Robert Gehrke: Tim Ballard’s story in the ‘Sound of Freedom’ seems too good to be true — because it isn’t true

Court records paint a starkly different narrative from the one in the film and that Ballard has repeatedly told publicly.

(Angel Studios) Lucás Ávila and Jim Caviezel, who plays Tim Ballard, in a scene from "The Sound of Freedom.”

Tim Ballard says there was one incident that prompted him to devote his life to rescuing children from sex trafficking.

According to court records, in 2006 border patrol agents stopped a van crossing the U.S.-Mexico border in Calexico. The man driving the van, Earl Buchanan, had a young boy with him but no I.D. for the boy, so they did a secondary inspection.

In the course of that check, they found a videotape where Buchanan was molesting the boy and notified Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Ballard, an ICE agent at the time, responded, arriving at the scene two hours after the initial stop.

[READ: Robert Gehrke: Tim Ballard says court docs in case central to ‘Sound of Freedom’ plot are wrong.]

According to Ballard’s sworn statement, he asked Buchanan a couple of questions, Buchanan invoked his Miranda rights, Ballard took his fingerprints and Buchanan was arrested.

Ballard’s telling over the years is more sensational. Here’s one summary of how he recounted the events:

ICE had gathered “intel” that this man was kidnapping children in Mexico and transporting them across the border for the sex trade. An operation was set up and Ballard recognized the boy, who’d allegedly been kidnapped as an infant, from a video he had seen, stopped Buchanan and he was arrested.

But wait, there’s more. The boy leapt into Ballard’s arms and held him tight. Then the boy gave Ballard a dog tag with a Bible verse on it and asked Ballard to go find his sister, who had also been kidnapped.

It became Ballard’s driving mission to find the girl and, he says, in a subsequent raid on Buchanan’s compound, 11 children ages 6 to 12 were recovered, including the sister.

Ballard’s version of the story provides the basis for the new film, “Sound of Freedom,” which has done remarkably well at the box office, surpassing the latest Indiana Jones movie in its opening weekend. But in the movie, even more liberties are taken.

In the movie, which I saw last week, Ballard tricks a guy arrested for running a sex trafficking ring into trusting him, making the pedophile believe he’s “one of them.” Ballard even gets him released from detention — somehow — and takes him to dinner. No, really. And in a show of gratitude, the trafficker offers Ballard a weekend with the child, so Ballard has him arrested again.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

Ballard proceeds to set up a border stop to apprehend Buchanan who, in the film, has bought the child from kidnappers — they had taken a group of children at a fake modeling audition — and is bringing the kid across the border. Ballard recognizes the child, and Buchanan is dragged from the van and arrested.

Then Ballard takes the kid out for burgers. No, really.

Over burgers and ice cream, the kid tells Ballard about how he and his sister were kidnapped, then gives Ballard the medallion (for some reason, in the movie it’s no longer a dog tag) and begs him to find his sister — which, of course, Ballard swears he will do.

Fed up with the federal bureaucrats standing in his way, Ballard quits his job and embarks on a winding course of events that includes a sting in Colombia (that actually happened and Attorney General Sean Reyes took part) and Ballard killing the pedophile leader of a rebel army then fleeing to safety with the girl under a hail of gunfire (which didn’t happen).

But there are obvious discrepancies between the story Ballard tells and the narrative in court documents.

Ballard couldn’t have recognized the boy in the video from “intel” he had received because he arrived on the scene two hours after Buchanan was first stopped at the border and nobody knew the video existed until the stop, according to court documents. The boy’s face was not visible in the video.

Ballard’s own statement in the court records says he and other ICE agents never interviewed the boy except to ask where he lived. He was turned over to protective services, per agency policy. So maybe the boy leapt into Ballard’s arms and gave him the dog tag and asked him to find his sister, but it seems unlikely.

This is an excerpt from a court filing in a case that Tim Ballard says inspired him to start an organization to rescue children from sex trafficking. But the court documents contradict elements of the story Ballard has repeatedly told.

