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  • Writer's pictureKrista Bontrager

Differentiating Between Fact & Fiction Isn't Always Easy

Why I'm not promoting Tim Ballard and my review of the movie, Sound of Freedom

Do you work in the anti-trafficking field and think I am way off about Ballard and O.U.R.? Send me an email with your receipts. I will amend this post as I continue to gather more information.



I remember the first time I ever went on the internet. I was 27 years old. I was doing research for a lecture that I was developing during my first year of teaching as a professor. I was amazed by how easy it was to quickly access massive amounts of information. Instead of spending hours in the library or hundreds of dollars on books, I could quickly sift through data and develop my lesson. What I didn't realize at the time, however, is that I was able to sift through good information and bad information on the internet because I had done hundreds of hours of reading those expensive books. I had a standard for weighing claims.


Now we live in the age of deep fakes and fake news. The bias of the mainstream media toward secular progressive ideology isn't helping. It's getting increasingly more difficult to figure out what's true. This reality became very clear to me in the last week or so.


A couple weeks ago, my husband alerted me to a post on Twitter by actor Jim Caviezel saying that he was accepting interview requests to promote the upcoming film, Sound of Freedom. My husband suggested that I reach out to Mr. Caviezel with a request for our All The Things podcast. So I did. After all, human trafficking is a justice issue, one which fits our platform.


As I was waiting to hear back, I made a post on Facebook asking an open-ended question about whether any of my followers knew anything about the film. (I have since deleted that post.) People who worked in human trafficking started contacting me. These are people who are in the day-to-day grind of tracking traffickers and helping victims. They shared similar concerns about Ballard (on whom the film is based). One informant send me this public post as a summary of SOME of the major frustrations that trafficking insiders seem to have about Ballard (language warning).

While his take contains a lot of emotion, what got my attention about this post is that Scaramucci is someone who works professionally in capturing traffickers. Wouldn't he of all people want to get this message out? Yet, he isn't promoting the film. In fact, he has rather....strong negative feelings....about Ballard. Why? It made me wonder, Why don't I see a strong push among advocates in the anti-trafficking world actively promoting the film? For me, that was a yellow flag. I needed to at least take a pause to ask more questions.


One informant sent me a bunch of tax information about Ballard's non-profit. You can read the 990s for yourself. His organization appears to be a fundraising machine, bringing in tens of millions a year. And they don't seem to spend it all. In and of itself, that's not an inherent problem. I do think it's a little odd that if you give a big donation (like $50k) then you can go on a "jump" with their team. (But maybe that's just me.) See #9 and #10 on the list below for a couple examples of how some of O.U.R.'s funds are used.


A commenter on my social media posted a link to an article about Ballard. My first impression was that the website has discernment blog vibes. The article claimed that the film had gone far beyond artistic license. The site has multiple stories about Ballard, all focusing on the charge that many of Ballard's stories themselves are hoaxes. That seemed like a fairly serious claim.


Back in 2020, VICE news had also raised questions about Ballard and his organization. Mostly related to his tactics and whether they were consistent with best practices. Personally, I consider VICE to be a secular progressive news outlet, with marginal accuracy. But the article does contain some interesting overlap with this first-person account, which seems credible. This made the VICE reports seem to have some level of corroborating value.


Just this cursory research raised enough questions for me that I decided not to move forward with the interview. I realized at that point I didn't have the time or resources to investigate these claims in order to get to the bottom of things. Thankfully, I never heard back from Caviezel's people. He likely has bigger platforms to be on than mine. Looking back, maybe it was a blessing in disguise.


Meanwhile, I started seeing Caviezel and Ballard making the rounds on conservative and Christian media, including CBN. I also started seeing my social media feed filled with calls to go see the film, almost like it was my Christian duty. I could see that I was pretty much standing alone in decision to not promote the film.


This caused me to keep digging. Perhaps I could overcome the yellow flags. Here is what I've found.



THE FACTS (AS I BEST UNDERSTAND THEM)


The words "true story" and "real life super hero" have been a big part of the marketing campaign. This tweet by O.U.R. (the non-profit founded by Ballard) is typical of that narrative.

According to the official synopsis of the film on the Angel Studios website, the film is described as being an "incredible true story." In fact, just yesterday on Allie Beth's show, Ballard claimed "these are all true stories." I do wonder if O.U.R. has had significant pushback on this characterization because about a week ago an article appeared on their web site that seems to want to offer some level of transparency around some of the film's claims. But I am not sure it succeeds. More about that in a minute.


As if the truth wasn't hard enough to detect already, the film has now become entangled in another weird controversy. Last weekend, Rolling Stone published a high-profile article charging that the film is propagating a QAnon conspiracy theory. That energized the QAnon crowd, as well as more mainstream conservatives and Christians, charging that the film is revealing important truths that "the Left" doesn't want exposed. Oy! The set up has now been created that if you offer any sort of questions about the film or Ballard, then you are against speaking out on behalf of trafficking victims. Of course, that's ridiculous. Interestingly, Variety (not exactly a bastion of conservative values) did publish what seems to be a mostly fair review of the film.


