Tampa, FL

Tampa Sex Sting Snags 79 in Hillsborough County, Including Pastor

Sean Kernan


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Sex trafficking continues to haunt the Tampa Bay area. Wrestlemania 37, which electrified the local community, became the moment for a long-overdue sting.

Sheriff Chad Chronister announced Thursday morning that more than 79 people had been arrested as part of "Operation Takedown", a sting that was organized in the months leading up to this event. Detectives created online profiles and began chat sessions with the offenders. Officers also created online ads offering to exchange sex acts for money. Females detectives then posed as prostitutes and initiated communications with the intended.

The most notable of the arrests was 39-year-old Earnest Benjamin, a pastor at Breath of Life Church in Tampa. He offered $25 in exchange for oral sex, while also in the company of his children. Additionally, Christopher Ray, a girls basketball coach at Land O' Lakes High School was arrested. Per authorities, Ray responded to an ad placed on an escort website. He was suspended per the Pasco County school district. The Tampa Bay Times tried to get a comment from the Breath of Life Worship Church but received no response During Thursday's press conference, Chronister stated Benjamin also received two charges of contributing to delinquency or dependency of a child due to his having two small children in the car while “soliciting someone for the acts of a sex trade.”

41-year-old Rusty Harden is a registered sex offender who is on probation. Harden believed he was texting with a 14-year-old girl and then tried to meet her. Unfortunately, when he knocked on the door for their meetup, he was greeted by police authorities. Harden is charged with transmitting harmful material to a minor, traveling to meet a minor after using a computer to solicit illegal acts, as well as other crimes. He was being held Thursday without bail in the Hillsborough County jail.

Another man, Jason Brooks, 44, of Tampa was also arrested on a human trafficking charge after he responded to a fake prostitution advertisement. He offered to engage in sex acts with a 17-year-old girl, deputies said.

Within each of these chats, it was clearly communicated that the girls in question were underage and the men continue to move forward with the exchanges. This documentation became the key grounds for the administration of the charges.

“As we’ve seen many times before, our great community can become somewhat tainted by those who choose to use these large events to take advantage of another through human trafficking,” Officer Chronister said.

The sheriff’s office states that large-scale events like WrestleMania and the Super Bowl become magnets for people who work in the illegal sex-trade business.  In the days leading up to these events, it becomes opportune to seek out those who want to marginalize children. Wrestlemania drew in more than 25,000 fans for attendance at each night of its performance. The Super Bowl drew in hundreds of thousands and marked the most recent large-scale sting before this one.

Sex trafficking continues to haunt Tampa, and the state, with Florida ranking third-worst in the country for these crimes. The lasting effects on the victims continue to have an impact on society at large, and authorities assure all that they will not stop. They continue to look for signs online, and on the streets, for example, through tattoos that are used on young girls. “It’s like branding cattle," said Cpl. Alan Willett, who leads Pasco County's human trafficking task force. "It's an ownership mark. Branding is when somebody — a pimp or a trafficker — will put his mark or his symbol or his sign on his victims through some sort of tattoo."

This recent sting came with some benefits. “This operation helped rescue three females from the perils of human trafficking,” said 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.”

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