Operation Underground Railroad’s Carefully Crafted Public Image Is Falling Apart | #tinder | #pof | #match | #sextrafficking


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Jim Caviezel appeared onscreen in Oklahoma on a Friday night, his digital visage bathed in the hot lights of Rhema Bible College’s amphitheater and the adulation of his audience, and proceeded to make a real mess. 

“You can do something now. You can end this,” he told the audience. “If we let our little ones continue to be slaughtered, boy, there’s gonna be a judgment on this world, and especially our country.” 

Caviezel, an actor known for playing Jesus Christ and for his passionate commitment to Christianity, was appearing at the Health & Freedom conference, a dizzying multi-day event devoted to election conspiracy theories and COVID denialism headlined by people like pro-Trump lawyer Lin Wood, who frequently and enthusiastically promotes conspiracy theories associated with QAnon. (The event was, in fact, ostensibly two conferences, one devoted to business and the other to health. They were indistinguishable.) Caviezel was there to promote his newest role, in which he plays Tim Ballard, the founder and most recognizable face of the famed anti-trafficking group Operation Underground Railroad, or OUR. The film, Sound of Freedom, has been in the works—and its release beset with mysterious delays—for several years. (You can, however, view a trailer here.)

Ballard couldn’t appear in person in Oklahoma, Caviezel explained. “He’s down there saving children as we speak. They’re pulling children out of the darkest recesses of hell,” he said. “All kinds of places, the adrenochroming of children.” 

“You said adrenochrome?” host Clay Clark, an Oklahoma personality who bills himself as a “growth consultant” and business guru, asked a moment later.  “We need to discuss that.” 

“Essentially, you have adrenaline in your body … and when you are scared, you produce adrenaline,” Caviezel explained. “If a child knows he’s going to die, his body will secrete this adrenaline. And they have a lot of terms that they use that he takes me through, but it’s the worst horror I’ve seen. It’s screaming alone. Even if I never, ever, ever saw it, it’s beyond. And these people that do it, there will be no mercy for them.” The audience applauded, solemnly.

Caviezel, whose agents and managers did not reply to several requests for comment, had just promoted one of the more extreme and lurid conspiracy theories out there, and one central to the cosmology of QAnon—the utterly false idea that a cabal of elites is torturing and killing children to obtain a fictionalized biological substance—and he’d done it in the same breath that he promoted OUR. (Adrenochrome is a real chemical compound, but the idea that it can only be harvested from terrified torture victims was purely the stuff of horror movies before Q came along. For QAnon believers, however, it has a much larger significance. The concept that evil elites are harvesting the substance from murdered children is a central facet of their belief system; they believe those elites take the substance to maintain their youthful appearances or life force.) 

All of this was awkward at best for OUR, which has spent the better part of a year insisting that it “does not condone conspiracy theories and is not affiliated with any conspiracy theory groups, like QAnon, in any way, shape, or form,” as it says on its website. Caviezel’s comments generated a minor tsunami of headlines linking him, the film, Ballard, and the organization to a poisonous conspiracy theory and a stunningly fringe conference, the highlight of which was Lin Wood, who claimed in November that associating him with QAnon is a “smear,” making the shape of a Q in the air for an adoring crowd. (Wood has more recently claimed to be confused about QAnon even is, writing on Telegram on June 2: “I have been repeatedly attacked for being a ‘Qanon conspiracy theorist. Why? I can do research to educate myself on Q. I can do research to educate myself on Anons. My question is: What is QAnon???”) 

In response to a request for comment from VICE World News, a spokesperson for OUR wrote, “Operation Underground Railroad does not condone child trafficking conspiracy theories, such as the harvesting of adrenochrome, nor is the organization affiliated with any conspiracy theory groups, including QAnon. OUR has clearly stated that the effort to knock out child exploitation and human trafficking is being harmed [by] a number of conspiracy theory groups who have chosen to latch onto child exploitation and human trafficking and used a variety of conspiracy theories as a vehicle to deceptively bolster their causes.” The spokesperson also said that Ballard “participated in the conference out of respect to, and at the invitation of, Jim Caviezel to help promote the upcoming movie Sound of Freedom in which Caviezel plays the lead role.” In response to a specific question about Caviezel’s use of the phrase “he takes me through,” a second spokesperson said that Ballard had never explained the process of adrenochrome harvesting to Caviezel.

