TAMPA — Two men talked in a bar. One, police say, revealed a startling plan: He wanted to buy a teenager. He said he'd keep the youth in a house and pay him thousands of dollars a month for sex.
The second man called Tampa police, who set up a sting Sunday, pretending in a series of phone calls they had a 14-year-old who fit the bill.
Monday, they announced the arrest of Alex Pala, a 42-year-old Chicago man who told them he owns and operates rides and games at the Florida State Fair — a claim that fair authorities dispute.
It is another claim that worries detectives even more: Pala said he had sex with children before, police said. They fear there may have been actual victims.
Undercover detectives met with Pala about 10 p.m. Sunday at the Days Inn at 2522 N Dale Mabry Highway in Tampa, on the promise they would bring him the boy, police said.
Pala arrived with $4,934 and Hydrocodone pills, police said.
He said he was in town for the state fair, and when police prepared to tow away his truck, Pala told them he used it to transport fair equipment.
It's unclear whether that's true. A spokesman for the fair, which ended Monday, said there is no record of Pala working at this year's event. He was not issued credentials.
Terry Grace, the fair's midway coordinator, said Pala might still have been there in some capacity — as a driver, for example — but not as an owner or operator.
Rob Jacobs, bureau chief for the state Department of Agriculture Bureau of Fair Rides Inspection, said the agency has no record of Pala either.
"This guy has never surfaced as being an amusement ride owner," Jacobs said.
Pala was in the Hillsborough County Jail without bail Monday on charges of procuring a person under 18 for prostitution, possession of a controlled substance and unlawful use of a two way communications device.
Police said they were initially tipped off by a man who recently met Pala at the Kikiki Lounge, 1908 W Kennedy Blvd. The man's name was not released.
"It was just someone who did the right thing," said Tampa police spokeswoman Andrea Davis. "It could've been easy for this guy to walk away."
Instead, Davis said, the man got Pala's phone number and helped police set up the sting.
"He may have saved a child's life," Davis said.
Times staff writer Rebecca Catalanello contributed to this report.