KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – More than 30 men and women, including a children’s minister, were arrested on prostitution and human trafficking-related charges in Knoxville.
The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation made the arrests during a three-day operation called Operation Someone Like Me.
It was the fifth operation of its kind in the state between the TBI and other law enforcement agencies to help identify, investigate, and prosecute trafficking suspects as well as rescue victims.
Undercover agents posted ads on Backpage.com. Authorities say those ads received over 300 responses within three days.
In one ad, authorities posed as a juvenile girl. That ad received more than 24 responses, according to the TBI.
Two of the men arrested, including the children’s minister, responded to ads for what they thought were girls under the age of 18.
WATE identifies the minister as Jason Kennedy for Grace Baptist Church in Knoxville. The church’s website says Kennedy, 46, is a pastor for children from birth through fifth grade.
Court records say he allegedly responded to an ad on May 19 via a text message and was made aware another girl would be present who was underage. A $100 fee for a half hour of sex with both females was reportedly negotiated, according to court records, and Kennedy arranged to meet them at a Best Western.
The children’s minister is further accused of finding out the underage girl was only 15 upon arriving and saying he wanted to have sex with both. WATE reports court documents say he placed $100 on the counter and removed his pants before law enforcement took him into custody.
Kennedy faces charges of patronizing prostitution and trafficking. He was fired from his position as a minister following his arrest.
The others charged during “Operation Someone Like Me” are below. The TBI says charges were enhanced due to the location’s proximity to a church.
- 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, Knoxville, 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, (warrant for) 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
- 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
“Finding these people who are trying to buy Tennessee children is a priority for us,” says TBI Director Mark Gwyn. “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.”
Authorities said they also identified potential victims of trafficking during Operation Someone Like Me.
The women were offered services provided by nonprofits that include housing, counseling and addiction treatment.
Three women took advantage of those services, left the operation, and were immediately placed in safe houses
“We’re changing the conversation about human trafficking,” says TBI Assistant Special Agent in Charge Margie Quin. “These operations are designed to identify and help victims of trafficking, as well as take these predators off the street.”
Last year, Governor Bill Haslam signed legislation into law giving TBI original jurisdiction over investigations of human trafficking.
Additionally, the state legislature approved funding for four TBI agents who work exclusively to investigate human trafficking cases and train law enforcement statewide on recognizing and combating this type of crime.
Those four agents have arrested or cited just under 100 people in the five operations they’ve completed.
Last year, as part of its commitment to address this issue, the TBI unveiled a public awareness campaign entitled “IT Has To Stop,” which includes online resources, public service announcements, and contact information for nonprofits who work with survivors of human trafficking.
Visit www.ITHasToStop.com for more information.