(TNS) -- Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley has launched a formal investigation into Backpage.com, the classified advertising website that has been described by his former counterpart in California as the “world’s top online brothel.”
His announcement comes on the heels of an FBI investigation that included the serving of federal search warrants at three massage businesses in Joplin in late January. All three of the businesses previously advertised on Backpage.com, and all three have since closed, although no charges have yet been filed against the businesses or their owners.
Hawley said his office has already sent formal notice of his investigation to Backpage officials and requested certain documents and materials from the site.
The investigation is part of a three-pronged approach Hawley said he is taking to combat sex trafficking in Missouri.
In addition to investigating Backpage, Hawley has issued regulations allowing the state’s consumer protection laws to be used as an enforcement tool in pursuing sex crimes. Those regulations, Hawley said, would make it illegal to operate a business that purports to be legal in nature as a cover for criminal activity.
The marketing of the business as a legal enterprise while actually participating in illegal activity would itself be a crime, in addition to whatever crime is being masked.
“What we have found — and what law enforcement across the county has found — is that traditional criminal tools, the traditional criminal approach to trafficking actually turns out to be more difficult than you might expect,” Hawley said last week. “These crimes are hard to investigate; they’re very resource-intensive. They’re also hard to bring to trial — to prove up, as prosecutors say, to a jury. While we continue to be very committed to enforcing the traditional criminal statutes against traffickers, we’re looking to open a new front in the fight against trafficking and consumer protection laws that focus on unfair or deceptive merchandising practices, deceptive business practices; those, we think, might prove more effective in going after traffickers than in traditional criminal approaches.”
Hawley also has created a statewide anti-trafficking task force to establish a network of law enforcement agencies and nonprofit advocacy groups to fight sex trafficking. That task force had its first meeting on May 10, and Hawley said it already has launched “a series of ongoing investigations.”
“This is a crime that targets women,” Hawley said. “It is a crime that is an assault on women; it’s an assault on their dignity; it’s an assault on their personhood; it’s an assault on their future. I think for those reasons, it’s something that’s very personal to me and, I think, should be personal to everybody.”
The investigation that appears to have prompted the closure of Golden Massage, 1237 S. Range Line Road; Sunny Spa, 801 E. 15th St.; and Royal Massage, 1522 S. Main St., began with the FBI, which requested the assistance of the Joplin Police Department, Capt. Rusty Rives told the Globe previously.
On Jan. 25, law enforcement officials, including some from the FBI and a task force officer employed by JPD but assigned to the FBI, descended on the businesses and served search warrants. The businesses have remained closed since.
The owner of a neighboring business said this week she had not been informed of any developments since Jan. 25. Law enforcement officers, she said in February, had acknowledged that a probe of criminal sexual activity was then underway.
The owner of the building where one of the businesses was located did not respond to a request to be interviewed.
Don Ledford, public affairs officer at the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Missouri, also declined to comment on the status of the investigation this week.
“Investigations take a long time, longer than you would think,” he said. “No news doesn’t mean there’s nothing going on; it just means we can’t make any comments.”
Business licenses filed with the city of Joplin and various records maintained by the Missouri Secretary of State do not show phone numbers for the owners of any of the businesses.
One, though, does include an email address for Megan Coy, the previously listed owner of Golden Massage in Joplin. Coy, who has a home address in Nixa, was also listed as the registered agent of Sunny Spa. The Secretary of State’s office also lists a business under the name Golden Massage at an address in Springfield, and Coy was listed as the registered agent for that business until March 1, when records show she resigned from that position. Coy did not respond to messages sent to the email address listed on that form.
A Freedom of Information Act request submitted to the FBI by the Globe seeking probable cause affidavits or search warrants returned no public documents.
All three businesses as well as four others located in Joplin had online advertisements offering various massage services. Six of the seven had ads posted on Backpage.com. There is no indication that the other four businesses with ads on Backpage were a part of the original investigation, and they were not served search warrants on Jan. 25 when the other three were.
A fourth massage business with online advertisements, which does not have a listed name, appears to also have closed recently. The business, located at 3130 Wisconsin Ave. Suite 1, was one of the other four that were not served search warrants in January. A man was seen attempting to enter the business Tuesday afternoon but left upon discovering the door was locked. The business was still not open as of Wednesday afternoon. Two neighboring businesses also appeared closed Wednesday.
All seven massage businesses, including the three that closed in January and the unnamed business on Wisconsin Avenue, also have been reviewed by posters on a website called ECCIE.net, which stands for Escort Client Community Information Exchange. ECCIE refers to itself as “the fastest growing escort review website.” There, individuals log in, usually under a pseudonym, in order to discuss and review commercial sexual experiences. In an internet shorthand described on multiple websites that purport to serve as guides for customers of the commercial sex trade, the reviews describe sexual acts.
The reviews include how much the person paid; the length of the “session;” and often a sexual description of a woman’s physical appearance, whether the poster would recommend the “provider” and a date the visit occurred. While the business on Wisconsin wasn’t served with search warrants when the other three were, a review on ECCIE of the business that included all that information was posted in April 2016.
Rives said this week no update on the pending investigation was available.
Other posts on ECCIE indicate that the business is in fact closed. Posts from two different usernames say the location on Wisconsin Avenue is closed. The remaining three businesses appear to be open.