Before the blowback and the cleanup came, though, Caviezel and Ballard had a movie to promote. 

“This is one of the best films I’ve ever done in my life,” Caviezel said. He drew a parallel between it and The Passion of the Christ, an independently-financed film that was, he suggested, successful despite unnamed forces in Hollywood working against it because of people just like those in the audience. “Whether it ever gets seen in this industry is up to your prayers.” 

A moment before that, Ballard had appeared from what looked very much like a recording booth in an undisclosed location where he was, according to Clark, “actually rescuing kids, tonight.”

“I’m here doing an operation overseas which I hope to be able to tell you about soon,” he said. “It’s involving the rescue of children as young as 12 years old … that’s the only reason I’m not there with you.” The movie in which an actor best known for playing Christ portrayed him was, he said, “an opportunity for the world to understand what’s happening.” It would, he suggested, do nothing less than “save the lives of children.” 

This was classic Ballard: Urgent, heroic, a little bombastic, and deeply self-serving. The narrative of a small organization fighting desperately to shine a light on the darkness of children being trafficked and sexually abused also served to paper over another, truer narrative. In this one, OUR is rife with internal divisions, losing key employees who are starting up rival anti-trafficking groups, and under a serious and widening criminal investigation, which VICE World News has confirmed now involves federal authorities and focuses not just on OUR, but on for-profit companies connected to it.

After years of success—tens of millions of dollars of donations, flattering stories in the national press, high-profile partnerships with celebrities across the political spectrum, and seats for its founder before Congress and at Donald Trump’s right hand—OUR has reached a new stage. Its carefully-crafted image is coming undone.

OUR remains under investigation by a county attorney in Utah, Troy Rawlings of Davis County, as it has been since last fall. “The investigation is still very active and fruitful,” Rawlings told VICE World News in early June.

The scope of that investigation appears to have widened beyond what VICE World News and FOX 13 have previously reported, which was that Rawlings’ office was looking into whether OUR has made misleading claims in fundraising appeals. VICE World News has confirmed that several people have been interviewed about their dealings with OUR not just by investigators from Rawlings’ office, but by the FBI. Investigators from the IRS and Homeland Security are also said to be involved, according to people familiar with the scope of the investigation. (A spokesperson for OUR declined to say whether Ballard or other OUR staffers had spoken to the FBI, IRS, or DHS, writing, “We can’t comment specifically on your speculative inquiry.” In response to detailed inquiries about the investigation, the same spokesperson wrote, “OUR has complied with all laws that regulate nonprofits and intends to cooperate fully with any official inquiry, if asked.” The FBI and DHS declined to comment, citing policies of not confirming or denying ongoing investigations; the IRS did not respond to a request for comment.)

According to a source with knowledge of the investigation, among the matters being looked into are whether OUR operators have engaged in sexual acts with human trafficking victims; whether operators have been intoxicated while on missions; whether OUR operations have created demand for trafficking victims; and whether OUR has committed human trafficking itself by enticing people who were not previously traffickers with large sums of money. 

A spokesperson for OUR denied all these claims, but they are consistent with what people who have worked with and for OUR have told VICE World News, and with our previous reporting on OUR’s overseas missions. A volunteer being trained for these missions, we reported, said he and other trainees were told of operators who had been “tempted” by trafficking victims during those training sessions. Sources who had taken part in missions described operators trawling bars and clubs flashing money in quests to find traffickers. People who took part in OUR missions and independent experts raised concerns that the operations could potentially create demand for trafficking. OUR said in a statement that “Our standard operating procedures for both operations and aftercare are clear: at no time are we to create demand for trafficking victims.”

Investigators are also said to be looking at whether charitable donations to OUR, a nonprofit, were funneled into for-profit businesses.

