WINTER HAVEN, Fla. (WFLA) — Over 200 people were arrested on charges stemming from a human trafficking operation, the Polk County Sheriff’s Office said.
In a news conference on Thursday, Sheriff Grady Judd said 213 people were arrested over a seven-day period in an undercover operation called “Operation Traffic Stop.”
A California school board member was among those arrested in the sting. Scott Wooden has served on the Del Mar Union School District Board of Trustees since 2010, according to the district’s website.
“He was supposedly here helping his mom and dad,” Judd said. “And, hey, he had a few minutes, so he decided he would come here and engage in sex. He solicited sex for $200.”
Jail records indicate Wooden was charged with soliciting another person for prostitution.
“This guy knows better,” Judd said. “He’s supposed to be a leader in the community. He’s an elected official.”
The Del Mar Union School District gave WFLA the following statement regarding Wooden’s arrest.
“This morning the Del Mar Union School District learned of the arrest of Board Member Scott Wooden in Polk County, Florida on charges involving solicitation of prostitution. While we do not yet know all the details and circumstances of this incident, the allegations are shocking and extremely concerning.
The District is continuing to learn more about this incident as information becomes available, and the Board is exploring options for any related action with its attorneys. On behalf of the entire Board, you have our commitment that our Superintendent and all staff will continue to focus on our important work each day in support of the students of the Del Mar Union School District.”
On Thursday, the the Del Mar Union School District announced that Wooden has resigned from the district’s board of trustees effective immediately. His term was originally expected to end in 2026.
A University of South Florida football player was also arrested. Bailey Purcell is a sophomore wide receiver, according to the USF athletics website. Purcell was also charged with soliciting another person for prostitution.
“You almost want to feel sorry for him. He’s a kid,” Judd said. “He said, ‘Can you call my pastor? But whatever you do, don’t call my parents.'”
Among the other arrests included married people, convicted felons, a registered sex offender with several arrests in Massachusetts, a woman who was found with “trafficking levels” of fentanyl, and a woman from Clearwater who was released from Florida State Prison just three days before she was arrested again.
“Do you think she learned her lesson?” Judd asked. “I think not. We’ll give her another opportunity to go to prison based on her meth arrest.”
111 arrests – over half of the total – were individuals offering to perform prostitution, according to a release from the Polk County Sheriff’s Office.
Judd’s news conference took a darker turn when he described how some of the arrestees ended up in Polk County. 24 people were identified as victims of human trafficking. Of those 24, six entered the country illegally.
“Forget about the illegal entries that are coming here to work and do better for their families,” Judd said. “What everyone is ignoring are the traffickers.”
All but one of the women were Cuban nationals who travelled to Nicaragua and entered the U.S. through the southern border. Judd said the women were forced into prostitution to “pay off their debt” to the men who smuggled them across the border.
“Human traffickers are forcing these ladies across the border so they can indenture them,” Judd said.
The women are “scared, dejected and depressed,” Judd said, which makes it hard for law enforcement and social services organizations to communicate and help them recover from the trauma they endured.
Judd called on state and local law enforcement to address the smuggling of drugs and human beings across the U.S. border.
“No one grows up dreaming of a life where their bodies are sold for profit,” Jodi Domangue, Executive Director of Anti-Trafficking for One More Child, said. “The men and women walking through those doors have histories of being trafficked, abused and exploited.”
Domangue explained that trafficking isn’t always outwardly violent or involving a kidnapping, or “a mom and her children being followed in a grocery store,” like some viral social media posts indicate. It’s a product of generations of cyclical poverty.
“We urge you to learn what these signs look like in your community,” Domangue said. “If you see something suspicious, contact your local law enforcement agency.”