Jim Larkin, the co-founder of the Phoenix New Times and the infamous classified ads site Backpage.com, died by suicide this week, just days ahead of his federal trial.
Larkin, 74, was found dead of a gunshot Monday about an hour outside of his home in Paradise Valley, Arizona, local police told the New Times. The authorities said foul play was not suspected.
“We are devastated at the loss of James Anthony Larkin,” the family said in a statement provided to the New Times, where Larkin also served as publisher. “Jim was an incredible husband, father, grandfather, colleague and friend.”
They added: “Jim fearlessly blazed his own path in life and always stuck to it.”
If you or a loved one are struggling with suicidal thoughts, please reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741. You can also text or dial 988.
Larkin was set to stand trial starting next week on charges related to his ownership of Backpage, a classified advertising website that hosted a large number of ads for prostitution. Larkin co-founded the site in 2004 with New Times executive editor Michael Lacey as a competitor to Craigslist. When Craigslist shut down its “adult” section amid accusations that it promoted sex trafficking, Backpage became the go-to listings site for erotic services.
Backpage’s advocates say it had positive effects on the lives of sex workers, allowing them to screen clients before meetings and easily identify dangerous customers. (The FBI even awarded one of its executives for help in an “investigation of great importance” in 2011.) But it also came under fire for the same reasons as Craigslist’s “adult” section, with critics claiming it facilitated the trafficking of women and girls. Some minors who said they were trafficked through ads on the site sued the company, and several states attempted to pass laws effectively banning it in their jurisdictions.
Following a damning U.S. Senate report in 2018, the FBI seized the website and charged Larkin, Lacey, and five Backpage employees with 93 counts including money laundering and facilitating prostitution. That case ended in a mistrial in 2021, when a judge ruled there had been too many references to child sex trafficking during the proceedings, despite no one on trial being charged with that crime. A new trial was set for next Tuesday.
Lacey remembered Larkin as a pioneering businessman equally dedicated to his passion for journalism and to his family.
“I never saw my friend do a dishonest or dishonorable thing in his entire life,” Lacey said in a statement published on his website, Front Page Confidential. “I had a four-decade friendship with a wonderful man. Now I have only his memory.”
Several sex workers and sex-work advocacy groups also mourned Larkin’s passing, praising him as a pioneer of free speech in some cases faulting the government for its aggressive prosecution of the businessman.
“I never met Jim Larkin, but I have tears in my eyes right now; not just for Jim Larkin, but for all of us living under the government that murdered him as surely as if he had been executed,” tweeted Maggie McNeill, a sex worker and writer from Seattle. “God help us.”
The trial of the other Backpage executives will continue as scheduled, U.S. District Judge Diane Humetewa said. The parties were scheduled to meet Friday to discuss dismissing the indictment against Larkin.