Anti-Trafficking Group With Long History of False Claims Gets Its Hollywood Moment

Operation Underground Railroad has spent years making big, often unprovable claims about its paramilitary missions and role in rescuing trafficked kids. Now, a new hit movie may help solidify the myth.
Tim Ballard at a movie premiere

At an August 2019 meeting, Tim Ballard laid out his vision for the future. On a whiteboard, a diagram showed how he’d build his empire as a public speaker, anti- trafficking advocate, and proselytizer for his Mormon faith. “Take sizzle of the Rescue,” it read, amid a thicket of arrows connecting his for-profit and nonprofit entities to one another. “Lead them to the Covenant.” 


A whiteboard said to be drawn by Tim Ballard in 2019.

Ballard is the founder and CEO of Operation Underground Railroad, a group which claims a long history of heroic, daring, and often unprovable rescues in foreign countries. These operations, which have supposedly liberated thousands of trafficked women and children, have led to an ever-increasing public profile for Ballard, a former appointee of the Trump administration who’s long been believed to be interested in elected office. Now, a major piece of his vision is falling into place: A new film, years in the making, which mythologizes OUR’s rescues and could fix Ballard—who styles himself an anti-slavery activist, has in the past been featured in a painting depicting Harriet Tubman and other abolitionists bowing to him, and in the film is played by the same actor who played Jesus in The Passion of the Christ—more firmly in the right-wing media spotlight he’s already been seeking. 

The film, titled Sound of Freedom, has been accompanied by a fusillade of laudatory statements from personalities including Mel Gibson, who Ballard claims gave OUR “valuable intelligence” that led to the group and its partners breaking up a pedophile ring in Ukraine, motivational speaker and longtime OUR backer Tony Robbins, and Matt Schlapp, the chair of the Conservative Political Action Conference. (CPAC now claims to have its own anti-trafficking arm as well.) It’s also getting approving write-ups from faith-based publications like Catholic World Report and The Christian Post. All of this is probably helping drive pre-sales. The film, which is being marketed directly to religious audiences as the film Hollywood doesn’t want them to see in something like the way the record-setting Passion of the Christ was, reportedly saw an impressive $10 million in gross sales before even opening. More usefully, perhaps, for OUR, many of the writeups about the film gloss over OUR’s long history of exaggeration and misrepresentation, helpfully bolstering the organization’s tallest tales about itself. 


As VICE News has previously reported, a number of OUR’s claims about its work are dramatically overstated or without clear documentary evidence. People who have volunteered for OUR have raised concerns that it could actually have been creating demand for trafficking victims, by going to foreign countries on undercover “missions” that, at times, have seemed to consist of walking around bars and sex clubs asking for underage girls. The organization's support for law enforcement has at times been wildly exaggerated and involved OUR taking credit for agencies’ operations after making relatively trivial donations, and its much-touted aftercare program for survivors has at times involved things like placing women with unqualified providers and even fabricating a college graduation ceremony. 

In another story uncovered by VICE News, OUR heavily marketed its role in the rescue of “Liliana,” a young trafficking survivor, with Ballard telling a fanciful story about this rescue in Congressional testimony and in op-eds and media appearances in which he called for a border wall. She in fact rescued herself, and did not meet OUR representatives until years after she’d done so, when she was preparing to testify against her traffickers in court. The organization led a bizarre, blundering attempted rescue on the Haiti-Dominican Republic border based on intelligence sourced from a Utah psychic medium. (The same psychic went on to work as an executive director for an OUR-backed group, an adoption grant organization called Children Need Families, founded by Ballard’s wife Katherine.) Meanwhile, OUR’s sister organization the Nazarene Fund, founded by right-wing media personality Glenn Beck, claimed without a lot of direct evidence to have evacuated endangered people from minority religious groups out of Afghanistan during the chaotic period after the U.S. withdrawal from the country. And in a more minor, and weirder, incident, Ballard recently claimed that OUR was “collaborating” with American Airlines, which was also not true in the sense that most people would understand it; the organization bought an ad with a third-party service that airs programming on some American flights. 


