KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Two Knoxville-area ministers face felony charges for seeking sex with underage girls as part of an undercover sting operation targeting human trafficking and prostitution this week.
Jason Kennedy, 46, of Knoxville was charged Thursday with felony human trafficking and patronizing prostitution and trafficking after he and Zubin Parakh answered online advertisements specifically offering sex with an underage girl, said Mark Gwyn, director of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. Kennedy was a children's minister at Grace Baptist Church in the Knoxville suburb of Karns, Tenn., until his arrest; his name had been scrubbed as of Friday from the church's website, Twitter and Facebook feeds.
Also charged with felony trafficking is Parakh, 32, of Clinton, who served as creative pastor with LifeHouse Church in Oak Ridge, according to a cached version of the church's website. By Friday afternoon, references to Parakh also had been taken off his church's site.
Kennedy has been fired from his job at Grace Baptist, according to a statement the church released 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," church officials said. A background check, done before Kennedy was hired 2½ years ago, and the minister himself indicated no problems.
Kennedy was one of two charged with felony trafficking because he specifically sought out an underage girl, authorities said. The trafficking charge is normally a Class B felony, which could mean eight to 30 years in prison and a fine of up to $25,000; however, authorities said they will enhance it to a Class A felony, which could mean 15 to 60 years in prison and a fine of up to $50,000, because their sting operation took place within 1,000 feet of a church.
Another church is next door to the Best Western motel where Knoxville police officers conducted the three-day sting, the fifth operation of its kind in Tennessee to serve as a crackdown on human trafficking.
Kennedy remained in Knox County jail Friday in lieu of $50,500 bond.
He is accused of responding via text message to an online ad posted on backpage.com offering sex with two females including one that undercover agents said was "15, going on 16," according to arrest warrants. After arriving at the motel, Kennedy stated that "he wanted to have sex with both the underage juvenile and the other female in the room," placed $100 on the counter, removed his pants and was taken into custody.
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.
Parakh initially was one of 26 men cited for patronizing prostitutes and released, according to spokeswoman Susan Niland of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. But authorities since secured a warrant for his arrest on a felony trafficking charge although he had not yet been re-arrested Friday afternoon.
A call Friday to LifeHouse Church went unanswered.
“We wanted to make sure there is no safe place to hide for criminals who would victimize the most vulnerable among us,” Gwyn said.
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.
Parakh, a Chattanooga native, is a longtime friend of LifeHouse Church's lead pastor, who arrived at the Oak Ridge church in 2010, according to a cache of that church's website.
The agents who posted advertisements on backpage.com received more than 300 inquiries, including more than two dozen contacts for the ad involving an underage girl, officials said.
Five women were arrested on prostitution charges and three accepted authorities' offers of help to leave the business. No underage girls were discovered during the sting operation and no traffickers were arrested.
“We consider these young ladies as victims,” Gwyn said. The remaining 25 arrests were of men charged with patronizing prostitution; they were cited and released.
Also among the accused were an engineer and a volunteer firefighter, whom the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation did not identify.