For years, Tony Ortega has shown a preoccupation with guarding sexual predators pursuing underage victims, using the published word to smear and spread bizarre verdicts against those attempting to rein in the abuse of innocent targets.
So determined was Ortega to protect sexual predators, he was ultimately promoted to the position of hellhound for what became the nation’s largest operation for abetting the vile abuse heaped upon young sex trafficking victims. It was an assignment Ortega had been working toward for years, starting with his sick take on a case of terrifying abuse.
Late one night in August 2002, an armed fugitive, wanted for rape, kidnapped two girls, 16 and 17, outside of Palmdale, California. He blindfolded the teens, bound them with duct tape and drove them in a stolen SUV to a remote desert area, where he raped each one. He then drove them another 100 miles, when he stopped to nod off after a night of drinking.
As he slept, the girls managed to seize a knife and whiskey bottle sitting on the SUV’s console and attacked their attacker to save their lives. The injuries they inflicted bought them time. Sheriff patrol cars finally tracked the vehicle and deputies fatally shot the rapist and rescued the two young, terrorized victims.
“He was hunting for a place to kill ’em and bury ’em,” said a sheriff’s deputy. “He already raped them and there wasn’t anything left to do.”
Less than a week later, the two victims, Tamara Brooks and Jacqueline Marris, appeared on NBC’s Today show to speak out against sexual abuse and lend support to victims. They were praised for their courage and resourcefulness in keeping alive. The girls later joined rescued kidnap victim Elizabeth Smart and were present with President George W. Bush as he signed the Amber Alert law intended to aid the rescues of abducted youth.
Yet, one man, Tony Ortega, saw the teens’ tragedy as an opportunity for laughs.
Two weeks after their nightmarish attack, Ortega penned a story in the since-defunct New Times LA under a fake byline, claiming NBC was going to announce a prime-time reality show featuring the two girls, called Survive This! The show, he wrote, would involve female contestants being chased by convicted sex offenders in a remote area as they attempted to find safety within 48 hours.
The story “quoted” an unnamed network executive, who called the show “Survivor meets Hannibal Lecter.” A supposed producer added: “To put it bluntly, jailbait sells….Clothes getting ripped off would boost ratings.”
The Hollywood Reporter soon identified Ortega as the hand behind the pseudonym. Snopes.com confirmed the story as false and said of Ortega’s tale: “Humor is far more difficult to accept as such when it lampoons those who have been victimized by all too real events…[this] victimization was of the most base sort.”
As one New York journalist bluntly put it: “Tony Ortega takes two teenagers, already brutally raped…and editorially sodomizes them by appropriating their identities, putting lies in their mouths, and pimping them as shameless opportunists.”
It was a good start for Ortega’s calling as the self-proclaimed “merciless mercenary” for his bosses, Michael Lacey and James Larkin, owners of the New Times Media alt weekly newspaper chain.
Eighteen months later, in February 2004, Ortega was working in Kansas City at The Pitch, another New Times paper, when KCTV Channel 5, a local TV station, aired an investigative series on the dangers of pedophilia that await children in Internet chat rooms. The KCTV investigation was carried out in conjunction with the child safety organization Perverted-Justice, which in 2003 began flushing out online predators by having volunteers in chat rooms pose as minors and wait for adult men to proposition them for sex.
In the award-winning KCTV news investigation, men arranged to meet the “girl” or “boy” they’d chatted with, for sex, at an address where cameras were waiting. The news team caught out 16 men when they arrived expecting a sexual encounter with a minor.
The investigation led local law enforcement to increase policing of chat rooms and prosecutions of sexual predators attempting to exploit minors online for sex.
Tony Ortega, however, attacked the station for trying to “scare” viewers, called the series’ reporter a “dumbass” and downplayed online sex predators as a remote problem: “Channel 5 has now established beyond a doubt that if your 14-year-old is hankering for oral sex and a six-pack of beer from a flabby geriatric, satisfaction is just a few keystrokes away.”
In one indignant outburst, Ortega devoted six pages of his paper to a detailed blow-by-blow defense of one man, out of the 16, who claimed he was entrapped. Ortega couldn’t let go, finding opportunity through the ensuing year to smear the station, writing of “the pervert-obsessed ways of KCTV Channel 5” and its “lurid investigations” and “sleazy ratings ploy.” His rants were a prelude to his next career move.
