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Polk County Human Trafficking, Prostitution Sting Nabs 124

poster of mugshots of people arrested by Polk County Sheriff's Office
The Polk County Sheriff's Office arrested 124 people in an undercover operation targeting human trafficking, prostitution, and the sexual abuse of children. COURTESY POLK COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE

The Polk County Sheriff's Office has arrested 124 people in an operation that targeted human trafficking, prostitution, and the sexual abuse of children.

The six-day effort, dubbed “Operation Santa's Naughty List,” sought to help victims of human trafficking who may have been forced into prostitution.

The sting used internet ads to arrange meetings in Polk County between undercover detectives and people offering or seeking sex.

Fifty-three people were arrested for prostitution, a second degree misdemeanor. Seven were women who officials believe may have been trafficked.

Speaking at a press conference Wednesday, Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd said arresting those women actually gives authorities the chance to help them escape their current situation.

“Now we've got you in the criminal justice system, but we're going to offer you a way out, we're going to offer you a way out without any record, we're going to offer you a way out with services, with support, and with help,” said Judd.

Everyone who was arrested for prostitution was offered assistance by anti-trafficking groups working with the Sheriff’s Office.

Christa Lynn is with the social service organization, “One More Child.” She said that one of the women expressed gratitude to the deputies who arrested her.

"She said, ‘Had you been able to show me that there were services anywhere else, had I met you randomly or seen a sign saying there was help for me as a trafficking victim, I would have been too afraid to even look at that sign or talk to you,’” said Lynn. “Because of the sting, because of it being in the safety of law enforcement all around, she was able to talk to us and share that she does want help.”

Forty-six others were arrested for seeking the services of a prostitute, a first degree misdemeanor. Eighteen more were arrested for various other charges, including aiding, transporting or deriving proceeds from prostitution.  

In addition, seven men were arrested for preying on undercover detectives who were posing as children online.

Five of them traveled to the undercover site in Polk County and were charged with intending to sexually batter a child. Two others who didn’t travel to the location but solicited the detectives they believed to be children online were located and arrested.

Mark Schreiner is the assistant news director and intern coordinator for WUSF News.
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