By Christal Hayes
Orlando community activist Ahmad Saleem drove to a Clermont-area house intending to meet a 12-year-old girl he had been chatting with online for sex in a vehicle with a specialty "Invest in Children" license plate, authorities said Tuesday.
But when the door opened, there were no children in sight. Instead, detectives quickly brought Saleem to the ground and arrested him. Saleem, founder of the Saleem Academy, an organization dedicated to empowering Muslim youths globally, was one of the 101 people arrested in an undercover cybercrime prostitution and child-sex sting by the Lake and Polk county sheriff's offices.
Ahmad Saleem is the Orlando Regional Director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). He attended the University of Central Florida, where he was President of the Muslim Students Association. He later became the MSA National Service Director before founding the Saleem Academy. Here's his description on the Saleem Academy's site (deleted following his arrest on pedophilia charges).
Lake County Sheriff Gary Borders and Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd spelled out details of the two-week sting, which started on May 18, at a Tavares news conference surrounded by large boards filled with suspects' mug shots. Seventy-nine people were busted in the prostitution operation and 22 in the child-sex sting, officials said.
"Central Florida is now a safer place today because of the efforts of our deputies," Borders said.
He said the operation — dubbed "L & P" for "Lake" and "Polk" — used chat rooms and online forums to identify people seeking illicit sex. The first phase targeted people looking to have sex with minors from 10 to 14. Among those arrested was Saleem, 22, who faces felony charges for traveling to seduce or solicit a child to commit a sex act.
A Polk County sheriff's detective posed as a girl online and talked with Saleem, who said he wanted to have sex with the girl and then traveled to Lake County for an expected meeting, authorities said.
Saleem was also the Orlando regional coordinator for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a nonprofit organization dedicated to challenging stereotypes of Islam and Muslims and defending civil liberties. The organization said he only worked there for a short time before abandoning his post.
"This was a warning and a message that we are after these types of people with a vengeance," Judd 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."
In the second phase of the operation targeting prostitution, most suspects were arrested for attempting to engage in a sex act for cash. A few were busted for drug possession and one driver faces charges for taking a person to the house knowing prostitution was involved, authorities said.
In a similar sting last year, Lake deputies rescued a teenager who had had been kidnapped and forced to have sex by a suspect who then tried to use her as a prostitute.
None of the prostitutes fit that description this time, Borders said.
"Unfortunately, we didn't come across any individuals who were caught in human trafficking," he said. "Florida is No. 3 in the nation for it and we wanted to try to catch it. Of course, we came across other law breakers during the prostitution sting and were able to get them off the streets."