TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — Hillsborough County deputies arrested a youth pastor and a foster parent on human trafficking charges involving teenage victims, according to a Friday press release.
The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office said their investigation began on Feb. 9 after a local mother said she found “disturbing content” on her 16-year-old child’s cell phone.
Deputies said their suspect, 36-year-old Moises Escoto of Temple Terrace, had first contacted the victim two years ago on an app called Sniffies.
Escoto serves as a youth pastor at Iglesia de Cristo Misionera Mahanaim Church on North Amenia Avenue.
“It started with, hey I’ll give you gifts and money in exchange for sexual photos and videos,” said Marco Villarreal. “Over time, they started meeting and having secret sexual contact.”
According to deputies, the youth pastor also was meeting the teenager in secret and having sex with him.
He was arrested by human trafficking deputies on Feb. 9.
Iglesia de Cristo Misionera Mahanaim Church responded to the allegations saying, “As a Christian Ministry, we are devastated and heartsick to learn that one of our staff or members has been arrested for a serious crime.” The church went on to say, “Our Ministry does not cover-up criminal conduct, and we have zero tolerance for any criminal or inappropriate conduct within our ministry community.”
“As a matter of policy, our Ministry would always report any suspicions of criminal or inappropriate conduct to the proper law enforcement authorities,” the statement continued. “We carefully interview and screen our employees and leaders, and our leadership team maintains strict policies of conduct based on best practices.”
“We believe that transparency and accountability are essential for a successful ministry, and we are fully committed to ministering in a safe and responsible manner. With regard to the recent criminal matter related to our Ministry, we intend to cooperate fully in bringing any alleged criminals to justice.”
As the sheriff’s office investigated Escoto’s alleged criminal behavior, they also discovered that another man was also using the Sniffies app to solicit sex from a child in exchange for money.
Deputies said they identified the suspect as Joel Lutz, 38, who lives in Pasco County as a registered foster parent.
He was arrested at his job in Pinellas County on Feb. 15 by human trafficking detectives, according to the sheriff’s office.
“It is absolutely disgusting that these two men, who were placed in positions of mentorship and trust with children in our community, used online apps to seek out and victimize our youth,” Sheriff Chad Chronister said. “Unfortunately, we know that predators are constantly on the hunt to ruin the innocence of our community. I urge parents to know where and what their children are doing online at all times. We will not stop searching for these deviants wherever they may be, and we ask for parents and the community to help us protect our precious children.”
Deputies say both suspects used the app, Sniffies, to find their victims.
8 On Your Side looked into the website.
You do have to be 18 years or older, but to prove that, all you have to do is select the year you were born.
Anyone can also create a profile anonymously.
Both suspects were charged with human trafficking for commercial sexual activity, lewd or lascivious battery, use of computer services or devices to solicit certain illegal acts, traveling to meet minor after using comp services or services to solicit certain illegal acts, use of computer services for lewd or lascivious exhibition defendant over 18, transmission of harmful material to minor, unlawful use of two-way communications device, unlawful sexual activity with a minor, among other charges.
Lutz’ bond is set for $280,500, and Escoto’s bond is set for $138,500.
Deputies are now urging parents to keep and eye on what their kids are doing.
“You’ve got to know what you’re kids are doing, what they’re doing in school, what they’re doing with their friends down the road in the neighborhood, anywhere they’re at and especially online,” Villarreal said.
The sheriff’s office said it is still investigating the situation and asks anyone with more information to call them at 813-247-8200. If you suspect that someone is a victim of human trafficking, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888.