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Human trafficking sting in Hillsborough nets more than 100 arrests

The Tampa Bay area is one of the top destinations in the country for human trafficking and the problem continues to grow, authorities say.

TAMPA — One day in May, an undercover sheriff’s detective answered an online escort ad and arranged to meet the woman at a Sun City hotel.

Steven Tylor Cook brought the woman to the hotel and then sent her threatening text messages to make sure the money the client had was real, an arrest report says. Cook, who was still at the hotel, was taken into custody for an unrelated offense and later arrested and charged with human trafficking and deriving proceeds.

The charges were later dropped, records show, but Cook’s was one of the cases highlighted by Sheriff Chad Chronister on Monday as he announced the results of an undercover operation to combat human trafficking. Dubbed Operation Trade Secrets II, the effort netted more than 100 arrests between June and early November.

Like the operation’s first phase from January to June that netted about 85 arrests, the second phase focused primarily on the buyers, or Johns. Detectives targeted websites and forums known for soliciting sex in addition to strip clubs, massage parlors and motels throughout Hillsborough.

Of the 104 arrested in the second phase, 76 men were arrested for engaging in the sex trade — nearly all for trying to purchase sex — and 28 were women, according to the Sheriff’s Office.

Only a few suspects, including Cook, were charged with human trafficking.

“Like any business, the human trafficking industry boils down to this: supply and demand," Chronister said. " I strongly believe that in order to eradicate human trafficking, we must continue to focus on reducing the demand."

RELATED: Hillsborough Sheriff’s Office sweep results in more than 80 arrests, one human trafficking charge

According to Cook’s arrest report, he used “coercion to manipulate the victim to perform commercial sexual activity" on multiple occasions by posting ads on common escort websites. The report says he kept the proceeds of the encounters and forced the woman to have sex even when she was experiencing pain from a medical issue.

Cook, who the sheriff said is a member of the Latin Kings gang, was arrested in July. In early September, the Hillsborough State Attorney’s Office dropped the charges after the victim, who was also arrested on a prostitution charge, did not respond to prosecutors who contacted her seeking help prosecuting the case.

Chronister didn’t cite the outcome of Cook’s case at the news conference but said it’s often difficult to get trafficking victims to turn against someone they rely on for food, shelter, clothing or drugs.

“They know as dysfunctional as this relationship is, it’s the one person they can depend on, and that’s why it makes it so difficult for law enforcement to gain these individuals’ trust,” he said.

That’s why the Sheriff’s Office works with non-profit groups such as the Salvation Army, Bridging Freedom and Created Tampa to provide counseling and other resources for people arrested on prostitution charges.

“To see if we can get them to be brave and bold enough to break this cycle and choose another way of life,” Chronister said.

Chronister also highlighted the case of Jason Fitzgerald, 36, and 29-year-old Luis Almondo Colon. Both men met individually in June with a detective posing as a man selling sex with his 14-year-old stepdaughter, according to the sheriff.

When the men showed up to a North Tampa trailer park and were told a 13-year-old girl was also available for sex, “they jumped at the chance to be with the even younger girl,” Chronister said.

Fitzgerald and Colon were both charged with human trafficking for sexual activity with a minor, traveling to meet a minor to solicit certain illegal acts and unlawful use of a two-way communications device. Their cases are still pending and both have pleaded not guilty, records show. Both men are still in jail.

The Tampa Bay area is one of the top destinations in the country for human trafficking and the problem continues to grow, said Dotti Groover-Skipper, divisional anti-trafficking director for the Salvation Army.

Undercover operations that net arrests help send an important message, especially ahead of events like the Super Bowl, Wrestlemania and the NCAA Final Four that are expected to draw thousands of people to the area, Groover-Skipper said.

“It’s going to be tremendous once it really gets out in the community that our community will be a no-tolerance zone for human trafficking,” she said.