OUR sits at the center of a sprawling web of concerns, among them Children Need Families, an adoption group founded by Ballard’s wife Katherine. (The Ballards are two of the three “team members” listed for Children Need Families; Tim Ballard’s job title is listed as “board member.” There do not appear to be any other board members. A Children Need Families donation page leads to one managed and controlled by OUR. Two messages sent through CNF’s comment form were not responded to.) Several are for-profit businesses. One is Deacon, Inc., which OUR says “employs independent contractors to perform tactical and security operations.” As VICE World News has previously reported, Deacon has no website or phone number, and its officers, according to Nevada business records, are all executives at OUR. Another is Underground XFit LLC, a Crossfit gym, a for-profit subsidiary of OUR. Another is the Nazarene Fund, an organization founded by Glenn Beck which is, as VICE World News has previously reported, an LLC—not a nonprofit—that is a subsidiary of OUR, according to tax records. (A spokesperson for Mercury One, Beck’s charitable organization, which originally founded the Nazarene Fund, did not respond to a request for comment.) Ballard himself, meanwhile—who wrote a book called Slave Stealers and is listed as an executive producer of a planned TV show with the same name—is connected with a Utah-based business called Slave Stealers, LLC. 

American Crime Journal, which has extensively covered OUR, published a piece in April in which editor Damion Moore reported that investigators were particularly interested in a photo of a whiteboard drawn by Ballard that had been shared with them, which takes the form of a diagram laying out connections among these entities. It was the result of an August 2019 meeting at which, ACJ reported, “Ballard laid out a secret plan to monetize his child sex slave rescue nonprofit […] and proselytize prospective converts for the Mormon church” to close associates. 

VICE World News independently obtained a photo of this whiteboard. At the top of it is a box marked “Timothyballard.com—Slave Stealers,” which is delineated as “for-profit.” Vertical dotted lines connect this to a number of operations including OUR, the Nazarene Fund, and Children Need Families, all with “sizzle” written under them. Vertical arrows then connect these to a box marked “Timothyballard.com,” in which figures like “2.5 M” and “50-100k—speaker” are laid out. Arrows leading from the top and bottom boxes both point to a list of four items:

1. Slave Stealers 

2. Podcast

3. Sound of Freedom

4. OUR/TNF/CNF

Above this list, with an arrow pointing down toward it, is written, “Take sizzle of the Rescue, lead them to the Covenant.”

When asked about the relationship between the entities on the whiteboard and what the terms “sizzle” and “covenant” mean in this context, a spokesperson for OUR said, “No comment.” They also declined to offer specific comment on the statements to VICE World News by sources close to the investigation that investigators are looking into whether charitable donations to OUR were funneled into for-profit businesses.

Have you worked for or with Operation Underground Railroad? We would love to hear from you. Contact the reporters at anna.merlan@vice.com or tim.marchman@vice.com. For extra security, download the Signal app to a non-work device and text us there at 267-713-9832.

VICE World News has further confirmed that a letter written in August 2020 by people who say they are concerned former female employees and volunteers at OUR has been circulating in influential charitable and philanthropic circles in Utah. The letter was independently shared with us by several people in different spheres connected to OUR.  Among other things, it accuses Ballard and the organization’s leadership of misusing donor funds and misconduct toward women, including running operations in ways that increase demand for trafficking victims—a concern echoed by former OUR operators and experts interviewed by VICE World News.

(In a statement, an OUR spokesperson wrote, “OUR categorically denies the baseless allegations made in the anonymous letter shared with VICE. The OUR Board of Directors received the letter 12 months ago and after a thorough investigation, found zero evidence to corroborate the allegations contained in the letter.”)

On top of all this, OUR has been faced with a smaller, though still significant, legal issue as well: Court records show that OUR recently agreed to pay out $100,000, without admitting wrongdoing, in the case of a man swept up in a raid it funded, who was falsely tarred as a child abuser in its press materials. 

The man, Quentin Parker, was arrested in a 2019 sting conducted by the Washington State Patrol, which OUR says it partially funded and heavily publicized. Parker was arrested as part of Operation Net Nanny, a series of raids where WSP officers pretended to be underage victims on social media to entrap would-be child predators. Parker and his wife allege that the arrest and the ways it was publicized by OUR and Washington State Patrol had far-reaching consequences into their personal lives. Among other things, they alleged in their lawsuit that a doctor seeing them for fertility treatments suspended those treatments after seeing the press releases. 

(In a statement, OUR told VICE World News, “OUR donated to Washington’s Missing and Exploited Children Taskforce pursuant to a specific Washington law—just like any other person is entitled to do. As OUR noted in its offer to settle the lawsuit, OUR settled solely because of the enormous expense and inconvenience that continuing to defend against the plaintiffs’ misguided claims would have caused OUR to incur.”)

