The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation announced Friday authorities arrested 32 people in a Knoxville human trafficking operation.
The TBI said in a release two of the men, including a children’s minister, arrested in “Operation Someone Like Me” responded to ads for what they thought were girls under the age of 18.
TBI identified Knoxville's Jason Kennedy, 46, as the children's minister arrested for patronizing prostitution and human trafficking. Kennedy was a minister at Grace Baptist Church in Karns. He was fired after the charges were revealed.
Senior Pastor Ron Stewart has worked at Grace Baptist for the last 28 years, and said he has never dealt with anything like this.
Stewart said Kennedy was not only a co-worker, but a friend.
"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 said. "I mean, they were a great family."
Pastor Stewart said no one has complained about his behavior at the church.
He said the church has cameras, security personnel and strict safety rules when dealing with children.
Stewart feels his members are safe, however, the days ahead will still be tough.
"There's some people that are going to be very angry, they are angry. I understand that. Forgiveness is something that's a process, you have to work through it," Stewart said. "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"
Stewart said Grace Baptist will hold prayer services Sunday at 8:45 a.m. and 10:30 a.m.
Grace Baptist Church released the following statement Friday to the media about Kennedy's arrest:
The children’s pastor of Grace Baptist Church has been terminated as as result of an arrest in a police sting related to prostitution and human trafficking.
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.
According to a TBI release, the only other person charged with trafficking was Zubin Parakh, 32, from Oak Ridge.
Parakh is connected to Lifehouse Church in Oak Ridge. A church spokesperson said Parakh serves as a volunteer as a "creative pastor."
Although Parakh is not officially a pastor at LIfehouse Church, he was working toward becoming one. The church said Parakh has never worked with children.
Records show Parakh responded to an online ad and agreed to pay $100 for sex with a 17-year-old.
The 30 other people arrested were charged with patronizing prostitution or prostitution.
TBI director Mark Gwyn said Friday the men arrested also include an engineer and a volunteer firefighter.
Mobile Users: Click here to view the release from TBI
During the three-day operation, undercover agents posted ads on Backpage.com.
“We wanted to make sure there is no safe place to hide for criminals who would victimize the most vulnerable among us,” Gwyn said.
Knoxville Police Chief David Rausch and Community Coalition Against Human Trafficking spokesperson Kate Trudell said human trafficking is a demand-driven crime at a news conference Friday.
“We consider these young ladies as victims,” Gwyn said. "We want to get them the help that they need so they can be a productive citizen here in Knoxville one day or wherever they may choose to live."
Rausch said people who would pay for sex are “sick people.”
TBI partnered with the Knoxville Police Department, Community Coalition Against Human Trafficking, End Slavery Tennessee and Second Life Chattanooga in the operation.
“We are grateful for our relationship that we have with the TBI, and other agencies in our area,” Rausch said.
Trudell said after care for human trafficking victims is “very important.”
Part of the operation also identified potential victims of trafficking.
Women were offered services provided by nonprofits that include housing, counseling and addiction treatment.
The TBI said three women took advantage of the services offered, and were placed in safe houses.
“In order to truly put an end to human trafficking in our community we must eradicate the demand,” Trudell said. “This crime is grossly protected by stereotypes that tell us it happens to certain people in certain places, and many of like to believe that those people and those places are not here in Knoxville, Tenn., but folks, unfortunately, they are. This is happening right here.”
“Operation Someone Like Me” is the fifth operation of its kind in the state between the TBI and partner agencies to help identify, investigate and prosecute human trafficking.
10News will update this story as more information becomes available.