Former Teacher, Pastor Arrested in Undercover Florida Human Trafficking Sting

A former teacher and a pastor were among the 125 suspects arrested following an undercover human trafficking operation in Florida.

The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office announced the results of a 20-day undercover operation, entitled "Operation Round-Up" where "undercover detectives targeted criminals who attempted to prey upon minors, sought sex for themselves, or exploited victims through human trafficking," the sheriff's office said. The operation took place from August 4 to October 13, the sheriff's office said.

Two of the 125 suspects were identified as 38-year-old Joel Velasco, a former teacher at Hillsborough County Public School District and 44-year-old Samuel Phillips Jr., who is a pastor at the Be Limitless Church.

According to WFTS News in Tampa Bay, Velasco is a former teacher at Hillsborough County Public Schools. The school district said that Velasco was not on the school's campus this year as he resigned before the school year started, WFTS reported.

During a press conference on Monday, Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister said both Velasco and Phillips Jr. offered to pay undercover detectives for sex, believing that they were talking to females.

"These men who were all held to a standard of trust and respect were all arrested for soliciting another to commit prostitution," Chronister said in regard to Velasco and Phillips Jr.

During the press conference, Chronister also identified 48-year-old Philip Velikettel, who spoke with an undercover detective that he believed was an underage girl.

"His messages, his intentions were clear and crude," Chronister said. "Velikettel traveled to meet a 14-year-old girl but instead was met by our detectives, who immediately took him into custody."

Chronister also spoke about the arrest of 38-year-old Muntasir Shafiq, who believed that he was communicating with a 14-year-old boy, but instead, it was detectives with the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office.

"His texts [were] too vile to fathom," Chronister said, adding that he was arrested on several charges, including "30 counts of transmission of harmful material to a minor."

In addition to the arrests, Chronister also announced that the operation led to the rescue of four women and a teenager "from the perils of human trafficking." According to Chronister, the women that were rescued following the operation were connected with Selah Freedom, which Chronister said was an "incredible organization that provides support for human trafficking survivors."

"Individuals who make a conscious choice and effort to take advantage of others through human trafficking have no room in Hillsborough County," Chronister added during the press conference.

Newsweek was directed to the press conference after reaching out to the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office for comment.

Police line
More than 120 men were arrested following an undercover human trafficking sting in Florida. Above, police tape hangs across the street in front of a house in Park City, Kansas on February 26, 2005. Larry W. Smith/Getty