Net Nanny proved exceedingly controversial, and a stinging New York Times Magazine article pointed out that neither the WSP nor OUR could exactly back up their claims that they’d succeeded in taking dangerous predators off the street. Journalist Michael Winerip wrote that of the 271 Net Nanny cases he could identify and trace through court documents, “none involved physical contact with a real child.” A 2017 study of similar raids across the country found that 87% of the men arrested had no record of “prior, concurrent or subsequent” convictions. 

As the Spokane Spokesman-Review reported, Parker, a 32-year-old active duty soldier on a military base near Tacoma, stated in his lawsuit that he answered a message on a dating app believing he was going to engage in fetish roleplay with adult women. Instead, when he arrived to meet the women, he was arrested, interrogated, and charged was charged with two counts of second-degree attempted rape of a child, charges that court records show were dropped in March 2020. In a February 2019 press release from OUR, he was identified as one of the “dangerous sexual predators” that its funding helped “remove from the streets.”  

That press release remains online; OUR subsequently updated it on April 22, 2021 to note that Parker’s charges were dismissed. (Curiously, the updated press release also misspells his name.) But the organization admitted in court filings that it did not update the release until being served with Parker’s lawsuit, arguing it didn’t know the complaint against him had been dismissed. In the meantime, Parker said in his lawsuit, the accusations “tainted and destroyed” his life.

Soon after Ballard and Caveizel’s disastrous virtual appearance in Oklahoma, Meg Conley made an appearance of her own. It wasn’t easy for her: “They’re terrifying,” she said recently, with a sort of laugh. She meant OUR, an organization she previously championed, and which involved her in an incident that still haunts her today.   

Conley is a writer who runs a popular newsletter about her life as a mother, gender roles, and the unwaged labor of the home. For years, she had a story that was weighing on her, which she finally published in Slate in early May. It was about the time Operation Underground Railroad brought her on a sex trafficking raid in the Dominican Republic. The raid, she wrote, was conducted with a bizarre lack of professionalism, and she was unconvinced that children supposedly rescued in it had actually been trafficked before OUR came on the scene.

“I was told two of the children had been trafficked for the first time that day,” she wrote. “It didn’t seem to occur to anyone that OUR may have created a demand. After the sting, I asked people on the jump team where the 26 kids were taken. I was given only vague answers. Aftercare wasn’t really their focus, I was told, but they partnered with people who did it well.” (Conley’s concerns echo those of sources VICE World News interviewed for our previous story on OUR’s international operations.) 

After coming home, Conley told VICE World News, and struggling to understand what she’d just been part of, “I was very quiet for a while. I had to do some inner work to understand what preconceived notions had like made me vulnerable to the point where I made other people vulnerable.” In 2017, she’d carefully started sharing some concerns: that the organization was appropriating Harriet Tubman’s legacy with its name and that it didn’t seem to be “survivor-centered,” from her perspective. “But then I’d say, ‘I’m hesitant to say more than that because if one child is saved, I don’t know that the organization’s problematic nature is something I can comment on.’” Conley felt like a “privileged white woman” who didn’t have the right to speak out. Besides that, she said, “I was still trying to understand if they were actually helping anyone despite the harm they were causing.” 

In the past, when she touched on the topic of OUR, “I would get almost universally negative feedback,” she said. (The journalist Leah Carroll wrote a piece recently about the intense fandom for OUR and Ballard among well-off, often white, often suburban women who are concerned about sex trafficking, and the ways Ballard has been able to turn that fandom into donations and unwavering support.) 

The response this time has been noticeably different, Conley said. “I think it has shifted.” she said. “A lot of women that might have pushed against it, a year or two ago, are willing to hear it now.” 

In public, OUR and Ballard continue to operate in a universe where nothing unusual is taking place. Despite the investigation, which is strongly indicated to be about, among other things, financial mismanagement, OUR recently bought a building in Salt Lake City that sources told VICE World News was listed for $5.5 million—more than a quarter the revenue the organization brought in in 2019, the most recent year for which tax filings are available. “Your prayers are powerful because we landed a dream building” for our new Operation Underground Railroad – Headquarters,” current CEO Brad Damon wrote in an email. “It’s 24k square feet (finished) and another 12k square feet basement for fulfillment with loading docks and roll up doors on both ends! We put in an offer and secured the contract to own the entire building, which amazingly was a steal in this market!!! I’m so grateful we could put our resources to good use in this fashion!” 

