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Washington County officials: Sex site shutdown sends traffickers elsewhere

Once declared "the world's top online brothel," the online ad site Backpage on Jan. 10 shut down its adult classified advertising section in the United States.

Hours earlier, a U.S. Senate panel released a report that claimed sex traffickers were abetted by Backpage, who removed incriminating words like "teenage" from their online ads.

After Backpage's change, pimps and predators will find other sites to ply their trade, Washington County and local law enforcement said. And they'll do what it takes to pick up their trail again.

"Only the future will tell how truly this is going to impact our investigations," Washington County prosecutor Imran Ali said. His major crimes unit works with the Washington County Sheriff's Office and local law enforcement to investigate sexual predators in this area.

Some hailed the shutdown of Backpage, whose CEO was once arrested and charged with pimping a minor and conspiracy, charges that were later dismissed. But some investigators say Backpage was a key tool where authorities could keep an eye on things.

"Backpage was probably the most available resource for us to try and identify or at least make contact with people who are being trafficked," said Neil Bauer, detective sergeant of the street crimes unit for the Woodbury Police Department.

"Backpage was responsive to subpoenas and search warrants relatively quickly," he said. "We also know that they were benefiting from the commercial trafficking of people. It's kind of a double-edged sword."

Already, ads that might have been posted in the adult services section are being posted in the Women Seeking Men section of Backpage, which is not blocked, Bauer said.

More than 15,700 online solicitations for sex in the Twin Cities were posted on Backpage from Jan. 1 to March 31, 2015, according to research by Washington County criminal analyst Aimee Schroeder.

By trolling the ads, investigators could be proactive, either by locating the underage victims and getting them help, or by setting up sting operations to arrest johns.

Backpage ads have led to dozens of sex trafficking cases in Washington County District Court, involving both minors and adults.

Just this month, two Hudson men were charged with sex trafficking of a homeless woman in Woodbury. In fall 2015, police rescued a 16-year-old Cottage Grove girl who said she posted a sex-for-money ad on Backpage because she was desperate for cash. Following an investigation, police arrested Corwin Moose at a Holiday gas station in Cottage Grove. Moose had met the girl through her ad and arranged to meet her there and drive her to his home in Maple Grove to have sex.

A search of the vehicle Moose was driving turned up a new tarp lining the trunk, as well as rubber gloves and an empty suitcase, according to court records. He pleaded guilty last year to engaging in prostitution with a minor and other pornography charges.

Ali, of the Washington County Attorney's Office, has no illusions that Backpage profited from the buying and selling of human beings. But he suggested that it was better to deal with the devil you know than the devil you don't know.

"If it goes to a different website and that website happens not to respond to our subpoena or warrant authority, what happens then?" he said.

William Loeffler

William Loeffler is a playwright and journalist from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He worked 15 years writing features for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He has also written travel stories based on his trips to all seven continents. He and his wife, Michelle, ran the Boston Marathon in 2009. 

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