The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office says deputies arrested 18 people and rescued two possible victims of human trafficking during an undercover sting.
Called Operation Wanderlust, detectives went undercover to fight the solicitation of minors online.
Hillsborough County elementary school principal Derrick McLaughlin was arrested last month as part of the operation. He’s accused of sending sexually explicit texts to an undercover detective that “he assumed was a juvenile.”
“These suspects came from all walks of life, including Derrick McLaughlin, the principal of an elementary school in Hillsborough County,” said Sheriff Chad Chronister. “Another suspect, Robin Varghese, is known to be affiliated to his father’s church, Bethel of Brandon Pentecostal Church. No matter what these suspects did for a living, they sought to take advantage of a young person in our area, which is unacceptable. We are thankful that these men encountered our detectives online instead of a real child.”
The president and CEO of the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay says human and sex trafficking is a big issue in our area so these operations are critical.
“So, to really see law enforcement stepping up and spending the type of resources that they set for this operation. I think it does a lot, and I think it says a lot to those victims that they truly matter, that this truly is a crime and that they’re going to be believed and that there’s a community that is here to support them,” Clara Reynolds said.
During the operation, detectives also located and rescued two 15-year-old girls. One was a victim of sex trafficking, and another was in the process of being groomed by a 41-year-old man.
“We also know that what they’ve experienced is an absolute definition of trauma and trauma untreated doesn’t go away. It will continue to manifest itself throughout these young girls’ lives. And so being able to provide them with trauma therapy is going to be absolutely key,” Reynolds said.
Those arrested are facing a range of charges including attempted lewd or lascivious battery, traveling to meet a minor after using computer services/devices to solicit certain illegal acts, use of computer services or devices to solicit certain illegal acts, transmission of harmful material to a minor, and unlawful use of a two-way communications device.