Thirty-two people were arrested in a Knoxville human trafficking operation on Friday, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation announced. Among the men arrested in “Operation Someone Like Me” was children’s minister Jason Kennedy, who responded to ads seeking sex with underage girls. Kennedy, 46, was a minister at Grace Baptist Church in Karns, and he has been slapped with felony charges for patronizing prostitution and human trafficking. The church fired him after the charges were revealed, WBIR reports.
Grace Baptist Church released the following statement following Kennedy’s arrest:
“The children’s pastor of Grace Baptist Church has been terminated as result of an arrest in a police sting related to prostitution and human trafficking.
“The actions of the children’s pastor for which he has been arrested were part of his life outside the church, and we have received no questions or concerns related to his conduct within the church or its ministries.
“The children’s pastor was hired two-and-a-half years ago. The church’s background check turned up no issues that indicate any previous problem. In fact, the children’s pastor in his application affirmed that he had no issues in his background of a criminal or other nature.
“We are praying for his family and will continue to provide the services of our ministry to them.”
Zubin Parakh, 32, was the only other person charged with trafficking. Parakh serves as a “creative pastor” volunteer at the Lifehouse Church in Oak Ridge. A church spokesperson said he never worked with children, and that although he wasn’t an official pastor, Parakh was working toward becoming one.
Check out the video report below about the bust:
A list of names of those charged can be viewed here, including a local engineer and a volunteer firefighter. Both were cited for patronizing prostitution, according to Knox News Sentinel. TBI director Mark Gwyn said that during the three-day operation, undercover agents posted ads on Backpage.com. In one of the ads, agents posed as a juvenile girl, and that ad received more than two dozen responses. The ads garnered more than 300 contacts.
“We wanted to make sure there is no safe place to hide for criminals who would victimize the most vulnerable among us,” Gwyn said. “We consider these young ladies as victims. We want to get them the help that they need so they can be a productive citizen here in Knoxville one day or wherever they may choose to live.”
Knoxville Police Chief David Rausch said people who pay for sex are “sick people,” and noted how traditional trafficking has evolved into something “deeper and uglier.”
“It’s not what used to be out there,” Rausch said. “Now what we know is it’s deeper and uglier than that. It’s people completely being taken advantage of.”
Traffickers use “a number of ways” to manipulate girls and young women, the police chief said. They typically prey on victims of child sexual abuse, drug addicts, and teenage runaways, with offers such as modeling jobs.
Did you know Super Bowl weekend has become known as the biggest weekend for U.S. human trafficking? Check out the clip above to learn more about it.
“Human trafficking is a demand-driven crime,” said Kate Trudell, executive director of the Knoxville-based Community Coalition Against Human Trafficking. “In order to truly put an end to human trafficking in our community we must eradicate the demand. This crime is grossly protected by stereotypes that tell us it happens to certain people in certain places and many of us like to believe that those people and those places are not here in Knoxville, Tenn. But folks, unfortunately they are.”
TBI partnered with local agencies such as the Knoxville Police Department, Community Coalition Against Human Trafficking, End Slavery Tennessee, and Second Life Chattanooga for “Operation Someone Like Me.” It is the fifth operation of its kind in the state, which aims to identify, investigate, and prosecute traffickers. This most recent sting identified victims of sex trafficking and offered them services such as housing, counseling, and addiction treatment.
Five women were also arrested on prostitution charges during “Operation Someone Like Me,” and three of them took advantage of the services offered. Authorities say there were no underage girls recovered during the operation, nor were any traffickers arrested. Kennedy and Parakh were charged with felony trafficking because they specifically sought sex with minors.
— TBI (@TBInvestigation) May 20, 2016
Kennedy remained jailed Friday in lieu of $50,500 bond. The married father of three was responsible for ministry for the children at Grace Baptist Church. According to authorities, after he arrived at the motel, Kennedy stated “that he wanted to have sex with both the underage juvenile and the other female in the room,” the warrants state. “The defendant placed the agreed amount of $100 on the counter. The defendant removed his pants and was taken into custody by law enforcement.”
Parakh was initially cited for patronizing prostitution and released, but the charge was later bumped up to felony trafficking, and a warrant was issued for his arrest. He has not yet been taken into custody, according to a TBI spokeswoman.
“Finding these people who are trying to buy Tennessee children is a priority for us,” said Mark Gwyn. “We want anyone responding to these ads to think there may be a TBI Agent on the other end of it. We will do whatever we can to make a difference in reducing the human trafficking that takes place in Tennessee.”
Human trafficking is normally a Class B felony; however, authorities are seeking to enhance the charges to a Class A felony because the sting operation took place within 1,000 feet of a church. A Class A felony is typically punishable by a prison sentence of 15 to 60 years and a $50,000 fine.
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