Just how huge was the money pouring in from selling sex? The government estimated that the classified ad site, Backpage.com, from its beginning in 2004 until the feds shut it down in 2018, pulled in around $500 million.
For years, Michael Lacey and James Larkin and their enterprise were rolling in dough. Pimps paid to run ads for the services of their prostitutes—including underage girls and boys caught in the web of sex trafficking—that provided more than 93 percent of Backpage revenue.
Apparently unconcerned about the human damage and destruction their business enterprise wrought, Larkin and Lacey became richer and richer, surfeited with cash.
But where are they now?
Larkin killed himself on July 31, 2023, just one week before he was to go on trial in Phoenix with Lacey and four other employees of Backpage.com. After postponement because of the suicide, the trial of Lacey and the others started on August 29, with the defendants facing 100 counts of facilitation of prostitution, money laundering and conspiracy. The charges carry sentences that could put them in prison for the rest of their lives.
And that enormous pile of money they made? Much of it, and the homes and cars it bought, was seized by the government. Where did the rest go?
Tony Ortega, a Larkin/Lacey employee of 17 years, staunchly defended Backpage.com while working for them as editor of The Village Voice. Because of his maniacal obsession with Scientology, which was bringing too much attention to Backpage.com’s crimes, Ortega was fired in 2012.
Since then, Ortega has made a career of attacking the Church of Scientology–and little else. He hasn’t worked in a full-time journalism job in over 11 years and runs a grumbling, whining blog. He claims he is supported by contributions from anti-Scientologists.
According to once-vocal anti-Scientologist Mark Rathbun, Ortega clearly left Village Voice with damaging information on his old bosses he could use against them. Recounting a visit from Ortega just days after he was fired, Rathbun later stated: “He literally agreed to cover it up and obstruct justice for a payout of, essentially, a two-year buyout deal where they paid him enough where he could literally do nothing for two years.”
But perhaps the deal went way beyond that. Did Ortega stay on the payroll of his former bosses and owners of Backpage.com far longer than two years, until the Backpage gold mine was shut down? Compared to the millions flowing to Lacey and Larkin, two years’ salary for his silence would be “chump change.” His silence would be worth infinitely more.
Just how rich were Lacey and Larkin? Before the government showed up and Backpage.com collapsed around their ears, Lacey owned 10 properties worth an estimated $68 million, including two homes in Malibu with an estimated value of nearly $20 million and over $25 million, and four cars valued at $180,575. Larkin owned six properties for a total estimated value of over $27 million—a $10 million home in San Francisco, a $6 million home in Saint Helena, California, and two homes in Arizona, each worth over $4 million. He also owned five cars valued at $517,785.
In addition to their massive spending on real estate and vehicles, Lacey and Larkin also paid out money to former employees. When the government started closing in, the pair started sending out unsolicited $5,000 checks with a note such as this attached:
“It is my pleasure to inform you that you have been named as a beneficiary of a gift from Michael Lacey. Mr. Lacey has asked us to convey that this gift is a small token of his appreciation.”
The recipient had to sign and return a form stating they had received the money—providing a sure paper trail for the future if that was ever needed by the giver.
The Houston Chronicle’s Lisa Gray was among an unknown number of former employees who received $5,000 checks. She wrote, “Accepting a big, fat gift like that compromises us. We couldn’t write about him without disclosing it.”
Tim Rogers of “D” wrote, “Lacey paid all those people $5,000 to make them conflicted.” In essence, if a hypothetical journalist took the money, Rogers wrote, “He couldn’t very well write about his former boss and his alleged pimping. He’d have to remain silent.”
The Scottsdale, Arizona, law firm Becker and House, that forwarded the checks from Lacey, declined to say how many checks had been paid out.
Lacey also owns a website, Frontpageconfidential.com, that runs articles supporting the defendants in the Backpage trial—an obvious attempt to influence public opinion in their favor.
Can it be possible that people with that kind of money to throw around would fire a potentially dangerous employee like Tony Ortega, who could speak out against them if he chose to do so, for the paltry sum (to them) of two years’ editor’s salary? Highly unlikely. They needed Ortega on their side.
As editor of The Village Voice, Ortega was at the center of the damage control operation to keep Backpage in business in the face of mounting opposition, ideally placed to blackmail Lacey and Larkin into making large and ongoing payments, for fear that he might turn on them.
Is it conceivable that Ortega, after all those years sitting next to all that lovely, available money, in the best bargaining position of his life, would sell out for chicken feed?
No, it is not. It is inconceivable.
But Tony, who usually runs his mouth constantly, stays loyal—or at least silent—and is not writing or speaking about Backpage.com, as if the trial, and his old job, never existed.
His silence speaks volumes.