Tampa teacher among more than 120 arrested in Hillsborough sex sting

Late one Tuesday night, James Villacorteza, a fifth grade science teacher at James Elementary School in Tampa, messaged who he thought to be a 15-year-old boy on a dating app, court records state.

Then, during a phone call, Villacorteza said he wanted to meet the boy and perform sex acts, according to an arrest affidavit. Villacorteza expressed concerns about the boy’s age and feared getting arrested, but just after 11 p.m. on Oct. 17, the teacher asked to meet at a Target in Riverview and said he was on his way there, the affidavit states.

Villacorteza, 28, was actually chatting with a Hillsborough deputy posing as a teen boy on Growlr, a dating app. Deputies arrested Villacorteza at James Elementary the next day.

Villacorteza’s arrest was part of a larger undercover operation by the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office that netted more than 120 arrests, Sheriff Chad Chronister said Thursday during a news conference at the office’s Ybor City headquarters.

As one part of the three-month operation called Renewed Hope, undercover deputies posed as underage girls and boys online and arranged to meet with suspects.

“These criminals knowingly sought to engage in sexual acts with each of them,” Chronister said.

A number of the suspects, including Villacorteza, face charges such as using a computer to travel to meet a minor after using a computer to solicit illegal acts, a second-degree felony that can bring 15 years in prison.

Other suspects were arrested on charges such as soliciting another to commit prostitution.

The broader goal of the operation was to fight human trafficking, Chronister said, noting that Thursday was National Human Trafficking Awareness Day.

Out of a total of 123 arrests, six people were charged with human trafficking, according to the sheriff’s office. The sheriff’s office identified them as: Christopher Barba, 24; Anthony Kyle, 27; Vinay Linginedi, 29; Yariez Lopez Padilla, 37; Edwin Preciado, 34; and Gumecindo Zuniga Sanchez, 38.

According to the sheriff’s office, Barba was at the time of his arrest on Dec. 14 a basketball coach for the District Elite AAU league in Wesley Chapel for boys in fifth to 12th grade.

Barba, who lives in Wesley Chapel, responded to an online adult escort ad, and an undercover detective posing as a human trafficker offered to arrange for Barba to have sex with two girls, ages 14 and 15, for $150, according to an arrest affidavit. Barba, who claimed he was 17 during the communication with the detective, was arrested when he showed up to the arranged meeting spot in Ybor City, the affidavit states.

Barba is facing several charges, including human trafficking for commercial sexual activity with a victim younger than 18, records show. He was being held Thursday without bail in the Hillsborough County Jail. He has pleaded not guilty and is scheduled to be arraigned on Friday.

“We intend to contest the case,” said Daniel Fernandez, Barba’s attorney. “We’re waiting for discovery and evidence to come through so we can evaluate the case and go from there.”

A representative for the District Elite league did not immediately respond on Thursday to an emailed request for comment.

When Villacorteza, the James Elementary teacher, showed up at the Target that October day, he waited five minutes and left when he realized the boy wasn’t going to show up, records state. He was arrested at school the next day and released from jail on Oct. 22 after posting $11,500 bail, records show.

Villacorteza was immediately suspended after his arrest and then resigned, according to a Hillsborough County school district spokesperson. The district hired him in August 2022.

Villacorteza’s attorney, William Ignatuck Jr., declined to comment Thursday.

Chronister, who is seeking re-election this fall, has targeted sex traffickers in recent years. A January 2019 operation netted two arrests on sex trafficking charges. Two more were arrested this past May.

Since the agency’s human trafficking unit was created in June 2021, 604 arrests have been made, 36 of those on human trafficking charges, according to the sheriff’s office. The unit is also credited with rescuing 28 victims of abuse.

Just a couple years ago, the sheriff said, there were few resources for victims of human trafficking. Now, organizations like Selah Freedom are helping connect those who do come forward with the help they need, Chronister said.

“We have some phenomenal partnerships in the Tampa Bay area,” he said. “For anyone out there that’s a victim of human trafficking, there is help available. It’s as simple as making a phone call.”

To report suspected cases of human trafficking, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888 or the Florida Abuse Hotline at 1-800-962-2873.

Times staff writer Tony Marrero contributed to this report.