Former senior officials at Operation Underground Railroad, perhaps the country’s best-known anti-sex trafficking nonprofit, had serious concerns about whether the organization had inflated its rescue numbers, stopped conducting such operations and misled donors in order to raise tens of millions of dollars .
Those concerns are laid out in 75 pages of interviews, emails and documents obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune through an open records request.
The records also shed light on how OUR founder Tim Ballard allegedly exploited the name of M. Russell Ballard, acting president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, to further his name to give weight to efforts.
In an investigative interview, a former OUR agent said he was informed by the head of a for-profit company that Tim Ballard founded to control revenue from movie deals, book sales and speaking fees that the senior apostle was a partner in the Slave firm Thieves.
The documents represent a small portion of a series of interviews collected as part of a criminal investigation into OUR conducted jointly by the Davis County Attorney’s Office and the FBI. In total, they collected more than two terabytes of information.
David Lopez, a former Navy SEAL who was involved in training operatives and directing OUR operations, told investigators he was offered a monthly salary of $25,000 to join Ballard’s Slave Stealers. Lopez said the organization’s leader told him that Ballard makes $900,000 a year from the organization.
Lopez also provided investigators with a text message from Slave Stealers boss Brian Norton that described President Ballard as Slave Stealers’ “major shareholder” and “silent partner.”
Church spokesman Doug Andersen told The Tribune on Monday that the apostle was not a major shareholder or silent partner and had “no relationship” with slave thieves.
Earlier this month, the Utah-based church issued a scathing rebuke of Tim Ballard, saying that President Ballard and fellow Latter-day Saint Tim Ballard became friends because of their shared desire to help children around the world pointed out that the 94-year-old church leader had cut ties with Tim Ballard “many months ago.”
“When it became clear that Tim Ballard had betrayed their friendship by unauthorized use of President Ballard’s name for Tim Ballard’s personal gain and…” [for] “The activities are considered morally unacceptable,” the church said in a statement. “President Ballard withdrew his association.”
The Tribune reached out to Operation Underground Railroad and Tim Ballard on Sunday but had no comment.
“We don’t save people here anymore”
The desire for a for-profit appendage of OUR is just one reason the group’s mission has evolved over time, according to investigative documents.
In its early days, OUR sent agents to various parts of the world to track down child traffickers and dismantle their businesses.
Within a few years, however, Lopez and another former OUR employee, Cherstyn Stockwell, who was the nonprofit’s director of development, said the mission had changed significantly.
What they saw was a fundraiser that raised tens of millions of dollars, gave it to law enforcement or other nonprofits, and then took credit for its work.
Our donors might have been surprised to learn this was the case. In a 2021 interview with investigators, Stockwell recounts how Matt Osborne, now president and chief operating officer of OUR, began telling her, “We both know we’re out of rescue here.” We both know we’re in Hardly any foreign countries can be saved.”
It bothered Stockwell that the organization led the public to believe that its teams were still freeing children around the world because, she told investigators, “that’s simply not true.”
She had concerns about whether OUR was honest with donors, who were told that every $1,250 donated would save a sex trafficking victim. She requested data to support this claim but never received it.
OUR’s website claims that donations to the group have led to the rescue of 6,500 children and 7,000 arrests worldwide.
Stockwell was particularly concerned that OUR did not provide the alleged follow-up care for victims and that Tim Ballard once rescued a victim on the “Dr. Oz” show, which caused her severe emotional distress.
Still, selling this image to potential donors worked. According to OUR’s tax filings, revenue increased from less than $3.5 million in 2014 to over $42 million in 2021, a tenfold increase, and the company had assets of more than $82 million -Dollar.
OUR’s practice of recognizing human trafficking arrests by police sparked resentment among several law enforcement agencies, Carlos Rodriguez, who coordinated with authorities, said in a summary of a recorded phone call from OUR employees in 2020.
Many of the details were originally reported by VICE News, which requested the investigative footage.
VICE News has also reported that Ballard left OUR earlier this year after the group launched an investigation into alleged sexual misconduct. Ballard was accused of asking seven women to pose as his wife and share a bed or shower with him in undercover operations to rescue sex trafficking victims.
He has denied the allegations, saying they are “baseless fabrications designed to destroy me and the movement we have built to end the trafficking and exploitation of vulnerable children.”
Connections to a psychic
The documents also detail that Tim Ballard relied on a psychic, Janet Russon, to provide operational information for an attempted mission to rescue a kidnapped child in Haiti.
Two people who took part in the Haiti expedition confirmed that Russon’s spiritual powers guided the effort. Russon went into a trance and began scribbling lines in front of him. She then directed the teams where they needed to go – to a specially shaped tree near the Haitian border, where they would find the child.
One of the participants in the operation said Tim Ballard assured others on the trip that President Ballard agreed to rely on Russon’s leadership and her “spiritual gifts.”
The child was never found.
According to a recorded conference call summarized in the documents, Russon later became head of Children Need Families, an arm of OUR that aims to facilitate the adoption of at-risk children – not specifically victims of human trafficking – around the world.
Russon also claimed to be able to communicate with Nephi, a prophet in the Book of Mormon, the church’s signature text.
“What do you think donors would/will do if they learned that the late Book of Mormon prophet Nephi was actually running OUR through Janet Russon and Tim and Katherine Ballard?” Davis County Prosecutor Troy Rawlings wrote in an email -Email Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes.
Reyes, a friend of Tim Ballard, was involved in OUR operations, promoted Ballard’s potential run for U.S. Senate and lists himself as an associate producer on “Sound of Freedom,” a film loosely based on Ballard’s founding of OUR .
The Tribune reached out to Reyes for comment on the Tim Ballard stories, but the office declined.
The documents also include a description of a video showing Operation Underground Railroad operator and prominent donor Paul Hutchinson touching the exposed breasts of a minor child.
A source involved in OUR operations confirmed the existence of the video.
“But we’ve also had problems in the past with Paul playing his role too well and flirting with the lines too much,” this person told investigators. “Many of us were uncomfortable working with him.”
Hutchinson, producer of the film “Sound of Freedom,” told VICE News, which first reported the video, that he was in a dangerous encounter and acted to maintain the ruse.
“I have no concerns about how I conducted myself undercover,” Hutchinson told VICE. “You won’t find trafficked children in the lobby of the Ritz-Carlton. We had to go to the most dangerous places in the world to find the children. I did all of my undercover work with integrity and honor.”
— Tribune reporter Peggy Fletcher Stack and editor David Noyce contributed to this story.