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125 men arrested, 5 victims freed in Hillsborough County undercover human trafficking operation

Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister.png
Posted at 12:22 PM, Oct 18, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-18 16:12:55-04

HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, Fla. — On Monday, Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister announced details of a 20-day long, undercover human trafficking operation that saw 125 men arrested and four women freed.

According to Chronister, a former Hillsborough County teacher and pastor were among those arrested during "Operation Round-Up."

Chronister said authorities were also able to free four women and a 17-year-old girl from the "heinous grasp of human trafficking."

“Individuals who make a conscious choice and effort to take advantage of others through human trafficking have no room in Hillsborough County,” said Sheriff Chad Chronister. “Our approach and efforts year-round are proactive and relentless. Our strong team of detectives will continue to work tirelessly to takedown and put a stop to human trafficking."

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Chronister named a handful of the men arrested during the operation during Monday's press conference. They include Joel Velasco, 38, a former Hillsborough County Public Schools teacher and Samuel Phillips Jr., 44, a pastor at Be Limitless Church in Tampa.

“These men who were all held to a standard of trust and respect were all arrested for soliciting another to commit prostitution,” said Sheriff Chad Chronister.

Hillsborough County Public Schools said Velasco is a former teacher, hired in 2015, who was not on any of their campuses this school year. The district said his arrest took place before the new year started and he resigned. The district added that they are, "shocked and deeply troubled by the allegations."

The sheriff also named Philip Velikettel, 48, of Valrico, who Chronister said believed he was traveling to meet a 14-year-old girl and Muntasir Shafiq, 38, of Lutz, who Chronister said believed he was texting a 14-year-old boy.

Chronister said the messages sent by Shafiq were "too vile to fathom.”

During the operation, Chronister said undercover detectives targeted criminals who tried to prey on minors, sought sex for themselves or exploited victims through human trafficking.

The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office has created a Human Trafficking Squad that's made up of 12 people.

The sheriff's office said the victims who were freed during this investigation were referred to Selah Freedom, which then offered needed support and resources.

You can report suspected human trafficking by calling the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888.