Florida Human-Trafficking Sting Leads To 228 Arrests, 13 Potential Victims Rescued

Authored by Patricia Tolson via The Epoch Times (emphasis ours),

Almost 230 people were arrested, and 13 potential victims were rescued in a Florida human trafficking sting dubbed, “Operation March Sadness 2024.”

Mug shots of those arrested in “Operation March Sadness 2024” for offering to commit prostitution in Polk County, Fla., on March 5, 2024. (screenshot Polk County Sheriff’s Department).

At a March 5 press conference, Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd announced the bust of a human trafficking operation on the west side of the county in Lakeland that led to 228 arrests and the rescue of 13 potential victims. The Polk County Sheriff’s Department (PCSD) was assisted by police departments in Lakeland, Haines City, Davenport, Auburndale, Lake Hamilton, and the Winterhaven Fire and Rescue.

According to a March 5 press release, the “eight-day-long undercover human trafficking operation” began on Feb. 22 and targeted suspects “involved in illegal acts related to soliciting prostitutes, offering to commit prostitution, or aiding and abetting prostitutes.

The 228 arrests consisted of “66 prostitutes, 50 Johns, and 12 others,” Sheriff Judd said.

“This time we identified 13 potential victims of human trafficking,” he added, saying his department has identified “58 potential victims of human trafficking in one year” through these operations.

The significance, he said, was that this is “the most ever” they have been able to identify.

Sheriff Judd also noted that 48 of those arrested were from Polk County, saying they “should know better.”

“We talk about this,” he explained. “We don’t hide it, and if you don’t know about it you obviously live under a rock. So, you’ve had to learn the hard way.”

For the rest, he offered a warning.

“This is not the last operation,” he advised. “We‘ll have more, and we’ll give you the opportunity to be arrested if you’re stupid enough to show up. That’s a guarantee.”

Of those arrested, 42 are married. One was a commercial pilot. There were members of the Air Force, sports coaches, law enforcement officers, and people in the medical profession. Some were teachers.

Two minors were arrested. “They came down to rob us,” Sheriff Judd said, adding that they came armed with a BB gun that looked like a real gun.

“That could have gone really bad for them,” he said.

A total of 17 firearms were confiscated from 15 different suspects and 44 had possession of narcotics.

‘Addicted to This Cash’

One of the men arrested was handling three illegal immigrant females from Venezuela for the head of a sex trafficking ring they believe is female.

She sets up their appointments, she puts their ads online, she tells them where to go,” Sheriff Judd explained, adding that the three victims had to “pay her $3,000 a piece” by the end of the week as a means of “paying off their debt.”

Sheriff Judd then said that the three victims told law enforcement that when they came to the United States illegally “DHS gave them a form, and ID paperwork that allows them to fly for free.”

So, while the three sex workers operate out of New York, they said they fly to major metropolitan areas for free “on the federal government where they set up their appointments for sex all around the country.”

Sheriff Judd said all 21 of the illegal immigrants told a “similar story” regarding their involvement in the sex trafficking scheme.

We can’t work legally,” he recalled them saying. “We’re addicted to this cash. It’s a lot of cash and it’s quick so we have to give $3,000 a week. We get to keep everything above that.

“We have a crisis at the border,” Sheriff Judd asserted, “and because of the crisis at the border we have people that are victimizing illegal folks, forcing them into the sex trade because we allow these criminals in the country illegally.”

Sheriff Judd also addressed headlines claiming that illegal immigrants “aren’t committing crime at any greater percentage than the people who are here legally.”

“What they didn’t tell you if they weren’t here illegally at all the crime they would commit here would be zero,” he noted. “So, we’re being victimized.”

On June 3, 2022, the Florida Legislature passed House Bill 615, creating a new duty for the Statewide Council on Human Trafficking (SCHT), which is to determine how many times social media platforms are used to assist, facilitate, or support human trafficking within the Sunshine State.

To fulfill this requirement, the SCHT conducted a statewide survey of Florida’s 80 law enforcement agencies to record the number of times social media platforms were used to “facilitate human trafficking, trafficking operations, or control victims” since 2019.

According to the 2023 Annual Report, they discovered that 72 human trafficking instances were recorded using Facebook, 65 through Instagram, five through WhatsApp, and four by using Facebook Messenger.

The Epoch Times reached out to the PCSD to find out if “Operation March Sadness 2024” had been conducted through online social media platforms.

While PCSD confirmed that the sting operation was conducted online, PCSD spokesperson Carrie Horstman said, “We don’t typically release information about which specific sites are used during our undercover investigations.”

“Our message is for parents to monitor their children’s activities online—have all of their logins and passwords and check their accounts regularly,” she added, providing a link to resources parents can use to protect their children from online predators. “Don’t allow them to be friends online with people who are strangers, and don’t allow just anyone to ‘follow’ them.”



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