Undercover human trafficking op ends with over 100 arrests, including a former elementary school science teacher

HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, FL - According to the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office (HCSO), more than 120 people were arrested during a 90-day undercover operation whose main goal was to combat human trafficking. 

On January 11th, which is National Human Trafficking Awareness Day, Sheriff Chad Chronister gave a press conference where he provided additional details about the arrests and the work of HCSO's Human Trafficking Section. During the 90-day undercover operation, Chronister said that they were going after online predators who targeted minors. 

Detectives with the specialized unit interacted with suspected human traffickers and would-be johns by posing as minors and as parents or guardians who were selling children for sex. Chronister said in a statement, "We have come face to face with individuals from all walks of life, some of whom held positions of trust and authority, that shockingly included a teacher, a nurse, a basketball coach, and a person employed by a spiritual organization."

When citing examples of authority figures whom the Human Trafficking Section had arrested and charged with solicitation, he stated that 28-year-old James Villacorteza, a former science teacher at James Elementary School in Tampa, was one of them. Villacorteza is facing several charges for soliciting sexual acts from a minor and traveling to meet that minor for sex.

In a news release, the sheriff's office said, "This operation resulted in the arrests of several individuals, including 39-year-old Zheng Dong. Dong was previously arrested in May of 2022 on human trafficking related charges." During the press conference, Chronister said, "These 123 arrests transcend mere statistics. They represent our commitment to protect the innocent and our relentless efforts to safeguard the most vulnerable members of our community."

The sheriff added, "That these individuals willingly sought such heinous activities despite knowing the children's ages is abhorrent and deserves our collective contempt."

He said that the detectives noticed a disturbing trend among these individuals, in that they had a gun in their possession when they were arrested. Chronister said it led him to wonder what their true intentions were when meeting with minors for sex. He said, "As if the sexual exploitation is not damaging enough, who knows what their true intentions were with the firearms they possessed. Why would you need a gun to come have sex with a child? What were their true intentions? This is the part that's even more concerning than them just trying to have this illegal, incredibly heinous act with a young person."

Chronister said that the Human Trafficking Section has made 604 arrests related to human trafficking since the unit was launched back in 2021. He said that of those arrests, 36 were charged specifically with human trafficking. The others were arrested on other human trafficking-related charges. 

Many of those types of charges are brought against would-be clients who tried to solicit or pay for sex with a trafficking victim. These people are known at times as "johns," whom Chronister has called "the driving force behind prostitution who have fueled the demand for human trafficking."

Chronister said that the Human Trafficking Section has rescued 28 victims by getting them away from traffickers, getting them medical attention, and helping them no longer use drugs. He said, "There is help available. It's as simple as making a phone call."

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