A newspaper publisher set to stand trial in federal court next week for allegedly promoting prostitution on his now-defunct online classified ads site Backpage has died by suicide, according to local reports.
James Larkin, 74, died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head in Superior, Ariz., on Monday, according to the Superior Police Department.
Investigators told the Phoenix New Times, the alternative weekly newspaper that Larkin co-founded, that no foul play was suspected in his death.
Calls to the family went unanswered on Friday.
Larkin is survived by his wife, Molly, and their six children.
Larkin, New Times co-founder Michael Lacey, and four other Backpage employees were due to be retried in Phoenix federal court on Tuesday for allegedly facilitating prostitution and money laundering.
In September 2021, a federal judge declared a mistrial in the case after ruling that prosecutors improperly invoked sex trafficking even though none of the defendants were ever charged with the crime.
Larkin, Lacey and four others were accused of taking part in a scheme to knowingly sell ads for sex on the site.
While prosecutors say the site published many ads that depicted children who were victims of sex trafficking, no one in the federal case in Arizona is charged with sex trafficking or child sex trafficking.
Larkin’s attorney, Timothy Eckstein, notified the court of his client’s death.
Eckstein submitted a court filing seeking the dismissal of charges against Larkin. The retrial of the other defendants is expected to proceed as scheduled.
“We are devastated at the loss of James Anthony Larkin,” the family told New Times on Wednesday.
“Jim was an incredible husband, father, grandfather, colleague and friend. His life and legacy embody the spirit of his home, the Sonoran Desert.”
“Jim fearlessly blazed his own path in life and always stuck to it,” the statement read.
“As the publisher of the Phoenix New Times and other weekly alternative newspapers for over 40 years, Jim fought for voices and issues ignored by society.”
“He fought against police brutality, he fought for immigrant rights and, above all, he fought tooth and nail for free speech,” according to the statement.
“He wasn’t afraid to pick up the unmovable boulders of our society and shine light on the corruption beneath.”
“While many publishers abandoned journalistic principles in the face of pressure and harassment, Jim stood fast and fought for the truth,” the statement continued.
Lacey and Larkin founded the Phoenix New Times, held ownership interests in other weeklies such as The Village Voice and ultimately sold their newspapers in 2013.
But they held onto Backpage, which authorities say generated $500 million in prostitution-related revenue from its inception in 2004 until April 2018 when it was shut down by the government.
Lacey and Larkin said the site never allowed ads for sex and used people and automated tools to try to delete such ads.
They maintained content on the site was protected by the First Amendment and that the site helped authorities in investigating sex trafficking cases and earned compliments from law enforcement for their assistance.
In all, six former Backpage operators have pleaded not guilty to charges of facilitating prostitution. Of the six, Lacey, Larkin and two others have pleaded not guilty to money laundering charges.
Prosecutors say Backpage’s operators ignored warnings to stop running prostitution ads, some involving children.
They are accused of giving free ads to prostitutes and cultivating arrangements with others who worked in the sex trade to get them to post ads with the company.
Authorities say Backpage employees would identify prostitutes through Google searches, then call and offer them a free ad.
The site also is accused of having a business arrangement in which it would place ads on another site that lets customers post reviews of their experiences with prostitutes.
Prosecutors said the moderation efforts by the site were aimed at concealing the true nature of the ads.