Former high-level employees at Operation Underground Railroad, perhaps the nation’s most prominent nonprofit aimed at fighting sex trafficking, 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 spelled out across 75 pages of interviews, emails and documents obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune through an open records request.
The records also shed some light on how OUR’s founder, Tim Ballard, allegedly exploited the name of M. Russell Ballard, acting president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, to add gravitas to his endeavors.
In one investigative interview, a former OUR operative said he was told by the head of a for-profit venture Tim Ballard was launching to control proceeds from movie deals, book sales and speaking fees that the senior apostle was a partner in the company, Slave Stealers.
The documents represent a small portion of a series of interviews gathered in a criminal investigation of OUR conducted jointly by the Davis County attorney’s office and the FBI. In all, they collected more than two terabytes of information.
David Lopez, a former Navy SEAL involved in training operatives and leading OUR operations, told investigators he was offered a $25,000 monthly salary to join Ballard’s Slave Stealers. Lopez said the head of the organization told him that Ballard was making $900,000 annually from the organization.
Lopez also provided investigators with a text message from Brian Norton, the head of Slave Stealers, that referred to President Ballard as a “key equity holder” and a “silent partner” in Slave Stealers.
Church spokesperson Doug Andersen told The Tribune on Monday that the apostle is not a key equity holder or silent partner and has “no relationship” with Slave Stealers.
Earlier this month, the Utah-based church issued a scathing rebuke of Tim Ballard, saying that President Ballard and Tim Ballard, a fellow Latter-day Saint, had become friends based on their mutual desire to help children worldwide and noting that the 94-year-old church leader had severed ties with Tim Ballard “many months ago.”
“Once it became clear Tim Ballard had betrayed their friendship, through the unauthorized use of President Ballard’s name for Tim Ballard’s personal advantage and [for] activity regarded as morally unacceptable,” the church said in a statement, “President Ballard withdrew his association.”
The Tribune reached out Sunday to Operation Underground Railroad and Tim Ballard, but neither offered any comment.
‘We don’t rescue here anymore’
The desire for a for-profit appendage of OUR is just one of the ways that, according to the investigative documents, the group’s mission has evolved over time.
In the early days, OUR would deploy operatives to various parts of the globe in an attempt to snare child sex traffickers and dismantle their operations.
Within a few years, however, Lopez and another former OUR employee, Cherstyn Stockwell, who was the development director for the nonprofit, said the mission had morphed significantly.
What they saw was a fundraising operation raking in tens of millions of dollars, channeling it to law enforcement or other nonprofit organizations, and then taking credit for their work.
OUR donors might have been surprised to learn that was the case. In a 2021 interview with investigators, Stockwell recounts how Matt Osborne, now OUR’s president and chief operating officer, began telling her “we both know that we don’t rescue here anymore. We both know that we hardly rescue abroad anymore.”
Stockwell was bothered that the organization led the public to believe its teams were still out liberating children globally because, she told investigators, “that’s just not true.”
She had qualms with whether OUR was being truthful with contributors, who were being told that every $1,250 they donated would save a sex-trafficked child. She requested, but never received, any data to back up that assertion.
OUR’s website asserts that donations to the group have led to 6,500 children being rescued and 7,000 arrests worldwide.
Stockwell was particularly concerned that OUR was not providing the aftercare services for victims that it said it was and that Tim Ballard once took a rescued victim on the “Dr. Oz” show, which caused her severe emotional distress.
Yet selling that image to potential donors worked. According to OUR’s tax filings, revenues shot up from less than $3.5 million in 2014 to more than $42 million in 2021, a twelvefold increase, and it had more than $82 million in assets.
OUR’s practice of taking credit for trafficking arrests made by police caused resentment among several law enforcement entities, Carlos Rodriguez, who coordinated with the agencies, said in a summary of a 2020 OUR staff phone call that was recorded.
Many of the details were originally reported by VICE News, which requested the investigative material.
VICE News also has reported that Ballard left OUR earlier this year after the group commissioned 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 on undercover operations in order to rescue sex-trafficking victims.
He has denied those allegations, saying they are “baseless inventions designed to destroy me and the movement we have built to end the trafficking and exploitation of vulnerable children.”
Ties to a psychic
The documents also detail Tim Ballard’s reliance on a psychic, Janet Russon, to provide operational intelligence for an attempted mission to rescue a kidnapped child in Haiti.
Two individuals who participated in the Haiti expedition confirmed that Russon’s spiritual powers were guiding the effort. Russon would put herself in a trance and begin scribbling lines in front of her and then direct the teams where they needed to go — to a specifically shaped tree near the Haitian border where they would find the child.
One of those on the operation said that Tim Ballard had assured others on the trip that President Ballard had approved of relying on Russon’s guidance and her “spiritual gifts.”
The child has never been found.
Russon later became the head of Children Need Families, a branch of OUR aimed at facilitating adoptions of at-risk kids — not specifically the victims of trafficking — across the globe, according to a recorded conference call summarized in the documents.
Russon also professed to be able to communicate with Nephi, a prophet in the Book of Mormon, the church’s signature scripture.
“What do you think donors would/will do upon learning that deceased ancient Book of Mormon prophet Nephi actually runs OUR via Janet Russon and Tim and Katherine Ballard?” Davis County Attorney Troy Rawlings wrote in an email to Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes.
Reyes, a friend of Tim Ballard, has participated in OUR operations, promoted Ballard’s potential candidacy for the U.S. Senate and lists himself as an associate producer on “Sound of Freedom,” a movie loosely based on Ballard’s founding of OUR.
The Tribune has sought comment from Reyes about the Tim Ballard stories, but the office has declined.
The documents also contain a description of a video that depicts an operator and prominent donor to Operation Underground Railroad, Paul Hutchinson, touching the exposed breasts of an underage child.
A source who participated in the OUR operations confirmed the existence of the video.
“But also, we had issues with Paul in the past playing his role too well and flirting with the lines too much,” this person told investigators. “A lot of us were uncomfortable working with him.”
Hutchinson, who is a producer on the “Sound of Freedom” movie, told VICE News, which first reported on the video, that he was in a dangerous encounter and acted to maintain the ruse.
“I have zero reservations as to how I handled myself undercover,” Hutchinson told VICE. “You don’t find trafficked children in the lobby of the Ritz-Carlton. We had to go to the most dangerous places on the planet to find the children. All my undercover work was done with integrity and honor.”
— Tribune reporter Peggy Fletcher Stack and editor David Noyce contributed to this story.