While the law makes a clear distinction, Alice Weimer, chair of the Springfield-based anti-trafficking group Stand Against Trafficking, says she personally doesn’t differentiate between the two. That, she says, is because even adult prostitutes, otherwise consenting to their work in the commercial sex industry, are often kept in the industry by circumstances beyond their control.
“Oftentimes they don’t see themselves in that light,” Weimer said. “They would not volunteer to say they are human trafficking victims, but oftentimes after the fact, in their course of restoration and healing, they’re able to see hindsight more clearly what they have experienced in legal terms.”
Weimer also said it is not uncommon for prostitutes to continue working in the industry because of previous coercion or manipulation or having begun the work as a minor.
The latter was the case with a 23-year-old woman Weimer said she once saw arrested for theft during a ride-along with Springfield police. The woman also was working, on her own free will, as a prostitute. But during the process of her booking, Weimer asked how long she had been doing so.
“She said seven years,” Weimer said, “so without any further questioning, my experience tells me that’s a human trafficking victim; she’s been doing this since she was 16 years of age.”
Hawley agreed that although there is a legal distinction, the line between prostitution and sex trafficking in some cases is blurred.
“These industries are so closely intertwined,” he said. “Because prostitution, what we find is, what the data tends to suggest, social science data, is that vast numbers of women who are in the commercial sex industry have been trafficked there, either by the entry point or been trafficked by being kept in that industry. So there’s an open question as to how many people are actually in the commercial sex industry voluntarily, at least when it comes to prostitution.”
With the worldwide connections today’s technology can provide, fewer and fewer trafficking victims enter the industry by what might be considered typical means, both Weimer and Hawley said. More often than being kidnapped and physically forced into sex labor, individuals in at-risk situations such as poverty and homelessness are targeted and coerced with various false promises.
Weimer said approximately 85 percent of the victims Stand Against Trafficking works with have at one point been in foster care, which means they likely have already experienced some form of neglect or abuse.
“It’s usually more subtle but no less insidious (than kidnapping),” Hawley said.
Backpage, based in Dallas, is similar to the popular online marketplace Craigslist in that it features sections advertising legal products and services such as furniture and employment, but Backpage previously included a section marked “adult,” offering “escorts, body rubs, strippers and strip clubs.” That section of the site has been blocked, but the massage ads and other explicit solicitations are posted under a “services” or “dating” section.
None of the local businesses’ ads explicitly mention sexual activity or use incriminating language, but their ads, and others still present on the site, commonly referenced “pretty and hot” or “sweet and young Asian girls.” Several of the ads include photos of women in lingerie.
“We choose only the best girls to provide you the best service,” a previous Backpage ad for Golden Massage in Joplin read. “New, young, lovely, friendly, Asian girls for your choice, allow us to provide the best relaxing pleasure experience session. You will be happy with young cute girls, 100 percent guaranteed. Life too short, you deserve to spoil yourself with ultimate pleasure relaxing session. Sensual pleasure and total satisfaction, period. One-hundred percent satisfied non-rushed fun time. Leave with big smile. All lovely and beautiful staff. Don’t be shy.”
That sort of suggestive language was one focus of a U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations examination of sex trafficking practices that eventually focused on Backpage. Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Rob Portman, R-Ohio, are the ranking members of that subcommittee, which released its findings in a report issued earlier this year. Among other things, the report alleged that Backpage covered up wrongdoing by deleting incriminating words from advertisements.
Backpage “knowingly facilitated criminal sex trafficking of vulnerable women and underage girls, and then covered up evidence of these crimes in order to increase its own profits,” McCaskill’s office said in a statement detailing the report.
Backpage did not respond to a message submitted through the communications portal provided on the website for advertisers.
“The nature of our investigation,” Hawley said, “is focused on trying to discern, has Backpage knowingly and deliberately posted ads for activity it knows to be illicit, it knows to be illegal trafficking, but doctored them or altered them or participated with them in such a way as to conceal the criminal nature of the activities. ... If in fact they did that, that’s illegal. That would be a violation both of the consumer protection statues and of various criminal statutes.”
Hawley also called the testimony in the subcommittee’s investigation “very significant.”
On Wednesday, the District of Columbia Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals denied Backpage CEO Carl Ferrer’s appeals of two district court decisions compelling him to produce documents in accordance with a subpoena issued by the Subcommittee on Investigations.
While the legal process of Ferrer’s appeal played out, he provided the subcommittee some of the documents it was seeking. Because he has done so and the subcommittee has concluded its study and issued its report, it is no longer seeking to enforce the subpoena in its entirety and has filed a motion to stop the case. Ferrer, though, had sought to keep it active in order to maintain his appeal.
The D.C. Circuit denied that request as well.
In December 2016, a Sacramento County (California) judge threw out pimping charges against Ferrer and others filed by then-Attorney General Kamala Harris. The judge cited free-speech concerns, saying Backpage was only a third-party host of ads and was not responsible for any illegal activity conducted on the site. Harris is the man who referred to Backpage as an “online brothel.”
Less than two weeks later, Harris, who won a race for a U.S. Senate seat last fall and was sworn in earlier this year, announced she was again charging the men. Harris said the new charges — again for pimping, though some of the new charges involve children as well as for money laundering — were based on new evidence.
Prosecutors also allege that Backpage worked to get around banks that refused to process transactions and funneled money through various other companies.
©2017 The Joplin Globe (Joplin, Mo.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.