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Accused pimp set for trial after teen’s murder put spotlight on Backpage

Desiree Robinson

Desiree Robinson. | Provided photo

Desiree Robinson spent the final weeks of her 16-year-old life in the clutches of a pimp she couldn’t escape, the feds say.

After promising a $250 finder’s fee to the man who delivered her, Joseph Hazley allegedly marketed Robinson on the classified ad website Backpage.com, set her prices and sent the teenager off to have sex with customers downtown, near Midway and in the south suburbs.

Robinson apparently saw no way out. She told a friend on Facebook “he won’t let me leave.” Then, on Christmas Eve 2016, a customer allegedly strangled the girl, slit her throat and left her body in a Markham garage.

That brutal murder would become so symbolic of the national fight against Backpage that Robinson’s mother stood next to President Donald Trump last year as he signed a law aimed at online sex trafficking.

Now, the first trial to result from the teenager’s death is set to begin this week at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse.

Hazley, 35, faces a seven-count indictment charging him with various sex-trafficking charges related to his alleged pimping of Robinson and a woman now expected to testify against him. A co-defendant, Charles McFee, is also expected to take the stand after pleading guilty last year to a sex-trafficking conspiracy, admitting that he sold Robinson to Hazley for a $250 fee he may not have collected.

But what defense attorney Raymond Wigell hopes to limit during the trial is mention of Robinson’s death.

“Mr. Hazley is not charged with the murder of Desiree,” Wigell told the Sun-Times. “And if either the state or the federal government thought that he was complicit in that, they would have charged him. But he’s not charged.”

Antonio Rosales | Cook County sheriff’s office

Robinson’s accused killer, Antonio Rosales, is still awaiting trial in state court. That’s where Yvonne Ambrose, Robinson’s mother, is also fighting a civil battle against Backpage and others she holds responsible for her daughter’s death.

In a statement to the Sun-Times, Ambrose thanked the authorities who are preparing to bring Hazley to trial, as well as her family, friends and supporters.

“I’m anxious for proceedings to begin this week and also ready for justice to be served,” Ambrose said.

It’s nearly been a year since the feds seized Backpage and its affiliated websites last April. They hit several people, including Backpage founders Michael Lacey and James Larkin, with a sprawling criminal indictment set to go to trial in 2020.

Around that same time, Trump signed a bill weakening a legal shield used by websites that host abusive sex trafficking content. After he signed the bill in the Oval Office, Trump handed one of the pens he used to Ambrose, who stood to his right.

Prosecutors have said they don’t plan on bringing up to jurors the public outcry over Robinson’s death. Still, they insist it’s crucial they know about Robinson’s fate.

The girl spent the last few weeks of her life living with Hazley, who assigned her the online persona “Nicki,” according to prosecutors. McFee is expected to testify that, after he delivered Robinson to Hazley, he watched as Hazley immediately posted photos of Robinson on Backpage and set up dates for the girl with customers, according to court records.

The feds say Hazley’s sex trafficking operation involved at least three victims. They said he set the rates, provided transportation, authorized negotiations with customers, collected money and acted as security — even on the day Robinson was killed.

Yvonne Ambrose of Chicago talks to President Donald Trump before he signed a bill intended to curb sex trafficking. Ambrose’s daughter was killed after a pimp offered her up on Backpage.com., a website that has been criticized for including ads for prostitution. | Chris Kleponis/Pool photo/Getty Images

Ambrose’s lawsuit says Hazley took Robinson to a party in a garage at the home of Rosales’ parents on Dec. 23, 2016. There, Hazley allegedly sold Robinson to Rosales, who took her into a truck parked nearby. Later, on Christmas Eve morning, Rosales reached out to ask Hazley for another encounter with Robinson, texting, “Can u cum over I got cash plus ma uncle too…lol.”

Hazley and his girlfriend wound up back at the Rosales house with Robinson and Rosales, according to the lawsuit. Rosales and Robinson went into the garage while Hazley and his girlfriend fell asleep in the car.

That’s when Robinson apparently refused Rosales, who allegedly then beat her, strangled her and slit her throat while she called for help. Rosales then stripped the girl’s body and left her dead in the garage, according to Ambrose’s lawsuit.

Hazley allegedly told police he woke up around 9 a.m. and found Robinson’s body. However, prosecutors say he also grabbed her cell phone. When police asked him about it, Hazley at first said he thought her phone was in the garage before later handing it over. Now, the feds have accused him of trying to tamper with a murder scene by removing the cell phone that wound up being full of incriminating text messages.

They said Hazley also asked a roommate to help him get rid of Robinson’s possessions after her death. Together, the men allegedly put her things in a garbage bag and took them out to a dumpster. Hazley also allegedly began to delete files from his computer, the man said.

Among them, the feds say, were the photos of Robinson.