Pastor, girls high school basketball coach among 79 arrested in Hillsborough County human trafficking operation

Hillsborough County

HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) – The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office announced Thursday over 70 men were arrested as part of a week-long operation aimed at combating human trafficking.

“Operation Takedown” took place from March 30 to April 9, leading up to WrestleMania, and is the second human trafficking operation conducted by the sheriff’s office this year ahead of a large-scale community event.

Sheriff Chad Chronister said detectives went undercover and conducted chat, hotel, and streetwalker operations that led to the arrests.

Among those arrested include 39-year-old Earnest Benjamin, a local pastor at Breath of Life Worship Church in Tampa, and 39-year-old Christopher Ray, a girls high school basketball coach at Land O’Lakes High School.

“Both of these men, trusted and revered members of our community, were arrested for soliciting another to commit prostitution,” Chronister said.

Earnest Benjamin (left), Christopher Ray (right) — Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office

During Thursday morning’s press conference, Chronister also mentioned Benjamin received two charges of contributing to delinquency or dependency of a child because he had his two small children in the car while “soliciting someone for the acts of a sex trade.”

News Channel 8’s Jeff Patterson tried getting a comment from Breath of Life Worship Church on the arrest of Pastor Benjamin, however, no one would provide a comment. Parents with children in a daycare at the church were shocked when they heard about his arrest.

A spokesperson for the Pasco County School District says Ray has been suspended from the school pending their own investigation into his arrest. He started working for Land O’ Lakes High School in October of 2019. The school spokesman says there is no evidence at this time that any inappropriate activity occurred on school property or while Ray was on the job.

Forty-four-year-old Jason Brooks of Tampa and 32-year-old Jamel Muldrew of Houston, Texas, were also arrested on human trafficking charges. Deputies say Brooks was arrested after he responded to a decoy prostitution advertisement. He believed he was going to pay for sex with a 17-year-old girl.

According to the sheriff’s office, Muldrew had been transporting a 17-year-old girl for the sole purpose of commercial sexual acts. In addition to his one count of human trafficking, Muldrew faces charges of transporting for prostitution and deriving support from the proceeds of prostitution.

Sheriff Chronister said an additional two victims were also found as a result of the operation. Selah Freedom offered support to the human trafficking victims.

“This operation helped rescue three females from the perils of human trafficking,” said Chronister. “Unfortunately, the only thing wrong with this number, is that we know there are more victims. I want to remind everyone, that if you see something, say something. By reporting anyone you think may be a victim of these heinous crimes, you could be saving a life.”

Forty-one-year-old Rusty Harden of Tampa, who is a registered sex offender, was also arrested on multiple felony charges after he sent explicit messages and photos to an undercover detective he believed was a 14-year-old girl, deputies say.

Rusty Harden — Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office

According to the sheriff’s office, Harden traveled on foot to meet a “juvenile,” only to be greeted by detectives. He was one of four men who faced a charge of traveling to meet a minor after using services/devices to solicit certain illegal acts.

The Orange, Pasco and St. Johns County Sheriff’s Offices helped Hillsborough County deputies with the 79 arrests. The Lakeland Police Department and Cape Coral Police Department also made arrests throughout “Operation Takedown.”

You can report suspected human trafficking by calling the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888.

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