Note: This story was last updated at 2:30 p.m. May 23.
A three-day operation by special agents with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and detectives with the Knoxville Police Department to combat human trafficking in Knoxville has resulted in the arrest of 32 men and women on prostitution and human trafficking-related charges. Two of the men, including a children’s minister, responded to ads for what they thought were girls under the age of 18.
TBI identified Knoxville’s Jason Kennedy, 46, as the children’s minister arrested for patronizing prostitution and human trafficking. Kennedy was a minister at Grace Baptist Church in Karns, but he has now been terminated.
The TBI said there is a warrant out on a trafficking charge for Zubin Parakh, 32, of Oak Ridge. A spokesperson at Lifehouse Church in Oak Ridge said Parakh serves as a volunteer and “creative pastor” there, according to WBIR, a Knoxville television station. The church told the television station that Parakh has never worked with children.
Grace Baptist released a statement to the media after the Friday news of Kennedy’s arrest.
“The children’s pastor of Grace Baptist Church has been terminated as as result of an arrest in a police sting related to prostitution and human trafficking,” the church said. “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.”
Oak Ridge Today has not been able to reach LifeHouse Church for comment.
The TBI said the arrested men also include an engineer and a volunteer firefighter.
Kennedy has been charged and booked. Most of the others were charged on a citation, the TBI said.
The Knoxville anti-trafficking operation was called “Operation Someone Like Me.” It was the fifth operation of its kind in the state between the TBI and partner agencies to help identify, investigate, and prosecute trafficking, and rescue victims, a press release said.
Since “Operation Someone Like Me” began in May 2015, there have been 98 arrests/citations, the TBI said in the press release.
The investigation was conducted in Brentwood/Clarksville, Jackson, Chattanooga (twice, once in conjunction with Georgia Bureau of Investigation), and Knoxville.
As a result of “Operation Someone Like Me,” this week in Knoxville, 32 individuals were arrested/ cited, the TBI said.
Their charges include:
- two Class A felonies (one booked and a warrant out for another),
- two Class D felonies,
- one Class E felony,
- 30 Class A misdemeanors, and
- two Class B felonies.
Those charged during the Knoxville “Operation Someone Like Me” are listed on the TBI’s website. The charges were enhanced due to the location’s proximity to a church.
The TBI said the partnership on the operation included, besides the KPD, nonprofit agencies Community Coalition Against Human Trafficking, End Slavery Tennessee, and Second Life Chattanooga. TBI agents and intelligence analysts embarked on an undercover operation to identify potential victims of trafficking, arrest those seeking to purchase illicit sex from a juvenile, and learn more about the specific nuances of this type of crime.
“Finding these people who are trying to buy Tennessee children is a priority for us,” says TBI Director 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.”
During the three-day operation, undercover agents posted ads on Backpage.com. During that time, more than 300 contacts were made to those ads. In one ad, the agents posed as a juvenile girl. That ad received more than two dozen contacts.
“Human trafficking is a scourge on society,” says 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.”
“We’re changing the conversation about human trafficking,” says TBI Assistant Special Agent in Charge Margie Quin. “These operations are designed to identify and help victims of trafficking, as well as take these predators off the street.”
The undercover operation conducted this week also identified potential victims of trafficking, the press release said. The women were offered services provided by the nonprofits that include housing, counseling, and addiction treatment. Three women took advantage of those services and left the operation and were immediately placed in safe houses.
Last year, Governor Bill Haslam signed legislation into law giving TBI original jurisdiction over investigations of human trafficking. In addition, the state legislature approved funding for four special agents, who work exclusively to investigate human trafficking cases and train law enforcement statewide on recognizing and combating this type of crime. These four special agents, who have now completed their fifth operation across the state, have arrested or cited just under 100 individuals during that time.
Last year, as part of its commitment to address this issue, the TBI unveiled a public awareness campaign, entitled “IT Has To Stop,” which includes online resources, public service announcements, and contact information for nonprofits who work with survivors of human trafficking. Visit www.ITHasToStop.com for more information.
More information will be added as it becomes available.
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