104 arrested in Polk prostitution sting dubbed 'Operation March Sadness'

Operation March Sadness

POLK COUNTY, Fla. -- More than 100 people have been arrested as part of "Operation March Sadness," a six-day undercover investigation into prostitution.

"It was a successful operation. It was 104 to zero," Sheriff Grady Judd said, referencing a cardboard scoreboard next to him, which highlight crime statistics from the bust. A total of 104 people were arrested.

Polk County Sheriff's Office undercover detectives, working with the state attorney's office and a representative of Porchlight Ministries conducted the operation to combat human trafficking in the county.

"These folks learned a new lesson on the basketball court of life," Judd said.

Tuesday's press conference was filled with Judd's signature colloquialisms and basketball references.

"What you're seeing here is not a star basketball team," Judd explained. "These are a lot of losers."

The operation began on social media websites and Backpage.com, which has recently undergone major changes to reduce advertisements for prostitution.

But Sheriff Judd said that though it was more difficult to set up advertisements, it was not impossible. PCSO detectives set up the ads awaiting "johns' and prostitutes to respond and travel to a hotel room where they conducted the sting.

10News tried to get in touch with Backpage.com to see if they're working to clean up the site even more but did not hear back.

PHOTOS: 104 arrested during "Operation March Sadness"

There were several key arrests whom Judd profiled as "poster children" for the operation:

A U.S. Air Force Captain stationed at Cape Canaveral was called a "slam dunk" by Judd after he was arrested following graphic online conversations with a detective who posed as a 14.year-old.

According to Sheriff Judd, Captain Dirk Watson,32, had told his family that he would not travel for a family vacation to Disney World. Instead, he was chatting with the detective and agreed to meet the individual whom he thought was a minor.

Judd said that Watson showed up to engage in sexual acts with the minor and was in possession of devices to use during intercourse.

Watson faces four felony charges for use of a computer to seduce a child, use of two-way communication device to commit felony, traveling to meet a minor and lewd molestation. He could have additional charges following the investigation.

"Our goal is to make sure these child predators don't have access to our children," Sheriff Judd said of Watson.

A female, Lonnette Little, who was arrested for prostitution allegedly left her 7-year-old son alone so she could conduct her business.

Another man, Nicholas Collins, who was on vacation allegedly left his girlfriend and four children behind at the hotel to get money from the ATM for the next day. Instead, PCSO said he was getting money to pay for his meet-up with a prostitute.

One man bragged to deputies about being arrested 8 months prior to his latest arrest. Sheriff Judd said that John Thompson was in the final weekend of a work release sentence when he was caught by detectives.

"If you think they're all smart, this guy didn't have enough sense to fill a basketball," Judd said.

The arrested individuals came from different walks of life, from men and women with criminal records to college students, to current and former members of the military and even an architect.

Some of the prostitutes had traveled from out-of-state to conduct their business in Polk. Judd said that Sierra Taylor-Edwards, 20, had nine prior arrests for prostitution from cities around the country.

One man was busted while wearing a T-shirt that had a voting checklist of "Clinton/Trump/Strippers" with the "Strippers" option checked off.

Sheriff Judd jokingly said that Ernesto Medina was trying to 'make a political statement" and followed it with a suggestion that the shirt should have "Polk County Jail" added to the list of possible choices.

The undercover operation fielded more than 1,000 responses to their advertisements but Judd said only 1-in-10 of these responders showed up and were arrested.

"If you come to Polk County and violate the law, we are coming to put you in jail," Judd said.

You can watch the entire press conference below.

Operation March Sadness By The Numbers:

-- 38 arrests were prostitutes.

-- 51 arrests were "johns," or those who solicited to pay for prostitution.

-- 14 others were arrested for related charges, such as deriving proceeds from prostitution.

-- 1 was arrested for traveling to meet a minor.

-- 23 told detectives they were married.

-- Detectives seized 2 firearms, and drugs including marijuana, Oxycodone, heroin, and cocaine.

-- Many of the prostitutes traveled to Florida, and told detectives they travel across the country, having sex for money.

-- The suspects ranged in age from 20 - 63 years old.

-- In all, detectives filed 37 felony charges and 128 misdemeanor charges against the 104 suspects.

-- Among the 104 suspects, there were a total of 191 previous felonies and 288 previous misdemeanor charges in their criminal histories.

© 2017 WTSP-TV


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