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Pro golfer, swim coach arrested for soliciting child sex

By Barbara Liston

ORLANDO, Fla (Reuters) - A professional golfer was among 40 people arrested and charged in Florida with soliciting sex with children on the Internet during a week-long sting operation, authorities said on Wednesday.

Steve Thomas, 55, of Meridian, Mississippi, played 44 events on the Champions Tour, making one top 10 and two top 25 finishes, according to the Professional Golf Association (PGA) tour website.

Also arrested was Bryan Woodward, a 29-year-old coach for the private Gator Swim Club in Gainesville, Florida, who thought he was meeting a 14-year-old girl while her parents were away on a cruise, according to the arrest affidavit.

After his arrest, Woodward told detectives that his job entailed coaching about 200 swimmers, most of them under the age of 18.

Thomas responded to a fake advertisement on the Internet offering "2 for 1 girls on vacation" and a "fun family intimate experience," according to his arrest affidavit.

In email exchanges with an undercover officer posing as a mother, Thomas was told the girl was a 13-year-old virgin, and he was sent a fake photograph of a young girl. Thomas responded by sending a picture of himself on the golf course, the arrest report states.

Thomas was arrested when he arrived at the rendezvous with three condoms, chocolate pudding and honey, the arrest report said. Thomas confirmed in a recorded statement to detectives that he came to have sex with a mother and a 13-year-old girl, according to the report.

Charges against Thomas and most of the other men included traveling to seduce a child to commit a sex act, use of a computer to induce a guardian to facilitate sex with a child, and attempted lewd and lascivious battery.

Sheriff spokeswoman Twis Lizasuain said Thomas, who was arrested January 12, and Woodward, who was arrested January 9, have been released from jail. A call to Thomas' cell phone went to voicemail and was not immediately returned. According to the Golf Channel, Thomas last played a full PGA schedule in 2009.

Woodward's phone has been disconnected. An email to the Gator Swim Club was not immediately returned.

Others arrested in the sting included an eighth grade teacher from Port St. Lucie, Florida, a soldier in the U.S. Army reserves, an engineer, a personal trainer, several college students and men from New York, New Jersey, Georgia and Alaska.

(Editing by Greg McCune)

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