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Whom to call
•Victims of sex trafficking can call the YWCA’s 24/7 crisis hotline for help: 1-800-441-4073

Police targeting website’s adult ads

Escort offers seen as masking prostitution

New ads are posted nearly every day.

Click on them, and you’ll find photos of young women clad in underwear, lingerie or less. They have names like Miya, Kandi or Kacey. They promise bliss. They want you to call. Now.

“I have everything you need,” one says.

“Don’t forget to ask about our 2 girl special,” says another.

“No law enforcement,” warns a third.

These ads and hundreds like them can be found in the “adult” category on the Fort Wayne section of the website Backpage.com, an advertising site owned by Village Voice Media that has come under fire nationwide as an online clearinghouse for escorts.

A Fort Wayne police detective, who has spent four years on the vice and narcotics squad, said he has worked hundreds of prostitution cases that involved the Backpage website, including cases of illegal trafficking of teens.

He said the volume of such investigations would surprise most city residents. In 2011, Fort Wayne police made 82 arrests related to Internet prostitution, and in 2010, that number was 100, according to police.

“Most people would have no clue,” he said. “ ‘This is Fort Wayne. This kind of thing doesn’t happen here.’ Oh yeah, it does.”

The detective asked that his name not be used because of his undercover work. Not wanting to jeopardize future cases, he declined to discuss how police investigate prostitution cases, even in general terms.

“It’s very important that nobody have any idea what we do,” especially in cases involving minors, he said.

But a review of court documents clearly shows that Fort Wayne police regularly monitor the ads posted on Backpage. In several recent prostitution cases, the site has played a key role.

•Through a Backpage posting, investigators found a 17-year-old girl working out of a Fort Wayne hotel in November 2010, police said. The girl had met Lionel Cauley in Miami, and they went on a trip around the Midwest, where he collected the money she made through prostitution, according to court testimony.

Unconvinced that Cauley’s actions rose to the level of a felony offense, a jury acquitted the 33-year-old of a federal charge of sex trafficking of children by force, fraud or coercion after a three-day trial in July 2011.

•During an undercover bust in March at a local motel, an officer learned that a prostitute was 16 years old, and he began questioning her to find out whether she was “the victim of human trafficking,” court papers stated.

The 16-year-old told police that Michelle Mullins had recently brought her from Milwaukee to Indiana. The teen was first taken to Kokomo, where she had two clients, before coming to Fort Wayne, court papers said.

The teen told police Mullins posted her first ads on Backpage and instructed her on how much to charge clients. Mullins took the money earned from every other encounter, according to court papers.

Mullins, then 29, was arrested on a charge of promoting prostitution. She is set for trial in September.

•In April 2011, an officer checking Backpage found an ad that led police to arrest an alleged pimp who was advertising his girlfriend online. In that case, Antwone Davis Sr., then 36, was arrested. He pleaded guilty to promoting prostitution and was placed on probation.

•Aware of the popularity of Backpage, Fort Wayne investigators also have used it to snare prospective customers. In February, police posted an ad offering a “high class personal experience.” The sting led to charges against nine men who called the number listed and came to a hotel thinking they were meeting a prostitute.

Like Craigslist, Backpage is a classified advertising site with pages for cities around the globe. When it comes to sex ads, the difference is that Craigslist eliminated its “adult” section in 2010 under pressure from a group of state attorneys general who claimed the site was promoting prostitution, including the trafficking of underage girls.

Backpage has caught similar heat but has not changed its policies.

Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller calls Backpage “the key source of most local prostitution” in the state. He said Indiana is one of many states that have threatened legal action against Backpage unless its adult section is closed.

“Barring their willingness to suddenly change their position, there’s likely to be a legal challenge at some point,” Zoeller said.

“They know that they’re raising monies for illegal prostitution – at best,” he said. “And I think at worst, they’re facilitating human trafficking.”

The Journal Gazette left multiple phone and email messages with Backpage requesting comment but received no reply.

Before entering the adult section of Backpage, users are presented with a disclaimer that says the section has sexual content and is only for people over 18.

The disclaimer also asks users to agree “to report suspected exploitation of minors and/or human trafficking to the appropriate authorities.”

The disclaimer has not been enough for Washington state legislators seeking to curb child sex trafficking. They unanimously passed a law this year, targeting Backpage, which would require classified advertising companies to verify the ages of people in sex-related ads.

At the request of Backpage, a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction in July to block enforcement of the law until a suit challenging it can be heard in court.

In March, in response to a New York Times column calling for a boycott of Village Voice Media, the company said on its own website that it “dedicates hundreds of staff to screen adult classifieds in order to keep juveniles off the site and to work proactively with law enforcement in their efforts to locate victims. When the authorities have concerns, we share paperwork and records and help them make cases.”

Many types of ads can be posted free on Backpage, but the site charges varying fees to place ads in the adult section.

For instance, it costs $2 to post an escort ad on the Fort Wayne page, and doing the same on the Indianapolis page costs $3.

The Fort Wayne vice and narcotics detective said he saw local prostitution ads shift to Backpage after Craigslist closed its adult section two years ago. Nowadays, he sees three to 15 ads each day on Backpage aimed at the Fort Wayne area.

However, Backpage is not the only site where local prostitution ads pop up. Sites like Naughtyreviews.com and Eros.com also host such ads.

Mary Jo Hardiman, director of community programs for the YWCA Northeast Indiana, believes Backpage and similar sites go against her organization’s mission to empower people.

“If it’s perpetuating violence in any form, it needs to be shut down,” she said.

Hardiman said the YWCA has resources to aid victims of sex trafficking, noting that the group has handled a couple of local cases of teenagers prostituted on Backpage.

“We can help them break away,” she said. “We can help put them back in contact with their family.”

aingersoll@jg.net

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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