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Multi-Agency Human Trafficking Bust Nets 228 Suspects

Lake Wales Police, Other Agencies Cooperated in the Investigation

During an eight-day-long undercover human trafficking operation, which began on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024, the Polk County Sheriff's Office Vice Unit arrested 228 suspects involved in illegal acts related to soliciting prostitutes, offering to commit prostitution, or aiding and abetting prostitutes.

Detectives from the Auburndale PD, Davenport PD, Haines City PD, Lakeland PD, Lake Hamilton PD, Lake Wales PD, St. Cloud PD, and Winter Haven Fire Rescue assisted with the investigation. The Office of the State Attorney 10th Judicial Circuit, State Attorney Brian Haas, members from the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF), and social services organizations One More Child; Heartland for Children; and Selah Freedom, were also on-hand.

Courtesy Polk County Sheriffs Office

A network that included human traffickers moving victims from to provide prostitution services was dismantled in a multi-agency effort in Polk County.

Those who travelled to provide prostitution services were screened by detectives and the social services organizations to determine if they were being trafficked or exploited by others, and were offered services by the social services organizations at the operation. During this investigation, 13 possible human trafficking victims were identified of the 66 prostitutes who were arrested.

There were 150 suspects arrested for soliciting a prostitute and traveling to the undercover location to negotiate having sex in exchange for money; 12 other suspects were arrested, and of those, eight were either deriving proceeds from prostitution or transporting prostitutes to the undercover location.

Detectives charged a total of 70 felonies and 288 misdemeanors during the investigation. The suspects' criminal histories included a combined total of 879 felonies and 1,150 misdemeanors.

"This is a new record number of arrests during an investigation of this kind," said Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd. "More importantly, we identified 13 human trafficking victims; during two previous similar operations in February and October 2023, we identified 24 and 21 victims, respectively. That's 58 victims we were able to identify in one year. The valuable relationships that we have with the social services organizations who join us in these operations make it possible for these women to get help and be emancipated from this way of life."

Some interesting notes from the operation:

· 21 of the arrested are suspected of being in the country illegally; Those who are here illegally are from Chile, Cuba, Guatemala, Mexico, Peru, and Venezuela.

· 41 suspects told detectives they are married.

· 11 suspects told detectives they receive government assistance.

· 44 suspects brought illegal drugs to the location: detectives seized fentanyl, heroin, cocaine, MDMA, hydrocodone, Xanax, methamphetamine, and marijuana.

· 15 suspects brought firearms to the undercover location; 17 firearms total were seized.

· 18 suspects were from other states and Puerto Rico: Alabama, California, Georgia, Illinois, Massachusetts, Maryland, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Wisconsin.

· The oldest person arrested is 73 years old while the youngest is 16 years old.

Two brothers, ages 16 and 17 years old, reportedly came to the location armed with a BB gun, wearing hoodies and ski masks, and creeping around the undercover location as if they were about to commit an armed robbery of the undercover detective who was posing as a prostitute whom they solicited online, the police report stated. Omar and Kalem Najjar were both charged with attempted armed robbery, a felony, as well as loitering/prowling.

Courtesy Polk County Sheriffs Office

A total of 228 arrests were made in during the investigation, but some have now been identified as possible victims of human trafficking.

"During these types of undercover investigations, I can truly say that we have 'seen it all' and yet we are still surprised by some of the violent acts we encounter," Judd said in a prepared statement. "These two teenagers were incredibly lucky that they did not brandish a firearm while stalking who they thought was a prostitute, at a location filled with law enforcement officers. This could have ended very badly for them. This should also illustrate just how dangerous it is to agree to have sex with someone in exchange for money. There were 13 other suspects who brought firearms to the location." -

 

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