Backpage has removed to federal court a lawsuit from the family of a murdered young Chicago woman, accusing the online classified website of encouraging the type of sex trafficking that allegedly led to her death.
At the root of the case is Desiree Robinson, who was 16 when she ran away from her Chicago home. Her mother, Yvonne Ambrose, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Dallas-based Backpage in May in Cook County Circuit Court. According to that complaint, 32-year-old Antonio Rosales, through Backpage, met Robinson on Dec. 24, 2016, then raped her, punched her in the face, strangled her and slashed her throat. Rosales has been charged with first-degree murder and aggravated sexual abuse; a criminal case is pending in Cook County Circuit Court.
Ambrose accused Backpage of creating and managing an online sex trafficking marketplace and actively helping the traffickers create and develop advertising to drive Backpage profits.
“Defendants not only told sex traffickers how to avoid detection by law enforcement, but they actively sanitized sex ads to make it less obvious that the ads were for sex,” the complaint alleged, noting the process “generated tens of millions of dollars in profit.”
In addition to the website and Rosales, named defendants include Back Page LLC; Medalist Holdings LLC; Leeward Holdings LLC; Camarillo Holdings LLC; Dartmoor Holdings LLC; IC Holdings LLC; New Times Media LLC; and UGC Tech Group CV.
As part of their case, Ambrose’s attorneys used subpoenas to obtain a January U.S. Senate subcommittee report showing Backpage edits prostitution ads to remove implications the advertiser is underage, as well as documents a Washington-based real estate data company found, which Ambrose’s attorneys say appears to indicate Backpage solicits ads from other sites, then creates content for its own site and redirects users from other sites to Backpage.
In filing for removal to federal court in Chicago, Backpage referenced Ambrose’s June 20 amended complaint, which included voluntary dismissal of New Times Media. Backpage said removal is appropriate because of the defendants’ various corporate bases. It traced ownership of the various holding groups to the Vicky Ferrer Family Trust and noted the current beneficiaries, Carl and April Ferrer, live in Texas. Further, as Ambrose seeks at least $100,000, Backpage said her complaint exceeds requirements for federal diversity jurisdiction.
Backpage also contended Ambrose’s “claims against Rosales for his horrific rape and murder of Desiree Robinson have no connection to her claims against the Backpage.com Defendants for, in essence, providing a forum for third-party internet advertising.” It notes that of the nine causes of action in her amended complaint, none are alleged jointly against Rosales and the Backpage defendants.
Backpage is no stranger to Chicago’s courts. Backpage recently scored a big win in court against Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, who had attempted to squeeze Backpage’s financing by sending letters to companies that did business with the site, such as Visa and MasterCard, demanding they sever their relationship with Backpage or risk potential enforcement actions themselves. But a federal appeals panel sided with Backpage, which argued Dart’s letter violated its First Amendment rights.
Ambrose’s complaint, however, makes new allegations about Backpage’s involvement with the advertising that appears on its site. In its removal action, Backpage said Ambrose didn’t allege Rosales posted any advertisements on the site, only saying he viewed and replied to an ad a third party had placed on the site.
But Ambrose said Backpage knew how much of its web traffic is a result of the prostitution ads in its escort section, and further that it “intentionally helped sex traffickers create and develop the content of their ads,” whereas the website has long maintained it, like market leader Craigslist, only hosts the advertising and is not involved in content.
Ambrose is represented by attorneys from Romanucci & Blandin LLC, of Chicago.
Backpage is defended by attorneys from the firms of Poltrock & Giampietro, Chicago; and Davis Wright Tremaine LLP, with offices on Seattle, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.