While Ortega was in Kansas City, his bosses Lacey and Larkin started the classified advertising site Backpage.com as a new online platform for the types of sex ads and other classifieds their newspapers were known for. They next acquired The Village Voice in New York and reorganized their publishing and Backpage enterprise under the umbrella of the new Village Voice Media (VVM). Soon, the vast majority of VVM revenue came from the sex ads on Backpage.com.
In 2007, Lacey and Larkin brought Ortega to New York as editor of the enterprise’s flagship publication, The Village Voice, his fifth paper working for the duo. During Ortega’s five-year tenure at the Voice, Backpage.com grew into the world’s biggest online market of prostitution and child sex trafficking.
As editor, Ortega stridently defended Backpage.com in articles and columns smearing those who denounced its operations. He sought to discredit child sex trafficking statistics and claimed only a “small number” of “underage users” were sold through Backpage.
His statements were proven lies: The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reported that Backpage was responsible for 73 percent of all child trafficking reports they received from the general public.
As fully exposed in a 900-page U.S. Senate investigation, Backpage.com took considerable and premeditated measures to automatically and manually edit ads to appear clean, so as to facilitate the sale of children for sex. As one former Backpage employee put it to investigators, they knew their job was to “put lipstick on a pig.”
All the while, Tony Ortega performed his “merciless mercenary” role, attempting to kill off threats to the criminal enterprise and its multimillion-dollar profits: Ortega fired back with his Backpage propaganda, accusing those who exposed a widespread problem of child sex trafficking of stoking “mass paranoia” and being on “a semireligious crusade.” According to Ortega, sexual abuse of underage girls was a “national fantasy.”
But Ortega reserved the worst for the victims themselves. In a transparent disinformation effort, he repeatedly dehumanized girls who were trafficked, enslaved, violated and raped as “underage prostitutes.”
Law enforcement, media and religious and human rights organizations, among them the Church of Scientology, closed in on Backpage and Village Voice Media. Ortega lashed out like a cornered beast in the pages of the Voice, including a fusillade of more than 400 bigoted and defamatory blog articles on the Church.
Ortega, however, only brought more attention to the criminal enterprise and in September 2012 his bosses ousted him from the beleaguered operation. Ortega’s confidant at the time, Mark Rathbun, later exposed in a bombshell video that Ortega confided his severance package involved a guarantee of his silence about what he knew concerning the criminal sex trafficking operation that had funded his paycheck for more than five years.
Following Ortega’s fall from Village Voice Media, a woman named Karen de la Carriere was there to help catch him with financial support. De la Carriere, a long-term “mistress-for-hire” who sold her wares online under aliases of “Snow Suzy” and “Doll Body,” is an expelled former Scientologist who had fed scurrilous tabloid fodder about the Church and Scientologists to Ortega at The Village Voice. She was intent on Ortega continuing to help her get back at the church that had kicked her out.
“She was boasting and bragging to people that she owned Tony Ortega…because of the amount of money that she’d invested” into him, said Rathbun, himself an expelled former Scientologist to whom de la Carriere had also given tens of thousands of dollars. “She’s notorious for bragging about that.”
Characteristically, Ortega—fed by de la Carriere and a few other bitter, expelled former Scientologists—has repeatedly come to the defense of one of their circle, rapist Paul Haggis.
In December 2017, during the height of the #MeToo movement, a young publicist in New York City sued Haggis, recounting the chilling details of his sexual assault of her in his Manhattan apartment in January 2013. Three more women then broke their silence in support of the suit, accusing Haggis of sexual assault, including another rape. Several months later, a fourth woman came forward. Then in June 2022, Haggis was arrested in Italy when a fifth woman claimed, “He raped me for days.”
Ortega repeatedly flogged Haggis’ defense, shaming his accusers and promoting Haggis’ desperate fiction that the Church of Scientology was somehow behind the claims against him. During Haggis’ rape trial, he and his defense lawyers even conceded there was “no evidence” for the claim, but that didn’t stop him, as anything goes when trying to defend the indefensible. The six-man jury did not buy the conspiracy theory for a second and in November 2022 found Haggis liable for rape. Haggis was slapped with a total of $10 million in compensatory and punitive damages to his victim.
Continuing his record as a defender of sexual predators, Ortega sought to protect his friend Haggis by posting the flagrant falsehood in March 2023 that the unanimous jury verdict that found Haggis had raped a young woman was a “settlement.”
And not a single word from Ortega that same month when the court ordered Haggis to pay his victim’s legal fees totaling $2.8 million.