody of social services.
Meanwhile, in Clayton County, Georgia, the sheriff’s office has issued a stark warning about Backpage.com as a haven for pimps and criminals.
The grandmother of a teenage girl said she was lured into prostitution through the site.
“We were devastated. We were absolutely so shocked and so surprised,” the grandmother said.
She says she found photographs of her 19-year-old granddaughter on Backpage.com after the teen disappeared in December from her job at a local McDonald’s.
After days of searching, they got a clue: a phone number. When investigators entered it online, they said they found suggestive pictures of the teen, posing as an escort.
“They have different people that will go out and recruit for them. They promise these girls the world,” Sgt. Robert Hitchcock said.
Hitchcock said the teen met a man at the McDonald’s who convinced her to stay with him and another woman. He said they quickly pushed her to take the pictures and sent her out for prostitution jobs.
“She was beaten with a belt to make her do what he wanted her to do,” the grandmother said.
“They use Backpage almost exclusively now to advertise their prostitution escort business,” Hitchcock said.
Then, in February, investigators conducted a prostitution sting in which they arrested several people who advertised on Backpage.com. They were hoping to find the missing 19-year-old, but she was already out of state.
“These guys move these girls across state boundaries, and if you get too close to them, these girls disappear and you’ll never find them,” Hitchcock said.
In late March, the grandmother got a call from the 19-year-old, who was in Portland, Ore., and wanted to come home.
“I know a lot of lives are being wrecked, and I’m sure a lot ruined. I think we’re one of the lucky ones,” the grandmother said.
And, showing that no one is immune from the ravages of Backpage.com, police in Ogden, Utah performed a prostitution sting operation, arresting women whom officers contacted through the Village Voice Media web site.
“We’ve been noticing an increase in advertisement,” Police Lt. Scott Conley said.
Officers have seen more and more women advertised as escorts on Backpage.com.
“You will see things like, ‘We’ll be in town from such and such date, come see me,’ ” Conley said.
The police are aware of the situation and are trying to eradicate it from the community, Conley said.
Police made an agreement with a local apartment complex for the sting. In one apartment, officers set up their command post, while another served as the meeting location.
Officers made contact with 12 to 14 women, saying to the women that they were looking for companionship.
Upon a woman’s arrival, the conversation would go from her role as an escort to a discussion of the value of a sexual act.
Police made six arrests and issued one citation. Charges included prostitution and running a business without a license.
Finally, in a stinging rebuke to Village Voice editor Tony Ortega, yesterday the Huffington Post posted a column that took direct aim at the immorality of Village Voice Media and Ortega, in particular.
The author of the column, Malika Saada Sarr, Director, Human Rights Project for Girls, had the following to say about Ortega’s stewardship of the Voice:
“The Village Voice is now largely funded through Backpage.com, an online classified ads site, in which you can purchase furniture, cars, or underage girls for sex. Backpage is owned by Village Voice Media which also owns the Village Voice weekly. Like Craigslist used to, the Village Voice’s Backpage is reaping huge profits off the sale and sexual exploitation of children…
“Unlike Craigslist, whose founder Craig Newmark finally recognized the moral abhorrence of his site being used to sell children for sex, Backpage has expressed nothing but shamelessness. Perhaps that is because Craigslist didn’t need the revenue from its sex ad sales to survive. The Village Voice does.
“Because of its desperation, Village Voice’s Backpage is using a multitude of asinine excuses to defend its online girl trade. Defenses such as their site needs to exist to assist law enforcement, that it is safer for children to be peddled for sex online than for the sordid transaction to be pushed underground, or that criticism surrounding its sex ads amount to censorship.”
Those are the same excuses that Village Voice Media owners Jim Larkin and Michael Lacey have been trotting out through their mouthpiece, lawyer Elizabeth McDougall, who has been pilloried in the press and, recently, during her testimony defending Backpage.com before the New York City Council.
So far, the only thing McDougall has been able to accomplish is to put a muzzle on Ortega, the long-time company hatchet man and chief water carrier for Larkin and Lacey.