These incidents, and many others, added up to a pattern of misrepresentation and exaggeration that even some OUR “operators”—the men who went on purported rescue missions in other countries—told VICE they found disturbing and misleading.  

Now, however, Operation Underground Railroad is riding a series of clear wins. First, an investigation into the organization, led by a county attorney in Utah, was quietly dropped in March, according to reporting from the Deseret News. Sources close to the investigation, which lasted nearly two and a half years, had previously told VICE that it involved multiple federal agencies and concerned allegations that OUR had misled the public and donors. (Troy Rawlings, the county attorney who launched the investigation, did not respond to a request for comment on the investigation’s closure.) 

And then there’s Sound of Freedom, in which Ballard is played by Jim Caviezel, an actor who has in recent years garnered attention for his support for QAnon-linked conspiracy theories about children being trafficked and drained of their bodily fluids by a cabal of secretive evildoers. 


“They’re pulling children out of the darkest recesses of hell," he told an audience at a “medical freedom” conference, where electoral and COVID conspiracy theories were also in heavy rotation. He was referring to Ballard and OUR, explaining why the former couldn’t attend the conference in person. "All kinds of places, the adrenochroming of children.” (The false claim that elites bleed children of a substance called adrenochrome, which can more easily be purchased from chemical suppliers, as part of ritualistic abuse is sourced directly from QAnon mythology.) This was awkward for OUR, which had to go on the defensive after Ballard implied in 2020 that it was perhaps credible for children to be “sold online,” as a conspiracy theory about the furniture company Wayfair claimed. (The organization says on its FAQ page that it “does not condone conspiracy theories and is not affiliated with any conspiracy groups in any way, shape or form.”)  

Caviezel has had a lot of time to burnish his own reputation and make strange claims in a variety of settings, given that the release of Sound of Freedom has been many years in the making, full of false starts and announced premieres that never actually happened. The film was completed in 2018, but it was shelved for unclear reasons, then delayed by the pandemic. Eduardo Verástegui, a Mexican actor who has also worked extensively in the anti-abortion movement, is credited as producer; he founded a charity, Manto de Guadalupe, which opened a crisis pregnancy center in Los Angeles in 2011. A recent Wall Street Journal story on Angel Studios, the Utah-based company promoting and distributing the movie, emphasizes its strategy of marketing directly to religious and socially conservative audiences. (“In its marketing, the studio encourages ticket buyers to ‘pay it forward,’ by contributing extra money, framing that as a way to raise awareness about child-trafficking,” the Journal reported. “The studio says it uses that pot to offer free tickets to people, but declined to say how much money or ticket activity that effort has generated so far.”)

The premiere of the film follows an increased cash flow to OUR, as recent tax filings show. The documents, which were some of thousands recently released by the IRS after a pandemic-related delay, show that Ballard’s salary increased by 54% between 2021 and 2022, to about $546,000, even as donations to the organization appear to have decreased by roughly 30%. (Both Ballard’s wife Katherine and one of the couple’s children are on the payroll, as is Emily Evans, Ballard’s sister, who works as their communications officer, and Mark Blake, the organization's director, who is Ballard’s brother-in-law.)  

But while OUR’s donor base shrank to some extent in 2022, its star in right-wing politics is rising. For years, OUR presented a more-or-less apolitical face, which began to change when Ballard started to testify that the U.S. border with Mexico had to be sealed to decrease trafficking, a claim he used the story of “Liliana” to bolster. (Donald Trump went on to repeat some of Ballard’s claims.) In recent years, Ballard has gotten involved in controversies not clearly connected to trafficking, like denouncing drag queens performing in front of children and discussing the “transgender movement” with the right-wing outlet The Daily Signal.

All of this—OUR’s move towards right-wing politics, its increased hype and cash flow, and its positioning as the only thing standing between children and sexual slavery—will only be aided by the new film, and the credulous coverage it’s received. Ballard once dreamed of a web of interconnected businesses and charities, all serving to reflect attention back on himself and the truth as he understands it. Today, that dream seems closer than ever to being a reality.