(Bethany Blankley, The Center Square) A multiagency operation led to the arrest of more than 200 people allegedly engaging in human trafficking in Polk County, Florida. More than half of the victims were smuggled into the U.S. illegally through the southern border, Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd said.
Of the 24 victims identified as being trafficked, “14 of these females are illegally in this country,” Judd said. “Did you hear that? Did you hear clearly what I said?
“Fourteen of them are here illegally in the country. To me the bombshell is 13 of them are Cuban, one is Mexican, all of them came to us through the southern border.”
Judd also took issue with politicians arguing about border security, saying, “We hear the political 30-second bites about ‘oh, the border’s porous… ‘no it’s not.’ ‘The border is secure,’ ‘no it’s not.’ ‘There’s really not a crisis at the border.”
In response, he said, “Yes, there’s a crisis at the border. Wake up. Somebody in Washington with more than five brain cells needs to listen to this. Maybe asking them to have five brains cells is too many. Let’s shoot for three brain cells.”
He said the female victims “all arrived within the last two years: the majority within the last six months, some of them in the last two weeks.
“They were paying off their transportation debt, being smuggled into the United States to have sex,” he said. “Their family was being threatened if they didn’t come here and do what they were supposed to, to pay off the debts.”
The Florida sheriff also expressed frustration over lack of border security, saying, “it’s not enough that we’ve got illegal entries… what everyone’s ignoring is the traffickers and the fentanyl that’s killing thousands upon thousands of our people every day. The traffickers of methamphetamine, they’re all coming across that border with the traffickers of fentanyl.”
“Human traffickers are forcing ladies across this border to commit sex so they can indenture them, and yet we don’t do what we need to do,” he said, comparing the Biden administration’s actions to a home flooding from a leaking pipe. The federal government claims to be mopping the floor, he said, but “at the same time the pipe’s still pumping more water” onto it, he said. “The first thing you do” to stop a leaking pipe from flooding a home, he said, is to “find the source and turn the valve off. And then you mop up and fix the problem.” The federal government isn’t doing that, he said.
“The Cubans said they came here through Nicaragua,” Judd said, through Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico to enter the U.S. illegally. “Coyotes,” human smugglers, moved them into the U.S., he said, according to interviews with victims.
Investigators were still looking into who orchestrated their smuggling, by what means, when and where, he said.
“We have caught the buyer and the seller,” Judd added. “That’s what we’ve done today. But we know the buyer and the seller is only the beginning of the chain. It’s not the end of the chain.”
Officers uncovered the human trafficking ring during a seven-day undercover operation, “Operation Traffic Stop,” from February 6-12. The Polk County Sheriff’s Office Vice Unit, working with multiple agencies, arrested 213 suspects.
Officers were looking for “the victims of human trafficking, those that are forced to participate, those that are made to participate, those that are treated inhumanely,” Judd said. “Not only did we arrest more suspects during this single operation than we have ever arrested before, we identified 24 human trafficking victims – the highest number of victims we’ve ever rescued during one of these investigations.”
They arrested 111 prostitutes; among them 24 were identified as possible human trafficking victims.
Another 89 suspects were arrested for soliciting a prostitute “who traveled to a designated undercover location to negotiate having sex in exchange for money.” Another 13 were arrested, 10 of whom were either “deriving proceeds from prostitution or aiding and abetting prostitutes,” according to the sheriff’s office.
Several of those arrested already have criminal histories, including violent felonies ranging from kidnapping, robbery, aggravated assault, and sex offenses. Five were previously arrested by PCSO during an undercover operation last September, the sheriff said.
One individual arrested was an elected San Diego area Del Mar Union School District board member. Dr. Scott Wooden, a molecular biologist who used to own a massage parlor, was in town visiting his elderly parents when he was arrested after allegedly soliciting a sex worker for $200, Judd said.
The school district issued a statement, saying Wooden had “resigned from the District’s Governing Board of Trustees effective immediately” and the board is “currently exploring options to fill the vacancy.”
Officers involved in the operation also seized fentanyl, cocaine, methamphetamine and marijuana, as well as firearms.
Those arrested were between the ages of 19 and 68. In total, those arrested were charged with 68 total felony and 308 misdemeanor counts.
Participating in the operation were detectives from the Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Office, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the police departments of Auburndale, Winter Haven, Haines City, Lake Wales, Lakeland, Davenport and Bartow. The Office of the State Attorney 10th Judicial Circuit, State Attorney Brian Haas, and the Florida Department of Children and Families were also involved. Several organizations provided assistance to victims, including One More Child, Heartland for Children, My Name My Voice, Selah Freedom, and the Children’s Home Society Child Advocacy Center.