More than 100 people were arrested during a five-month human trafficking investigation in Hillsborough County.
Sheriff Chad Chronister announced the arrests on Monday morning while standing in front of a video screen that showed the undercover sting and a large board containing the mug shots of those arrested.
Among them were Jason Fitzgerald, 36, and Lewis Cologne, 29, who were taken into custody on June 21st in a trailer park in North Tampa. The men were negotiating a price for sex with two children. They agreed to pay the “stepfather,” of one of the girls who was actually an undercover detective.
“Predators like this do not belong on the streets in Hillsborough County,” Chronister said.
In all, 104 people were arrested during "Operation Trade Secrets II." The operation lasted from June to November. Among those arrested, 76 were men purchasing sex, and 28 were women who engaged in the sex trade. During the undercover operation, female detectives were posing on the streets as prostitutes, and male detectives were posing as “Johns,” a common name for buyers.
A previous sting, "Operation Trade Secrets I," ran from January until June and resulted in 85 arrests.
“Our success continues to come from focusing on websites and forums that are known for soliciting sex, along with targeting strip clubs, massage parlors, and motels,” said Chronister.
The sheriff's office questioned the women who were taken into custody to learn whether they were being trafficked. Each of them can now get support from local organizations like the Salvation Army and Created Tampa.
“We will send counselors into the jail to talk to the 28 women to see if we can get them to be brave and bold enough to break this cycle and choose another way of life,” said Chronister.
Among the 76 men arrested was, Steven Cook, 29, a member of the gang “Latin Kings.” Cook was a major human trafficking suspect, officials said, and was charged with human trafficking and profiting from prostitution.
Florida is among the top three states that receive trafficked women and children each year, according to the National Human Trafficking Hotline. Last year, the state had more than 750 cases of reported human trafficking. The number of calls has steadily grown over the past five years, peaking during major sporting events, or other attractions, officials said.
Chronister said the reason is simple -- there are more people.
“People are traveling, there are more people in the area,” he said. “And Tampa already has this negative stigma, being the strip club capital of the world. There are too many individuals who believe, because of all the strip clubs, that there’s free sex trade.”
Chronister compared the sex trade to other types of businesses.
“The human trafficking industry boils down to supply and demand,” he said. “I strongly believe that in order to eradicate human trafficking, we must continue to focus on reducing demand.”
With more major sporting events coming to the area -- like Super Bowl 2021 at Raymond James Stadium -- it's important to establish that the Tampa Bay area does not allow this conduct, Chronister said.
“I want to make it clear that human trafficking will not be tolerated in Hillsborough County,” he said. “This undercover operation is evidence of our commitment to putting an end to this despicable act.”