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Church Pastor & A Coach Among 79 Arrested In Sex-Trafficking Sting

HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, Fla. (CW44 News At 10) - With large events such as WrestleMania, law enforcement sees opportunity. The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Department plucked 79 men from the streets for violations related to human trafficking - among those arrested was a church pastor and a girls basketball coach.

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Dubbed "Operation Takedown," undercover detectives with the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office arrested 79 men as part of a week-long anti-human trafficking operation. It took place from March 30 to April 9, 2021 ahead of WrestleMania throughout all of Hillsborough County. Undercover detectives conducted chat, hotel, and streetwalker operations that led to the arrests.

Two men, Jason Brooks, 44, of Tampa, and Jamel Muldrew, 32, of Houston, Texas, were both arrested on human trafficking charges. Brooks was arrested after he responded to a decoy prostitution advertisement. He 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. On top of one count of human trafficking, Muldrew faces charges of Transporting for Prostitution and Deriving Support from the Proceeds of Prostitution. An additional two victims were recovered as a result of "Operation Takedown." Selah Freedom offered support to the human trafficking victims.

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"This operation helped rescue three females from the perils of human trafficking," said Sheriff Chronister. "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." 

Rusty Harden, 41, also of Tampa, is a registered sex offender, and was arrested on multiple felony charges after he sent explicit messages and photos to an undercover detective he believed was a 14-year-old girl. He traveled on foot to meet the "juvenile," only to be greeted by detectives. He was one of four men who faced a charge of Traveling to Meet a Minor After Using Services/Devices to Solicit Certain Illegal Acts.

Credit: HCSO

Detectives also arrested Earnest Benjamin, 39, a local pastor at Breath of Life Worship Church in Tampa, and Christopher Ray, 39, a girls high school basketball coach at Land O' Lakes High School.

"Both of these men, trusted and revered members of our community, were arrested for Soliciting Another to Commit Prostitution," explained Sheriff Chronister.

Credit: HCSO

Local law enforcement partners, including the Orange County, Pasco, and St. John's County Sheriff's Office arrested individuals located out of Hillsborough County's jurisdiction. The Lakeland Police Department and Cape Coral Police Department also made arrests throughout "Operation Takedown." DeliverFund, a not-for-profit organization assisted with locating arrestees.

You can report suspected human trafficking by calling the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888. 

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