Here is a summary of the things that I believe to be true after a LOT of research:

  1. Human trafficking is a real problem. It deserves to be discussed. The kind of trafficking shown in the film represents ONE type of child sex trafficking. Monique and I have highlighted this issue in the past. (See the link at the bottom of this post.)

  2. Tim Ballard did work for the C.I.A. and the Department of Homeland Security and was tangentially involved in a high profile bust of a pedophile named Earl Buchanan (more about that below).

  3. Tim Ballard is a member of the LDS church. (I only mention this because he frequently ties the motivation of his work to his faith.)

  4. The film is being distributed by Angel Studios, which is co-founded by two members of the LDS church.

  5. The tagline of the film, "God's children are not for sale" is consistent with a key LDS doctrine that all humans are children of God. They could have just said, "Children are not for sale." I discuss the issues with this saying here.

  6. The sensational nature of the Hollywood-ized story has been a concern for some who work in anti-trafficking. They feel like it gives the wrong impression of the situation.

  7. Some people who work in anti-trafficking seem to find Ballard's tales to embellish the truth.

  8. Some people who work in anti-trafficking seem to find Ballard's rescue methods (specifically, throwing certain kinds of parties to entice p3d0s) outside of the industry's best practices and potentially even endangering children.

  9. O.U.R. provides grants to domestic law enforcement teams who specialize in trafficking, such as dogs, equipment and possibly mental health services for officers with PTSD.

  10. O.U.R. provides grants to some anti-trafficking non-profits, in order to help some survivors in other countries to help them heal and transition back into mainstream life.

  11. O.U.R. seems to include the efforts of law enforcement captures in their statistics for their work, when those captures involve dogs or equipment sponsored by O.U.R. This seems to be viewed by some in LE as a form of "stolen valor."

  12. The rescue scene in Sound of Freedom with the island party seems to be mostly based on real events.

  13. Ballard is very adept at story-telling and fund-raising.

  14. Ballard left O.U.R. shortly before the film's release. (See the updates at the bottom of this post.)


THE RABBIT HOLE


This brings us to the "rabbit hole" that normal people probably don't have time to go down, but is potentially the most important part of this discussion (if true). This favorable news report shows what appears to be original footage from two previous missions. It's easy to see how these scenarios were folded into the plot for the movie, Sound of Freedom.


A reporter named Lynn Packer (who I think is a former LDS member) has been chronicling the hazy, and shifting, origins story behind Ballard's non-profit (O.U.R.) for a few years now. He has documented a few core stories that Ballard often re-tells in interviews (I've watched several) that seem a little "sus." For example, Ballard often mentions a girl named "Liliana," who he claims O.U.R. helped rescue. But there are a lot of questions about the truthfulness of "Liliana's" story. More commentary here. I don't know what to think about this.


The "origins story" behind O.U.R. also seems problematic. Many of the details of the law enforcement and court records don't seem to match Ballard's re-telling. What's helpful about this particular case is that the records are public.


Ballard recounted the pivotal origins story behind his work in this 2021 interview for Lewis Homes. Beginning around the 9:12-minute mark, Ballard makes the following claims:

  • ICE received intel that there was an American man who was kidnapping children in Mexico and smuggling them over the border into the U.S.

  • Ballard names this alleged kidnapper as "Earl Buchanan" from San Bernardino.

  • Buchanan had a "compound" in San Bernardino where he was filming "$-- acts" with "kids" to share with others.

  • Ballard claims he was "on the scene" and they "get the kid out," a 5-year old boy.

  • At that point, Ballard recognized the boy as one he saw in a video.

  • The kid runs and jumps in Ballard's arms and says, "I don't belong here."

  • Ballard was "haunted" by the fact that the boy spoke "perfect English" This is because he had been with the kidnapper his whole life, since "he had been taken as an infant."

  • The boy gave Ballard a necklace and told him to rescue his sister, who was kidnapped at the same time he was.

  • Later, Ballard "raided" Buchanan's "compound" where they "found 11 other kids," (ages 6-12).

When you look at the official law enforcement statements (which can be viewed and downloaded here), a different picture emerges.

  • Yes, a boy was rescued during a border stop at the Mexican border.

  • But he wasn't kidnapped and trafficked from Mexico. He is from San Bernardino.

  • The boy wasn't taken as an infant. But he likely had known Buchanan his whole life.

  • Earl Buchanan is a pedophile, but not a trafficker.

  • Buchanan was a family friend of the boy and the boy's grandmother knew he was with Buchanan on a trip to Mexico.

  • Border agents did find tapes in Buchanan's van at the border.

  • The boy's sister wasn't trafficked. In fact, she was at home with the grandmother in San Bernardino at the time and corroborated the story to law enforcement.

  • Ballard showed up to the situation 40 minutes after Buchanan was detained and took evidence into custody.

  • There was no "raid" on Buchanan's compound where they found other children. Law enforcement did conduct a search warrant and found a room at his construction company wired with cameras and things kids like.

These inconsistencies in Ballard's "origins story" seem quite odd, in my opinion. How could Ballard get so many pivotal details so wrong, when this supposedly was a major turning point in his life? Especially since this is allegedly the basis for the "true story" behind Sound of Freedom (the border stop scene).



