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Grace Baptist pastor of children's ministry fired after arrest in sex trafficking sting

Published: May. 20, 2016 at 11:21 AM EDT
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After a three-day investigation, nearly two dozen men were arrested on charges related to human trafficking, including Jason Evan Kennedy, a pastor of children's ministry at Grace Baptist in Karns.

Grace Baptist responds

Those with the church say Kennedy lost his job as a result of the arrest.

Church leaders released a statement that read:

"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."

Church leaders said Kennedy was hired two-and-a-half years ago. Church administrators got a background check on Kennedy and it turned up with no issues at the time. It did not indicate any previous problems. Church leaders believed Kennedy was a good fit because he listed a children's pastor as a reference on his application. That pastor affirmed Kennedy had no issues in his background.

"We are praying for his family and will continue to provide the services of our ministry to them," read the final statement in the church's release.

The church will be closed until Monday.

Details of Kennedy's arrest

According to a police report, Kennedy responded to a Backpage.com ad via text message. The report says Kennedy was made aware that there would be two girls present, one was 15 years old. He negotiated $100 for a half hour of sex with both girls.

He was told to go to a gas station on Merchants Road for further instructions. Then he received instructions to go to a hotel room where the girls were.

The report says he stated he wanted to have sex with both girls he thought were inside. He put the agreed upon $100 on the counter. He removed his pants and then law enforcement took him into custody.

"Our work is not finished. We want to make sure there is no safe place to hide for criminals who would victimize the most vulnerable among us. We want anyone answering an ad for sex to think that a TBI agent and a Knoxville Police officer may be on the other end of that line," said TBI Director Mark Gwyn.

Kennedy is charged with human trafficking and patronizing prostitution.

Another pastor charged

TBI Director Mark Gwyn says another man, Zubin Parakh, responded to ads specifically indicating he was looking for underage girls to have sex with. Parakh was listed as a "Creative Pastor" for Lifehouse Church in Oak Ridge.

"Law enforcement across the state are watching and we are working together to stop anyone from trying to buy or sell a child for sex," said Gwyn.

32 people arrested or cited, 23 men charged with trying to buy sex

Agents with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and officers with the Knoxville Police Department worked together to arrest or cite 32 people on charges related to human trafficking. Twenty-three of those arrests were of men trying to buy sex from a prostitute.

"These are men from our community. They include an engineer, a volunteer firefighter, a landscaper, a student. These are people we work with and live with," said Gwyn.

Five women were arrested for working as prostitutes. Of those five, three accepted service from a non-profit to get out of prostitution.

"This crime is grossly protected by stereotypes that tell us it happens to certain people and certain places. Many of us like to believe that those people and those places are not here in Knoxville, Tennessee," said Kate Trudell with the Community Coalition against Human Trafficking. "This is happening right here. It's happening behind the curtain and behind closed doors. The demand comes from every single sector in our community."

Details of the investigation

During the investigation, undercover agents posted ads on Backpage.com, including an ad posing as an underage girl. Three-hundred people made contact in relation to those ads. More than two dozen people made contact in relation to the ad of the agents posed as an underage girl.

"What so many people in our community don't quite understand is that human trafficking is a demand driven crime. And that demand comes from every single part of our society, including those parts that we'd all like to believe are not part of the problem," said Trudell.

Arrest list

Michael Clayton, 43, Clinton, TN - Patronizing Prostitution

Larry Quarles, 52, New Market, TN - Patronizing Prostitution

Gerrado Merchant, 36, Jacksboro, TN - Patronizing Prostitution

James Perkins, 50, Sweetwater, TN - Patronizing Prostitution

Greg Hensley, 44, Mascot, TN - Patronizing Prostitution

Jaton Johnson, 38, Knoxville, TN - Patronizing Prostitution, Simple Possession

Samuel Rivers, 27, East Point, GA - Patronizing Prostitution, Unlawful Possession of a Weapon, Simple Possession

Prashante Bhakta, 35, Columbus, NC - Patronizing Prostitution

James Warren, 32, Newport, TN - Patronizing Prostitution

Gary Bauer, 56, Heiskell, TN - Patronizing Prostitution

Nicholas Rains, 24, Maryville, TN - Patronizing Prostitution

Ignacio Jimenez, 38, Maryville, TN - Patronizing Prostitution

Patrick Douthat, 27, Knoxville, TN - Patronizing Prostitution

Brandon Slatton, 22, Knoxville, TN - Patronizing Prostitution

Jeffrey Sweeney, 63, Knoxivlle, TN - Patronizing Prostitution

Robert Aiken, 48, Jacksboro, TN - Patronizing Prostitution

Atari McNabb, 28, Knoxville, TN - Patronizing Prostitution

Zubin Parakh, 32, Oak Ridge, TN - Patronizing Prostitution, Trafficking

Jonathan McCarthy, 30, Augusta, GA - Patronizing Prostitution

Jose Juarez, 38, Knoxville, TN - Patronizing Prostitution

Robert Lambert, 40, Knoxville, TN - Patronizing Prostitution

Cornelius Turner, 25, Memphis, TN - Promoting Prostitution

Jerry Rhode, 63, Kodak, TN - Patronizing Prostitution

Zachary Desha, 24, Knoxville, TN - Promoting Prostitution

Jason Kennedy, 46, Knoxville, TN - Patronizing Prostitution, Trafficking

Kelsey Martin, 23, Boaz, KY - Prostitution

Alexis Phelps, 21, Knoxville, TN - Prostitution

Shirley Henry, 23, Clinton, TN - Prostitution

Stephanie Thomas, 26, Knoxville, TN - Prostitution

Crystal Myers, 37, Knoxville, TN - Prostitution