A Florida pastor who launched a new church this fall and a teacher were among 125 people arrested in a 20-day human trafficking sting that resulted in the rescue of four women and a 17-year-old, the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office announced Monday.
“Individuals who make a conscious choice and effort to take advantage of others through human trafficking have no room in Hillsborough County,” Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister declared during a press conference on the arrests. “Our approach and efforts year-round are proactive and relentless. Our strong team of detectives will continue to work tirelessly to takedown and put a stop to human trafficking.”
Chronister said during the sting operation dubbed “Operation Round-Up” that started on Aug. 4 and ended Oct. 13, undercover detectives targeted criminals who attempted to prey upon minors, sought sex for themselves or exploited victims through human trafficking.
Among those arrested are Joel Velasco, 38, a teacher at an unspecified Hillsborough school and Pastor Samuel Phillips Jr., 44, who recently launched Be Limitless Church in Riverview.
“Throughout this operation our detectives created undercover profiles online and chatted with men who believed they were speaking to minors, created false advertisements for sex, and undercover female detectives posed as streetwalkers,” Chronister said.
Chronister said Velasco offered to pay undercover detectives $60 in exchange for sex while Phillips “responded to a false ad placed on an escort website and offered to pay our undercover detective for sex.”
“These men who were all held to a standard of trust and respect were all arrested for soliciting another to commit prostitution,” Chronister said.
Be Limitless Church did not immediately respond to a request for comment on their pastor’s arrest when contacted by The Christian Post on Tuesday. The church also disabled its Facebook page.
In a video on the church’s website, Phillips explained that God gave him the vision for the church in January and he and his wife, along with their two young daughters, have been on a mission: “To advance the kingdom of God by transforming communities and bringing hope to the culture, through simplistic and practical biblical teachings that will help them discover purpose and experience the love of God in their everyday life.
Leaders at the church further noted: “Launching a new church is a huge opportunity to serve our community and its surrounding areas. We are a group of unified leaders that are focused on making a difference in the lives of others. We believe there is a place here for you, come join us.”
Human trafficking survivors, like Connie Rose, who was trafficked by her father in the 1970s, praised the effort to clamp down on the practice by the sheriff's office in a FOX13 interview.
"You're setting this incredible message about, don't buy [sex] in Tampa," said Rose, who runs Victims2Survivors a nonprofit support group. "We are very serious about eradicating human trafficking in our own backyard and these sting operations, the way that he runs them with his teams, are absolutely phenomenal."
Rose also expressed disappointment that a pastor and a teacher were among the arrests.
"What really took me back on this particular one [sting] is that there was a teacher and a pastor. And that these are people that our children look up to,” she said.