Why an organization with 26 employees listed on its website would need 36,000 square feet of space at what appear to be significantly above-market rates is unclear. (“As with any growing organization,” an OUR spokesperson said in a statement, “needs have changed over time. With the growth of the organization, OUR determined that they needed more space and that purchasing a building was more financially prudent than continuing to lease property.”)

Ballard has other publicly-known ambitions. Last year, a press release announced that he was developing a scripted series based on his book Slave Stealers: True Accounts Of Slave Rescues Then & Now, which explicitly seeks to tie the work of OUR to that of Black abolitionists in the Civil War era. The first season is set to feature the work of a former enslaved person, Harriet Jacobs, but, per the press release, “future seasons will be set up as anthologies, telling the incredible stories of other slaves and slave stealers from as early as the beginning of time to now.” It’s not hard to see where OUR, in this vision, is supposed to fit in. Other people close to OUR believe that Ballard has political ambitions and may be setting himself up for a run for office. 

Ballard continues to try to protect OUR’s public image, sometimes single-handedly, and with bizarre results. The organization never publicly commented on Caviezel’s disastrous adrenochrome comments or the lawsuit settlement beyond its responses to VICE World News’s questions, but did, for some reason, decide to produce a “fact sheet” and promotional video about Operation Mundo Nuevo, the operation that Meg Conley went on. (This is despite the fact that OUR’s PR flacks told Slate in a statement that “Slate is rehashing old claims from nearly seven years ago during Operation Underground Railroad’s first year in operation. As any other successful organization does, we have evolved and are continuously working to professionally improve our standard operating methods and practices.”)

The video response features Ballard, alone, wearing a tan t-shirt and looking energetic, verging on manic. He asserts that the operation was “exceptionally effective.” He claims that a colonel in the Dominican Republic who oversees anti-trafficking work in the country had recently praised their missions and that OUR has “never once operated as a vigilante group.” 

“This is the truth of what happened in August 2014 in the Dominican Republic,” Ballard declares, his gaze unwavering, before the screen abruptly goes black.

Even as cracks begin to form in OUR’s public image, though, and even as people affiliated with the organization begin to depart, the OUR model is proving itself to be endlessly reproducible. A number of high-level OUR staffers and collaborators have quietly departed the organization in the past year, only to immediately form their own anti-sex trafficking groups. One of them is Paul Hutchinson, who recently formed a group called the Child Liberation Foundation. A similarly named organization, the Child Liberation Fund, was one of the entities listed on the whiteboard that authorities are said to be investigating. (It’s unclear if Hutchinson and Ballard still maintain a business relationship; Hutchinson did not respond to requests for comment from VICE World News, and multiple emails sent to people at the Child Liberation Foundation bounced back.)  

Another trio of longtime former OUR employees also quietly departed and have founded a new organization, Coaxion Global. They are Tevya Ware, the group’s former CFO; Jon Lines, the group’s former president of operations; and Carlos Rodriguez, a former member of the Washington State Patrol who worked with OUR on the controversial Net Nanny programs, and then briefly joined the organization in 2020. Their previous work with OUR is not mentioned on the group’s website, but an FAQ from Coaxion functions as an implicit criticism of OUR’s methods, stating clearly that it doesn’t conduct raids or operations, conduct undercover missions, or buy children out of supposed trafficking situations, all things OUR or former operators have claimed to have done in the past. “Coaxion does not conduct undercover operations or make any purchases of persons as a means to remove them from human trafficking or exploitation,” one part of the FAQ reads. “Coaxion feels strongly this is not an appropriate response and actually contributes to the problem.” 

(“OUR stands by its proven and successful model of rescuing children from sex trafficking and sexual exploitation,” a spokesperson said.)

Ware, OUR’s former CFO, declined to comment, telling VICE World News in an email, “Unfortunately, I am unable to comment on any story involving Operation Underground Railroad.” Instead, she attached a press release promoting her new rescue organization.

This story has been updated to clarify a statement made by Meg Conley.





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