Crime

Teacher, counselor among 123 arrested in Florida trafficking operation

After three months undercover, detectives with a Florida sheriff's office arrested 123 people on human trafficking-related charges.

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A monthslong undercover operation led one Florida sheriff's office to arrest 123 people, including an elementary school teacher and a boy's basketball coach, on human trafficking-related charges.

The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office used a multipronged approach to carry out the targeted 90-day mission dubbed Operation Renewed Hope, Sheriff Chad Chronister said at a news conference, notably on National Human Trafficking Awareness Day.

This approach consisted of agents going undercover on the streets, in hotels and particularly online to pose as minors or as people soliciting minors for sex, Chronister said. 

In the end, 123 individuals were arrested after they "knowingly sought to engage in sexual acts" with minors.

In one case, Christopher Barba, a fifth to 12th-grade boys basketball coach, allegedly responded to an undercover detective's ad offering sex with two teenage girls, one 14 and one 15, for $150, according to an arrest affidavit obtained by the Tampa Bay Times. Barba, who claimed he was 17 in communications, was arrested after showing up to an arranged meeting spot.

"The fact that individuals willingly sought such heinous activities despite knowing the children's ages is abhorrent and deserves our collective contempt," Chronister said.

Many of those arrested "held positions of trust and authority," such as a mental health nurse and a church summer camp grief counselor, Chronister said.

The sheriff said some arrested believed they were speaking directly to an underage girl or boy or — in what Chronister said was the "darkest corners" of the operation — that they were speaking to guardians selling their children to suspected predators.

Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office / Christopher Barba is pictured.

In one case, Christopher Barba, a fifth to 12th-grade boys basketball coach, allegedly responded to an undercover detective's ad offering sex with two teenage girls, one 14 and one 15, for $150, according to an arrest affidavit obtained by the Tampa Bay Times. Barba, who claimed he was 17 in communications, was arrested after showing up to an arranged meeting spot.

Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office

Another arrest involved James Villacorteza, a fifth-grade science teacher in Tampa. Court records obtained by the Times state Villacorteza met who he thought was a 15-year-old boy on a dating app and allegedly expressed a desire to sexually engage with him. After stating concerns about getting arrested due to the boy's age, the affidavit says Villacorteza unknowingly asked the detective to meet at a Target, and deputies arrested him at the elementary school the next day.

Villacorteza and Barba are among multiple suspects charged with traveling to meet a minor after using a computer or device to solicit a certain illegal act. Chronister said an alarming trend in traveling cases is the presence of guns alongside the alleged predator.

"As if the sexual exploitation is not damaging enough, who knows what their true intentions were with the firearms they possessed?" the sheriff said.

Others face charges like soliciting another to commit prostitution — another focal point of Operation Renewed Hope. One suspect, 39-year-old Zheng Dong, faces new charges after another undercover operation in May 2022 led to his arrest for traveling to have sex with a minor. He was charged with human trafficking in that case.

Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office

In the new operation, Barba is among six who face human trafficking charges. He pleaded not guilty, and his attorney told the Times they would contest the case.

The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office's human trafficking unit was created in June 2021. Since then, it has arrested 604 people and charged 36 with human trafficking-related charges. It's also credited with rescuing 28 near-victims from the criminal trade.