Cowering inside a fleapit motel room as a gang of sex traffickers cursed in her face, Courtney Baldwin had never felt so worthless or broken.
The teenager tried in vain to block out the voices of the pimps who menaced her with threats. “You’re my bitch now. You’ll never get away.”
“I was treated as property,” she told The Post, recalling the traumatic episode from May 2013. “They wanted control over every aspect of my life.”
Almost nine years later, the pastor’s daughter — raised in a middle-class home in Stockton, Calif. — has overcome the nightmare of her past, when she was routinely “hired out” on the now-defunct Web site Backpage.com.
Shocking stories similar to Baldwin’s are featured in the book “Taking Down Backpage” (NYU Press), out Tuesday, by Maggy Krell. A former prosecutor, Krell is one of the driving forces behind the successful campaign to shutter Backpage’s illicit sexual marketplace in April 2018.
Her tale, subtitled “Fighting The World’s Largest Sex Trafficker,” details the horrific experiences of mostly at-risk youth — including children as young as 12 — who were forced into prostitution by criminals peddling them through classified ads.
“People are still being sold on street corners and flyers handed out at swap meets, but [these days,] there’s this huge gorilla of the Internet,” Krell told The Post. “Backpage allowed for the sale of people with ruthless efficiency and made $500 million over a period of four years.”
Among the victims was 16-year-old Desiree Robinson, who went from runaway to prostitute to homicide victim when her sex trafficker posted ads for her on Backpage. She was found stabbed and beaten inside a Chicago garage in 2016 after meeting a man who had arranged it through the site.
And, while the FBI didn’t name Backpage in Corinna Slusser’s high-profile case, agents did investigate the role of online sex ads in her 2017 disappearance. The 18-year-old from Pennsylvania, an ex-cheerleader, was last seen in a Queens motel where rooms are rented by the hour. She had fallen into the hands of a notorious pimp accused of physically abusing his workers and stealing their wages.
Baldwin is grateful to have survived her experience. She is currently employed as a paralegal and determined to use the legal system to help other survivors. “Websites like Backpage make the chances ten times greater for people to be kidnapped and trapped by sex traffickers,” she said. “They make them [the perpetrators] hungrier and think: ‘How can I get more money?’ These platforms encourage exploitation.”
The 28-year-old had a challenging start in life when she and her twin brother, Corey, were abandoned by their biological mother, a crack addict, at 4 months old. But things turned around once the babies were taken in by their great uncle and aunt, the pastor and “first lady” of a Church of God in Christ church in Stockton.
“We lived in a great neighborhood and I was very fortunate to have them as parents,” Baldwin said. “There’s a kind of hierarchy [in the community] and being a preacher’s kid felt a bit like being a princess.”
She was especially close to her uncle, who she considered her dad and who would bring her to religious and human rights conferences he attended for work. She took piano lessons, earned A’s in school and dreamed of attending a prestigious military academy.
Tragically, her father never saw her graduate from high school — he died of heart failure in 2010. His wife struggled with grief and found it tough to raise two teenagers on her own.
Baldwin had a disastrous reunion with her troubled birth mom and soon began drinking and taking pills herself. Her aunt kicked her out and the teen temporarily settled in Gadsden, Ala., with friends.
She completed a program to enlist in the Navy and was about to begin basic training in Illinois. But the plan went awry after Baldwin was caught defending herself against a violent boyfriend.
“They [the Navy recruiters] didn’t see what was really happening — they only saw me attacking him,” she said.
Her future seemingly in ruins, she flew to Los Angeles in 2012, to give her biological mom another chance. Within a week, the teen was homeless and penniless after her mom got high, grabbed at Baldwin’s hair and shouted, “F–k you, b—h, don’t ever come back to my hood.”
With nowhere else to go, Baldwin sought sanctuary with a friend of her mom’s.
“I literally had nothing,” Baldwin said. “I had no clothes, no hygiene products and barely anything in my purse. But she was comforting and promised to help me.”
The woman turned out to be the first of Baldwin’s sex traffickers, deftly grooming her victim.
“She eventually told me the only way I could make enough money for my ticket back to Stockton was to go to the red-light district,” she recalled. “She said I’d only have to do it ‘for a little bit’ and made it sound easy. She told me what to do.”
Next, the woman coerced Baldwin into sex with a so-called “purchaser” who paid $120 for the act.
“My mom’s friend took every cent,” she said. The woman soon subjected her to the same ordeal with another man in a seedy hotel room. “It was awful,” Baldwin remembered. “I numbed myself in that moment. All I wanted was to go home — if that meant going along with what she said, I would do it.”
She said of the nightmare experience, “It changed my whole perspective … I didn’t see myself going to school anymore or having opportunities.”
Once she scraped together enough cash to return to Stockton, Baldwin — now crippled by low self-esteem — came under the spell of a second pimp: an old friend from her childhood.
“He told me I was beautiful and that he’d protect me,” she said. “I really, really wanted to trust him because everything else was falling apart.”
She became dependent on her pimp who, like the woman in LA, pocketed her earnings. He took pictures of her in lingerie and placed ads to promote her “services” on Backpage. “I never saw them, so I can only imagine what they said,” she told The Post. She does know that the classifieds included the number for the pimp’s burner phone, making it harder for cops to bust him.
The “tricks” who answered the ads paid between $40 and $150 to have sex with Baldwin. Her trafficker chiefly operated out of San Francisco, one of the 800 cities where Backpage owned localized Web sites in 97 countries across the world.
Baldwin was assaulted and raped. One john grabbed her by the throat and choked her. “He lifted me off the ground by the neck,” she recalled. On other occasions, she was locked inside a car or had to run, half-dressed, to safety when a client became aggressive.
Some days she was forced to have sex with as many as 20 men. “[The pimp] made thousands from me, but it was never enough. He’d tell me to get back out there and earn more,” she remembered. He took away her phone and ID card. She was trapped by fear of destitution and the unknown.
Baldwin’s frightening encounter with the group of traffickers arguing over her body in the hotel room happened in May 2013. The 19-year-old was “handed over” to them by her pimp as part of a sordid transaction.
Remarkably, one of the traffickers showed pity and dropped her off the next day at the side of a road.
She plucked up the courage to call her former high school counselor in Stockton, who assured her: “I’m not giving up on you, Courtney.” Baldwin was placed in a women’s shelter and later rehoused in a rent-subsidized apartment.
“I guess I was a success story,” said Baldwin, who was embraced by advocates such as Krell, who has become her professional mentor as well. Baldwin in turn has campaigned for other survivors.
Although she didn’t testify against Backpage in the 2018 prosecution brought by Krell and other attorneys, Baldwin was relieved to hear the guilty plea of Carl Ferrer, the CEO of the Web site. Soon after Backpage was banned from the Internet — and $200 million of its assets seized — Ferrer confessed to charges of money laundering and conspiracy to facilitate prosecution. Six of his former colleagues will be tried next month on similar charges. Ferrer has cooperated with the feds and is now a state’s witness.
“It [the bringing down of Backpage] was a really important step in the right direction,” Krell told The Post. “By following the money and shutting down a site like that, we are sending a clear message to sex traffickers and survivors.
“We’re not going to normalize these kinds of ads [soliciting commercial sex] any longer.”
As for Baldwin, she’s inspired by the victory over Backpage and plans to apply to law school — so she can battle criminals who exploit the most vulnerable members of society. “Backpage was a huge, underground industry, yet other [illicit] platforms exist,” she said. “Thankfully, there’s a whole army rising up to dismantle this black market.”