Christopher Barba, Gregory Pfefferkorn, Adam Turner and James Villacorteza were among those arrested, authorities say
A sting operation that lasted 90 days in Florida has resulted in the arrests of 123 individuals, among them a church grief counselor, a science teacher, a nurse and a basketball coach, who are accused of various offenses related to human trafficking, according to authorities.
The arrests were made after the men allegedly communicated online to solicit sex with undercover agents posing to be minors, Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office said in a statement last week.
Many of those arrested were people who “held positions of trust and authority” in their communities, Sheriff Chad Chronister said at a press conference on Thursday.
Many of the suspects allegedly believed they were engaging with family members of the minors, offering their child to the alleged predators, he said, but in reality were speaking with undercover agents. Some believed they were speaking to underage boys and girls, he added.
The accused “knowingly sought to engage in sexual acts with each of them,” he said.
Among the suspects are Christopher Barba, a basketball coach, Gregory Pfefferkorn, a nurse at a mental health and substance abuse facility, and Adam Turner, a grief counselor at the Day Spring Episcopal Conference Center, the sheriff’s office confirmed with PEOPLE.
Barba allegedly showed up to meet an undercover agent who appeared to offer him two girls, a 14-year-old and a 15-year-old, for sexual activity for a charge of $150, the Tampa Bay Times reported, citing an arrest affidavit. Barba claimed he was a minor at the time of the communication, the outlet reported.
James Villacorteza, an elementary school teacher who Chronister said was “an individual trusted with shaping young minds” was also among those arrested.
Villacorteza allegedly communicated with someone he believed was a 15-year-old boy, the Tampa Bay Times reported, citing court records. When the two communicated over a phone call, Villacorteza allegedly expressed intent to engage sexually with the supposed minor while also expressing fears about getting arrested.
He would eventually arrange a meeting at a Target, according to an arrest affidavit cited by the outlet. He waited at the location for five minutes and left, according to authorities, the outlet reported. He was arrested at the school the following day.
Some of those accused traveled to engage in sex with a minor, Chronister said, noting that some of the men were carrying firearms on them.
“As if the sexual exploitation is not damaging enough,” he said. “Who knows what their true intentions were with the firearms they possessed?”
On Tuesday, the Day Spring Episcopal Conference Center, where Turner reportedly worked, declined to comment on the matter. Calls to Pfefferkorn and Barba’s workplaces went unanswered. Hillsborough County school district said Villacorteza was suspended immediately after his arrest, according to the Tampa Bay Times.
Online court records reviewed by PEOPLE show Villacorteza and Barba have been charged with traveling to meet a minor after using a computer among other charges. Barba has been additionally charged with human trafficking for commercial sexual activity.
Pfefferkorn and Turner have been charged with soliciting another person for prostitution, court records show.
They have pleaded not guilty, court records show. It is unclear if they have retained an attorney to speak on their behalf.
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