TAMPA — Hillsborough deputies have arrested more than 70 people in a monthlong undercover prostitution sting, Sheriff Chad Chronister announced Monday.
In “Operation Interception,” which ran from Dec. 7 to Jan. 9, undercover detectives posted online ads and female detectives posed as prostitutes on the street, resulting the arrest of 71 men who agreed to pay for sex, Chronister said at a news conference. The men face charges of soliciting another to commit prostitution or entering/remaining in a place for prostitution.
Chronister said the goal of the operations and others like it is to reduce the demand for prostitution as a tactic to fight human trafficking, especially in the coming weeks ahead of Super Bowl 55. Officials say they expect an influx of human traffickers into the area to try to capitalize on the crowds in town for the game set for Feb. 7.
“Our goal is to intercept those involved in sexual exploitation before they’re able to take advantage of the vulnerable individuals in our community and ultimately, hopefully, deter others,” Chronister said, noting Monday is National Human Trafficking Awareness Day.
He added later: “We know from past experience with major sporting events there will be some who travel for the exclusive purpose of taking advantage of women and children.”
The men arrested range in age from 20 to 62. Among them was Ronnie Johnson III, a Hillsborough County firefighter assigned to Station 7 in Brandon, according to the Sheriff’s Office. Johnson was arrested on Dec. 7, the first day of the operation, on a charge of soliciting another to commit prostitution and was released from the county jail later the same day after posting $500, records show.
Johnson was hired as a Hillsborough County firefighter on July 13. He submitted his resignation from his position as a firefighter following his arrest, and is no longer employed with Hillsborough County.
Chronister said the demand for prostitutes remains high in Tampa, which he said is an incentive for human traffickers to exploit people into sex work.
“It all comes back to the demand, it all comes back to the demand and that’s why our operations are focused on eradicating the demand,” he said.
Eight people were arrested on human trafficking charges in Hillsborough County last year and six in 2019, according to the Sheriff’s Office.
Chronister said there are signs the stings are having an impact. As evidence, the Sheriff’s Office released a screengrab of a message exchange between an undercover detective and a would-be john who decided not to meet.
“Trying to stay away from getting stung ... and winding up on a poster while sheriff cronester (sic) explains to the media lol,” the man wrote in the message.
Along with enforcement operations, Chronister said, officials are also working on a prevention campaign.
Last week, the sheriff and Hillsborough County school superintendent Addison Davis unveiled a public service announcement aimed at increasing awareness about human trafficking among middle and high school students.
The two-and-half minute video highlights the warning signs that someone might be a victim and precautions to avoid becoming one.