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