The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation has released the names of 32 men and women who were arrested in an undercover sting targeting a human trafficking and prostitution operation that preyed upon the residents of Knoxville.
Among those arrested in “Operation Someone Like Me”: A volunteer firefighter, an engineer — and two church pastors who responded to online ads for what they thought were for girls under the age of 18, according to the TBI.
One of the pastors netted in the three-day sting was the leader of the children’s ministry at Grace Baptist Church. That man, identified as 46-year-old Jason Kennedy, was charged last week with patronizing prostitution and trafficking and has since been fired by his church.
“We are held to a higher standard,” Grace Baptist’s senior pastor Ron Stewart told CBS affiliate WVLT, adding: “He did it, but it’s like a tsunami that can cover a whole island. His tsunami has come across our whole church.”
The other pastor arrested by the TBI was identified as 32-year-old Zubin Parakh, who is associated with Lifehouse Church in Oak Ridge, Tenn., according to NBC affiliate WBIR. A church spokesperson told the station that Parakh had never worked with children, but had volunteered as “creative pastor.” The spokesman noted that Parakh was in the process of become an official pastor.
Parakh was also charged with patronizing prostitution and trafficking.
During the three-day operation, undercover agents posted ads on Backpage.com, making contact with 300 people, according to the TBI. An ad in which agents posed as a juvenile girl received more than two dozen contacts, the agency said. The operation, the TBI said, was “designed to identify and help victims of trafficking, as well as take these predators off the street.”
“Finding these people who are trying to buy Tennessee children is a priority for us,” TBI Director Mark Gwyn said in a statement. “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.”
Said Knoxville Police Chief David Rausch: “Human trafficking is a scourge on society. 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.”
People who know Kennedy, the former children’s minister, were shocked to learn about his alleged behavior.
“Jason was a guy that talked so much about his wife and how much he loved her, and she talked about how she loved him and their three children,” Stewart, Grace Baptist’s senior pastor, told WBIR. “I mean, they were a great family.”
Stewart told the station that nobody from the church has stepped forward to report inappropriate activity involving Kennedy, who was hired 2 1/2 years ago and underwent a background check that, the church said, “turned up no issues.”
“The actions of the children’s pastor for which he has been arrested were part of his life outside the church,” a Grace Baptist statement read. “We have received no questions or concerns related to his conduct within the church or its ministries.”
Stewart told CBS affiliate WVLT that the church has 78 security cameras to ensure its members’ safety.
“There’s some people that are going to be very angry, they are angry; I understand that,” Stewart told WBIR. “Forgiveness is something that’s a process, you have to work through it. I feel pity for Jason, but I also understand that when you make decisions and choices, there are consequences. He made his choices and he will face his consequences.
“We are not sorry he got caught. We are sorry that he did what he did.”
On Sunday, Stewart addressed his congregation about Kennedy’s arrest and told his followers that he felt betrayed, WVLT reported.
The TBI announced that the undercover operation conducted this month “also identified potential victims of trafficking” — women who were offered services including housing, counseling and addiction treatment. “Three women took advantage of those services and left the operation and were immediately placed in safe houses,” the TBI said.
The TBI sting was part of an ongoing anti-trafficking effort in Tennessee that ramped up, the agency said, after “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.”
A similar series of stings in Florida’s Polk County — where undercover detectives lure suspected child predators to an undisclosed location using fictitious online ads — has become well-known for netting suspects who work at Disney World, Sea World and other theme parks.
“You would think that these child predators would learn the risk they are taking, but they don’t,” Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd told The Washington Post last month, after announcing the results of another undercover operation. “They’re so fixated on these children, they simply throw caution to the wind, and then we go round up another group of them. They can’t resist taking the chance, and I can’t resist arresting these freaks.”
Sting operations have migrated from chat rooms to apps and social media, places where young people socialize and predators can establish contact, Judd said. What they’re looking for, the Florida sheriff told The Post, is vulnerability.
“They used to have to hang out in parks and coach Little League or teach Sunday school in the past,” Judd said last month. “Now they can download an app and look for kids that are in need of attention — boys and girls. When a 60-year-old man wants to have sex with a 10-year-old child, those are the most dangerous of the dangerous.”
Judd recounted how a undercover officer — posing as a 14-year-old girl on spring break — posted a photo of a beach chair on a beach and said she had “nothing to do.” Within minutes, Judd said, eight different “freaks” had posted photos of their “body parts” on the app.
With dozens of men being arrested during each operation, and officials in Tennessee in elsewhere seeing similar results, an obvious question arises: Do the undercover investigations deter would-be predators?
Judd said the answer is yes. He told The Post that his operations are netting fewer predators now than they did five years ago. Back then, he estimated, authorities would arrest “40 or 50” suspected predators during a week-long investigation. His April sting netted 18.
“There’s just not that many people relative to the general population that are that disturbed and deviant,” he said. “I believe there is a bottom to this barrel. Having said that, they are so focused on finding children.”