KNOXVILLE (WATE) – After a 3-day investigation, agents with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and detectives with the Knoxville Police Department arrested 32 men and women on prostitution and human trafficking-related charges. Two of the men arrested were charged with trafficking. Both were pastors.
TBI said Grace Baptist Church’s children’s pastor, Jason Kennedy, responded to ads for what he thought were girls under the age of 18. Grace Baptist’s website lists Kennedy as a pastor for birth through fifth grade. He will appear in court May 31.
“All of these people are somebody’s neighbor,” said TBI Director Mark Gwyn. During the three-day investigation, undercover agents posted ads on Backpage.com.
Court records say in Kennedy’s case, he allegedly responded to an ad on Backpage.com on May 19 via a text message. The records say he was made aware that a second female who was under 18 would be present and they negotiated a $100 fee for a half hour of sex with both females.
Kennedy was told to go to Pilot on Merchants Drive for instructions on where to meet the girls and was then told to go to Best Western on Pratt Road. The documents say he was then told the girl was only 15, but Kennedy allegedly said he wanted to have sex with both the underage girl and the other woman. After placing $100 on the counter and removing his pants, the documents say he was taken into custody by law enforcement.
Another man arrested, Zubin Parakh, served as a volunteer “creative pastor” at Lifehouse Church in Oak Ridge, according to their website. According to documents, Parakh agreed to have sex with an undercover agent whom he believed to be 17 years old. He agreed to pay $100 for 30 minutes.
Life House Church of Oak Ridge says in a statement that they are saddened by what happened:
We are saddened today as a result of information relating Zubin Parakh who was a volunteer worker at our church. Our church and its leaders were not aware of any alleged misconduct regarding Mr. Parakh. However, we are praying for all parties involved.We both ask for and hope our church family’s privacy will be respected throughout this process.
“Finding these people who are trying to buy Tennessee children is a priority for us,” said Gwyn. “We want anyone responding to those 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.”
Grace Baptist said in a statement Kennedy has been terminated:
“The children’s pastor of Grace Baptist Church has been terminated as a 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.”
The church said they will be available to provide care and information to their church members.
According to the Community Coalition Against Human Trafficking Kate Trudell, more than 90 minors are listed for human trafficking online in Tennessee each month. “Human trafficking is a demand driven crime,” said Trudell.
During the investigation, more than 300 contacts were made to ads placed on the website, according to TBI. They said one of their agents posed as a juvenile girl and the ad received more than two dozen contacts.
“Human trafficking is a scourge on society,” said Knoxville Police Chief David Rausch. “We will continue to commit all the necessary resources and work alongside our law enforcement partners to help protect our most precious resource our children.”