They arrived for a week. Morning, noon and night. A total of 22 men, all seeking the same thing: sex with an underage girl.
One after another, they walked into a sparsely furnished house in Clermont, Florida, expecting to find a 10 or 12 or 14-year-old girl. Instead, they found justice.
Again and again, sheriff’s deputies burst into the living room and arrested the men for soliciting sex with a minor.
Operation L&P was named after the two counties, Lake and Polk, collaborating on the undercover sting operation and timed to occur just before children went on their summer vacation. From May 18 to 25, detectives from both departments posed as underage girls or their parents in internet chat rooms.
It’s a tried and tested technique for ensnaring sex offenders. In this case, however, the catch was particularly alarming. Not only because authorities caught enough suspects to field a football game, but because of whom they arrested. And where they had worked.
Among those apprehended during the week-long sting was a handful of men whose jobs involved children, including three current and former theme park employees and a youth counsellor.
Jeff Conrad, for example, told deputies that he had worked at Disney’s Magic Kingdom, half an hour away in Orlando, Florida. Disney told News13 in Florida that the man left Disney before the arrest.
“He travelled to have sex with a 14-year-old child,” Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd told reporters at a news conference. “He had access to kids because, as he said, he was a Disney employee working at Magic Kingdom.”
Two more suspects worked at Orlando theme parks, Sheriff Judd said: Ryan Mayer at SeaWorld and Tomas Adames at Universal Studios. (Both companies told local media after the arrests that the men were no longer employed by them.)
Some men allegedly brought sex toys. One allegedly brought a whip. Another allegedly arrived with an extra pair of underwear, intending to claim his child victim’s panties as a trophy, according to local newspaper the Daily Commercial.
“Their communications and desires were outrageous and deviant,” the sheriff said. “All 22 travelled to have sex and brought outrageous tools for deviant sex.”
One of the most disturbing cases was the arrest of Ahmad Saleem, a 22-year-old community activist and youth counsellor. He is the founder of Saleem Academy, an organisation dedicated to empowering young Muslims. He is also the former Orlando organiser for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). CAIR said Saleem worked for the organisation only for a short time and had left before his arrest, according to the Orlando Sentinel.
Saleem allegedly showed up to the sting thinking he was about to have sex with a 12-year-old. He arrived in a vehicle with a specialty licence plate reading: “Invest in Children.”
On Thursday morning, the Saleem Academy website hinted at its founder’s fraught legal future and inner demons.
“Closed,” read a solitary message on the site. “May God bless you, guide you, and illuminate the right path for you, and keep you firm on it. Keep me in your prayers.”
None of those arrested have filed pleas yet.
Authorities had little pity for Saleem or his fellow suspects.
“If you’re going to prey on children, the Florida sheriffs are going to come after you with a vengeance,” Mr Judd said. “You never know from which county we’ll be looking for you.”
Mr Judd has gained such a reputation for pursuing sex offenders in Polk that he approached authorities in neighbouring Lake County, where he hoped suspects would be less suspicious, according to the Daily Commercial.
“This was a warning and a message that we are after these types of people with a vengeance,” he said. “If we didn’t get you in this operation, you better be sure we will in the next one. We are after you. Leave our children alone.”
Operation L&P also went after prostitution in the two counties. Detectives pursued a similar strategy, posing as both prostitutes and men online. Authorities arrested 79 people for prostitution, including a woman who was four months pregnant, two high school girls, and a husband who drove his wife to the Clermont house so she could earn the couple some money by having sex. One man arrived at the house in an Uber ride he had hired in Cape Coral, two hours away.
“We arrested the [Uber] driver, too,” Mr Judd said.
Also swept up in the sting was Steven Fabrico, whom Mr Judd showed posing in a photo with one of his two luxury cars.
“He owns two Jaguars, and he gets food stamps,” he said. “I guess that’s so he can save his food money to engage in prostitution.”