A Disney resort lifeguard, three other Disney employees and a retired judge were among 108 people arrested in a six-day undercover human trafficking operation in Florida that uncovered four child predators.
On March 8, the Polk County Sheriff’s Office Vice Unit led “Operation March Sadness 2” in conjunction with other law enforcement agencies and anti-human trafficking agencies in the area.
Detectives identified prostitutes who posted online advertisements, individuals seeking out the prostitutes and adults who engaged in online sexually charged communications with those they believed were children, the sheriff’s office said.
Undercover detectives then communicated online with these suspects before meeting them in person and arresting them. Members of anti-trafficking organizations also participated in the operation, speaking with prostitutes and offering them services and counseling.
Among the individuals arrested, several “stood out,” according to the sheriff’s office. These included four men discovered to be preying on children online, including Xavier Jackson, a 27-year-old male who worked as a lifeguard at Walt Disney World’s Polynesian Resort.
Jackson reportedly sent inappropriate photos of himself and messages to an undercover detective who pretended to be a 14-year-old girl.
The other Disney employees charged with attempting to solicit a prostitute were identified as Wilkason Fidele, 24, who worked at the Cosmic Restaurant at Walt Disney World’s Tomorrowland for four years; Shubham Malave, 27, who is on a citizenship visa from India and worked as a software developer for Disney; and Ralph Leese, 45, who worked in IT for Disney.
Disney told CBS News that Leese, Fidele and Jackson have been placed on unpaid leave and said Malave is not an employee of the company at this time.
“The arrests of a human trafficker and four child predators alone makes this whole operation worthwhile,” Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd said in a statement.
“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. ... Where there is prostitution, there is exploitation, disease, dysfunction and broken families.”
Additional individuals highlighted by the sheriff’s office included a married father of eight who left his child at a soccer game to meet a prostitute, an adult woman who threatened violence against another woman if she didn’t prostitute herself and a 66-year-old former judge.
At a press conference, Judd called those arrested for preying on children “evil, deviant criminals, thugs,” adding: “They’re dangerous people.”
Judd also stressed his office will continue to seek out and arrest those who violate the law.
“What amazes me is we could do another operation starting next week and fill this board up again,” he said. “And be sure of one thing: These chiefs and I will do just that. We’ll be back and if you violate the law, we’re going to take you to jail. That’s a guarantee.”
According to the International Labour Organization, human trafficking is a $150 billion industry worldwide. The 2021 Trafficking in Persons report notes that the COVID-19 pandemic heightened the issue, as “human traffickers quickly adapted to capitalize on the vulnerabilities exposed and exacerbated by the pandemic.”
“Today, due to COVID-19 restrictions, young people are spending more time online, and evidence suggests a huge spike in predators’ access to children on the internet and the rise of online grooming and sexual exploitation while children are isolated and ‘virtually’ connected to the world,” U.S. Congressman Chris Smith said in the report.
In January, five missing and endangered teenage girls were found, and 30 individuals were arrested as part of a recent lengthy U.S. Marshals endeavor in the New Orleans, Louisiana, area known as “Operation Boo Dat.”
In October, a Florida pastor and a teacher were among 125 people arrested in a 20-day human trafficking sting that resulted in the rescue of four women and a 17-year-old.
In March 2021, authorities in Texas arrested at least 30 people intending to buy sex and rescued a child over three days as part of an undercover human trafficking investigation called “Operation Cupid.”
Ashleigh S. Chapman, a human rights lawyer and the founder of Engage Together, an organization that helps individuals and churches combat human trafficking, stressed the critical role churches play in fighting sex trafficking.
“Ask your local law enforcement, social service agencies, nonprofits, and direct service providers what they need in your local community,” she told The Christian Post.
“The possibilities are endless. Just know that your church is perfectly and uniquely positioned to engage in ways that will make a difference. It does not take a huge budget or new ministry to make an impact; starting with what you have and where you already are working is the best place to begin.”