NY lawsuit targets shuttered sex marketplace Backpage

NEW YORK (AP) — A woman who says she was exploited for years starting at age 12 by a sex trafficker who used the shuttered website Backpage.com to sell her is suing the founders of the site under New York's Child Victims Act, which loosened the statute of limitations for child sex abuse.

The lawsuit filed Tuesday in state court in Manhattan by Melanie Thompson, now 23, charges that the men who ran Backpage advertised her for sex even though they knew she was a minor, masking her age in the ads to keep law enforcers at bay.

“As a result of being advertised for sex on Backpage.com, Melanie was repeatedly raped, sexually abused and exploited by men who purchased her for sex," the complaint says.

The lawsuit targets Backpage.com, its former CEO Carl Ferrer, its founders Michael Lacey and James Larkin and several holding companies that had ownership stakes in the company.

Messages requesting comment were sent Tuesday to their attorneys.

“I really just want people to understand that nobody, unless they've lived this life, can honestly fathom the amount of pain and trauma that comes from Backpage,” Thompson, who attends college in New York City and works as a youth outreach coordinator for the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, said Friday. “I suffer every day because of the things that happened to me years ago.”

Launched in 2004 as part of the classified section of the Village Voice and other alternative weeklies, Backpage grew to become the nation's largest online marketplace for sex.

The company weathered criticism for years that it was fostering the illegal sexual exploitation of women and children, with defenders arguing that the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protected the site's content.

But Backpage was seized by the U.S. Justice Department in April 2018, and Ferrer pleaded guilty to conspiracy and money laundering, and agreed to cooperate with the ongoing federal investigation.

Larkin and Lacey pleaded not guilty and are scheduled for trial in Arizona in May. Ferrer is awaiting sentencing and could face up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Federal prosecutors say Backpage brought in a half-billion dollars over its lifetime.

Thompson says she was forced into prostitution at age 12 by a man who held her against her will and sold her on the street and in an underground strip club.

Her exploitation worsened when her trafficker discovered Backpage because he could sell her more efficiently, Thompson said.

“There was an influx in the amount of sex buyers that purchased me from the website as opposed to street prostitution,” she said. “There were a lot more individuals and a lot of them were more violent.”

Thompson is being represented by the Seattle-based law firm of Pfau Cochran Vertetis Amala, which won a settlement against Backpage in Washington state in 2017 on behalf of three women who said they were sold for sex on the site as teens.

Jason Amala, one of Thompson's attorneys, said New York's restrictive statute of limitations for sex abuse made it difficult for Backpage victims to file lawsuits in the state before the Child Victims Act was enacted last year. Under the act, people who were sexually abused as minors can file civil lawsuits up until the age of 55. Prior to the passage of the act, they had to file their complaints before turning 23, Amala said.

Amala said Thompson's lawsuit should inspire other New Yorkers who were victimized by Backpage to follow suit. “I think she's hoping that other people will come forward, particularly in New York, because the statute was so conservative,” he said.

Thompson, whose lawsuit seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages, said she wants other survivors “to see that they do have a voice and that they can use their voice in the way that I'm attempting to now.”