TAMPA, Fla. — A pastor and a high school girls’ basketball coach were among 79 people arrested in a weeklong sex crime sting in Florida.
The men face human trafficking charges in “Operation Takedown,” which was launched by the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office during the days leading up to WrestleMania 37 at Tampa’s Raymond James Stadium, the Tampa Bay Times reported. 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.
“As we’ve seen many times before, our great community can become somewhat tainted by those who choose to use these large events to take advantage of another through human trafficking,” Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister said at a news conference Thursday.
Detectives said two men, Jason Brooks, 44, of Tampa, and Jamel Muldrew, 32, of Houston, were both arrested on human trafficking charges, WFTS reported. Brooks was arrested after he responded to a decoy prostitution advertisement. Authorities said Brooks believed he was going to pay for sex with a 17-year-old girl.
Muldrew had been transporting a 17-year-old victim for the sole purpose of commercial sexual acts, the television station reported.
Also arrested was Earnest Benjamin, 39, a pastor at Breath of Life Worship Church in Tampa, the Times reported. He is accused of offering to pay an undercover detective $25 to engage in a sex act after he dropped off his children at daycare, Chronister said at the news conference. Benjamin made the deal while his two children were still in the car, Chronister said.
Christopher Ray, 39, an assistant girls’ basketball coach at Land O’ Lakes High School, was arrested after answering an ad on an escort site, the Times reported.
“Both of these men, trusted and revered members of our community, were arrested for soliciting another to commit prostitution,” Chronister said.
Benjamin also was charged with two counts of contributing to delinquency or dependency of a child since his children were in his car at the time of the alleged solicitation, WFLA reported.
A spokesperson for the Pasco County School District said Ray has been suspended from the school pending their own investigation into his arrest, according to WFLA. He started working for Land O’ Lakes High School in October 2019, the television station reported.
Rusty Harden, 41, of Tampa, who is a registered sex offender, was also arrested on multiple felony charges after he sent explicit messages and photos to an undercover detective he believed was a 14-year-old girl, according to WFTS.
The sheriff’s offices from Orange, Pasco and St. Johns counties assisted in the arrests, along with the Lakeland Police Department and the Cape Coral Police Department, WFLA reported.
“This operation helped rescue three females from the perils of human trafficking,” Chronister told reporters. “Unfortunately, the only thing wrong with this number is that we know there are more victims. I want to remind everyone, that if you see something, say something. By reporting anyone you think may be a victim of these heinous crimes, you could be saving a life.”