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Florida county busts 78 people in crackdown on online prostitution

Polk County Sheriff's office

An image of the 78 suspects netted in a crackdown on prostitution in Polk County, Fla., posted on the Polk County Sheriff's Facebook page.

Officers from Polk County, a largely rural area sandwiched between Tampa and Orlando, arrested 78 people on prostitution and related charges between Thursday and Sunday in an ambitious undercover vice crackdown on online solicitation.

"It’s sending a message," said Polk County public information officer Donna Wood. "We don’t want it in our county. We do not want prostitution or anything with illicit sexual activity in our county… We don’t want your drugs, your diseases, and all the other crimes that accompany it."

The operation was run by third-term Sheriff Grady Judd, who spearheaded an effort decades ago, when he was in the vice squad, to shut down hundreds of Polk county strip clubs, adult book shops, massage parlors, and video stores and other operations that tend to facilitate prostitution.

According to a profile published by the Tampa Bay Times, moral outrage once prompted Grady to even run a sting on a suspected child porn publisher in Colorado, and then send two officers more than 1,800 miles to arrest him.

This time, the third-term sheriff was targeting the newest gathering place for prostitutes and potential clients — Internet sites such as backpage.com and Craigslist. The operation targeted both the prostitutes who posted Internet ads offering their services in Polk, as well as would-be customers who responded to fake ads — with the presumably unintended effect of luring some of the suspects into Polk county from outside.

The sheriff's office announced the crackdown with much fanfare on Monday, offering up details of who-agreed-to-what-sex-act-for-what-price, as well as the jobs, marital status and other details about the perpetrators. He posted their pictures on Facebook.

The sheriff’s office reported that 18 of the 78 people booked into Polk County jail admitted they were married, including two suspects who were married to each other. It noted that more than 30 of the suspects had criminal histories — including nine registered felons. Fourteen were on public assistance and 22 said they were unemployed.

They said 50 of the suspects were working — citing jobs that included "microbiologist," "city employee," "food server" and "porn star." One is a Law Enforcement Academy trainee who was preparing to graduate this week, police said.

"Some will argue that this is a misdemeanor, and a victimless crime. That is absolutely not true," said Wood, adding that one of the suspects left her three small children with a virtual stranger when she set out to turn a trick with a client who turned out to be an undercover officer.

Another suspect, who is married, allegedly arranged with the undercover officer to pay extra for unprotected sex, she said.

"It’s a question of quality of life. The sheriff is adamant about maintaining that quality of life for our residents," Wood said. "One of the ways we do that is by fighting prostitution."

All the suspects were booked into the Polk County jail, though many have since posted bond and been released.

According to Wood, this is typical when the county runs vice operations, which it does regularly.

"They frequently are arrested and bond out and hopefully they never come back to our county," she said.

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