Polk County police arrested 124 people in an undercover sting aptly named “Operation Santa’s Naughty List, officials said on Wednesday.
The operation was performed by officers from Polk County, Lakeland, Haines City, Winter Haven, Bartow, and Auburndale and targeted prostitution, human trafficking, and child predators over a six-day period beginning on Dec. 3.
It saw undercover detectives use internet adverts to organize meetings with suspects in undercover locations in Polk County.
Five men were arrested for traveling to the home where the operation took place with the intent to sexually harm a child.
Two other suspects did not travel to the operation but solicited who they thought were children online and detectives were able to locate and arrest them.
In total, 53 were arrested for prostitution and 46 were arrested for seeking the services of a prostitute, according to authorities.
Meanwhile, a further 18 people were arrested for various other charges such as aiding, transporting, and deriving proceeds from prostitution.
“The primary purpose for these operations is to identify victims of human trafficking and those who prey on the victims, as well as the deviant child predators who stalk children online,” explained Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd.
Detectives said seven women who came to the undercover operation location to commit prostitution may be victims of human trafficking.
Two of those women were taken to shelters and introduced to anti-trafficking organizations, including Selah Freedom, One More Child, Heartland for Children, and National Children’s Advocacy Center, for assistance and support.
Detectives charged those arrested with a total of 78 felonies and 148 misdemeanors and noted that the criminal histories of those arrested included 443 previous felonies and 571 previous misdemeanors.
Some of the prior charges included kidnapping, robbery, aggravated battery, and sex offenses and the age range of the suspects was from 19 to 70.
Officials named the seven child predators as Anthony Gavin, 33, Pierre Alvarez, 21, Demitrus Gonzalez, 26, Joshua Bryant, 23, Benjamin Castaneda, 24, Matthew Minardi, 22, and William Stemmermann, 53.
In a press conference on Dec. 11, Judd told reporters that he believes “every one of these prostitutes, at some point in their life, were a victim of human trafficking, if in fact, they’re not currently a victim of human trafficking.”
“The laws of the state of Florida are beautiful, if they accept services, they go through the process, we wipe out all reports, photographs, and data that indicates that they were ever taken into custody so that they can continue to live as victims, which they really are, and not as suspects of violating the law,” he added.
According to Homeland Security (pdf), human trafficking is one of the most profitable forms of transnational crime and has become a $32 billion per year global industry.
Traffickers prey on victims with little or no social safety net, looking for people who are vulnerable because of their illegal immigration status, financial situation, and limited English proficiency among other causes.
There are more than 20 million victims of human trafficking worldwide, the department adds.
President Donald Trump has previously said his administration is “committed to leveraging every resource we have to confront this threat, to support the victims and survivors, and to hold traffickers accountable for their heinous crimes.”
Earlier this year, he signed the Frederick Douglass Trafficking Victims Prevention and Protection Reauthorization Act, which allows $430 million in federal funds for trafficking prevention and education, victim protection, and stronger government prosecution of traffickers through 2022.
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Author: Katabella Roberts