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

The former Operation Underground Railroad CEO speaks out about my piece highlighting inconsistencies and embellishments in his origin story.

(Angel Studios) Lucás Ávila and Jim Caviezel in “Sound of Freedom.”

A few weeks ago I wrote a piece raising questions about a story Tim Ballard has told repeatedly about a sex trafficking stop that changed his life and provided the basis for the movie “Sound of Freedom” which has now done $165 million at the box office. Ballard’s story, however, is at odds with the events depicted in court records about the bust.

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

Before the piece ran I tried to contact Ballard but didn’t hear back — until after it ran and he disputed the account, saying the court records are wrong in some instances and the version he tells is right. You can read his explanations below and decide for yourself.

Sex-trafficking intel

The story stems from the 2006 arrest of a guy named Earl Buchanan —who was convicted of sexually molesting numerous kids.

In a 2019 speech in Ogden, Ballard said, “on July 3, I got this call because we had intelligence that he was coming across the border with a 5-year-old boy who he had been abusing since he was a baby, and this was a little boy that I knew from the images, from videos I had seen.”

In a 2020 podcast, he described it this way: “We got intel that an American man was kidnapping children, smuggling them into the United States … So this guy’s coming across the border and we’re on the scene and we get the kid out, this 5 year old boy, … and I recognized him from the video.” In another podcast, he characterized it as a “rescue operation.”

In the film, it is portrayed as a targeted takedown of Buchanan, although, as I said originally, it’s not all that surprising that a movie would take dramatic license to embellish the story.

Court records described it as a routine border stop — not based on “intel” before the fact. Buchanan was crossing the border with a child for whom he did not have identification, so Customs and Border Patrol officers searched his car and found a video containing child pornography, at which point Ballard was called to the scene.

The court documents say the boy’s face wasn’t visible on the video and six months after the arrest prosecutors filed court documents that said the child’s identity was still unknown.

“I can see how the reference from the Ogden speech could make the statement confusing,” Ballard subsequently told me.

During our conversation after my column was published, Ballard said he got the call from a Border Patrol officer and was asked to investigate. “We reviewed evidence from the van, including videos of this man sexually assaulting the little boy,” he said. “After we reviewed the evidence we went in and met the little boy and I realized right away that this was the boy from the videos found in the van because his face had not been completely hidden in the videos.”

Victim interviews

In his telling, Ballard said in an interview last month with the Christian Broadcasting Network, he interviewed the boy “and he’s telling us about his sister that this guy had also taken and where was she.” He later said that he interviewed the child victim several times and the film shows him taking the victim for burgers and ice cream.

It was during one of these interviews that the boy gave him a dog tag with a Bible verse from 1 Timothy 6:11. Notably that is Ballard’s first name, and Ballard has said he asked directors not to include that in the film because viewers wouldn’t believe it.

In sworn court documents, prosecutors said ICE agents, including Ballard, never interviewed the child. Defense attorneys were trying to get access to any interviews that had been done and, but Assistant U.S. Attorney Alessandra Serano — who now is counsel for Operation Underground Railroad, the organization Ballard helped start — referred to an ICE agent’s statement (it is unclear if it was Ballard) who said the boy was interviewed once by protective service workers and once by a social worker. Agents observed both.

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.

I wrote that it “seems unlikely” that the interview and dog tag story happened the way Ballard said.

“I can’t control all the details that end up making it into court documents,” Ballard said. “But I can tell you that me and another ICE special agent … absolutely did interview the little boy, at least two separate times — taking him to McDonald’s and then Denny’s.”

During one of those interviews, Ballard said, he tried to return a necklace to the boy that had been taken as evidence. “He insisted I keep it and that’s why I still have it to this day,” he said.

San Bernardino search warrant

The day after the arrest, officers executed a search warrant on Buchanan’s home. Ballard has described it as follows:

• “… we raided this guy’s compound and found 12 other children who he had been doing this to.”

• “… his sister, actually, was one of the girls, the other kids, one of the 12 that we rescued up in San Bernardino.”

• " ... almost a dozen other children, many undocumented migrant children, were rescued and liberated.

• “And then that led to raiding the compound and we found 11 other kids.

• " … we had found his sister by the way — she had also been abused — at this guy’s compound up in San Bernardino.”

The movie depicts children rescued from physical captivity in a raid but, again, that’s a movie.

Court records said officers recovered other child pornography videos and found recording equipment, but there is no mention of imprisoned children being “rescued” or “liberated.”

Ballard told me the children weren’t physically at the home, but they were “brought to that compound every weekend to be raped.” He said that officers were able to identify the children from evidence collected at the scene.

“To try and say the kids weren’t really rescued from this monster because they weren’t held physically captive is disgraceful,” he said. “Those kids were absolutely freed from horrendous abuse, and I am proud that I helped play a part in rescuing them.”

The Missing Sister

Earlier I mentioned how Ballard said that the young victim at the border was asking about his sister who had supposedly also been taken. In a podcast last year, he said officers were “looking for the sister and, you know, they’ve been trafficked all through from Mexico.” And in the 2020 podcast, he said after the boy gave him the necklace, “he knew I had to go find his sister now.”

The sister was not missing.

Ballard told me that he called the boy’s grandmother (who was their legal guardian) the day after the traffic stop and the sister answered the phone. He said he tried to talk to the grandmother but “she was kind of senile and it was obvious she was being manipulated by the perpetrator. But it was a big deal to the little boy that I helped find his sister.”

It is worth noting that, as Ballard now tells it, the boy gave Ballard the dog tag and asked him to find his sister two days after Ballard now says he had spoken with her on the phone.

So what does all of this mean?

For me, it doesn’t change my original perception. I tend to believe sworn court documents over versions of events told years later. And I think that when the average person hears that police “raided” a home and “rescued” or “found” or “liberated” children, there is a reasonable understanding of what those words mean.

But you’re smart people and I trust you to read the explanations and decide for yourself what you believe.