BASED ON A "TRUE STORY"?


My main problem isn't that Hollywood took "artistic license" in making a film "based on a true story." At this point, I think the film should be considered as mostly fiction. My issue is that Ballard seems to, as one article put it, have a "tendency to self-mythologize and embellish his exploits." This includes deep inconsistencies about the organization's origins story itself. In other words, the "true story" on which the movie is somewhat, allegedly based, has what appear to be intractable problems. Does Ballard have a habit of stretching the truth in order to raise money? I hope not! Because it seems like O.U.R. does do some genuinely good things (see #9 and #10 above, for example). But I also think these stories deserve to be looked into, since they are used in a such a foundational way in the ministry's narrative.


What am I to make of all this? I don't know. I honestly don't. And here is what makes the internet so frustrating. It's a wealth of information. Some of it might actually be true. But how do we determine that? It's not easy, especially when access to primary sources is limited. That's the thing about the internet, it forces you to care about more topics than probably necessary, simply because fragments of information are floating around.


But here is what REALLY troubles me: Many Christians don't even seem open to having the conversation about whether Ballard's stories––the ones that he repeats in interview after interview––might not be completely true. Isn't this issue at least worth investigating? Many Christians seem willing to sacrifice a rigorous investigation of the truth for the sake of "raising awareness" about a worthy cause. This is a serious problem. Christians, of all people, ought to prize truth. There are plenty of credible, verifiable stories about trafficking out there to help raise visibility about this important issue.


I can be against human trafficking and still not join the rush to promote Ballard. I think having a public conversation about human trafficking is valuable. I'm planning future content along these lines. After all my research, however, I am still in the same mind as I was back on June 28, when I posted this on my public Facebook page:

So, while the film itself looks compelling and inspiring, and while I personally support the endeavor of quality filmmaking based on Judeo-Christian themes, and while I would like to highlight efforts to end all human trafficking, I won't be doing a discussion about the film on my podcast.

In the meantime, if you want to support efforts against human trafficking, there are many options available. Choose wisely. I would recommend checking out Agape International Missions. They have been commended to me by other ministries as a leader in Christian anti-trafficking efforts.


*******


UPDATE 7/14/23: In yet another odd twist, news outlets are now reporting that Ballard left O.U.R. shortly before the film's release. If true, why hasn't he mentioned this (what seems to be an important detail) while being on the massive press tour? A few nights ago, Jesse Watters introduced him on his show as the founder of the Spear Fund, a new organization that has not previously been mentioned. The only thing on the website for the Spear Fund is an active donation page. No description. So, no one really knows what they are donating to, but ok. As of 8 hours ago, conservative podcast, Tim Pool's audience, donated $50k to this new effort. Whatever it is.


UPDATE 7/15/23: On a more personal note, researching all this has made me reflect more deeply on how important it is to tell an accurate origins story. The ministry I previously worked for had a very strong origins story. It is frequently used in fund-raising efforts. The same is true about the origins story for the Center for Biblical Unity (the ministry I helped to co-found). I can imagine that CFBU donors would feel duped if they found out that Monique never actually had PTSD, that she hadn't actually lived with our family for 5 years, or hadn't actually been an advocate for Critical Race Theory. Accurate storytelling is a matter of integrity.


UPDATE 7/18/23: VICE is reporting a few more details about Ballard's departure from O.U.R. "An anonymous letter sent to employees of and donors to the anti-trafficking group Operation Underground Railroad asserts that founder Tim Ballard left the organization recently after an internal investigation into claims made against him by multiple employees—something which OUR does not dispute...The letter claims that an OUR employee who accompanied Ballard on an undercover operation abroad filed a complaint against him with OUR’s human resources department after the trip, and that a followup investigation culminated in his resignation." It seems like this report could be credible, since neither Ballard nor O.U.R. are disputing these claims and he's already set up a new entity to collect donations.


UPDATE 7/20/23: A few days ago, my husband and I went to see the movie, Sound of Freedom. I discuss its cinematic and educational highs and lows in this honest review.


UPDATE 7/22/23: The website for the Spear Fund is a little more developed now. Its description reads: "The SPEAR Fund represents an unprecedented endeavor: funding and collaborating with a coalition of experts, organizations, and concerned citizens from around the globe, working in unison to end human-trafficking in our time." Ballard is listed as the "Senior Advisor." It is described as a "totally new approach that invites all anti-trafficking organizations and concerned people of the world to come together and end human trafficking once and for all." Ballard is certainly a formidable fundraising machine and given that he was at some high profile event a couple nights ago with Trump, he likely needed to get set up quickly in order to be able to take donations. People are throwing wallets at him right now.


UPDATE 9/28/23: I recorded a podcast version of this post and included more backstory and context. Available on YouTube and wherever you stream. your podcasts.


UPDATE 10/6/23: Ballard's hero status is unravelling. Several victims have come forward with substantial and specific accusations of sexual harassment and grooming. I have documented that here.


*******


DIGGING DEEPER

Here is a previous podcast that Monique and I did back in 2020 on human trafficking. I am also working on developing some future content for All The Things on this theme. So be watching for those.


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