Also, Buchanan was absolutely a monster and is alleged to have molested the boy, and groomed and molested several other children, as well. But Buchanan hadn’t snatched the child in Mexico as an infant, as Ballard claimed, according to legal records. The boy’s grandmother initially told authorities she knew Buchanan was taking him to Arizona and then Mexicali. Later she said she had only given Buchanan permission to take him to Chuck E. Cheese.

The boy’s sister wasn’t missing, either. According to court documents, she was at home with her grandmother from the start and answered the phone when officers called the house. There is no mention in any of the court documents that there was a raid that recovered her and 11 other kids, as Ballard claims. There was a search warrant served on Buchanan’s home where additional videos were recovered.

This is an excerpt from court filings in a case that Tim Ballard said inspired him to start an organization to rescue children from sex trafficking, but the story that Ballard tells about the arrest is very different from what is contained in the court documents.

And finally, the border stop happened in 2006. Ballard left ICE in 2013. In both Ballard’s telling and the movie version, time is warped.

I should note here that I am leaning on reporting initially done by veteran local journalist Lynn Packer and laid out more recently by an unlikely source, the Red Pilled America podcast. But all of the information is available in the court records and I have verified it myself.

My beef here isn’t really with fabrications in the movie. I’m sure people will be duped into believing the events depicted in “Sound of Freedom” actually happened. But we should know that when a film claims to be “based on a true story,” it can still be 99% fiction.

In fact, when I contacted the production company about the exaggerations in the film, they pointed me to a web page that had been put together to explain what was true and what was fiction. For example, Ballard never went into the jungle alone, never killed anyone and didn’t recover any children on that trip. It stands by the story of recovering the boy, his sister and the gift of the necklace.

But this is entertainment. It’s more troubling that Ballard seems to have embellished the story when he has told it publicly — including an operation to rescue the boy, recognizing the youngster from the video, the dog tag, the operation to rescue the sister and 11 other kids.

The origin story is key to Ballard’s fundraising. They went so far as to sell thousands of dog tags like the one the boy supposedly gave to Ballard.

This isn’t the only example of Ballard’s loose relationship with the facts.

A few years ago, Vice News did an in-depth report that focused largely on one young woman whom Ballard claimed his organization helped. The girl was groomed, kidnapped, taken to New York at the age of somewhere between 11 and 14, depending on the telling, and forced into sex slavery before, Ballard says, his group helped her escape.

He told this story and the story about the boy found at the border stop in meetings at the White House, in testimony before Congress and in newspaper editorials as proof that America needs a border wall to stop trafficking.

But Vice reported that, according to court records, the woman came to the U.S. with her boyfriend who forced her into sex slavery. But she escaped from captivity entirely on her own. Perhaps they helped her later. That part is unclear. It is clear that OUR sold a Valentine’s Day card she supposedly designed in 2019 to raise money for the organization.

When embellished or exaggerated or untrue statements are used to raise money, it becomes more problematic.

The Davis County Attorney investigated whether the fundraising pitches amounted to fraud, but abandoned the case.

If Sean Reyes was more interested in being attorney general than Ballard’s hype man, perhaps he could have gotten involved. Instead, Reyes has been posting pictures with Ballard and the cast of the movie on social media and went on Ballard’s podcast for a bro-love-fest.

Shortly after the movie came out, OUR announced it had parted ways with Ballard. Vice reported the split stemmed from an internal investigation conducted into complaints about Ballard, but details are sparse.

I reached out to Ballard’s new organization seeking clarification of the inconsistencies, but have not heard back.

To be absolutely clear: Sex trafficking is real and it is an abomination. There are thousands of men and women in the state and federal government and in nonprofits all across the globe trying to put a stop to it and alleviate the harm inflicted on victims. You probably don’t know any of their names.

We know Ballard, of course. He has made himself bigger than the cause, using the work as a springboard to fame, a healthy salary and rumors of a potential run for political office.

But much of Ballard’s origin story is flatly, provably false, and the people who have donated tens of millions of dollars to Ballard’s organizations deserve to know how much of what he has told them is true and how much has been concocted to fuel his celebrity status and ego.

Correction: July 26, 2023, 2:30 p.m. • This story has been updated to correct the name of the Red Pilled America podcast.