A high school basketball coach and pastor were among the 79 people arrested in a human trafficking sting in Florida, police said, according to numerous sources.
The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office said Thursday that “Operation Takedown” led to the arrests of Earnest Benjamin, 39, and Christopher Ray, 39, on charges that they solicited sex, WFLA reported. Benjamin is reportedly a pastor at Breath of Life Worship Church in Tampa, and Ray is a girls high school basketball coach at Land O’ Lakes High School.
The sting took place from March 30 to April 9 and is the second human trafficking operation conducted by the sheriff’s office this year ahead of a large-scale community event, WFLA reported. https://t.co/0eE5Qohnd2
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Police say the suspects took advantage of WrestleMania 37, a large-scale community event in Tampa, to conduct the human trafficking operation, according to Fox 13. Large-scale events, like the Super Bowl, attract people who are involved in human trafficking, police said. (RELATED: Several California Beauty Businesses Believed To Be Center Of Sex Trafficking Ring)
Benjamin allegedly offered $25 for oral sex while his two young children were present, which led to a charge of contributing to delinquency or dependency of a child, according to Fox 13. Ray allegedly responded to an ad placed on an escort site.
A Florida sheriff’s office announced Thursday more than 70 men were arrested as part of a week-long operation aimed at combating human trafficking.https://t.co/mI6rTVz2MT
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According to WFLA, parents with children at the Breath of Life Worship Church daycare were shocked when they heard Benjamin was arrested in the operation. Pastor County School District, where Ray is a coach, said he was suspended pending the school’s investigation, according to WFLA.
“Both of these men, trusted and revered members of our community, were arrested for soliciting another to commit prostitution,” Sheriff Chad Chronister said, according to Fox 13.
Chronister said female investigators went undercover as “streetwalkers” to catch the suspects, and detectives made undercover online profiles and fake sex advertisements, according to Fox 13.
Other suspects include Jason Brooks, 44, and Jamel Muldrew, 32, and Rusty Harden, 41, who are facing human trafficking charges or soliciting illegal acts from a minor charges, according to WFLA.
Brooks allegedly responded to a decoy prostitution advertisement, and thought he was going to pay for sex with a 17-year-old girl, police said, according to WFLA. Muldrew allegedly transported a 17-year-old girl for commercial sex acts, leading to a transporting for prostitution charge and a deriving support from the proceeds of prostitution charge, WFLA reported.
Harden, a registered sex offender, allegedly sent explicit messages to an undercover detective he believed was a 14-year-old girl, and traveled to meet a minor to solicit illegal acts, police said.
“He traveled to meet the girl but instead was met with our detectives,” Chronister said, according to Fox 13.
Florida had the third-highest rate of human trafficking cases in the U.S. in 2019, according to WFLA.