An undercover investigation led to the arrest of more than 100 people Wednesday, including several Disney theme park employees and a retired judge, all charged with crimes related to human trafficking, prostitution, and child predation.
The sting operation, named “Operation March Sadness 2,” was spearheaded by the Polk County Sheriff’s Office in Florida. Spanning six days, the operation was inspired by this month’s NCAA March Madness tournament, in which fans complete brackets predicting the championship.
“We have our own bracket,” Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd said Wednesday. “But instead of brackets of winners, we have brackets of losers.”
Undercover detectives communicated online with the suspects and arranged for a meetup at a location where they were arrested after their arrival.
In a press conference Wednesday, Judd spoke about several suspects who came as a “surprise” to the team behind the “bracket.” Most notably, Judd said, was 66-year-old Daniel Peters, a retired judge from Cook County, Ill., who was arrested for allegedly seeking an escort. After his arrest, Peters told authorities that he had also served as the director of professional regulations for the Cook County Sheriff’s Office.
Others included Xavier Jackson, a 27-year-old lifeguard at Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort, was charged with three counts of harmful material and one count of unlawful communication for allegedly sending explicit photos to a detective whom he believed was a 14-year-old girl.
Wilakson Fidele, who works at Cosmic Ray’s Starlight Café in Tomorrowland, and Ralph Leese, who works in information technology, were also arrested for allegedly seeking prostitutes.
Walt Disney World says the three Disney theme park employees have been placed on unpaid leave.
“The arrests of a human trafficker and four child predators alone makes this whole operation worthwhile,” Judd said in a press release. “The online prostitution industry enables traffickers and victimizes those who are being trafficked. Our goal is to identify victims, offer them help, and find and arrest those who are profiting from the exploitation of human beings. Johns fuel the trafficking and victimization. Where there is prostitution, there is exploitation, disease, dysfunction, and broken families.”
Tiffany Nash, a KFC manager with 61 prior criminal charges was allegedly caught bringing a trafficking victim to what she believed was a sexual encounter.
Among the bracket is also Timothy Finley, a 39-year-old handyman, who is charged with traveling to meet a young child, resisting arrest, attempted lewd battery, and transmission of explicit material. Shannon Johnson, a 41-year-old, is charged with traveling to meet a 13-year-old girl, attempted lewd battery, and transmission of explicit material. Jody Rose, 36, is facing 11 felony charges for allegedly sending sexually explicit material to who he believed was a 14-year-old girl, saying, “Don’t tell the cops.”
Auburndale Police Chief Andy Ray addressed reporters after Judd to thank all parties involved in the successful operation.
“Everybody is involved in this because it’s important and because the victims of human trafficking and the sex business deserve our help and need our help,” Ray said. “We’re happy to be a part of taking people off the street that are dangerous to your kids and the community.”