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Michael Lacey and James Larkin are accused of facilitating prostitution in a case with far-reaching implications. But the U. Whom the judge sides with will determine whether Lacey and Larkin are locked away for decades, and whether online sex work—and possibly online expression, in general—will ever look the same again. Until their homes were raided and their assets seized, Larkin and Lacey were, in many regards, an internet success story. After founding the Phoenix New Times as pugnacious college journalists, the pair went on to purchase more than 17 local magazines across the United States, amassing the largest chain of alt-weeklies in the country.

Just as print revenues started to fade, they had the idea to digitize the classified in the back of their papers and put them on a website: Back. But while the earnings piled up, so did the horror stories: women and girls allegedly held against their will and trafficked by pimps, friends, or family members using Back as a marketing tool.

One woman said she was raped more than 1, times after being advertised on the site as a teenage runaway. Back became a white whale for ambitious young prosecutors looking to prove their chops, and for politicians hoping to muster goodwill in an election year. Dozens of alleged victims filed civil suits. None of it stuck. When then-California Attorney General Kamala Harris filed new charges against the founders that same month, a judge dismissed them again.

The only legal challenge that seemed to stick was a suit by three Washington women who claimed they were trafficked via Back when they were as young as 13 years old. The state Supreme Court ruled that the case could go forward, and Back eventually settled. At the same time, however, the founders unwittingly avoided criminal prosecution in the same state—in part thanks to their own cooperation with authorities.

According to documents published by Reason , federal prosecutors in the Western District of Washington reviewed more than , documents and interviewed more than a dozen witnesses in in an attempt to bring a case against Back, but failed to find a smoking gun. In fact, according to a memo written by two assistant U. To date, the investigation has revealed neither. The U. Senate, which had been investigating Back for years, successfully subpoenaed millions of s of internal documents and published them in a highly damaging report in

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A few have oversize teardrops rolling down their cheeks. Patrice was raped at the age 12, started to work in a strip club on the West side of the city when she was 14 and was lured into prostitution in California by the man she then thought of as her boyfriend at the age of Patrice is one of about women in Division 17, a part of the jail for mostly young women, many of them mothers or pregnant, held on relatively minor charges.

Most of them were prostitutes, many have mental-health problems and nearly all are recovering addicts. Katie, a woman in her 20s of Puerto Rican descent, dropped out of school when she was 14, got pregnant by a gang member, had an abortion and started to drink heavily.

Katie gave birth to three children, two of whom were taken away by social workers because of her addictions. Her oldest, a nine-year-old boy, is living with his father. Patrice, Katie and Hannah have all been advertised on the adult section of Back. Prostitution is illegal in the United States, in all but a few counties in Nevada, but Back, which is run by two former journalists, Jim Larkin and Michael Lacey, is by most estimates the biggest online marketplace for buying and selling sex in America. It has been under attack for several years from activists and politicians, who accuse the site of facilitating the pimping out of under-age girls.