KNOXVILLE — Two local ministers face felony charges for seeking sex with underage girls during an undercover sting targeting human trafficking and prostitution this week, authorities said Friday.
Jason Evan Kennedy, 46, head of the children’s ministry at Grace Baptist Church of Knoxville, was one of two men charged with felony human trafficking and patronizing prostitution after they answered online advertisements specifically offering sex with an underage girl, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation announced during a news conference.
Also charged with felony trafficking is Zubin Percy Parakh, 32, of Oak Ridge, who serves as creative pastor with Lifehouse Church in Oak Ridge, according to the church’s website.
In reality, the ads were placed by law enforcement as part of a four-day sting operation at a North Knoxville motel, deemed “Operation Someone Like Me,” conducted by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and the Knoxville Police Department.
Another 25 men who responded to the ads were cited for patronizing prostitution. They include a local engineer and a volunteer firefighter, whom authorities did not identify Friday.
“Human trafficking is a demand-driven crime,” said Kate Trudell, executive director of the Knoxville-based Community Coalition Against Human Trafficking.
“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.”
Knoxville Police Chief David Rausch added that the problem has evolved from traditional circumstances involving prostitutes motivated by drug addiction to become much more coercive, and often involuntary.
“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 scripts” to manipulate girls and young women, the police chief said, preying on victims of child sexual abuse and teenage runaways, as well as drug addicts, with offers such as modeling jobs.
“There’s a number of ways they get tied into it,” Rausch said.
Five women also were arrested on prostitution charges — three of whom accepted authorities’ offer to help them leave sex work. There were no underage girls recovered during the Knoxville operation, nor were any traffickers arrested.
Kennedy and Parakh were charged with felony trafficking because they specifically sought out an underage girl for sex, authorities said.
Kennedy was arrested Thursday during the sting operation at the Best Western Knoxville Suites, 5317 Pratt Road, in North Knoxville, authorities said.
He remained jailed Friday in lieu of $50,500 bond.
According to arrest warrants, Kennedy responded via text Thursday to an online ad posted on ********.com offering sex with two females, including one he was told “was 15, going on 16.”
After arriving at the motel, Kennedy “state 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.”
Kennedy, a married father of three, was responsible for ministry for the church’s children from birth through fifth grade, according to a cached page of the church’s website from Feb. 13, 2015.
The Southern Baptist Convention lists Grace Baptist Church, celebrating its 100th year this year, as having more than 4,000 members with an average attendance of almost 2,500 people. The affiliation of Baptist churches has resources online to help a church’s staff check the backgrounds of potential hires, but any background check will fall short if a person has no previous arrests.
“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,” according to a statement released by the church Friday afternoon.
“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.”
Parakh initially was cited for patronizing prostitution and released. Authorities have since secured a warrant for his arrest on a charge of felony trafficking, although he had not yet been taken into custody, according to TBI spokeswoman Susan Niland.
According to the Lifehouse Church website, Parakh is originally from Chattanooga and is a longtime friend of Lead Pastor Jeremy Songer. The website says Parakh is gifted in music, media and technology.
A call to Lifehouse Church on Friday went unanswered.
The human trafficking charge is normally a Class B felony, however, authorities said they will seek to enhance it to a Class A felony because the sting operation took place within 1,000 feet of a church. Authorities did not identify the nearby church.
A Class B felony normally is punishable by a prison sentence of eight to 30 years and a $25,000 fine; a Class A felony is normally punishable by a prison sentence of 15 to 60 years and a $50,000 fine.
The Knoxville anti-trafficking operation was the fifth sting of its kind across the state in a crackdown on human trafficking by TBI and its partnering agencies, deemed “Operation Someone Like Me.”
“This is not just a Knoxville problem — this is a statewide problem,” said TBI Director Mark Gwyn.
Previous stings were conducted in Brentwood, Clarksville, Jackson and Chattanooga, resulting in 98 arrests and citations since May 2015.
Ads posted by undercover agents on ********.com during the Knoxville sting garnered more than 300 contacts, according to the TBI.
In one of the ads, agents posed as a juvenile girl. That ad received more than two-dozen responses.
More details as they develop online and in Saturday’s News Sentinel.