A youth pastor sexually abused a 16-year-old child for almost a year and expressed indifference when learning the victim’s age, according to deputies in Hillsborough County, Florida.
“I don’t care,” 36-year-old defendant Moises Escoto said, according to a criminal report affidavit.
Deputies announced the suspect’s arrest on Friday. Authorities claim he met the victim through a chat and meet-up app called Sniffies. Authorities said that as part of the investigation, they discovered that another man, 38-year-old Joel Lutz, met a victim through the same platform and engaged in what they described as “sexual acts with a child in exchange for money.” Authorities identified this victim as being 16 years old. The sheriff’s office also identified Lutz as a registered foster parent.
At the time of his arrest on Feb. 9, Escoto was a youth pastor at Iglesia de Cristo Misionera Mahanaim Church in Tampa, Florida. Not anymore. Senior Pastor Raymond Arroyo told Law&Crime Escoto was fired “immediately.”
“On February 9, 2023, #teamHCSO’s Human Trafficking Section began investigating a case after a mother found disturbing content on her 16-year-old’s cell phone,” authorities wrote regarding Escoto’s case.
Authorities said they learned he and the victim had “multiple sexual encounters” between May 2021 and March 2022.
“The victim and the defendant also exchanged in several sexual explicit photographs/video of each other via social media,” deputies said.
He willingly exchanged “US currency and/or gift cards” in exchange for “the sexual acts and/or photographs,” investigators continued. The two communicated through Snapchat and the Sniffies platform, authorities claimed.
Investigators said they received the victim’s mother’s permission to search the phone and also pose as the teen online, communicating with Escoto. Authorities claimed to discover messages between the victim and former youth pastor, including:
- “send me the ass pic. Showing hole (go on [redacted] hanging)”
- “One time fuck? for $65?”
Escoto allegedly made a detailed request for sexual acts in another message. Authorities said the 16-year-old identified the defendant through a driver’s license.
“It is absolutely disgusting that these two men, who were placed in positions of mentorship and trust with children in our community, used online apps to seek out and victimize our youth,” said Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister on the investigation. “Unfortunately, we know that predators are constantly on the hunt to ruin the innocence of our community. I urge parents to know where and what their children are doing online at all times. We will not stop searching for these deviants wherever they may be, and we ask for parents and the community to help us protect our precious children.”
Charges against both Escoto and Lutz include human trafficking for commercial sexual activity and transmission of harmful material to minor. The former pastor also faces a count of resisting without violence because the sheriff’s office said he pulled away from detectives and tried to run into his residence during his arrest on Feb. 9.
“The detectives escorted him to the ground in order to affect the arrest,” authorities wrote.
Escoto remains at the Falkenburg Road Jail on a $138,500 bond as of Monday.
From the church:
As a Christian Ministry, we are devastated and heartsick t
o learn that one of our staff or members has been arrested for a serious crime. In such a situation, th at individual is immediately removed from any leadership role in our Ministry pending the outcome of the alleged criminal matter, and we will fully cooperate with law enforcement regarding the matter. Our Ministry does not cover-up criminal conduct, and we have zero tolerance for any criminal or inappropriate conduct within our ministry community. As a matter of policy, our Ministry would always report any suspicions of criminal or inappropriate conduct to the proper law enforcement authorities. We carefully interview and screen our employees and leaders, and our leadership team maintains strict policies of conduct based on best practices. We believe that transparency and accountability are essential fora successful ministry, and we are fully committed to ministering in a safe and responsible manner. With regard to the recent criminal matter related to our Ministry, we intend to cooperate fully in bringing any alleged criminals to justice. We will make no further public statements regarding this matter.
Authorities said they arrested Lutz on Wednesday at the Outback Steakhouse he worked at in Pinellas County. He pleaded not guilty on Friday, records show. He remains at the Orient Road Jail as of Monday on a $280,500 bond.
Deputies ask that anyone with information on this case to call the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office at 813-247-8200. You can call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888 if you suspect that someone is a victim of human trafficking.
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