TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — Hillsborough County deputies arrested 125 men as a result of a successful human trafficking investigation, according to Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister.
The sheriff said his deputies spent 20 days on Operation Round-Up, an undercover operation to help eliminate human trafficking in the county.
According to Chronister, undercover detectives created online profiles to speak with men who believed they were talking to children and created false online advertisements for sex to catch the suspects. Female detectives even posed as sex workers on the street.
The sheriff said among the 125 suspects were 38-year-old Joel Velasco, a Hillsborough County teacher who offered detectives $60 for sex, and 44-year-old Samuel Phillips Jr., a pastor of Be Limitless Church who responded to a false ad on an escort website.
“These men, who were all held by a higher standard of trust and respect, were arrested for soliciting another to commit prostitution,” Chronister said.
8 On Your Side reached out to Hillsborough County Public Schools about Joel Velasco. A spokesperson for the school district said, “He [Velasco] was never in front of students this year as this arrest occurred prior to the start of the school year. He resigned and is not a teacher in our district. We are shocked and deeply troubled by the allegations.”
Aside from the arrests, four women and a 17-year-old girl were rescued by investigators from sexual exploitation, according to the sheriff. These victims are now getting support from Selah Freedom, an organization dedicated to combating human trafficking.
“The only thing wrong with the number of victims is that we know there are more out there,” he said.
The sheriff said with the success of past human trafficking investigations, the HCSO set up a full-time squad dedicated to tackling human trafficking in its many forms and assisting victims.
“They’ll be focusing on street walkers by posing undercover,” he said. “They’ll be online, focusing and targeting those who are preying on our children.”
Chronister said by launching these operations, it will deter predators from preying on human trafficking victims in Hillsborough County.
“During our hotel operation, we made more than a 1,000 contacts, many that ended when they found out that they needed to travel into this county,” he said. “Our efforts are working. Those criminals don’t want to come to Hillsborough County to solicit sex.”
If you know someone who is a victim of human trafficking, contact the National Human Trafficking hotline at 1 (888) 373-7888.