Chris Lange, FISM NEWS
A human-trafficking sting operation led to 125 arrests in Hillsborough County, Florida. The 20-day investigation, dubbed “Operation Round-Up,” targeted criminals attempting to prey on minors and exploit victims through human trafficking. The sting also resulted in the rescue of four women and a teenager.
“Individuals who make a conscious choice and effort to take advantage of others through human trafficking have no room in Hillsborough County,” said Hillsborough Sheriff Chad Chronister in a press release. “Our approach and efforts year-round are proactive and relentless. Our strong team of detectives will continue to work tirelessly to take down and put a stop to human trafficking.”
Among those arrested were Joel Velasco, 38, a Hillsborough County public school teacher, and Samuel Phillips, Jr., 44, a pastor at Be Limitless Church.
Sheriff Chronister: “We also came into contact with Samuel Phillips Jr., a pastor at Be Limitless Church, when he responded to a false ad placed on an escort escort website and offered to pay our undercover detective for sex.” (2/4) pic.twitter.com/vX5YRQP3u1
— HCSO (@HCSOSheriff) October 18, 2021
“These men, who were all held to a standard of trust and respect, were all arrested for soliciting another to commit prostitution,” said Chronister.
Several of the arrested men communicated with undercover detectives whom they believed to be minors, including Muntasir Shafiq (35) accused of sending texts “too vile to fathom” to someone he believed to be a 14-year-old boy, and Philip Velikettel (48) who was arrested when he arrived at a prearranged site where he thought he was meeting a 14-year-old girl.
Chronister cited the “unfortunate success of this operation and others alike” as the impetus for his formation of a Human Trafficking Squad. “This team of 12 dedicated members will uphold the commitment to ending human trafficking in Hillsborough County by reducing the demand and rescuing victims,” he said, adding “To still see these types of numbers, to still see the number of women we are rescuing, I knew we had to have a full-time squad.”
According to Chronister, detectives made contact with more than 1,000 potential “johns.” Many ultimately chose not to meet in Hillsborough County due to the success of this and other sting operations.
Victims2Survivors founder Connie Rose applauded the success of the “Operation Round-Up” and praised Chronister’s decision to create the special unit, according to a Tampa Bay FOX affiliate report.
“You’re setting this incredible message about, don’t buy [sex] in Tampa,” said Rose, who is a sex-trafficking survivor. “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 gratitude that the victims rescued in the operation now have the opportunity to move on with their lives.
“The most important thing is that they’re not out being trafficked, being sold or rented out anymore,” she said. “What really took me back on this particular one is that there was a teacher and a pastor. And that these are people that our children look up to.”
The victims were referred to Selah Freedom, another not-for-profit organization based in Florida that provides resources and support to victims of human trafficking
“We will continue this until we eradicate human trafficking in Hillsborough County,” said Chronister.