(HorizonPost.com) – An elementary school teacher was among those arrested last week in a three-month trafficking sting by the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, the Tampa Bay Times reported.
Fifth-grade science teacher James Villacorteza, 28, from Tampa’s James Elementary School, allegedly exchanged messages on a dating app with someone he believed was a 15-year-old boy.
But the boy turned out to be a deputy from the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Department.
During a phone call with the “boy,” Villacorteza said he wanted to meet but was concerned about the boy’s age and said he was afraid of getting arrested. Then, on October 17, Villacorteza suggested the boy meet him at Target and told him that he was on his way.
Villacorteza was arrested by the sheriff’s deputies the following day at James Elementary School.
This was just one of 123 arrests made as part of the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Operation Renewed Hope.
In a press conference on Thursday, Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister said that as part of the operation, deputies posed online as underage children and arranged to meet with suspects.
Chronister said the suspects all knowingly sought to engage in illicit acts with each of the undercover deputies.
Many of the suspects snared in the operation, including James Villacorteza, are facing the second-degree felony charge of using a computer to solicit illegal acts and traveling to meet a minor after soliciting an illegal act on a computer, which is punishable by up to 15 years in prison.
Other suspects apprehended in Operation Renewed Hope were charged with other crimes, including soliciting another to commit prostitution.
According to Sheriff Chronister, the wider goal of Renewed Hope was to combat human trafficking. Of those arrested, six were charged with human trafficking.
Among those facing human trafficking charges is 24-year-old Christopher Barba of Wesley Chapel. Barba was a basketball coach with the District Elite AAU league for boys in grades five through 12.
The Human Trafficking Section of the Hillsborough Sheriff’s Office has arrested more than 600 suspects since June 2021 and rescued nearly 30 victims, according to WFLA.
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