228 arrested in Florida trafficking probe ‘Operation March sadness’

WINTER HAVEN, Fla. (WFLA) — Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd announced a record number of arrests in an undercover human trafficking investigation during a Tuesday press conference in central Florida.

According to the Sheriff’s Office, “Operation March Sadness 2024” targeted suspects associated with human trafficking, prostitution, and other crimes. Polk County sits about 60 miles east of Tampa.

A total of 228 people were arrested.

“This is a new record number of arrests during an investigation of this kind,” Sheriff Grady Judd said.

According to the sheriff’s office, 150 suspects were charged with soliciting a prostitute. Eight other suspects were accused of deriving proceeds from prostitution or transporting prostitutes to the locations set up by law enforcement.

Twenty-one were foreigners who were in the country illegally, coming from countries like Chile, Cuba, Guatemala, Mexico, Peru, and Venezuela. Another 18 suspects were said to be U.S. citizens from outside Florida — coming from Alabama, California, Georgia, Illinois, Massachusetts, Maryland, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Puerto Rico and Wisconsin.

“Among those arrested were a school teacher, coaches, and active duty military
members, among other professions,” the sheriff’s office said.

While 66 suspects were also arrested on charges of prostitute, investigators said 13 of them were actually victims of human trafficking. As such, they were released to social service organizations to give them help instead.

“During two previous similar operations in February and October 2023, we identified 24 and 21 victims, respectively,” Judd said. “That’s 58 victims we were able to identify in one year. The valuable relationships that we have with the social services organizations who join us in these operations make it possible for these women to get help and be emancipated from this way of life.”

Aside from the suspects who were committing sex crimes, a pair of teen brothers were also arrested for planning to rob an undercover detective who posed as a prostitute.

“During these types of undercover investigations, I can truly say that we have ‘seen it all’ and yet we are still surprised by some of the violent acts we encounter,” Judd said. “These two teenagers were incredibly lucky that they did not brandish a firearm while stalking who they thought was a prostitute, at a location filled with law enforcement officers. This could have ended very badly for them. This should also illustrate just how dangerous it is to agree to have sex with someone in exchange for money. There were 13 other suspects who brought firearms to the location.”


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