Tampa Bay Times

Pastor among 79 people arrested in sex sting

- BY TONY MARRERO Times Staff Writer Contact Tony Marrero at tmarrero@tampabay.com or 813-226-3374. Follow @ tmarreroti­mes.

TAMPA — A pastor and a high school girls basketball coach were among the 79 arrested in a weeklong sex crime sting conducted by the Hillsborou­gh County Sheriff ’s Office.

Two of the men arrested face human traffickin­g charges as a result of what the agency dubbed “Operation Takedown,” said Sheriff Chad Chronister at a news conference Thursday. The sting was launched in the days leading up to last weekend’s WrestleMan­ia 37, which was held at Tampa’s Raymond James Stadium.

“As we’ve seen many times before, our great community can become somewhat tainted by those who choose to use these large events to take advantage of another through human traffickin­g,” Chronister said.

As part of the operation, he said detectives created online profiles and chatted with men. Detectives also created online ads offering to engage in sex acts for money, the sheriff said, and female detectives posed as prostitute­s.

The Sheriff’s Office said that among those arrested were 39-year-old Earnest Benjamin, a pastor at Breath of Life Worship Church in Tampa. He is accused of offering to pay an undercover detective $25 to engage in a sex act after he dropped off his children at day care, Chronister said. Benjamin made the deal while his two children were still in the car, the sheriff said.

Christophe­r Ray, a 39-year-old assistant girls basketball coach at Land O’ Lakes High School, was arrested after answering an ad on an escort site, according to the Sheriff ’s Office.

Both men were arrested on misdemeano­r charges of soliciting another to commit prostituti­on. Benjamin also faces two misdemeano­r counts of contributi­ng to the delinquenc­y of a minor because his children were with him, according to the arrest report.

Ray has been an instructio­nal assistant at Land O’ Lakes High School since he was hired by the district in 2019, according to a Pasco County School District spokesman. Ray was suspended from his job after his arrest.

Breath of Life Worship Church did not return calls seeking comment.

The operation also netted two arrests on human traffickin­g charges.

Jamel Jermaine Muldrew, 32, of Houston was arrested after detectives said he responded to an escort advertisem­ent to engage in sex acts with a 17-year-old girl. He was taken into custody on Friday when a surveillan­ce team spotted him driving a rental car into a Citrus Park hotel parking lot and saw the 17-year-old step out, according to the arrest affidavit.

The teen was connected with Selah Freedom, an organizati­on that provides support for human traffickin­g survivors. She was one of three female victims rescued “from the perils of human traffickin­g,” Chronister said.

Jason Brooks, 44, of Tampa was also arrested on a human traffickin­g charge after he responded to a decoy prostituti­on advertisem­ent to pay to engage in sex acts with a 17-year-old girl, deputies said.

Rusty Harden, a 41-yearold registered sex offender, was arrested after exchanging text messages with, and then arranging to meet, someone he thought was a 14-year-old girl, according to the Sheriff ’s Office. Harden faces charges of transmitti­ng harmful material to a minor and traveling to meet a minor after using a computer to solicit illegal acts, among other crimes. He was being held Thursday without bail in the Hillsborou­gh County jail.

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