Sheriff’s Offices from five local counties have joined state and federal law enforcement and two nonprofit agencies in a partnership to help stop human trafficking and child sex exploitation.
The task force will take a regional approach in attacking child sexual exploitation and human trafficking, authorities said during a news conference Thursday.
Investigators from the Clay, Jacksonville, Nassau, Putnam and St. Johns County sheriff’s offices will work with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Florida and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement in the task force, called INTERCEPT. It will form a public-private partnership with The Tim Tebow Foundation and ”Operation Light Shine,” both of which work to stop trafficking and exploitation and will offer financial, technical and other resources.
This is a first for the Northeast Florida region and only the second of its kind in the nation sponsored by Operation Light Shine.
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Clay County Undersheriff Ron Lendvay said the work the task force will handle is “difficult, dangerous, detailed-oriented and very technical.”
“But it is absolutely vital to keep our young and vulnerable safe from exploitation,” he said. “All of the partners you see here are committed to work together in a task force environment to amplify our successes, erase jurisdictional boundaries and take a regional approach to protecting the vulnerable in Northeast Florida.”
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s Cyber Tipline received more than 29.3 million tips in 2021, almost all of them regarding incidents of suspected child sexual abuse material, law enforcement officials said. That was a 35% increase from 2020, when just under 22 million tips were received.
In 2022, Northeast Florida accounted for more than 2,300 combined child exploitation and human trafficking cases.
The task force’s job will be to identify, locate and recover victims, plus provide them with the services and assistance they need. A key component of the strategy unveiled Thursday is that local, state and federal law enforcement will collaborate with nongovernmental organizations and survivors, said Middle District U.S. Attorney Roger Handberg.
“The criminal organizations that traffic in persons, they exploit people and their vulnerabilities,” he said. “Human traffickers sometimes move their victims from one country to another. Sometimes they move them between cities. Sometimes they move them between states. Sometimes they don’t move them at all; they just exploit them at one place.”
Operation Light Shine was founded by Matthew Murphy, a former Green Beret whose sister Sarah was killed in late 2019 in Tennessee by a trafficker involved in selling drugs and women, he said. Seeking help to understand what had happened, he ultimately learned more about drug addiction and how many women fall victim to human traffickers because of it, he said. That led him to meet Homeland Security officials, who educated him on how to “move the needle” with a concept of having federal and state officials collaborate with local law enforcement.
Working with Tebow and law enforcement, “that dream became a reality,” Murphy said.
“We were able to get a task force in Nashville,” he said. “Homeland Security moved out of their office and brought their agents. Then a federal prosecutor moved out of her office and into the task force. Then everybody just got to work.”
Tebow said he wonders how many children will be be able to find hope and love someday because this task force “put the mission above the credit.”
“What does credit matter when lives are at stake, when so many lives are in their darkest hour of need?” Tebow said. “That’s why it’s an honor to be here and like I said, I don’t feel deserving, but I am grateful to be here. … What this group is fighting for is real MVPs, meaning the most vulnerable people who desperately, desperately need us, need you, need all of us to work together to put the mission above the credit.”
Lendvay asked Northeast Florida residents to report any information about human trafficking, child sexual abuse, or the trafficking in child sexual abuse material immediately to their local sheriff’s office or the Homeland Security Investigations Tip-line at (866) 347-2423. Anonymous tips can be reported to First Coast Crime Stoppers at (866) 845-TIPS or the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children tip line at (800) 843-5678 or online at report.cybertip.org.