California man admits trafficking underage girls on

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A California man who prosecutors say ran a criminal ring that trafficked underage girls on the now-defunct sex website pleaded guilty on Tuesday to a string of federal charges.

FILE PHOTO: An image of the current home page of the website shows logos of U.S. law enforcement agencies after they seized the sex marketplace site April 6, 2018. via REUTERS/File Photo

Ariel Guizar-Cuellar, 38, entered his guilty pleas in U.S. District Court in San Jose, marking the latest criminal case connected to Backpage. The website was seized by federal agents in 2018 as part of a wide-ranging investigation into prostitution and child sex trafficking.

Former Backpage Chief Executive Carl Ferrer agreed to take the site down as part of a deal with prosecutors in which he pleaded guilty to conspiracy and money laundering charges and pledged to cooperate in the case.

The website’s founders, Michael Lacey and James Larkin, have pleaded not guilty and are scheduled to stand trial next year.

Prosecutors say Guizar-Cuellar, of San Jose, oversaw a sex trafficking ring that sold sex with adult women and at least three underage girls on Backpage from September 2014 to January 2016.

“Guizar-Cuellar was the leader, primary facilitator, enforcer, and main financial beneficiary of the unlawful commercial sex venture,” U.S. Attorney David Anderson said in a statement announcing the pleas.

“He recruited the minors through social media networks. He took pictures of the minors and caused those pictures to be posted in online advertisements for their sexual services on,” Anderson said.

Prosecutors say Guizar-Cuellar transported the girls to hotels and motels across the Bay Area to meet the men who responded to his ads, providing the victims with condoms and collecting the money they were paid.

As part of the plea agreement, Guizar-Cuellar admitted recording one of the girls as she was victimized in the scheme, giving the minor girls methamphetamine and telling them to lie about their ages.

He pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit sex trafficking of children, three counts of sex trafficking of children and one count of sexual exploitation of children.

Guizar-Cuellar is being held in federal custody pending sentencing in October, when he faces a maximum sentence of life in prison as well as monetary restitution.

A former middle school teacher who admitted paying for sex with a 14-year-old girl who had been trafficked on Backpage was sentenced last week to 10 years in prison.

On April 15, a Wisconsin man who prosecutors say trafficked seven young women on Backpage was convicted of federal trafficking charges.

Reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Paul Tait